Archives For Heartland

A new Bible

ib2newseditor —  March 20, 2017 — Leave a comment

Like most Americans, I’ve always respected founding father Thomas Jefferson. But I was surprised, and frankly disappointed, to learn recently that in the latter years of his life, Jefferson actually constructed his own version of the Bible. He did so by literally cutting and pasting, with razor and glue, numerous sections of the New Testament, intentionally omitting the miracles and any mentions of the supernatural, including the resurrection of Jesus.

To be fair, Jefferson apparently didn’t refer to his reconstruction as a Bible, but rather titled it “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” Yet over the years it has come to be commonly known as “The Jefferson Bible.”

In fact, from 1904 into the 1950’s, the Government Printing Office gave all new members of Congress a copy of the Jefferson Bible, and that practice was resumed by a private publisher in 1997. The American Humanist Association published its own edition of the Jefferson Bible in 2013, adding passages from the Quran, the Buddhist Sutras, the Book of Mormon, and other works, and distributing it to members of Congress as well as President Obama.

Bible readership

We as Southern Baptists should be truly grateful that, since 2004, our own LifeWay Christian Resources has stewarded its own original Bible translation from the original languages, the Holman Christian Standard Bible. And now, this month, LifeWay is introducing a revised and updated version, renamed simply the Christian Standard Bible (CSB).

Recently I was invited to LifeWay, along with other state executive directors, for an overview presentation of the new translation. In fact, it was there that the Jefferson Bible was used as an illustration of what can happen when God’s Word is not stewarded carefully, and faithfully. In the CSB, LifeWay has sought to balance the two most important aspects of Bible translation: accuracy and readability.

I came away from that presentation greatly encouraged, but also greatly challenged. You see, I also learned during this presentation that Bible ownership is not really the main problem today. 88% of American households own a Bible, and the average number of Bibles per household is 4.7. The real problem is that only 37% of Americans read the Bible once a week or more. With the CSB, LifeWay’s goal is not to sell more Bibles; it is to grow the number of people who read the Bible, and are spiritually transformed by it.

LifeWay has carefully studied the activities linked to true spiritual growth. And the number one activity contributing to spiritual growth is Bible reading (91%), followed by church attendance (87%), personal prayer life (85%), and being mentored by another mature believer (81%).

By providing a freshly updated translation, LifeWay is seeking to grow the number of people engaged in the activity that most often leads to spiritual growth—reading the Bible. In doing so, they have relentlessly preserved accuracy, calling on some of the world’s finest Bible scholars to serve on the translation committee. Yet they haven’t sacrificed readability. Rather, they have sought to carefully balance the two.

So I came home from LifeWay with a new Bible. I don’t really need one. I’m the son of a pastor and a school librarian, and I worked in Christian publishing for almost 20 years. I already have way more Bibles than the 4.7 average per household.

But this new Bible gives me a fresh incentive to delve more deeply and more frequently into God’s Word. It gives me a renewed appreciation for our friends at LifeWay who faithfully steward this translation. And it gives me a reason to give others a new copy of the Bible, and to pray that our reading of it will bring the true spiritual growth that God desires.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.

VBS Concept Metal Letterpress TypeIf you’ve ever planned a big event, you know how it feels when it’s over. All the work and energy and trial and error that went into planning and executing the project can be exhausting, and when it’s finally over, all that energy seems to fly out the window too.

But for church leaders, the end of an outreach event is only the beginning.

This is heavy on my heart as we enter Vacation Bible School season, and I’m reminded how crucial a church’s follow-up process is to their overall VBS strategy. That’s why I advise churches to recruit a follow-up director. His or her only job is to connect people from VBS or any other outreach with other people and opportunities at the church. Encourage the director to have their follow-up strategy before the first person ever walks in the door, including:

Effective registration. The follow-up director will likely work with other VBS leaders to accomplish this. The truth is, you can’t follow up with someone you can’t find. Make sure you have the full name and contact information for every person who attends your VBS. It’s important to know these things not only for follow-up, but in case you need to get in touch during VBS with someone related to the child.

