Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Is There a Crisis in Evangelicalism?

A few years ago, Dr. David Wells wrote a chapter in the book The Compromised Church entitled, “The Present Evangelical Crisis: The Word in the World.” I have been thinking about one of his warnings. He said that one of the greatest dangers from this crisis is the fact that there does not seem to be a crisis at all. There are so many signs pointing to evangelical victory that the idea that there is a crisis seems like foolishness to many. This concept is fleshed out more in Dr. Well's book, No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology (I could have used Francis Schaeffer's The Great Evangelical Disaster, but that's really going back a while).

In the years since this book was written (almost ten), many more people have responded to what is wrong with evangelicalism. Some of this response has been good and some has been bad. As a pastor, I've been struggling with the implications of True Evangelicalism (if I can put it that way) for many years. Even in our relatively conservative, Bible-loving, Reformation theology teaching church, purity in doctrine and life can be a tough thing to pursue. Gospel holiness has implications for worship, Sunday School Curriculum, counseling - everything! Making Gospel connections to every area of life is the work of the church. The lure of compromise for the sake of avoiding conflict and increasing numbers is ever-present, as is the remaining sin of all our members (myself included).

This is what concerns me with the vision of the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada. There is no talk of a crisis - no real sense of urgency for reform. Yes, there is a lot of talk of a needed turn-around to get churches on side with plans for growing. However, there appears to be a reductionistic attitude about the Great Commission, as if getting more people into our churches fulfills our Lord's mandate. The most frightening aspect of the crisis in evangelical churches is the false sense of security that many people feel in their decision for Christ when they may not be genuinely converted. This is a legacy of 19th Century revivialism that is a plague in Western evangelicalism (if you're not sure what I'm talking about, check out this article).

As an example that could be multipled thousands of times, let me share a story that I recently heard from a man who grew up in an evangelical church with a big youth group. He said that after youth on Friday, they would head out to the bush parties. He also said that the senior pastor's son was a key source for pot at their high school. Again, it looked big and dynamic on the outside, but inside there was death. This comes from a lack of the fear of God. I am afraid that the fear of God and a biblical understanding of sin are foreign concepts in many churches.

Who am I to say if people are real Christians or not? Don't I just have to take their confession at face value? "Judge not that you be not judged" is probably the best known verse in the Bible today, even though people do not know the reference (Matthew 7:1). This is same chapter where Jesus says:
  • "Do not give to dogs what is holy, and do not cast your pearls before swine." Who are the dogs and the pigs? How can we tell?
  • "Beware of false prophets" - Doesn't this require making some judgments?
  • "By their fruit you will know them" - Isn't this life inspection?
  • "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of Heaven" - Wouldn't it be better to warn people in the church with God's judgment before they get to the real thing?

I wholly affirm the perseverance of the saints. However, the warning passages in Scripture regarding false Christians are there for a reason. We can't just dismiss Hebrews 6, 10 and 12 or 1 John, or James or the many other warnings to those whom the Puritans called "false professors."

It is hard to confront people when they are bearing bad fruit or gushing forth bitter water. It takes tremendous courage to stand up to people in the church when they promote bad theology or endorse non-biblical practices by their words or deeds. I've often failed here, but if we pastors continue to fail on this front, we've failed in our greatest responsibility. We are under-shepherds and if we don't take care of the sheep, who will? Wolves wear the clothing of sheep, and they rise up from within the church (see Acts 20). We need to warn people with tears (like Paul), but we still need to warn them.

If we are going to cultivate healthy churches, fulfil the Great Commission and reform the Fellowship, we are going to have to make the main things the main things. We can't assume the Gospel - and that includes concepts like God's righteous wrath, sin, eternal hell and the presence of imposters and false teachers in our midst. If we gloss over these things, we will lose the Gospel. This loss might not occur in this generation, but in will happen.

If we see a turnaround in the Fellowship and 70% of our churches are growing by at least 5% in 10 years (as opposed to 30% today), who will be the watchmen that are dilligent to promote sound doctrine and moral purity? If we have big churches without integrity in life and doctrine, we will go the same path as the United Church of Canada in the 60s. I will be branded as an extremist because of that last comment, but we need to think about it. We need to sound the alarm regarding new persepectives on justification, emergent churches, open theism and gender confusion. These doctrinal issues must be confronted and refuted. We must also urgently appeal for reform regarding the moral compromise that is becoming commonplace among professing evangelicals.

