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Archive for August, 2008

One of the distinctives which make Baptists “Baptist” is the belief in a regenerate church membership. In other words, only those who profess faith in Christ and give evidence of regeneration are to be baptized and admitted into the membership of the local church. Because we hold that the Scriptures restrict baptism to believers (with all due respect to my Presbyterian brothers and sisters, whom I love dearly and often envy!), fewer baptisms means that are fewer conversions.

During the past several months there has been a lot of hand wringing among Southern Baptist Convention leaders at the fewer number of baptisms reported by churches throughout the convention. Strategies have been put forth and non-program programs have been implemented to reverse the trend. (I say “non-program programs” because we’re supposedly past programs, so the new “programs” are said not to be programs, but “if it walks like a duck . . . .”)

The latest lament has come from Ron Herrod, recently-elected president of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists. Dr. Herrod, doubtlessly a man of integrity and motivated by a concern for those who are not Christians, believes that the reversal of baptisms requires a movement of God and change in strategy. Pastors need to take more members on mission trips, train their members to do evangelism, and engage vocational evangelists to hold revival meetings in their churches. Baptist Press reported,
“As an evangelist and president of COSBE, Herrod encourages current pastors to take advantage of God-called evangelists who are trained to ‘draw the net.’ There are certain people God has gifted that when ‘the invitation is given, the harvest comes,’ he said.”

BP’s story is most telling,

In addition, Herrod noted churches that hold revival meetings require 24 resident members to win one person to Christ, compared to 36 resident members to win one to Christ in churches that do not hold revival meetings.

‘Use God’s gift to the church — the evangelist — on a regular basis to help draw the net and bring in the harvest,’ he challenged.

The former pastor is dismayed over a trend he sees in some churches to not offer an invitation at every service.

‘I don’t understand pastors who do not give an invitation. An invitation is biblical,’ he said. ‘What if a lost person is there and he walks away without an opportunity [to make a profession of faith]. We have failed to do what God calls us to do.’

Actually, I think Dr. Herrod is mistaken on most of his points and is part of the continuing problem, not the solution. First, the very office of vocational evangelist is without biblical support, at least the type of vocational evangelist which Dr. Herrod represents. Ephesians 4:11 speaks of evangelists, but these are better understood to be what we called “missionaries,” not a man engaged to hold “revival meetings” in a local church.

Second, the idea of hiring a man—the vocational evangelist—to lead services in a church “on a regular basis to help draw the net and bring in the harvest” is simply silly, and again, without biblical support. The apostle Paul reminds us, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:5-6, ESV). Poor Paul could only plant. Where was the vocational evangelist to come behind him to “draw the net”?

Third, the modern invitation system is itself an unbiblical practice. There is no mention of its practice in the Scriptures. Church history reveals its practice to be only some two centuries old. One cannot help but wonder how the Church survived for eighteen centuries without giving “invitations” and “altar calls.”

I contend that one of the reasons for fewer baptisms is that Southern Baptists and other evangelicals have engaged in unbiblical practices and offered a less-than-biblical gospel (such as “asking Jesus into your heart”) for so long that people have been conditioned to believe the gospel really doesn’t matter. After all, only a third of Southern Baptists bother to show up for worship on any given Sunday. Attending corporate worship is the easiest thing a Christian does; non-attendance is most telling about one’s spiritual state. Our methodologies have resulted in a lot of decisions, and those churches which engage a vocational evangelist may witness more decisions, but I fear that most of those decisions are not true conversions.

As I stated above, I think Dr. Herrod is an honorable man motivated by a concern for those without Christ. He is sincere, but I think he’s sincerely wrong.

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Taking a look at the typical program on “Christian” television makes one understand why so many people charge Christianity with being a religion for those who refuse to think. The latest huckster filling buildings with claims of healing folks of all sorts of maladies (none documented, of course) or some charlatan claiming that God has given him a plan to bless those who send him $100 a month for the next twelve months reduces the Christian faith to a contemptible self-gratification society.

