Not much impetus is required to spur conversation in regard to what is wrong with evangelicalism today. Solutions, for some, are perhaps more elusive. However, in an interview conducted by Dr. Mark Dever and Mr. Matt Schmucker of the Center for Church Reform, Dr. Paige Patterson, now President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, offered an accurate and sobering comment on part of the problem.
"Regrettably I have to believe that anytime you stand up and face a congregation these days in the average church you're looking at 30-40% that have never been born again and are not genuinely saved... I'm talking about in Baptist churches where we supposedly emphasize nothing in the world but regeneration. Lord knows what it is in some others, but I think that's true of us and I think it's because we have been very careless. We've been more concerned about numbers to report to the denominational press than we have been about genuine conversion. So, yes, I'm very concerned about it. Matter of fact, I've got to where, going into churches, I preach hardly anything else but the new birth anymore from one of 18-20 passages that I work from, just because I'm so concerned about that. So, yes, I do share your concern about that. It can't be any other way for us to have as much of the world in the pew as we presently have."
In his brief comment, Patterson has offered, in essence, a problem and a result. The problem is regard for numbers over regard for genuine conversion. The result is the proliferation of unregenerate, worldly church members in the pew. These issues are certainly foundational when attempting to discuss the multi-faceted dynamic of what is wrong with evangelicalism today.
The same result has been highlighted by others with different issues cited as the reason. For example, Dr. Albert Mohler refers to America's vanishing protestant majority and asks the question: "What does it mean?" That question is the critical question of our day in terms of the gospel, what it means to be a Christian, and what the church of Jesus Christ is all about. Here's an attempt at an answer; it means that evangelicals are confused.
First, there is great confusion in the evangelical world as to what the gospel really is. The gospel has been reduced from a message that is life changing to four spiritual laws and a prayer. I've had church leaders brag to me that they honed their gospel presentation to eight minutes so they can present the message, get an acceptance or rejection, and move to the next target. The New Testament apostles proclaimed Christ and reasoned with people as they fought for and pled with souls. How many Christians can reason with their co-workers concerning the gospel and truly battle for souls?
Further, the message has been altered from the good news about the Lord Jesus Christ to a sales pitch for heaven. Not only is the message altered, but the results prove that such an alteration is deadly. Tom Ascol writes, "...the typical Southern Baptist church baptizes lots of people who simply do not hang around long enough even to become regular Sunday morning attenders. This is precisely what Jack Smith, a 'soul-winning evangelism associate' for NAMB, has discovered in his own experience with Southern Baptist churches. According to a Baptist Press story, he has found that 'only about 30 percent of baptized believers in SBC churches typically are active in Sunday school a year later. When actual retention rates of new Christians are considered from the time of their decision, the percentage often drops to the single digits.' Now, take note: what the 'soul-winning evangelism associate' calls 'new Christians' are those people who have been led to 'make decisions' in the typical SBC way of evangelism; ie. agree to some facts, pray a prayer, assume your saved. But, notice what he has discovered from this kind of evangelistic approach: less than 10% of the converts produced actually stick."
Second, in the evangelical world today, there is great confusion as to what conversion really is. With reference to retention rates mentioned above, Ascol has more to say. "Unfortunately, the solution that Smith proposes is, 'better follow-up' of new converts. Certainly intentional discipleship efforts are important in the lives of new believers. But folks, the problem is not a lack of follow-up. If it ain't alive, it can't grow. Jesus talked about the change that must take place in a person's life before he can enter into or even see the kingdom of God. He spoke of that change in terms of birth. The analogy of birth tells us much about the nature of the change. A birth is followed by a life, except in those tragic cases of stillbirths. But under normal circumstances when there is a birth, we can expect there to be signs of life--eating, crying, breathing, growth and development. Where such signs of life are nonexistent, you can be sure that something has gone horribly wrong. Too much of modern evangelism is tailor made to produce spiritual stillbirths. We look at the products of such methods and wonder why there are no signs of life and conclude, 'It's because we need better followup.' That is like a pediatrician ordering neonatal care for a stillborn infant."
