Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Two Most Important Issues Facing the Southern Baptist Convention---NOT!!!

There is an article in the Georgia Christian Index about Georgia pastor Bill Harrell, who serves as chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee. As he talks about the Executive Committee and the SBC, he mentions two specific issues that he believes must be resolved by the SBC---worship style and Calvinism. I cannot say with certainty that Harrell thinks these are the two most important issues facing the SBC, but the fact that in a major article he chose to mention worship style and Calvinism as "two important issues to solve in our Convention" indicates that they rank high on his list.

The article makes it clear that Harrell does not think very highly of contemporary worship styles. Indeed, he seems to believe that contemporary worship is some sort of threat to the church:

“I am afraid,” Harrell declared, “that the contemporary church movement gets people into a casual mindset, which can lead to a casual mindset toward spiritual things, toward God. People who have lowered the bar to attract the world, who have embraced a non-confrontational approach where sin is concerned in order to attract the world, have become so much like the world that they are losing their witness to the world.”
So, contemporary churches are dangerous because they are casual in style, which can lead to a casual attitude toward God. I suppose this is plausible, but no more plausible than saying that traditional churches are formal, which can lead to worship that is lifeless and ritualistic. Just because something is a possibility does not mean it is a likelihood or a certainty. For the record, in the contemporary services I have attended there has been a great deal of emphasis on the greatness of God and His holiness.

I agree that churches that embrace a "non-confrontational approach where sin is concerned" lose much of their witness. However, Harrell is sorely mistaken if he believes this is a problem only in contemporary churches. The gospel can be watered down in a traditional church just as easily as in a contemporary church. In fact, I personally have been in more traditional churches than contemporary churches where this has happened.

What about this idea of lowering the bar to attract the world? I don't see how having a contemporary style lowers the bar. If God is being worshiped in spirit and in truth, the Word of God is being faithfully proclaimed, and people are having real encounters with God, then the bar has not been lowered, whether the special music is a choral rendition of "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" or a guy with long hair and faded jeans singing an acoustic version of "My Savior, My God." The bar is not about style; it is about substance.

I hope Harrell is not implying that churches should not want to attract people who are of the world. I would think that these are the people we would want to attract. Discussing his church's use of traditional elements such as a choir, orchestra, and singing from the hymnal, Harrell states, "The kind of people we attract are the people who want to go back to church." It is wonderful that this church attracts people who used to attend church. They need to be reached, and many of them relate to the traditional service this church offers. But what about those people who have no church background, who are secular and worldly? Should we not try to attract them, not by offering a watered down gospel, but by creating an environment that relates to them culturally?

Harrell's views on contemporary worship don't really bother me. While I find his worries about contemporary worship to be unfounded, I realize that different people prefer different styles. What DOES concern me, however, is Harrell's apparent belief that there is a proper style of worship that distinguighes Southern Baptists from other believers:
First, concerning the matter of worship style, we must decide what identifies us as Southern Baptists. This will be difficult, because we are autonomous, but I believe our Convention leaders need to make a more definitive statement about how we identify ourselves in worship and who we are as Southern Baptists.”

“We are never going to be homogeneous, never have been, but there are some lines we should never cross as Southern Baptists,” Harrell added. “There must be something distinctive about us or we will lose our identity."
Harrell pays lip service to the autonomy of the local church, but he then goes on to say that convention leaders should decide what constitutes acceptable worship for Southern Baptists. Uhh, when did we as Southern Baptists get bishops? Of course there are lines that we should not cross in worship, but those lines should be based on clear biblical principles. Somehow I get the idea that the lines that Harrell is talking about would be based on certain cultural preferences, traditions, and specific interpretations of Scripture.

Harrell apparently has the same level of respect for Calvinism that he does for contemporary worship. I am not a five-point Calvinist, but I don't believe that "too much of the New Testament must be ignored or radically interpreted to embrace the five points of Calvinism." I have a number of friends and acquaintances who are five-point Calvinists, and I assure you that they do not ignore or radically interpret the New Testament.

Harrell refers to Calvinism as a "problem" within the SBC. I don't understand why so many prominent SBC leaders have such a view of Calvinism. Their disagreement with a point of view does not make that point of view a problem for the convention. Calvinism is a legitimate system of theology that has a solid biblical foundation; it is neither heretical nor unorthodox. Calvinism has always been present in the SBC. In fact, most of the leaders of the SBC in its earliest years were Calvinists.

