A Mere 20 Million

All my life denominational life has been dominated by one thing: fighting. For my generation, being Baptist hasn’t meant primarily missions or evangelism or a particular theology of a certain style. What has it mean to be a Baptist? It has meant, for my generation, to fight.

The fight broke out just about the time I was coming onto the scene of professional ministry. I started seminary in 1980 and finished in 1983. I remember that during some of those years, and the years just after that some of the greatest attendance at Southern Baptist Conventions. Not because we had some great evangelist cause going. Bold Missions Thrust was launched about the same time, but it quickly faded to the more interesting topic of politics.

After a while, the national battle was eventually over and some of us thought the whole thing might quietly go away. And, in some corners it has. One of the great things about being from New Mexico is we, as a convention, don’t actually own anything to fight over. We own a Children’s Home and a couple of camps, but no schools to keep us suspicious about what they are teaching. When you don’t own anything, there is not too much to fight over.

But, in most states, it is not this way. Most states have plenty to fight over and the battle that raged for a decade or more at the national level has shifted and continues to rage at the state level in many states. I’d like to weigh in on this controversy. This is my soapbox; I’d like to share my opinion.

I have had my feet planted firmly in mid-air on this whole deal from day one. I am aware that this is not a position that makes anyone happy. Rather, it is a position that tends to get you shot at from both sides, but, being honest with my own head and heart, that is where I have been from the beginning, and find myself there now. I will spare you the details as to why.

The main thing to me is this: the whole deal is just not that interesting to me. To be quite honest I often find myself forgetting who is one what side and who is aligned with whom. My lack of interest keeps me from keeping it all straight.

Here are some things that are interesting to me:
How do we reach people for Christ?
How do we grow them up in Christ?
How do we create worship services that connect people with God?
How do we grow a Sunday School?
How do we implement a Small Group strategy (home groups)?
How do we recruit workers?
How do we train workers?
How do we pray more effectively?

In short, how do we advance the kingdom?

I’d like to make a suggestion. Let’s all get corporately bored with politics and deeply interested in the kind of things listed above. Next time someone brings up some big political issue in your state convention change the subject. Or, just walk off. Or, tell them: “that is not all that interesting to me.” Maybe you should just visibly yawn.

“But,” you might argue, “this is important!” so is getting sinners out of hell and into heaven. I say we through 100% of energy at that and 0% on political issues.

Early in the battle I remember asking a friend who was on the far right end of this battle, “How many liberal professors do we have? How big is the problem?” I was in seminary at the time, and was actively looking for any hint of a liberal, sense there was so much hullabaloo about it, and couldn’t find any. I found myself more in rapport with the conservative side, but I just couldn’t see any real first hand evidence of what had them so dialed up. I think my friend said, “around six.” Around six professors are teaching things they ought not to teach while on a Southern Baptist pay-role. OK. I don’t know if that is low or high. I don’t know if it is true or not, but let’s suppose that it is. How bad a problem is it?

Not nearly as bad, in my mind as the fact 16 million Southern Baptist have been corporately on plateau for my entire lifetime. As I read the great commission, that can be described in one word: disobedience. I think God is far more concerned about the fact that 16 million Southern Baptists are corporately disobedient to the command of God to go and make disciples of all nations than the fact (if it is or ever was a fact) that half of dozen teachers are teaching what they ought not to teach.

Some would argue, that there is a cause and effect here--that liberalism in our schools is the cause of ineffectiveness in our churches. Well, that is just not true in my experience. I am in a hundred-plus churches a year these days, and the problem is not liberalism. The problem is sleepiness. The problem is trying harder at the same methods that have not worked for decades expecting different results. The problem is we are about half bored with this whole deal. The problem is crummy preaching and less than half-way decent teaching in our Sunday School classes. The problem is not about contemporary or traditional music, it is about bad music, boring music, hum-drum music. The problem is not liberalism. I am in too many churches to every be persuaded that it is.

And if it were liberalism, surely the conservative resurgence (or takeover, depending on your perspective) would have begun to address that by now.

The story is probably apocryphal, but it bears repeating, just because it is just so good. The story is told of a preacher who spoke at the Texas Evangelism Conference. His sermon went like this:
Point #1: the world is lost, and dying and going to hell. He preached on that for a while.
Point#2: you don’t give a damn. He preached on apathy and luke-warmness and yawns in the pulpit and the pew. There were no yawns listening to him this day. They couldn’t believe their ears. Had he said what they thought they heard him say?
Point #3: you are more concerned about the fact that I said damn in the pulpit than you are concerned with the fact that the world is lost, and dying and going to hell.

I don’t know if the story is true or apocryphal, but if it is true, I doubt he was asked to come back. He did, however, leave a lasting impression and certainly made his point.

A mere 20 million

I’d like to suggest a goal for us to get excited about that is, to me, more interesting the fighting about politics.

I suggest that we, Southern Baptist set the major direction of our cooperate life the goal of having 20 million in average Bible Study (Sunday School/ small group) attendance by the year 2020. Current attendance has hovered around 4 million for most of my lifetime. Every time someone wants to talk to you about politics, I want to suggest you say, “Let’s talk about how we can get 20 million people studying God’s word together each week.”

In his classic book, Experiencing God, Henry Blackaby talked about having a God-sized vision. I remember going home and praying and asking God, “What do you have for me, and my life and a God-sized vision?” I felt God was asking me to help. I don’t have to lead the parade or even march in the band. I am happy to sit the stands and wave the flag, but I want to do what I can to help. I want to help my denomination, Southern Baptist to reach 20 million in Bible study attendance by the year 2020. I’d like to ask you to help too. I’d like to ask you to pray about it, talk about it, and, mostly do something about it. Help your class grow. Help your church grow. Start a movement of multiplying groups in your church. Show other churches how to do so as well.

Henry went on to say that anything less than full obedience to the spoken commands of God is planned disobedience. There are lot more that 20 million lost people in America. I understand that, in a way, this is planned disobedience with reference to all of them. Maybe so. But it does represent a start.

I am praying that being Southern Baptist will mean something different to my kids than it has meant to my generation. To my generation, it has been dominated by the great denominational fight. I am sick of it. I never was all that fired up about it, but day, I am sick and tired of it. I say it is time we changed the subject. I say it is time we change the agenda. I say we get excited and focused about being on mission together.