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Forward thinkingNEWS | Jason Allen is the youngest by far of the group he has called together. And in this gathering of seminary presidents and convention leaders, there is a sense that a passing of the baton is happening before our eyes. In fact, that is one topic Allen has asked his illustrious guests to address in this symposium on “The SBC in the 21st Century.”

Their reports will be gathered and published in a book for wider distribution, but for now—at this late September gathering on the campus of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary—the task is to listen and learn what their listy observations hold in common.

Midwestern Seminary’s “miraculous transformation” is not the subject of this meeting, although most every speaker references it in his opening remarks. They speak of Allen’s impact, engendering confidence in a once-struggling institution. They take note of the new chapel that rises above a green slope at the entrance to the Kansas City campus. The building in a clean prairie style was completed just as Allen assumed the presidency of the school two years ago. A couple of speakers reference the rise in enrollment. And there’s some discussion of the just-announced $7-million gift to build a much-needed student center and dining complex.

Among the notables here is an unnamed presence, Charles Spurgeon, the famous 19th century British preacher and evangelist. Midwestern recently acquired much of Spurgeon’s personal library collection and has converted the former chapel space to house it. There’s a lot of informal conversation about Spurgeon. Most attenders take the tour.

But amid obvious historical footings and with the insight of SBC heads, the subject is the future. At 38, fresh in his seminary presidency, Allen draws experienced leaders and thinkers to look forward—and tell us what they see.

Who are we now?

Many questions about Baptist identity seem to have been answered in the past 30 years. Starting with the Conservative Resurgence in 1979, Southern Baptists have affirmed biblical inerrancy and ended a lean toward mainline Protestant liberalism. That shift also ended whatever tendency Southern Baptists would have had toward cultural accommodation. We aren’t mainline or mainstream, and as the culture moves farther left, we don’t want to be.

We know who we aren’t, but who are we?

The more recent issue for Southern Baptists is that of Reformed theology: Just how Calvinistic are we. Trinity University President David Dockery calls Southern Baptists “modified Calvinists” because we are not consistent in all five points.

Three of our seminaries are more strongly Reformed, products and by-products of Al Mohler’s 22-year presidency at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. At this conference, only Paige Patterson, President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, was clearly not Calvinist. He raised the issue of evangelistic zeal, and questioned whether the growth of Calvinist adherents will cool the baptismal waters further.

“Evangelism will have to be reestablished as the majority of the Great Commission,” Patterson said. He criticized church planting that does not produce new believers. Talking about the gospel is as far removed from effective witnessing as talking about race cars is from driving in NASCAR, Patterson said in a pithy list of analogies.

The more current “ecclesial crisis” is that of regenerate church membership. In the quest to reach seekers and postmoderns and millennials, church membership has been devalued, and more specifically, the certainty that people who join our churches are in fact believers in Christ as evidenced by baptism.

The SagesConfessional conviction

Will Southern Baptists embrace an identity that is more theological than tribal?” Mohler asked in his list of “10 unavoidable questions.”

The sages are almost uniform in their desire for Southern Baptists to have stronger theology and firmer confessional expressions of those beliefs. Too many people are members of SBC churches because it’s the family church, their friends go there, or they like the music—not because they hold strongly to the church’s theology.

Not to devalue our “tribal identity,” Mohler said, but “the tribe is not enough.” Tribalism—this informal gathering based on traditions and relationships—will give way to cultural accommodation, he warned, whereas confessional conviction will give believers (and thereby the denomination) theological moorings to withstand societal pressures to surrender to sexual redefinitions and moral decline.

Mohler asked whether today’s generation will “summon the courage” to face these issues which will require of them vigilance.

The current era is one of warm evangelicalism whose backbone is softening, to summarize several speakers. That makes this “the Baptist moment” according to Mohler. Among evangelicals, Baptists are best positioned to give the issues of “late modernity” a solid biblical, theological response.

Generational handoff

The discussion among panelists on “passing the baton” was playful at points with elder Patterson describing youthful Allen as “a man not yet dry behind the ears.” At another time Patterson, turning, 73 this month, commented, “I came on the scene right after Polycarp was martyred.” (That’s 155 A.D.) In these moments, it’s clear the baton is passing.

Mohler framed the handoff this way: “We have to ensure that there is healthy, courageous generational transition” in such a way that there is a Southern Baptist Convention in the future.

For Dockery, the handoff is more than from one generation to the next. It must be intergenerational. “Most Southern Baptists (and most Americans) do not find our identity in generations; our identity is in Christ.” Dockery says the handoff is also international and global, given the growth of evangelicalism in Africa and Asia.

Collaborative ministry

In a time when there is much discussion about “cooperation” as a denominational distinctive, SBC Executive Committee CEO Frank Page injected a new term, one that may have more weight with Millennials. “Collaborative ministry is biblical,” Page said. And for a generation accustomed to frequent electronic communication on every aspect of daily life, “collaborative” may be an easier sell than “cooperative.”

Cooperation indicates compliance with a mindset and participation in a program, whereas collaboration implies partnership and full participation by all parties involved.

As a denomination comprised mostly of smaller congregations, collaborative ministry “gives everyone a seat at the table,” Page said, including the SBC’s over 10,000 ethnic churches. But there’s education to be done. And it’s not only younger leaders who need the crash course. “We find there is a lack of understanding among ethnic churches of collaborative missions,” Page said.

But it was Dockery who pointed out that while the SBC has made strides in righting the sin of prejudice (the “one stain” on our record, he said), greater effort is required to bring minorities into leadership.

What about associations?

“This is no time to fly solo in the culture,” SBC President Ronnie Floyd said, “and no time for a church to fly alone.” Floyd’s presentation had the same listy character of the other speeches, but as a pastor, his list was most practical.