Unfortunately, such egregious displays of carnality are not the only ones which cash in on man’s inherent passion for self. Folks flock to hear how they can fix their problems and have more happiness in life. “Don’t worry about sin and repentance; God’s on your side. Stop preventing him from blessing you with your continued self-rejection. Love yourself, and love God. After all, he’s here for you.”

Unfortunately, we Baptists are not much better. When I was much younger (yes, much younger!), I was a member of a church which then purportedly had the largest Sunday school in the world. I was a “bus captain” for one of the over-200 buses which weekly invaded the Chicago area to bring mostly children to Sunday school. How did we fill so many buses? We had all kinds of contests and and gave all sorts of gifts. We swallowed goldfish and made “the world’s largest sundaes.” It was a veritable three-ring circus, and multitudes loved it.

Not too many years after that time, a friend loaned me a set of audio tapes of sermons preached by John MacArthur. I had never heard of Dr. MacArthur (this was about 1980), but the series title was intriguing: “The Glory of God.” The type of Christianity which I had experienced had been creating quite a bit of angst, and somehow I knew there had to be much more to Christianity than bribing folks to come to church where they would then hear a message about “asking Jesus into their hearts” so they could avoid hell. MacArthur’s messages articulated what I had been thinking and completely changed my understanding of the faith. No longer was Christianity about man’s comfort and man’s hopes; Christianity, biblical Christianity, was about the glory of God.

And yet the beat goes on. I received an invitation this past week to attend a two-day seminar promising to increase the attendance of my church. A local Baptist association is advertising the drawing of a $100 Wal-Mart gift card in order to increase the number of young people attending a particular night of its annual evangelistic crusade. Well intentioned, perhaps, but trivializing the faith for certain.

Such is not the faith for which disciples of Christ have been persecuted throughout the ages. Unfortunately, what goes on in the name of Christianity is little more than appealing to our inherent depravity. It’s a man-centered religion.

Fortunately, there is a better way, a more biblical way, and that is to see God as the center of our existence and the Scriptures as the directive for our methods. Indeed, the English and Scottish divines of the mid-seventeenth century provide us with clear direction with the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647):

What is the chief end of man?

The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.

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ChristianAudio has a free audio download each month, and this month’s offering is the classic Confessions of Saint Augustine. Go to the link I provided and follow these instructions provided by ChristianAudio:

Select the Download format and add it to your cart. Then use the coupon code AUG2008 during checkout to receive your free download.

You can listen to it on your computer or download to your mp3 player. I’m downloading it to iTunes for my iPod even as I type this post.

Enjoy!

Bill

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The loss of reverence

One thing that is strikingly absent in the worship services of Baptist churches is an atmosphere of reverence. For too many churches, the service is all about having “a good time in Jesus,” whatever that means. The pre-service music has the building rocking like a sporting event, and the congregational music tends to be man-centered in its appeal, whether the service is deemed “traditional” or a more happy-clappy “contemporary.”

When it’s time for the sermon, the pastor can be confused for a religious comedian, interlacing his message with jokes to keep the congregation attentive and in a good mood. Indeed, the entire service is “happy hour,” until, at least, the “altar call” is given, during which the congregants are encouraged to get right with God so all’s happy again.

Frankly, I find little appealing in such services. They may be carried out with the best of intentions, and I don’t seek to be mean-spirited or demean anyone’s motives. I am, however, grieved over what too often takes place in our Baptist churches. We’ve lost the sense of worship; we’ve lost the sense of reverence; we’ve lost the sense of God.

I’m not saying that a song should never use a first-person pronoun, though I suggest “we” is more appropriate for congregational singing that “I.” Neither am I saying that humor is forbidden in a sermon. With all due respect to John Piper’s wonderful book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, I am saying, “Brothers, we are not comedians.”

When we come to worship, we as a congregation of professing followers of Jesus Christ are standing before God. We should do so with fear and trembling because he is the thrice-holy God. We should do so with great joy because our loving Savior took upon himself the wrath of God on Calvary’s cross so that we would be accepted by God as forgiven and counted righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21). We should do so with a deep sense of reverence.

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