Minimal evangelism initiatives and dwindling membership are key challenges facing moderate Baptist churches.
Central to the problem are the mixed messages we send in the church.
Too often we equate success with salvation and poverty or financial need with being lost. We confuse dressing well and having good manners with a faith relationship with Jesus Christ.
Let’s ask a blunt question. “Does financial and social success equal salvation?” Obviously our answer ought to be, “No, success does not equal salvation.”
To believe the good news of Jesus Christ is to believe that each and every person is in need of a life transforming relationship with God, which comes through a personal encounter with and surrender to Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Just because one drives a Lexus or lives in a multimillion-dollar home does not excuse them from the need of a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Many Christians sincerely talk about the “community” their church possesses and what a loving community they have. That’s great, but I fear that we have put community ahead of the gospel.
Genuine Christian community is a by-product, an outgrowth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not the criterion by which we are judged.
When I have conversations with long-time members, I hear the community card played again and again. What I don’t hear is the desire that we reach people who are different from us.
As a result, we are more likely to have Christian clubs – in which everyone resembles everyone else – than we are Christian churches. If your church looks a lot like you, then chances are you’re in a club and not a church.
Why is this important?
The good news of Jesus Christ is the most powerful force in the world. The gospel is the only force I know which can permanently shift our hearts and minds, our very souls, from self-centered to other centered. The gospel destroys barriers and brings down walls – cultural, racial and political.
What we need, as Christians, is to let the gospel go forth and to live it out in every aspect of our lives. Could it be that we are really afraid of the gospel and of its ramifications for our lives and our church?
Either moderate Baptists will return evangelism to its core position as the unifying focus in a holistic church, or we will die.
Seeing people come to faith in Christ can serve to rejuvenate our own faith and rekindle the fire on the altar of our heart.
Participating in a church in which people express their love for Christ unites a community of faith in ways that nothing else can or will.
It is the center out of which worship, social ministries, social justice, spiritual growth and all the other vital aspects of faith come to life.
We are now said to be living in a “post-Christian era” that is more like the first century than the 19th to the mid-20th centuries.
We are called upon to see ourselves as “resident aliens” or missionaries living not in a Christian culture but on mission outposts in the middle of a pagan land.
The “how” of evangelism can and usually will be unique in any and every particular situation.
An attentive church will figure out what sharing the good news of Jesus Christ will look like in their context.
Any approach must be configured in ways that are culturally appropriate and individually sensitive, characterized by humility, integrity and utmost respect for the personhood of the other.
What is important is that our churches take seriously the call to be “evangelists” -sharers of the good news that life eternal is found in a relationship with Christ Jesus.
So, as I walk off into the sunset to retirement, I am asked, “Will the moderate Baptist movement and churches survive in the next 50 years?”
My answer is a question. “Do we deserve to survive?”
I believe that we will not only survive, but also thrive when our focus is upon sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in all that we say and do.
If not, then we will be nothing but museums in which a few people pause and remember “the good ole days.”
Meanwhile, that contemporary church across town is packing them in – even though their theology, ethical teachings and liturgy are not nearly as sophisticated as ours.
Frederich Nietzsche told the story of a madman who ran through the market place with a lantern shouting, “I seek God … I seek God.”
The people laughed, saying to him, “Don’t you know God is dead?”
The madman paused, held up his lantern, looked at the churches and synagogues surrounding him and said, “What are these now but not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”
Just as Christianity died in Europe, so it can die here if anything but the sharing and living out of the good news is our focus.
Bob Ferguson is senior pastor at Emerywood Baptist Church in High Point, North Carolina. A longer version of this article first appeared on his blog and appeared in an edition of Nurturing Faith magazine. It is used with permission.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.