Follow-up teams. Ask the director to recruit pairs or small groups of people who can make personal visits to families. The church I previously served sent our deacons two-by-two to follow up after VBS. We found in-person visits to be most effective, but some of our teams felt more comfortable making a call first to set up a time to visit.

Connection points. When our follow-up teams made their visits, they made it a point to take something that would forge a connection with the family. For example, one year the children decorated frames during VBS and we attached a calendar of church events for the deacons to deliver.

Above all, remember that a follow-up strategy doesn’t have to be complicated; it just needs to allow you to make significant contacts with people who otherwise may only encounter your church through one event. The goal of any VBS or outreach effort should be to connect unchurched people with the church for the purpose of expanding God’s kingdom. We can’t do that if we don’t follow up.

Jack Lucas is IBSA’s director of next generation ministry.

Raising baptism

ib2newseditor —  March 6, 2017
baptism-cover

Pastor Sammy Simmons of Immanuel Baptist Church in Benton baptizes Pastor Adron Robinson of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Country Club Hills while Pastor Brian McWethy of Grace Fellowship in Amboy looks on. They were on a tour of Israel led by IBSA’s Pat Pajak.

As rates continue to decline, can evangelism as a lifestyle make a comeback—and make the difference?

Until recently, the man who accepted Christ at Cross Church a few weeks ago was a skeptic. He was moral and hard-working, said Pastor Tim Rhodus, but he just didn’t buy into Christianity. But a few weeks ago, he came to a point of personal faith.

“It wasn’t an evangelistic message in that guy’s case,” Rhodus said. “It was two-and-a-half years of authentic living in front of him, [so] that he saw it was real.”

At Rhodus’ church, which has campuses in Carlinville, Staunton, and Hettick, evangelism is a way of life—of living, actually. Cross Church offers evangelism training a few times a year where participants learn tools to share their faith, but mostly, they’re encouraged to reflect Christ in their everyday lives.

“It’s not a gimmick or a program,” Rhodus said. “It’s normal people choosing to reflect Jesus in their normal lives. And then God uses that to draw people to himself.
“All you have to do is just not be afraid to have the conversation.”

According to a 2016 survey by LifeWay Research, 79% of unchurched Americans say they don’t mind if their friends talk to them about their faith. But only about one-third of unchurched people say they’d go to a worship service if a friend invited them.

As people grow less and less connected with the church as an institution, the numbers show that churches are finding it more difficult to reach people with the gospel. IBSA churches baptized 3,953 people in 2016, a decrease of 10% from the previous year. And 352 churches reported no baptisms for the year.

“This is the lead strategic concern we should have as we try to help churches,” IBSA Executive Director Nate Adams said of the decline in baptisms.

While possible solutions abound, Rhodus and other leaders have seen people come to Christ through lifestyle-oriented evangelism, a method which has gotten a bad rap when used an excuse to not have difficult conversations. But Rhodus explained Cross Church’s philosophy this way: If you’re a mom, you don’t have to fake being a mom. You are a mom wherever you go. You talk openly about it, you’re proud of it. It’s who you are. “How we try to teach it here is that following Christ ought to be just as authentic.”

More talk and more action
The decline in baptisms isn’t just a problem in Illinois. Nationally, baptisms in Southern Baptist churches fell 3.3% in 2016 from the previous year, and the total has fallen eight of the last 10 years, according to data from LifeWay Christian Resources. In an informal Twitter survey last summer, LifeWay President Thom Rainer asked why many churches are less evangelistic than they once were. The top response: “Christians have no sense of urgency to reach lost people.”

Tim Rhodus agrees. “If people aren’t coming to Christ, we should be broken-hearted,” he said. “If there’s a budget crisis (at the church), we call a timeout and have big meetings about budget crises. We don’t have big meetings [if] nobody got baptized in a while, because nobody wants to own that.”

But owning up to the evangelism crisis is exactly what Christians are called to do, said Levi Hart, pastor of Ignite Church in Breese. His church baptized 16 people last year while meeting in a bar in Hart’s hometown. “We’ve got some excited people,” Hart said of his congregation, and they’re excited about making disciples.