While I don't see Calvinism as a problem in the SBC, I do find Harrell's proposed solution to be very troubling:
Harrell further explained, “I think the problem of Calvinism in the SBC could be solved if we establish one ground rule. If a man wants to start a Calvinistic church, let him have at it. If a man wants to answer a call to a Calvinistic church he should have the freedom to do that, but that man should not answer a call to a church that is not Calvinistic, neglect to tell them his leanings, and then surreptitiously lead them to become a Calvinistic church. That is not to suggest that all of our Calvinistic friends do that, but when it is done it is divisive and hurtful."
It seems to me that the idea of church autonomy would preclude the establishment of a "ground rule" that interferes in the pastor search process. Harrell offers some good advice, not only as it relates to Calvinism but to other issues as well. However, churches and pastors should be the ones making these decisions; we don't need anyone else making a "ground rule" to govern the process.

In pointing to contemporary worship and Calvinism as two of the main issues that the SBC needs to deal with, Harrell has done the SBC a great favor. Not because these are problems that needs to be dealt with; they are not problems at all. Instead, Harrell has inadvertently pointed to some real issues that the SBC does need to address---the lack of respect for church autonomy, the effort to establish uniformity in practice and in doctrine, the belief that one's own views and preferences are THE right ones for everybody, an excessive focus on preserving a distinctive Southern Baptist identity, the inability to recognize the difference bewteen reaching out to people in a way that is culturally relevant to them and watering down the gospel. These are some of the most important issues facing the Southern Baptist Convention, and our response to these issues will determine the future course of our convention.


GuyMuse said...

I read with interest your current post. But confess I was struck with the conclusions of the GCI's article by Harrell where the top two issues are "worship style" and "Calvinism." Personally these would have been at the bottom of my own list of important issues.

Living in Ecuador where poverty and sin is destroying families and where 9 our of 10 people are not followers of Christ, I confess that my list would look quite a bit different from the conclusions of the author.

Maybe that is what is wrong with the SBC these days. We think issues like worship style and Calvinism are what really matters. Satan has totally distracted us from what are our Lord's priorities. Have we really strayed that far from understanding the heart of our Lord and the things that concern Him?

May the Lord have mercy on us is these two issues are the most important that need resolution in our SBC! Where are the voices of our leaders who cry out like the prophets of old warning of destruction to come if we don't repent and turn back to the Lord?

I don't know what my own list would look like if I gave it serious thought, but what is fresh on my heart and mind and breaks my heart are some of the following:

--fighting poverty, disease, and seeking justice in the world where there is no justice (one of our single mother house church members died this past week because she had broken a leg and was unable to get the help she needed--even though the church gave all they could to help, it wasn't enough--infection set in and she died, leaving her newborn baby with two grandparents who do not have the income to care for another mouth to feed.)

--repentance & revival
--how we should be going about fulfilling the GC task in this generation
--praying the Lord of the harvest for laborers for the ripe fields around the world, and for those unripe fields around the world where darkness yet reigns unabated.

Jeremy Atwood said...

Tim, great post!

I have two major concerns at this point with the SBC

1.) All this legalastic knit picking over things like worship, calvinism, and Private Prayer Languages. It seems to me that we have enough going on rather than spending our time fighting over these things and how "baptist" they are. The battle used to be conservative against liberal and now the battle seems to be conservative against conservative.

2.) Evangelism - I remember a time, not so very long ago where Baptist were committed to working together to take the Gospel to the world.

I do see a trend though - it seems to me that the conservative fundamentalist are the only ones coming out and getting attention and the conservative progressives seem to be out the arugment. I think the progressives haven't chimed in because they are out doing ministry and winning souls.

Ok, I am finished ranting now.


Paul said...

Great post, Tim. And great observations, Guy.

Kevin Bussey said...


I heard Ed Young Jr. give a message series on homosexuality. It was very Biblical and he didn't back down. Fellowship is one of the most cutting edge churches around. It is not about style it is about reaching people for Christ and discipling them.

Hashman said...

Tim! I'm glad you're all over this.

The Apostle Paul definately would have trouble in the SBC. He obviously plagarized from Calvin when he wrote Romans 9 and he encouraged the ephesian church to sing psalms AND hymns AND and spiritual songs.

