Have you ever been to an Amish community? The first time I visited an Amish village it seemed as though I had stepped through a time portal into a world two centuries old. I watched people pass in a horse and buggy, observed white barns and quaint homes, and clothing that seemed to come from a Norman Rockwell painting. Notably absent were modern conveniences, from electricity to automobiles.
If you lived in the early 17th century in America, the Amish community would not stand out the way it does in our day. In fact, most communities looked a lot like contemporary Amish villages. But something has happened from then until now. A world of cities and interstate highways, computers and electronics, and transportation via cars, trucks, and airplanes look nothing like the colonial days.
"Today most Americans who know anything about the Amish culture have a measure of respect for it," observed California pastor Steve Davidson.1 Then he added, "But no one is beating down the doors of the Amish communities to join them." Society has changed, not always for the better, but certainly not always for the worse either. I am quite happy to enjoy electricity, the Internet, modern transportation, and my MP3 player.
Is it possible that many unchurched people in our time have a measure of respect for Southern Baptists, but tend to relegate us to the 1950s? If our gospel is an offense, so be it, but could it be that the way we "do church" has become a greater hindrance than the scandal of the cross? When we function with a methodological approach which still follows a generation-old attitude that if there is a need, the way to fill it is to create a program, while the culture is screaming for authentic relationships, are we surprised that the world often greets the church with a yawn?
Things must change. Southern Baptists can learn a lesson from the Amish. Many Americans, particularly the more than 100 million radically unchurched all around us, have no interest in hanging out with us, not because of our gospel, but because too many of our churches look a lot like the 1950s. I heard someone observe we should charge admission to some of our churches because they look like a museum from an earlier generation. If the 1950s come back, we will be ready!
But here's a newsflash: They are not coming back!
Culture has changed; the Word of God has not. Society is different; the gospel remains the same. But have we forgotten that in the Acts, the early church would adapt the unchanging message to different audiences (compare Acts 3 to Acts 17 for example)? "In the face of [today's] changing western culture, many western church leaders are in denial; they plan and do church as though next year will be 1957," writes George Hunter. "Furthermore, most of the western church leaders who are not in denial do not know how to engage the epidemic numbers of secular, post-modern, neo-barbarians outside (and inside) their churches."2
My point is not to bash an earlier period in our history. Nor is it to miss the fact that many of our churches are making a remarkable impact in our day. God is on the throne! But He was also on the throne in Jeremiah's day when the people needed to repent, and in Jonathan Edwards' day when America needed an awakening. I have watched in my lifetime the church move from a vital part of communities to an afterthought. At the same time, homosexuality has moved from the closet to Main Street. Homosexuals may have left the closet, but in terms of impacting culture, we have entered it.
My point is to recognize that for over a generation we as a Convention have failed to make necessary changes to interact with the contemporary world. The meetings LifeWay President Jimmy Draper has had with young SBC leaders demonstrates the frustration many have, not with our orthodoxy, but with our orthopraxy. When a church does make such changes to reach its community, some are quick to ostracize it. We tell our missionaries when they go overseas not to export our style, but rather to take the gospel and contextualize it for a given culture. But when a church, say in Southern California, contextualizes in the United States, and effectively reaches people, too many of us tend to shift into a hypercritical mode, emphasizing what is wrong and ignoring what may be right.
Certainly, we should always be on the watch for changes that, either in the short run or long run, would ultimately undermine the Word. But when we consider our inability to reach the two most significant groups in America — the vast unchurched population and the more specific generation of youth — shouldn't we look a little more closely in the mirror? According to the Census Bureau, in 2006 and following, more young people will populate America than any time in our history. Are we in danger of missing what could be an incredible opportunity?
The message never changes. We Southern Baptists have made a historic stand on the Word of God over the past quarter of a century. We can rejoice in this! I was an inerrantist before it was cool, so I rejoice! And that fact is my very point. Because Southern Baptists have made an unashamed stand for the unchanging Word, we of all people should be the ones leading in the kind of paradigmatic and methodological changes necessary. We can also help to guide those too eager to jump on the latest promo fad to navigate these unique times. But we must accept the facts: in our beloved Convention, baptisms have hovered around 384,000 for fifty years. When you factor in the growing American population, this means in real numbers we have declined dramatically in our evangelistic impact. And we have seen a general decline in youth baptisms for three decades.3
We have seen a resurgence in our orthodoxy, affirming inerrancy as a Convention. Now, we need a revolution in our orthopraxy. This is admittedly a more daunting task — rallying around an unchanging Bible may prove easier than joining hands to make needed changes. But it is a task we must undertake.
I well remember being in England years ago when an evangelist told me the believers in England made a fatal mistake in earlier generations. "We changed our message," he said, "But not our methods. We should have changed our methods, and not the message." Today, England is a spiritual wasteland, unless you are building Islamic mosques or starting a witch coven, for these are growing in number.
Here is the bottom line: if we only say to our children and grandchildren, and especially to the coming generation of young leaders for our churches, "Just do what we have done, only a little better," we have failed.
Things must change.
1 From a message by pastor Davidson at the Empower Conference, Green Lake, Wisconsin, March 19, 2005.
2 George T. Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West...Again. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000, p. 9.
3 For more detailed analysis of our inability to reach the unchurched or youth, see Alvin L. Reid, Radically Unchurched: Who They Are and How to Reach Them (Kregel, 2002), and Alvin L. Reid, Raising the Bar: Ministry to Youth in the New Millennium (Kregel, 2004).
A Personal Note from Jimmy Draper to Young Leaders
The younger leader dialogues we have held across the country have all gone quite well. Everywhere I have visited, I have found enthusiastic, passionate younger leaders anxious to advance God's Kingdom. I have also met many "older leaders" who are anxious to welcome younger leaders into leadership positions, and yet there remain many challenging questions.
How can we do a better job in connecting with young leaders in SBC life?
What changes are necessary for the SBC to be more relevant and effective in reaching today's culture with the good news of the gospel?
I am praying fervently that God will guide us to some practical solutions and strategies toward achieving this goal, give us a renewed commitment to reaching our culture for the Lord, and help those who come behind us to lead into the future. The one thing we all agree on is — people are lost and without hope until they have Jesus as their Savior.
With that as a starting point, take a few moments to read the suggestions and solutions that were generated at the dialogues. You will find them listed on the home page of the younger leader Web site, http://www.lifeway.com/youngerleaders. Let's pray for each other. Let's study the various ideas and ask God to show us His will.
Remember to join us in Nashville for the Younger Leader Rally on June 19 from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. at LifeWay. At this meeting, we will present the best strategies and solutions.
Due to security issues we have in downtown Nashville, everyone attending the Younger Leader Celebration will need to receive a name tag as you come in the building. You can help us immensely by registering at http://unity.lifeway.com/UM/T.asp?A1.301.4185.1.598683
Thank you everyone. I am so grateful to God for you and so proud of you. I believe we are on the verge of a great move of God!
Sincerely Yours in Christ,
Alvin L. Reid is professor of evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary where he also holds the Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism and serves as Associate Dean for Proclamation Studies.