Hart pointed to Jesus’ example in the New Testament. “His absolute focus was bringing people to himself.” After Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, he told his disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).

“I think it starts with (church) leadership being in that place as well,” Hart said. “‘Bringing people to Jesus is my food, it’s my sustenance, it’s the way I will spiritually thrive.’”

Gospel conversations
Even with an evangelism method focused on living out one’s faith naturally, it can be difficult to know what to talk about when the opportunity arises. Hart encourages people to start with their own story.

“Our testimony should be the easiest story we know how to tell,” he said. “It should be like the back of our hand.” And not just the moment we were saved, Hart said, but how God led us to that moment, and what he’s done in our lives since then.

And sometimes, an evangelistic encounter starts with a simple question, said Associate Executive Director Pat Pajak, who directs IBSA’s evangelism efforts.

“My wife and I have always made it a practice when we go out to dinner to say to the waitress, ‘Hey we’re going to pray for our meal in just a minute. How can we pray for you today?’” That’s one way to do lifestyle evangelism, which Pajak also calls “conversational evangelism.”

“You start a conversation with someone and you make it plain that you are a Christian and that you have a concern for that person. It’s the way I live my life publicly before somebody else so that they say, ‘There’s something that they have that I want in my life.’”

While evangelism tools and training resources can be helpful, when an opportunity is presented to share the gospel, a memorized presentation isn’t required, Pajak said.

“I’ve used part of the Roman Road, along with the F.A.I.T.H. presentation, a few things I learned from Evangelism Explosion, and some Continuous Witness Training. In other words, you don’t need a canned approach that’s been carefully memorized, but rather a desire to help those who’ve never heard the story of why Jesus died and rose from the dead, and how he can change their life for all eternity.”

At Cross Church, Tim Rhodus encourages his church members to live evangelistically by authentically, accurately representing Christ. “You be you,” he advises them. “Let Jesus be himself in and through you. And then all the other things fall into place.” After all, the man who recently came to faith at Cross Church was drawn by watching the Christians around him live authentically.

“Increasing baptisms is more about the spiritual temperature in the room,” Rhodus said, “and whether the people are good reflections of [Christ] from Monday to Saturday.”

Our ultimate purpose
A 2012 LifeWay Research survey found that while 80% of people who attend church at least once a month believe they have a personal responsibility to share their faith, 61% had not told someone how to become a Christian in the previous six months. And 48% hadn’t invited anyone to church in the same time period.

While a pastor isn’t solely responsible for reinvigorating evangelism in his church, he does have an integral part to play, Pajak said. He gave an example of pastor who’s able to stand before his church on Sunday morning as a couple walks down the aisle who he personally led to Christ. As pastors are engaged in evangelism and modeling it before their congregations, it sends a message to their congregation.

“Can you imagine what would happen if we had a couple of thousand people in our churches spread out all across Illinois who took this thing seriously—the Great Commission—and really began to share their faith with friends and neighbors and co-workers and family members? What a difference that could make evangelistically, and in baptisms in our churches,” Pajak said.

Rhodus, whose church has grown from 90 people to more than 600 in his 17-year tenure, said the authenticity he thinks is so crucial to reaching people with the gospel starts at the top. Like the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

A church follows its pastor’s example, Rhodus said, and churches that see lives transformed by the gospel are led by pastors who radiate that.

Before he planted Ignite Church in Breese, Levi Hart reconnected with a high school friend whom he started discipling. The man is now the discipleship director for Ignite. “He is all about discipleship,” Hart said. “He wants to see people not just get saved, but discipled and grown up (in their faith).”

That example brings him great joy, Hart said, because the mission of making disciples is a Christian’s ultimate purpose, and therefore the thing that brings the most fulfillment. When pastors and leaders communicate that to their congregations, the excitement is contagious.

“I really think it comes down to this very simple, basic thing,” Hart said. “Each one of us living our life on mission, and that being not just taught, but lived out.”

-Meredith Flynn

Protect your church

ib2newseditor —  February 27, 2017

Abandoned Desert ChurchEach year, we Baptist state executive directors gather with leaders from the national Southern Baptist Convention. We discuss issues of common concern, and exchange both updates and ideas for future ministry and cooperation.