There are two areas I think, if we saw reformation within them, it would have impact on fruits of evangelism, discipleship, doctrine, everything.

1) Divorce. To quote a Will Ferrell character, "I feel like I'm taking crazy pills." When did we raise the white flag on divorce as a convention? The divorce rate among "evangelicals" in the south is embarrassing. I would love for Lifeway to do a study on divorce's imact on baptisms and the retention of children who were brought up in church, going back and forth between parents.

2) Church Discipline/Regenerate Membership. Our witness is weak because our walk is weak, which makes the gospel look weak. Lost people see no difference between the "average" Christian. The "average" Christian on the roll rarely gives, attends, or serves the church and doesn't look much like its Head.

It's like a bald guy going door to door selling something that guarantees to grow hair. If what I'm selling doesn't seem to have made a difference for me, then I'm going to have a hard time selling any.

To press the analogy, we're telling bald people that the key to selling more hair cream is to try harder and tell more people and have rallies to promote selling hair cream, when that is not the ROOT of the problem.

I thought about making the analogy of overweight preachers selling diet pills, but that would hit to close to home.

John Fariss said...

Good post, Tim. I agree.

BTW Jeremy: be careful about calling yourself a "progressive conservative." That's what
"we" used to call ourselves, and the current leadership of the Conservative Resurgance labeled us as liberals for it. Guess who's next?

Kevin Holmes (and still baptist by conviction) said...


Great post! I agree with your analysis. These certainly are "issues", but to say they are the two most important is ridiculous. They are only as important as we make them.

The interesting thing to me is that we've already struggled through both of these issues. What about the issues of divorce/remarriage, single parent "families" and their impact on the SBC? What about the 18-30 age group that is seemingly AWOL from most SBC churches in spite of having grown up in the church? Does that indicate a fatal flaw in our methodology? What about churches that aren't growing? What about the 50+% of most church membership roles that can not be accounted for? What about Christians who are not actively witnessing or growing personally? What about the US being the only major country on the globe where the church is not growing?

And we make issue over Calvinism and worship style as the two most important items on the radar?

As for the "ground rule", who gave the SBC such privilege? I agree that if a pastor is strongly Calvinistic, he should reveal that to the church. He's a fool if he doesn't. If it's going to make any difference with that congregation the search committee is remiss if they don't find out. But, in any case, for the SBC to establish a "ground rule" under which pastors would "register" as Calvinist or non-Calvinist, and then only be made available to those churches registered with the same affiliation is ludricous.

I can see it now. On a scale of -5 to 0 to 5, please circle your position with -5 being a 5 pt Arminean and 5 being a 5 point Calvinist.

-5 -4 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5

If any one cares, I'm a 3, or maybe a 4, if I get to define the terms

Yep, the more I read and discuss, the more convinced I am that Satan is justifibly smug and proud in his success to keep our attention off the main thing.

Alan Cross said...

Great post, Tim. These are some of the best thoughts I've seen on this and you hit the nail on the head.

I don't know why we would have any agendas at all when it comes to the Doctrines of Grace, contemporary worship, charismatic practices, etc. Just teach what the Bible says, reach people with the Gospel, love the Lord passionately, and obey Him. If we did all of that, wouldn't the labels just fall away? Would be really care what theological stream we each came from? Wouldn't we meet around the Cross of Christ and find common unity there? Perhaps our problem has nothing to do with these areas, but rather reflects our the growing distance between us and a real relationship with Jesus.

Jeremy Atwood said...

I did not give myself a label in the post, but I should have clarified that a little more, thanks for the heads up. My definition of fundamentalist in baptist circles is simply those who are KJV only, suit wearing only, ultra traditionalist and the progressives are those who are a little more contemp. in ministry with Bible translation, worship style, and may not wear a tie everytime they preach. Of course my defination changes when I get outside the baptist circles and then I would be labled as a fundamentalist as I use the two "I" words when it comes to scripture, literal 6 day creation, exclusivity of Christ, ect.

I just wonder how these people have time to do ministry when they spend all their time thinking about things we should be fighting about.

Michael Stover said...

Does this mean that the wrong guy is leading the executive board? Sounds like it to me. I don't think his job, or that of our other convention leaders, is to mold SBC churches in their own distorted image.