Third, there is confusion in the evangelical world as to what Christianity truly is. According to Mohler in an article he wrote last year, “Researchers Tom W. Smith and Seokho Kim of the National Opinion Research Center [NORC] at the University of Chicago have released 'The Vanishing Protestant Majority,' a report documenting the declining membership of Protestant churches in the nation. According to the NORC study, Americans identifying themselves as 'Protestant' fell from 63 percent to 52 percent between 1993 and 2002--a massive decline in less than one decade. According to the University of Chicago press release, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Protestant 'has been falling and will likely fall below 50 percent by mid-decade and may be there already.'"
"The NORC study is based on a sizeable research sample, tested to be representative of the U.S. population. The study is not without methodological difficulties. For one thing, the definition of Protestantism used in the report includes 'all post-Reformation Christian faiths.' Defining the issue sociologically rather than theologically, the analysts included members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [Mormons] and other non-Christian groups in the Protestant sample. Some New Age devotees were also included under the Protestant classification."
While it may be difficult to fault Smith and Kim for their confusion, one is at a loss to explain Jay Sekulow's response when asked if Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts was a Christian. Without hesitation he said, "Absolutely, he's a devout Roman Catholic." The problem with Sekulow's comment is that many in the evangelical world are in agreement with his sentiment. However, Christianity is not about being religious or spiritual. It's about a vital relationship with the Savior by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
Christianity is not even about claiming to be Christian. Ascol cited former SBC president Tom Elliff in regard to Southern Baptist claims. Unfortunately, these claims may be representative of the evangelical world at large. With reference to the SBC, Elliff said, "I believe we are living in those few moments before sundown. Concern number one: 'I believe every member of the Southern Baptist Convention somehow, some way needs to ... certify his or her experience with Christ.' More than half of the nation's 16 million Southern Baptists do not attend church services...By what right do we just assume that those people really know Christ as their Savior ... and never call them to account -- never call them to certify their experience with Christ?' Acknowledging, 'There are always people who think that it's wrong to encourage other people to think through their conversion experience,' Elliff cited 2 Corinthians 13:5 in the New Testament: 'Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves" (KJV). The word 'examine,' he said of the language of New Testament times, means 'cut right down to the heart of a matter,' while the word 'prove' means 'taking a test.' 'This is a scriptural mandate. Somehow we need to get this business of what true conversion really is into the process of Southern Baptist churches -- Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, every week, 52 weeks of the year. People need to hear, What does it really mean to know Christ? What does it really mean to be born again, to be a child of God? What does it really mean to experience genuine conversion, regeneration? If all the people that we say are truly born again are truly born again, we'd be a force to be reckoned with in this nation."
Fourth, there is confusion in the evangelical world today as to what the church really is. Again, Ascol makes an astute observation: "The Baptist Faith and Message says some good things about the nature of a local church. It would be helpful if pastors and churches would take time to consider seriously the claims of this statement... 'A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth.'"
"Notice the emphasis on life and activity. Churches are comprised of baptized believers who 'associate,' 'observe,' are 'governed,' 'exercise,' and 'seek to extend the gospel.' Church members are to have spiritual life. At least, that is what we formally confess. Our practice, however, tells a different story. Despite what the confession says, the majority of Southern Baptist church members are not 'associating together' in church, being 'governed' by the laws of Christ, 'exercising' spiritual gifts, or 'seeking to extend the gospel.' What we say we believe and what we actually believe and practice are two different things." Ascol's comments are sad. But, they are sadly true.
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About Paul Dean
Dr. Paul Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. He serves as a Regional Mentor with the International Association of Biblical Counselors, speaks at several conferences throughout the year, and provides training for ministers and churches on a regular basis. Paul resides in the Upstate of South Carolina with his wife and three children.
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