During our time together this year, a couple of the retiring executive directors were asked to speak briefly on “things I wish I had known before I started in this role.” Of course, some of the observations were humorous. But one serious observation resonated deeply with me, and with others.

This western state leader, a returning international missionary, said, “One thing that surprised me was how much time I needed to invest, and how important it is, to help existing churches navigate pastoral leadership changes.”

Congregations are especially vulnerable during leadership change.

He then referred to churches that had been “lost” to the Southern Baptist family, or that had closed entirely, when they had not done a careful or wise job selecting their next pastor. In some cases the property had been lost; in others the church had abandoned its Baptist convictions; and in still others churches had deteriorated quickly from a couple of hundred of members to just a handful.

I wish I could say these things don’t happen in Illinois—and they don’t happen frequently—but this fellow executive director’s comments brought to my mind even current examples of churches that are in peril here in Illinois. Most I would have never imagined to be vulnerable to losing their Baptist witness, or the church property for which previous generations have sacrificed. But all it takes is one unhealthy or wrongly motivated leader, invited in by one careless or compromising search and selection process.

What can churches do to protect themselves and their legacy? Two primary things come to mind.

First, whenever your church faces a pastoral leadership transition, invite experienced help from your local or state association. There are proven processes that can be employed, and predictable pitfalls that can be avoided, and you have access to experienced leaders who have been through multiple searches, with multiple churches. Of course, your autonomous church can choose which resources to use, and customize any process to your unique situation. But please take advantage of these free resources that are available to help you make a wise and Spirit-led selection.

Second, there are steps your church can take now, even if you are not facing a pastoral transition, to protect both the assets and the Baptist witness of your church. Your church governance documents, and especially the deed to your property itself, can help ensure that your church sustains its Baptist witness, even if it somehow becomes susceptible to an unhealthy leadership situation.

Once my fellow executive director shared his observation about the vulnerability of churches during leadership transitions, I was surprised how many examples started flowing between the rest of us. One executive director said that his state convention had lost 12 churches during the past year. Another told of messy lawsuits entangling a couple of churches in his state, because an unscrupulous leader was seeking to profit personally from the sale of a church property.

So while this isn’t a particularly uplifting topic to write about, I came back from these conversations committed to doing so. Please make sure your church protects both its Baptist doctrinal commitment and its property and assets from the sometimes unpredictable times and people who would take them in another direction. And please call on us at IBSA to help. As my friend reminded us, protecting the doctrinal integrity and lasting witness of our churches is one of the most important things we do.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.

The power of one

ib2newseditor —  February 13, 2017

red leaves church steeple

This is a time of year when we at IBSA do a lot of evaluating, not only of our staff’s efforts, but also of the overall health dynamics of churches. An outstanding 95% of IBSA churches completed annual church profile reports for 2016, and this gives us a wealth of information to study.

Like every year, some churches thrived last year and others struggled, so it’s possible to overgeneralize. But looking at the broad stroke data for 964 churches and missions (up seven from the previous year), it’s reasonable to say that some ministry areas such as leadership development and Sunday School participation were up, while others such as church planting and missions giving were down, at least compared to the previous year.

Of all the “down” areas, though, none concern me more than our churches’ overall baptism number, which dropped more than 11% in 2016, to 3,953. The number of churches reporting zero baptisms increased by over 10%, to 352, meaning that more than a third of IBSA churches did not baptize anyone last year.

Just one voice, one commitment, one resolution of faith can turn things around.

A few days ago, one pastor asked me how things were going, and the first burden I found spilling out of my heart was the decline in church baptisms. He nodded his head in empathy and agreement. “I know we were down in our church last year,” he acknowledged.

But what he said next truly encouraged me. “So we are really getting after that this year. We have set a baptism goal, and we have evangelism training planned. But we also have set goals as a church for the number of gospel presentations we will make, and the number of spiritual conversations we will seek to have, believing that those will then lead to gospel presentations.”

