25 September 2010

Weekend Extra: Something Else

by Frank Turk

Dear Southern Baptist Convention,

Back in 1994, I was baptized as a new believer in a small church in Upstate New York after coming to Christ three years earlier, and since that time I have been a willing, faithful and eager SBC congregant even in the wilds of northern WI, Western PA, and the back woods of Northwest AR. I count these years as precious to me spiritually and I count these congregations as my spiritual family and friends. When I left my last SBC church, it was with deep regret, but after searching for work for almost 2 years to replace my previous job, I had to move my family to fill my role as provider. I am sure many adult men can relate to this directly, and I list it here not for pity but to simply spell out the background of this note.

In the SBC, there are over 42,000 churches – and we were relocating inside Arkansas, so I believed that the odds of us finding an SBC church into which we could transfer our membership was at least very good. However, after two years of looking, two weeks ago my wife and I took the plunge and joined the Bible Church of Little Rock, a church which is doctrinally baptistic but technically independent and non-denominational. Because this is a fairly-significant change for us, I wanted to tell you about it and see if it can’t offer you some insight into what happened here and whether or not you should care.

To that latter point, you should not care that some random blogger who rides the coat-tails of his brilliant and famous friends left a small SBC church in a small town for a larger non-denom church in a larger town because he changed jobs. I am sure the local church will miss my giving, but the SBC will survive without my paltry mite. The reason you should care, I think, is that my wife and I are predisposed to want to join an SBC church, and have joined several in the past that were in need of hands and feet because we believe that the local church is God’s plan for the world, and that the SBC has, historically, been a place where that work happens best. God’s word is preached. Discipleship is made. Community is built. God’s glory is displayed – even if sometimes it is a glory from a run-down building or a worn-out hymn book. It has always seemed to me that when we are decreased, He is increased in right-minded John-the-Baptist fashion. That we could not find a church in Little Rock which we felt free to join is bothersome to us, and perhaps it should be bothersome to you as well.

That said, in our move we began our search geographically, and with the SBC churches which seemed at least to have the lights on. We visited churches of a variety of sizes, building types, and congregation demographics. For the sake of this letter, I’m not going to name names, but I am going to list some issues which I think are broadly useful in understanding our decision in membership.

Leadership

My wife would probably not list this as a category at all as it may turn out that this is really about something other than actual leadership, but the truth is that the local churches in the SBC have a gigantic vacuum in leadership. I am sure that you will read this and perhaps brush it off as a hollow criticism because almost all the churches we visited had a sitting senior pastor. However, of the 20-ish churches we did visit over 2 years, most of them had pastors who were there 5 years or less, and two had pastors actually leave for another church (not to plant another church, mind you: to go to a bigger church) during our search period.

Mobility is not necessarily the best measure of whether a church is being lead spiritually though, right? Paul was mobile and we aren’t casting stones at his spiritual leadership. What I saw in these churches is simply put: the goal was to run a tidy community center where there was lots of middle-class activity. Some of them had bookstores. Some of them had nicer sports facilities than the local municipality or high school. Some of them sponsored private schools. Some of them were much simpler than that, but their objective was not to be that simple in the future.

These places are run by nice men – extremely nice and polite and socially-graceful men who in many cases are also very bright and forward-looking. If you were measuring them by any business process gage of organizational strategy, I’d call most of them intermediate practitioners of the art of management. They are for the most part competent handlers of the small-sized businesses which they are all running.

But that’s the actual problem, isn’t it? The local church is not a business. It is not an alternative to the boys club/girls club. It’s not a competitor with the local Chamber of Commerce in the sense that the CoC is promoting business opportunities for social networking. The concerns of most (not all – I admit that a minority are not caught in this trap, but we’ll get to that in a second) of these fellows circle around making sure the church stays as big as possible and as centrally-managed as possible, and that there is a measurable financial outcome for the effort which is engaged.

It seems to me that most of these men do not know most of their congregants, and this is OK with them. As long as most people show up on Sunday, and their kids go home unharmed (note: not necessarily better, but unscathed), and no one leaves wondering if their time has been wasted or if they need to do something different next week, all is well.

I wonder if that’s what the SBC really stands for, given that this is what the churches in the SBC are doing right smack in the heart of SBC home territory.

Ministry

Maybe my concern about “Leadership” is really a concern about what constitutes “ministry”. For example, when I coached soccer for my son’s teams, I coached in the town leagues which are not run by any church rather than the local “UPWARD” league – because that’s where the lost kids are. The lost kids have parents who are concerned that they are not “good people”, and that in the church league their kids are going to have to worry about having hand-me-down cleats and shin-guards because the “better” families can pay to play in those league. So when I wind up with a team full of kids from broken or mixed homes, my opportunity for ministry is greater than the opportunity for ministry in a league where there’s a devotional every week. See: one of these options is a good system, and the other is looking for the people that good systems wash out.