I believe we do need to help churches turn around, plant new churches (particularly in our cities), and rally together to see this generation won for the Lord. However, we need to talk about the dangers all around us and flee to the cross. We must have uncompromised Gospel theology as our absolute centre; otherwise, we will be the blind leading the blind and we will all fall into the pit of the current evangelical crisis.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Change and Revitalization in the Fellowship

I am suspicious of change. It is my conservative nature, I suppose, but it is also because of experience. In the church, I trust the old paths far more than innovation. Part of my experience is a bottom shelf in my office that is full of dusty binders from past efforts at restructuring, refocusing and revising (I’m not alone, ask any pastor with more than 10 years of experience).

Change, however, is frequently necessary. One of the mottoes of the Reformation was, “Always Reforming.” It is human nature to wander away from the truth. We must always evaluate this drift and prayerfully seek to check it by returning to the Gospel. In Philippians 3:1, the Apostle Paul said, “To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.” In 2 Peter, we find a longer passage on this same point of reviewing the basics:
“Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.” 2 Peter 1:12-15

It should be evident to anyone with a pulse that change is needed in much of Western evangelicalism. Regarding the Fellowship of Churches that I belong to, I would not want to cling to the status quo or retreat to a vision from twenty or fifty years ago. I am not opposed to streamlining administrative structure, and, as one who is interested in the history of reformation and revival, I know that God uses individuals as His agents to orchestrate dramatic change.

My primary concern is regarding what I do not hear from our national leadership. For several years now, I have heard at national and regional conventions that we Fellowship Baptists are very strong on the Bible and doctrine. I do not believe that is true. I think that many of our churches (from my admittedly limited exposure) have been heavily influenced by the individualistic, moralistic and pietistic impulses that practically define contemporary evangelicalism. We have been told that because we are strong on Bible and doctrine, we must now work to cultivate relationships, develop servant leadership and focus more on prayer and evangelism. More recently, we are told that it is the structure that needs to change to make way for a more effective fulfillment of the Great Commission.

I am convinced that there is no substitute for biblical preaching centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ (2 Timothy 3:14-4:5). This, I believe, is a weak spot in many of our churches. What I am trying to say is that we need to focus far more on what God has done in Christ as less on what we need to do. What we can do has always been a easier sell in the church, but being faithful to Gospel-centered ministry and the marks of a true church is urgent for real health in the long run.

I came across this quote from D.A. Carson recently, and it expresses my worry regarding the focus of the Fellowship very well:
I fear that the cross, without ever being disowned, is constantly in danger of being
dismissed from the central place it must enjoy, by relatively peripheral insights that
take on far too much weight. Whenever the periphery is in danger of displacing the
center, we are not far removed from idolatry
. (from The Cross and Christian Ministry, p. 26).

So then, change away, Fellowship, change away, but change from the influence of the world and reform to the central standard of the Gospel in all areas of life and worship. Lord willing, I'll be leading our church to this kind of change right along with you.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Still Watching the Fellowship

After attending our national convention a few weeks ago I posted some thoughts on changes that are going on in our Fellowship of Baptist churches. I appreciate the comments that I received right away, but there have been a few more today. Our national president, John Kaiser, took the time to answer some of my questions in that post (follow the link to Watching the Fellowship and read the comments, if you wish). Thanks for that Dr. Kaiser, and thanks to all of you who commented. If you missed this post on the first go-'round, feel free to join the conversation with a comment here or at that "Watching" post.

These are not simple issues. I have long thought that being the leader of a group of churches - particularly Baptist churches - must be a very difficult job. Like herding cats, I suppose. Because of our conviction regarding autonomous local churches, many Baptists have been suspicious of increasing centralization, a.k.a. "leave my church alone." By the way, no one in the Fellowship leadership is proposing an interventionist solution to the problems with our association - I'm just pointing out the nature of Baptist groups.

What, then, are associations for? The way I see it, we can do more together with like-minded churches than we can do alone. Leadership training (including the support of schools), missions, accountablity to a larger group of churches (including sharing a common affirmation of faith and receiving help in crisis situations) and encouragment in ministry. These are good things and I am all for Baptist churches in fellowship.

I am going to be an armchair quarterback in the coming weeks and post on what I think should be priorities for our Fellowship. I believe that the need for reform extends far beyond Fellowship into evangelicalism as a whole.

Stay tuned.