He went on to tell me how each leader and church member was being challenged to look for these opportunities, and that they were reporting them through Sunday school classes and other ways.

That same week, a young pastor wrote me an e-mail, thanking me for how two of our IBSA staff members had specifically helped and encouraged his small church. He admitted that in the past he had questioned how much his church’s Cooperative Program giving helped struggling churches, compared with church plants. Now, in his first senior pastorate, he had experienced firsthand the practical ministry support that state staff provide. Others in his association felt the same, he said, and were planning to join him in increasing their Cooperative Program giving this next year.

What struck me about both these conversations, and both these pastors, was the positive power of one voice, one commitment. One pastor looked at a lower baptism number and said, “We will not be satisfied with that. Here’s what we’re going to do.” Another pastor took a fresh look at the value of cooperative missions giving and said, “We can do more.”

So often it just takes just one voice, one commitment, one resolution of faith to turn things around. I think of Noah, and David, and Elijah, and Nehemiah, and other Old Testament heroes. I think of Peter’s boldness and Paul’s resilience in the New Testament. And of course I think of Jesus, not only on the cross, but also in eternity past, saying to the Father, “This shall not stand. I will do what it takes to make this right.”

Today, each of those pastors is using his own power of one to lead and inspire his church to a better place, regardless of the past, or what happened last year. In doing so, they reminded me how much can change when one person simply refuses to accept the status quo.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.

Growing leaders

ib2newseditor —  February 7, 2017

The church’s ministry potential depends on it

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While serving as associate pastor of Pawleys Island Baptist Church in South Carolina, Mac Lake said he could feel the church’s ministry efforts crumbling down around him.

“At one point I had 88 people reporting to me,” said Lake, who is now senior director of church planting development for the North American Mission Board’s SEND network. He was this year’s keynote speaker at the Illinois Leadership Summit.

“Of course I was exhausted so I went on vacation and worked on a plan to start developing leaders. The best way to make ministry successful is to make your team successful. Shifting my mindset saved my life, saved my ministry, and probably saved my marriage.”

More than 230 pastors, staff, and leaders from churches across Illinois heard practical strategies as Lake spoke on the importance of leading self, leading others, leading leaders, and leading an organization during the two-day event held January 24-25.

“This opened my eyes to the difference being intentional in your leadership strategy will make,” said Garry Hostetler, pastor of First Baptist Church Bogota in Newton. “I enjoyed getting together with other pastors and leaders and getting real help that I can put into practice right away.”

“In my ministry, I discovered if we were going to grow a congregation, I had to grow as a leader. It is important for leaders to realize their leadership lid and to grow past it.”

“When we’re spiritually disciplined we’re often more vocationally effective,” Sarah Bond urged those attending one of 28 breakout sessions. The professor at SIU-Carbondale challenged church leaders to “become the change-maker God intends you to be.”

She—and the other trainers and equippers—found a ready audience.

“When I was pastoring it was alarming to discover that my leadership was one of the obstacles to the growth of the church,” said Mark Emerson, IBSA’s associate executive director of the Church Resources Team. Emerson’s pastoral experience helped him in planning the Summit. “In my ministry, I discovered if we were going to grow a congregation, I had to grow as a leader. It is important for leaders to realize their leadership lid and to grow past it.”

For attenders at the Summit, much of the experience was about discoveries about themselves.

“When we do this kind of leadership development, pastors begin to get excited about their own growth and the growth of leaders in their church,” Emerson said. “I believe every pastor believes leadership development is important, yet it tends to get lost amid the plethora of other ministry tasks.”

Doers vs. developers

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Mac Lake

Lake opened the conference with a story about the small town where he grew up, and the small church where he grew as a leader. Handley, West Virginia, peaked at 633 residents in 1980.

“I don’t think we ever broke 70 (attenders) at Handley Baptist Church,” he said, calling his home church not small, but “normative.” It was the same size as most Southern Baptist churches. Yet, it was in this environment that Lake discovered he could be a leader. “That church taught me how to love like Jesus and how to live like Jesus…. The opportunity the normative-size church gave me to serve like Jesus and develop my leadership skills started there as a kid.”

