Wednesday, September 25, 2013

10 Factors Affecting Baptists and Their Baptisms

As a Southern Baptist who has served as both a pastor and an educator, I have watched with interest the reports coming out of Nashville concerning the Task Force  appointed to study the denomination's trending decline in baptisms. As a practitioner, churches I pastored averaged baptizing over 100 people a year for over 25 years. So, it is a subject about which I can speak with some experience and knowledge.

If it were left up to me, how would I try to address the situation? My first step would be to hire the Gallop organization to do an accurate survey of our churches. Why them? They do not have any ulterior motives, pet projects, or sacred cows. In other words, for them, no options are off the table. I believe that they would, to use Donald McGavran's famous mandate, "gather abundant and accurate information."

From my limited perspective, I think issues which contribute to the statistical decline can be traced to ten factors all of which can be corrected.

1. Leading people to Christ has to be both a priority and intentional. It starts with the pastor. And it starts with the pastor search committee that invites him to come to pastor their church. If the priority of evangelism is not clearly agreed upon on the front end, then the status quo will resist its implementation. 

2. It has to do with the church's health and environment. Churches known for conflict and tension are not attractive to prospects especially lost folks who need to be saved. Church business meetings are to some degree a necessary evil, but when they create a platform for carnal members to display their personal agendas, it is repulsive to the people we are trying to reach. If churches want to reach people, they must learn to resolve issues appropriately and in a Christ-like manner. Part of this includes recognizing the God ordained leadership role of the pastor and staff. One insight that Rick Warren shared is that the larger a church becomes, the more the ministers must give up the work of the ministry, and the more the lay people must give up decision-making.

3. Churches that see people saved and baptized have created an environment that is thorough in its process from start to completion. How do we attract people? When people come, are they comfortable? Do people feel loved? Do they hear the Gospel clearly? Do people know what to do to come to faith in Christ? Does the church have an incorporation process? Are people followed up with effectively? Are prospects embraced by the people in the congregation? Are they connected with an affinity group? 

4. Churches that reach people do not overly program. Busyness such that the members of the congregation do not have time to cultivate outreach relationships can kill outreach. Here is a principle: people attract people. Make sure that your members have permission to not be at every activity. By this, they will have time to build friendships that will result in natural organic growth.

5. Pastors need to work at extending a clear invitation. Instead of saying, "let's all stand and sing, and if you have a decision, come forward," be specific. Tell people that if they want to be saved, here is how. Tell them specifically what to do. They will not know if you do not tell them.

6. The best evangelistic sermon in the world is worthless if no lost people are present to hear it. Challenge your people to constantly be inviting new people to worship at their church. A personal invitation is the most effective outreach tool the local church has.

7. We have one opportunity to make a first impression, so everything from driving on the property to the care of facilities and landscape should say, "we were expecting you and we are glad you are here." Remove every growth restricting obstacle. If you think something is a barrier, remove it!

8. Expectations are critical. Faith expects and anticipates. The church must cultivate a collective expectant heart. If on a Sunday morning 10 people prayed to receive Christ, would your church know what to do and be prepared to do it? What are your people expecting God to do?

9. It is of critical importance that those who lead are practitioners. Why would we place people in leadership who have no track record? When Jesus said, "He who is faithful in that which is least, I will make ruler over much," He was communicating a principle. We need people to lead who are doers and not just talkers. 

10. With respect to motives, are we more concerned about our image or the reality that we are impacting a lost culture less and less? The mandate that we are to function as salt and light has not been rescinded. And we can impact our culture whenever we are willing to pay the price and then do it. The notion that we are living in a post-Christian culture and we can do nothing about it is an excuse. It is "post-Christian" because we have not done what God has commanded us to do. Nothing more and nothing less.

What are you experiencing at your own church?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

When Denominations Are a Waste

In my last blog, I wrote about the value of strong denominations. Today I want to address the flip side, what historians might label "the soft underbelly." When are denominations simply a waste? Here are eight scenarios.

1. Denominations are a waste when instead of fulfilling their intended purpose they work to simply perpetuate their existence. What is true for denominations is just as true for churches. Instead of focusing on why they were established, their goal becomes to keep on existing. Maintaining a bureaucracy is not a justifiable reason for existence. "Is the denomination justifying its existence?" is an honest and important question.

2. Denominations are a waste when they transition from the idea that they exist to serve the constituent congregations to the notion that the churches exist to serve the denomination. The only justifiable reason for a denomination's existence is when it can help the churches do their work more effectively. Any sound denomination should be able to articulate clearly its value to the local congregation.

3. Denominations are a waste when they cease to be sensitive to the needs of the constituent congregations. When churches are struggling or when they have vast opportunities, does the denomination's presence help or hinder?

4. Denominations are a waste when they cease to be accountable to the churches. This almost happened 40 years ago in the SBC. But finally, the power of the ballot and prayer prevailed. Does the denomination reflect the prevailing convictions of its constituency? Is the denomination sensitive to those who provide its financial support?

5. Similarly, denominations are a waste when they cease to be supportive of the churches. What do churches need? What can the denomination do to assist the churches? What can the denomination do (representing the churches collectively) that is more cost-effective than each congregation doing that same thing on its own?

