“If there is any hope for spiritual renewal in America, that renewal must start in our churches, and it must start with the people in our churches, Christians, believers, and the body of Christ,” said outgoing SBC President Fred Luter.
NEWS | Meredith Flynn
At a time when many churches are struggling to reach people with the Gospel and Christianity is increasingly strange to the culture, Baptists meeting in Baltimore were called to repent earnestly, pray fervently, and long deeply for the power and presence of God.
They discussed denominational decline, religious liberty and sexual brokenness, but the 2014 Annual Meeting likely will be remembered for the rumblings of revival that seemed to ripple under every message and conversation.
It was theme of this year’s meeting – revival that starts with prayer. And it’s our greatest need, said new SBC President Ronnie Floyd.
Start with us
“Brothers and sisters, we are losing a generation,” Fred Luter warned Baptists during the Tuesday evening revival service. He referenced recently released numbers from the Annual Church Profile report, showing several areas of decline.
“For another year, our baptism numbers are down. For another year, our attendance is down. For another year, our youth numbers are down.” We can’t ignore the reports any longer, he said, calling Southern Baptists to repentance and remorse that the Bible promises will lead to revival (see story below for more on Luter’s message).
Some say the reason churches baptize fewer people is because we don’t have effective evangelism strategies, said Gary Frost, North American Mission Board VP for the Midwest. But, “The problem of declining baptisms is not a failure of strategy, it’s a failure of quality,” he said. “There’s a lack of quality in the lives of the people of God.”
Frost was one of three speakers to present 10-minute theme interpretations on prayer, restoration and revival.
If we’re going to see a transformational movement of God’s Spirit, he said, God’s people must hunger and thirst for God’s holiness. Frost used a sports analogy: If you want to win a basketball championship, for example, you need great players.
“I believe there’s a failure of spiritual athleticism in the body of Christ. There are those who have failed to be disciplined through whom God can move and do the work that he has called the church to do.”
Or, most of us are caught up in ritual and expectations, rather than expecting and praying for God’s powerful presence. Francis Chan emotionally addressed the SBC Pastors’ Conference just prior to the Convention. The author of “Crazy Love” told Baptists he sees a lot of ritual and faithfulness over the years, “but I’m concerned that there’s not this desperate cry for God.”
While Chan urged the convention toward a passion for God’s presence, SBC Executive Committee Frank Page asked them to pray their hearts would be broken for lost people.
I’m not asking you to manufacture tears, he said during a 45-minute prayer meeting in the middle of the business session. But pray that some time in the next year “our hearts will be so sensitized as a people to lostness, that we will feel it so deeply, there will be tears.” There were, even as Southern Baptists prayed in small groups around the convention hall.
O God, help us as a convention to be spiritually renewed,” Page prayed, “and in that spiritual renewal, to have a renewed passion for the lost.”
Broken people, broken culture
Convention debate or controversy generally arises from resolutions and motions presented during the business session. But messengers in Baltimore adopted all nine resolutions brought by the committee with very little conversation, and the motions process was similarly quiet. Baptists did, however, talk about the issues at other meetings between sessions.
At the 9Marks gathering Tuesday night, moderator Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and 9Marks founder, asked Southern Seminary president Al Mohler to explain why the SBC didn’t take action on a motion to discipline a California congregation that recently voted to become a “third way” church that neither affirms nor condemns same-sex lifestyles.
“…You can’t dis-fellowship someone who’s not in fellowship with you,” Mohler told the meeting of mostly younger Baptists. Although New Heart Community Church in La Mirada refers to itself as a Southern Baptist church, Mohler said, they haven’t sent messengers to the Convention and, to his knowledge, there’s no financial connection between the church and the SBC. (In a Religion News Service report, California Southern Baptist Convention Executive Director Fermin Whittaker said the church has given $80 per month to the Cooperative Program.)
It’s also unclear whether New Heart is a congregation or a mission church. They are listed as a member of the Los Angeles Southern Baptist Association, which Mohler said does have responsibility to take action, even if the SBC does not.
Baptists discussed another issue related to sexuality in the form of an adopted resolution on transgender identity. The measure resolves that the SBC affirms “gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception.” It prescribes extending “love and compassion to those whose sexual self-understanding is shaped by a distressing conflict between their biological sex and their gender identity,” while opposing “cultural efforts to validate claims to transgender identity.”
The resolution was well-timed and needed, Russell Moore told media at a press conference in Baltimore. “The cultural mindset is that gender is something that is constructed by the individual,” said the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “So it’s disconnected from how the person is created.
“And that’s one of the reasons why I think this resolution…was so wise, because it spoke to what the Bible teaches about what gender means in the first place, about how God’s design is good, and then talked about the fact that we’re living in a world that is fallen, in which there is a great deal of confusion in what it means to address that.”
Moore’s report to the Convention focused on religious liberty and included two groups of special guests. Members of the Green family, who own Hobby Lobby, accepted the John Leland Award for Religious Liberty. The Supreme Court currently is considering whether Hobby Lobby has to provide abortion-inducing drugs in its employee health care plans.
Naghmeh Abedini, wife of imprisoned pastor Saeed Abedini, accepted the Richard Land Award for Distinguished Service on her husband’s behalf. Messengers knelt at their seats to pray for a release for Abedini, held captive in Iran since 2012. Adedini was arrested for sharing his Christian faith, and has refused to stop witnessing, even inside the Iranian prison.
“The Gospel came to use in letters being written out by apostles from jail cells,” Moore said during his report. “The Gospel came to us through the centuries from people who were constantly under threat to their liberty to preach.”
And it is powerful to transcend and transform the culture, and revive a denomination.
“We serve at the pleasure of a Messiah who has appointed us, everyone in this room, to be born and then to be born again in a time and in a place when sometimes even the most basic principles of Christianity are going to sound increasingly strange and freakish and sometimes even subversive to the culture around us,” Moore said.
“That should not drive us to fists clenched in anger. That should not drive us to hands wringing in fear. That should drive us to hands lifted in prayer.”