Floyd in particular called for a reduction in duplication (“and triplication”) of ministries and services by local, state, and national entities.

Larger state conventions, especially in the South, often offer their own versions of education, missions, and church planting; but since the implementation of the Great Commission Resurgence five years ago, those conventions have shifted funds to the national SBC in an effort to more effectively share the gospel in “new work” or frontier areas. And state convention staffs have been reduced by one-third, from 1,750 nationally to 1,350.

Making the denomination leaner is part of the thrust toward more effective collaboration. Floyd raised the issue of mergers, naming the International Mission Board and North American Mission Board as one possibility.

Local associations are another example where “regionalization” may make the SBC more effective. It’s a question that should be answered “honestly and boldly,” Floyd said, rather than trying to “preserve our old wineskins.”

“How can we leverage where we are and what we have and who we are to reach forward in a unprecedented manner” to advance the gospel?

Eric Reed is editor of the Illinois Baptist. Read the latest issue online.

Rob (left) and Mona Payne (center) lead worship during "Pop Up Church" for Downtown Phoenix Church, also known as DTPHX Church. Photo by Shawn Hendricks/BP

Rob (left) and Mona Payne (center) lead worship during “Pop Up Church” in Phoenix. Photo by Shawn Hendricks/BP

THE BRIEFING | Meredith Flynn

Young adults in downtown Phoenix “don’t think about going to church on Sunday morning any more than you and I think about going to bingo on Friday nights,” says Pastor Jim Helman. To reach Millennials, his Downtown Phoenix Church “pops up” every other week at a coffee shop or in a park, and uses the other weeks to serve the community. Read more at BPNews.net.


His Seattle Seahawks may have lost the Super Bowl in stunning fashion (that second down call!), but quarterback Russell Wilson seems to already be bouncing back via Twitter. After the game, the outspoken Christian posted motivational messages and Psalm 18:1–“I will love You, O LORD, my strength.”


Imprisoned pastor Saeed Abedini thanked President Obama for meeting with his wife and children last week, and for assuring the couple’s young son that he will try to secure his father’s release by March (when Jacob Abedini will celebrate his 7th birthday). “I know that as a father you can truly understand the pain and anguish of my children living without their father and the burden that is on my wife as a single mother,” Abedini wrote to Obama from Rajaee Shahr prison in Iran.

In the letter, provided online by the American Center for Law and Justice, Abedini also thanked Obama “for standing up for my family and I and for thousands of Christians across the world who are persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ.”


The American Bible Society will relocate to Philadelphia after selling its Manhattan building for $300 million, reports The Christian Post. The 12-story facility on Broadway, which has housed ABS since 1966, is about 10 blocks from another ministry: the offices of the Metro New York Baptist Association.


Religion writer Cathy Lyn Grossman reports on the “post-seculars,” a group defined in a new study as falling between “traditional” and “modern” views of science and religion. Said study co-author Timothy O’Brien, “We were surprised to find this pretty big group (21 percent) who are pretty knowledgeable and appreciative about science and technology but who are also very religious and who reject certain scientific theories.”


Democrats feel more warmly toward Muslims than do Republicans, Pew reports in a study on how ideology and age affect American “temperatures” about Muslims and Islam.


As Boko Haram continues to wage a war of terror in Nigeria, “…God has raised up believers who have remained steadfast and bold in the midst of applied pressures to silence them,” said one Christian worker, according to this Baptist Press story.


 

pull quote_flynnIn the struggle to keep young people in church – or bring them back – are we simply choosing one trend over another?

COMMENTARY | Meredith Flynn

Blogger Rachel Held Evans sparked numerous online conversations this summer with her posts about young people and church. Evans, 32, is a lightning rod in the evangelical community, having already tackled evolution and gender roles in her books. Her columns this summer on CNN’s Belief blog about why millenials are leaving the church are probably less polarizing, but likely more important too.

The disconnect between young people and the church is a real, documented problem. And the news is bleak: Barna found 59% of young Christians will leave the church permanently or for an extended period of time at some point after they turn 15.

Evans posits that young Christians can see straight through the church’s attempts to keep them. She writes, “Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being ‘cool,’ and we find that refreshingly authentic.”

Young Christians, Evans says, don’t want a change in style; they want a change in substance.

Indeed, candles are cool again. And robes and vespers services and responsive readings. In fact, some churches have gotten so cool that those of us millenials who have grown accustomed to stopping by the coffee station before heading into the service are no longer cool enough. We’ve aged out of our own demographic.

That’s what happens when you emphasize style over substance. Style is divisive. So is substance, but we’re promised it will be if the church is focused on the Gospel.

Evans claims substance trumps style, but she’s still advocating for a change in the latter. The instruments of the ancient church have much deeper roots in church history than online giving and electric guitars, but they’re still accessories we use to “decorate” the corporate worship experience and draw people to participate.

None of those things are inherently right or wrong. But they are part of the overall style of a church, and hopefully not its substance.

I know the authentic, unpretentious church Evans writes about in her blog post. I grew up there, except mine was a Southern Baptist church that didn’t follow the contemporary wave of the early 1980s and 90s, but instead waved real palm branches on Palm Sunday. We dressed to the nines, sang along with a pipe organ, and recited the same prayer of contemplation every week. And in my small youth group, kids still struggled with their faith. Some even left the church.

Style may attract people to a church, but it won’t keep them in. No matter how old the style, or how young the people. The church needs something substantial, and fortunately, we have it.

Blogger and LifeWay editor Trevin Wax wrote that he mostly agrees with Evans’ style vs. substance thesis, but would tweak it this way: “What millennials really want from the church is substance. Not a change in substance, necessarily, just substance will do.”

And that never goes out of style.