Lake said leadership development is vital for all disciples of Christ no matter where they are in their Christian walk. He shared the story of his three “conversions” in his personal growth. Lake said:

(1) He went from “lost to found” when he was saved at 9 years old at that small church in West Virginia, then
(2) he went from “being a ministry doer to a ministry leader” when he was in seminary at 27, and finally
(3) a few years later as an associate pastor, he went from “leader to developer of leaders.”

“One of the biggest challenges for leaders who move to this level of leadership is continuing to act like a leader rather than a leader of leaders,” Lake said, offering a comparison between disciples and disciple-leaders. At first glance, discipleship training and leadership development might seem similar. While they go hand in hand, there are important distinctions. For example:

• Discipleship focuses on intimacy with God while leadership development focuses on influence with others.
• Discipleship is learning to live like Jesus while leadership development is learning to lead like Jesus.
• In discipleship, a person is learning to lead himself, while leadership development teaches how to lead others.
• Finally, discipleship works on the character of the person while leadership development works on his or her competency.

“While some people make the jump from disciple to leader in our churches, many aren’t prepared to do it,” Lake said. “Nobody taught them before they got thrown in. So you have all these people in the swimming pool of leadership and they are splashing and hollering—nearly drowning—because they don’t know how to swim. Their leadership, the church’s ministries, and even their personal relationship with God will grow to a whole new level once they are developing as leaders.”

“It’s like asking a lost person to reach someone for the Lord. They’ve never had that conversion so they don’t have the knowledge and realization they need.”

Without a consistent and intentional leadership development plan, many of the great “doers” of the church or ministry will struggle in leadership positions. “It’s like asking a lost person to reach someone for the Lord,” Lake said. “They’ve never had that conversion so they don’t have the knowledge and realization they need.”

Leaders often find themselves focusing more on the work than on the workers, and that has a limiting effect on the growth of ministry. “One of your primary responsibilities as a leader is stewarding the gifts and strengths of those in your charge,” Lake advised. Most churches structure for ministry function, rather than for leader development, he warned.

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A glimpse of the future
Developing the next generation of leaders presents many challenges in this culture of never-ending distractions and instant gratification, but Lake is optimistic about the future of the church.

“Millennials in general place an extremely high value on relationships and authentic faith-sharing,” he said. “A pastor willing to mentor this group must be vulnerable. They need to see we’re all co-learners because, in reality, we are. A 50-year-old pastor is no longer in the world he knew. He’s living in their world.”

He said all leaders must understand the dangers of social media and the challenge to stay focused and turn off distractions. At the same time, leaders must see how social networking can be beneficial for the work of God and utilize its potential for kingdom growth. “With technology and all that it entails, mentors have to embrace this world and ask for help navigating this new culture to stay relevant,” Lake said.

“With technology and all that it entails, mentors have to embrace this world and ask for help navigating this new culture to stay relevant.”

Though Lake has taught leadership to pastors and church planters across the country, this was one of the few statewide conferences he’s been invited to where the main purpose was to teach leaders how to lead with excellence.

“Illinois Baptists see the need to build a culture of leadership development,” Lake said. “Too many visions die because the leader never trained others to do what he did. The Great Commission is a vision big enough for others to give their lives to. We have to think in terms of ‘generations.’”

We used to tell leaders to “replace themselves” by training others to come after you. “Don’t replace yourself, reproduce yourself” with leaders to work alongside you, he concluded.

Lake said he prays that together leaders will create the culture in their churches that will produce the best harvest. “I applaud the Illinois Baptists for feeding their pastors and helping with the challenge of leadership issues,” he said. “This is important and these are things you don’t necessarily learn in seminary.”

– Reported by Kayla Rinker, Lisa Sergent, Meredith Flynn, and Eric Reed

The Reformation at 500

ib2newseditor —  January 30, 2017
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Rose Parade Jan. 2, 2017

When the Protestant Reformation gets its own float in the Tournament of Roses Parade, something big must be happening. Not that we needed the Pasadena tableau to underscore the upcoming event, but we must admit it was surprising to hear NBC’s Al Roker announce the 500th anniversary of the Reformation as three flower-covered church bells tolling “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” cruised by at 10 mph.

