I believe this controversy, like many controversies was one that was fueled by a few on each extreme. 10% on the conservative side and 10% on the moderate side kept the controversy going. I believe I speak of the 80% in the big middle for whom the whole thing is just not that interesting.
For many of us, we just find if more interesting to think about how to grow a church and reach people for Christ than to think about how to reshape the theological framework of a denomination.
Not that have I not tried to get excited about this. Like most ministers, I have, from time to time, gotten involved in reading the articles, studying the papers and hearing the sermons. I tried to get pumped up about the whole deal. Then, I'd see something from Willowcreek and start getting all ramped up about that. Or, I would browse www.pastors.com and think about how that applies in my situation. Soon, I had forgotten about the whole controversy.
Some would argue that there is a very tight, one-to-one relationship between the theological heresies that the conservative resurgence tried to address and evangelism and church growth. This is not without merit. If we believe a watered-down gospel, we are not going to be that excited about proclaiming it.
And, there are some bona-fide liberals out there. I asked one of my hosts once, who seemed to be in this liberal camp, "Would you be comfortable paying the salary of a seminary professor who didn't believe one miracle recorded in the Bible actually took place, including the resurrection."
"No, I would stop at the resurrection. If he didn't believe in the resurrection, I wouldn't be comfortable paying his salary."
"Then, you would be comfortable paying the salary of a seminary professor who didn't believe any of the miracles recorded in the Bible actually happened, as long as he believed the resurrection?" I quizzed.
"Right." He confirmed my worst fear.
"What about you, do you think the miracles happened pretty much like the Bible records, or not?"
The conversation went south from there.
Anyway, to the degree that people believe like that, it is not hard for me to believe that that kind of thinking could, in fact, hinder church growth and evangelism. And, whatever else is true, it doesn't make a lot of sense for a guy like me and this gentlemen to be in the same denomination. We are just not close enough theologically to support the same seminary professors or missionaries.
But, in my experience, that is a rare exception. I have never talked to anyone else who came close to that kind of thinking. I have told this story to many people, and to the person they are shocked by it. Some would say our lack of effectiveness in fulfilling the great commission is due to theological liberalism. I am not so convinced. We have had a little theological liberalism. A little. But, only a little. And there are tons of very conservative churches that are not getting it done evangelistically. The problem in most cases is not liberalism. Never has been. It may be bad methods, lack of spiritual zeal or one of a hundred other things, but in the vast majority of the cases, it is not liberalism.
I asked a politically conservative friend once, [This was years ago.] "How many liberals do we have out there? Who are we trying to get? How bad is it?" "Oh, a dozen or so." I am not sure that he was right, in fact, I tend to think he was not. But, assume he was right for a moment. We have bigger problems than that. I believe God is far more concerned about the fact that 40,000 Southern Baptist Churches are corporately disobedient to what God told us to do, in terms of the great commission, than He is that we had a handful of liberal professors. And, if we ever did have any liberal professors, they are surely gone by now.
10,000 churches every year baptize no one. No one. 52 Sunday morning sermons. Probably that many more Sunday night sermons. 52 prayer meetings. Countless committee meetings. Tons of Sunday School lessons. Lots of activity. And not one baptism. 10,000 churches like that. Put that on one side of the scale. Put a dozen liberal professors on the other [IF there ever were a dozen]. Which one weighs heavier in your mind?
Good news is, there is a new wind blowing.
It is time we focus our energy on evangelism, discipleship and church building. The controversy is over. Let's get on to bigger matters.
This is why I am excited about the goal that newly elected SBC President, Bobby Welch is giving us: One million baptisms per year. This is something we can get excited about. We are not all that excited about ridding the denomination of supposed liberalism. We are excited about banding together with like-minded brothers and sisters for the cause of evangelism, discipleship and church growth.
This goal of a million baptisms a year seems congruent with my own goal, and the goal of my ministry, 2020 Vision: to see 20 million in Bible Study/ Sunday School attendance by the year 2020. I hope this new goal is the beginning of us becoming a goal-driven people, not a controversy driven people.
I applaud the words of Lifeway President, Jimmy Draper, "The struggle over the last 25 years within the Southern Baptist Convention was for scriptural fidelity -– and we won, Let's do something with the victory." Indeed.
Ken Hemphill, the SBC national EKG strategist, also sees the denomination shifting its emphasis from the controversy to the kingdom: "We have cooperated together for historic theological reformation and organizational restructuring. May the Lord find us now cooperating together, hand in hand, arm in arm, for spiritual revitalization -- to His praise and glory!"
I read an article in the Baptist Standard (Baptist General Convention of Texas) where Editor Marv Knox quoted another veteran reporter who said, "I have never been at a convention like this one."
Could it be we are becoming a convention that is not about controversy so much as it is about mission? Could we become a people for who the fight for souls is more interesting than the fight for the control of the SBC?
What will it take to baptize a million people?
Here is where it gets tricky. In the old days, we were unified not only around a common theology and a common purpose. We also had a common program (VBS, Sunday School, etc.) and a common style. You go to one Southern Baptist Church and it pretty much looked and felt like another. They had the same programs. They sang from the same hymnal. The look and feel was pretty much the same. This is no longer true.
More significant, the divergence in style and approach is broadening... and fast. This is because our models are all so different. I have highlighted in recent articles some of the different ways I see churches doing groups across America and around the world. I have some other articles in the works. Some of these include:
Southern Baptists are learning from and becoming like all these models and more. Here is the question: What does it mean to be a Baptist? I mean, what does it mean to be a good Baptist? Does it mean we love God, have a certain theology and are passionate about evangelism, discipleship and church growth? Is that enough? Or must we have a certain worship style, adopt certain programs and use certain literature? The question of the past 25 years has been, "How broad is the tent theologically?" The question of the next 25 years is, "How broad is the tent in terms of method and style?"
Is there room in Southern Baptist life for a church that looks like Willowcreek or Saddleback or Northpoint or Fellowship? I don't mean can they join the denomination and will we take their money, thank you very much. I mean, is there room for them to be included in leadership? Can they be in the in-crowd? Can they shape our thinking? Would we elect a president of our convention that used something other than LifeWay VBS literature. (Someone in Alabama is gasping just now; "Say it isn't true!") Or is there only room for Sunday School based, Vacation Bible School, blended worship, not too loud, pillars out front, red brick, visitation evangelism kind of churches?
I am not AT ALL against more traditional Southern Baptist Churches with a traditional Southern Baptist style. But, if the litmus test of what it means to be a good Baptist is about style, I am afraid we won't realize our dreams.
The question is not whether you like this literature or that, like the program or that. The question is, can you cooperate with people who use different stuff?
One of the smartest things Rick Warren ever said (and he has said a lot of smart things) is this: "it takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people." We need all kinds of Southern Baptist Churches with all kinds of styles reaching all kinds of people.
God is the lover of the zoo. He likes all kinds of animals. He is a lover of the desert and the forest and the garden and the jungle and there is all kinds of variety in all of those eco-systems. If we would be like God, we would love all kinds of churches as well.