6. Denominations are a waste when they engage in work detrimental to the churches. Years ago, for example, the SBC Christian Life Commission's posture on life issues was strongly pro-abortion. This was clearly out of step with the prevailing sentiment of the constituent congregations. In short, the churches were giving money to a cause that was counter to their convictions. Here is one historic example of when the denomination was a waste. 

7. Denominations are a waste when they cease to be mission driven. Why do we exist? And what are we trying to accomplish? These are questions that need to be clearly answered and kept ever before us.

8. Denominations are a waste when their leaders and executives become preoccupied with their own self importance. These jobs (ministries) are a stewardship which should be marked by a servant's heart and not a prima donna complex. Perhaps the question here should be, does the leader see himself (or herself) as one who has come to serve or be served? Elitists are not needed in God's work.

These are some determining considerations for gauging the waste or worthiness of a denomination. What do you think?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

3 Reasons Denominations Are Important

I have spent my life connected to a denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. I have also been a consistent student of culture and particularly church culture in North America. One of the mantras I have heard repeatedly is that we now live in a post-denominational church world. I find this embraced more among our younger leaders. Before jettisoning the denomination as an historic relic akin to the dinosaur, perhaps we should consider what their benefit might be. I would like to offer three benefits for your consideration.

1. For the local church, denominations should "service a common core" so that it is unnecessary to reinvent the wheel. 
Each congregation, if healthy, consists of large group worship and small group interaction. In the context of these two, we find a litany of purposes: evangelism, discipleship, worship, missions, stewardship, fellowship, ministry, and communications. Each congregation has to have organizational structure and doctrinal distinctives. Much of these can be provided by the denominational machinery. As churches embrace this common core, it provides a measure of "authenticity." It is the essence of a brand, that which distinguishes a Baptist Church from a Roman Catholic congregation for example.

2. For the local church, denominations can assist in facilitating each congregation's unique expression. 
Each church is different. Each community is different. Each church has its own "identity." Each church has a distinct methodology of how it goes about fulfilling its mission. The denomination that can assist local churches in understanding their own uniqueness while embracing a common core will find itself invaluable. This is a challenge for all denominations. Can they assist their constituent congregations to discover and maximize their own uniqueness? Again, this is of critical importance.

3. For the local church, denominations can assist in replicating healthy "reproduction." 
Each congregation is part of a larger whole which must reproduce. We are called to reproduce believers. This is evangelism. We reproduce disciples. This is discipleship. We reproduce servants and leaders. This is ministry and administration. We are called to reproduce churches. This is church planting of new congregations. We are called to reproduce missionaries for world evangelism. We are in need of apologists and polemicists. I believe that much of this can be better accomplished through the cooperative work of a denomination than by each congregation attempting to reinvent the proverbial wheel.

In short, denominations can be valuable if they assist their constituent congregations in embracing a solid authenticity, in developing their own unique identity, and replicating a healthy reproduction. The key then, for each church when assessing the role of the denomination is a terse cost-benefit analysis. Is the quality and quantity of service provided by the denomination worth the investment of expenditures? Is it accurate to conclude that churches together can accomplish more than the individual congregations can do separately? Where is this most applicable? Where is it least applicable?   

Friday, September 6, 2013

Jesus Came to Give His Followers the Keys to the Kingdom

"I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed." Matthew 16:19

Immediately on the heels of Jesus' declaration that He will build His Church, He unveils an incredible truth, "I will do it, but I will use you!" To Peter directly Jesus says, "I will give you the keys of the Kingdom; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven." What Jesus gives to Peter exclusively here is given to all disciples in 18:, 18. The issue, then, is what does this mean?

The first and most obvious answer is that keys are for locking and unlocking doors or gates. The Kingdom has an entrance and the disciples are given the keys to that entrance. The keys are not made of brass or some metal but rather the truth of Who Jesus is and what He came to accomplish. The keys were utilized on Pentecost Sunday when Peter stood to preach and multitudes were saved. Notice that the text has the "giving" at a time in the future, "I will give you."

Notice, secondly, that the binding and loosing represents the church carrying out Heaven's directives. It is not Heaven ratifying earth's decisions. "Heaven, not the apostles, initiates all binding and loosing, while the apostles announce these things," according to Charles Ryrie ( Ryrie Study Bible.p.1506).

The concepts of binding and loosing are idiomatic expressions from rabbinical Judaism. These rulings either forbid or permit certain behaviors or beliefs. What Jesus is saying is "through you, your preaching, and your writing, Heaven will make abundantly clear the doorway into the Kingdom." Through the work of the disciples all people can come to an understanding of God's entrance into the Kingdom. His name is Jesus. Either we come through Him or we do not come at all.

The significant truth is that these keys belong to every believer up to the present. No, we do not rewrite Scripture or concoct new revelation (that has been settled), but we do share the age old story of Jesus and His provision and offer of salvation. We have the awesome privilege of sharing the Gospel with those alive in our generation. Another reason Jesus came was to give us, His followers, the keys to His Kingdom. Have you been unlocking any doors?