Would Martin Luther—ex-communicated, jailed, and persecuted for his pursuit of biblical faith—have been shocked to see his life’s work trussed in rose petals and paraded before cheering crowds?

I was.

There, following the surfing dogs, the Rose Queen, and the Salvation Army Band, was the Wittenberg Door, covered in black beans and poppy seeds, commemorating that All Hallow’s Eve in 1517 when the angry priest Luther nailed his complaints against the Catholic Church on the front door. Inscribed on the giant bells was “Faith Alone,” “Grace Alone,” and “Scripture Alone,” the three-sola distillation of Reformation theology.

Also at the front of the float was a man dressed as Jesus, waving to the crowd on one side of Colorado Boulevard and then the other. We can’t fault the sponsors, Lutheran Layman’s League, for their exuberance, for Luther himself redirected the attention of the faithful worldwide to the finished work of Christ as the only means of salvation. Not obeisance to saints or Mary, time served in purgatory, the purchase of “indulgences” for others or ourselves—only God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ can save us. So commonplace today, this must have sounded radical to Luther’s first audiences. Yet, here we stand, benefactors of his brave actions, celebrating his Halloween escapade and all that resulted from it.

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But five centuries after the fact, this anniversary is an opportune time for Southern Baptists to ask a few serious questions:

How Reformed are we? What was started by Luther was picked up, refined, and defined by John Calvin and others. The line from Calvin (and other Reformers) to Southern Baptists isn’t as obvious as is the line from John Knox to the Presbyterians or Luther to the Lutherans, but the Reformers have certainly informed our Baptist theology.

Some Southern Baptists fully embrace Calvin’s doctrines of grace, the sovereignty of God, and election, considering themselves “five-point Calvinists.” Others, who defined their position as “traditional” Southern Baptist in the 2012 debate at the New Orleans convention, accept some of Calvin’s points, but rely more on the verses about God’s desire that all would be saved. Some would say they live in the tension between Calvinism and Arminianism, between the sovereignty of God in bringing people to salvation and the free will of man to accept or reject God’s offer.

This anniversary is a good opportunity for churches to study the principles of Reformed theology and ask, How Reformed are we?

What is the appeal of Reformed theology? For people who have grown up in an era of slushy theology and postmodern uncertainty, Reformed theology offers clear, clean delineation of belief. It’s faith with handles on it. That might explain the appeal to Christians who were described as “young, restless, and reformed” in Collin Hansen’s seminal work by that name in 2008. Hansen capsulized a phenomenon that had been in development for two decades by the time he wrote the book, and must be credited in large part, in SBC life, to Albert Mohler. From his position as president of Southern Seminary starting in 1993, Mohler has schooled a generation of young pastors, theologians, and now seminary presidents.

What is the long-term impact of rising Reformed theology on the SBC? Not everyone is enamored by the growth of Calvinism in Southern Baptist ranks. Some leaders have expressed concern about the possible impact on missions and evangelism.

Certainly our theological debate has been invigorated in recent decades. A denomination given to pragmatic, applicable theology through the Baby Boom years has more recently turned to serious consideration of the nature of the gospel. Can committed Calvinists, “traditional” Southern Baptists focused on evangelism, and the “somewhat Reformed” all coexist in the SBC tent, with a shared purpose that unites us, despite differences over finer points of theology? Or is another schism coming?

What will happen to evangelism? Our denomination’s baptism numbers continue to decline. Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson, a “traditionalist,” continues to express concern that rising Calvinism will naturally cool the fires of evangelism.

International Mission Board President David Platt might demonstrate a new kind of Reformed pastor, for whom evangelistic work by God’s people has high priority in God’s sovereignty. Will Platt’s zeal prove characteristic of the younger generation who are following his charge: “For the nations!” Or will the soul-winning Calvinist prove to be an anomaly?

Now, 500 years after Luther struck the first blows for Reformation, these are a few of the issues Southern Baptists must address—before the parade passes by.

– Eric Reed is editor of the Illinois Baptist.