So my concern here is that the paradigm for “ministry” that’s going on in SBC churches is that we are looking for good, MBA-approved systems which are easy to administrate once you have the volunteers, and that this version of “ministry” misses the fact that the church is not for the nice people who work well in good systems, but it is in fact for people who need Christ and his church, rather than a good system which will send them to the bottom of the list because they are needy, weak, tired, underfunded, and generally not socially-mobile.

And in that, it’s also a little alarming that what this leads to is what I witnessed in several churches as day-care masquerading as child ministry. It’s something to witness that once a church gets a system it can use to administrate a program, it generally dumbs down that program to the place where what is being “taught” there (and I use that word generously) is that Jesus is a kind of cartoon character or Muppet – or worse, he’s just a logo on the brand of entertainment we have selected.

Y’all: we’re the ones who fought the battle of inerrancy, and we won. If we have an inerrant Bible which contains the very word of God, and the very person of God died in accordance with that Scripture, maybe we should have “ministry” which is somehow delivering that real-world real-person message rather than a canned message. Somehow our ministries have to be more serious about real people – and maybe they aren’t suitable for mass production, scalability, and reproducibility.

Gravitas

That leads into my next concern, which I have labeled “Gravitas”, but by that I mean that somehow the local SBC churches cannot muster enough credibility and seriousness on any subject to be taken seriously – let alone prophetically (in the sense not that we have new revelation, but that we have the once for all time faith which God has given which we can declare with confidence). At best, we’re quibblers with an intellectual hobby we’re sort of private about – unless, of course, we are denouncing Calvinism and Homosexuals. We are on-record about that, thank God. But there aren’t any SBC pastors locally who are men of serious intention and thoughtfulness who can say something publicly without being broadly ignored – as if they were merely extremist bloggers or twitterers.

And that’s not merely a statement about influence in the community at large – that’s a statement about how what gets preached in the pulpit and what gets taught in the classrooms is received by people who have frankly turned out to hear it. Think about this: I visited churches in the last two years who had adult Sunday school lessons on what we can learn from Gilligan’s Island. I visited churches in which it was more important to talk about how we feel about our marriages than about why marriage is a specifically-Christian institution founded on the work of Christ. I visited churches in which the Bible was not opened from the pulpit on some (not all) Sundays.

Those are simply and obviously pleas for attention – pleas made in order to get a place on the stage of people’s attention rather than assuming, as Paul and Peter did, that their message was more important than whether or not they were popular or well-respected.

This is no small matter. My opinion is that we have an army of men who have adopted a professional ethic in order to present a pleasing product to a world which has fleeting appetites, and that has made us, like those who are famous only for being famous, eager to change our message and literally say anything in order to keep other people’s attention.

We have traded credibility, seriousness, and the ability to actually speak the truth (let alone the truth in love) for the ability to maintain a slot in people’s DVR.

Community

Which also brings up another important issue: because our view of leadership is a business-based model, and our view of ministry is both pragmatic and simplistic, and we have traded seriousness and sincere forthrightness for anything else that will hold people’s attention, we have no communities. Isn’t it ironic that we have medium- and large-sized social institutions which we can run with competent ability, but all that competence and professionalism really has put us in a place where the people involved don’t even really know each other?



Here’s what I mean by that: we visited more than a dozen local SBC adult Sunday school classes over the last two years. And while I think the content had a lot of variation and inconsistency, only one of those groups ever visited us or called us back to make sure we came at least a second time. One? Really? And here’s the thing: it was the one guy running a Sunday school class in an SBC church who was a Calvinist, surprised to find another Calvinist coming to an SBC church! How does that happen?

In a community, new people are recognized, and if the community is growing or seeking to grow, they are welcomed. Someone takes time to invest in those new people and make sure they know they can belong. And they don’t do it because that’s what the handbook from Lifeway says they should do it: they do it because it’s an urgent part of the culture to welcome the stranger and plug them into the community.

Back when I was a Sunday school teacher in an SBC church, a new person in class was usually a little overwhelmed by the real open hand we offered to them to join us – come to lunch, come to supper tonight, come to our prayer group, come visit. We did this because we loved people – not our church institution or our business process. We acted like we were friends to other people because we knew that God was our friend, our provider, and our savior.

Theology

Which of course leads to my next point: the lack of theology in SBC churches is alarming. And by “theology” I do not mean the number of copies of the BFM which are available to take away. There are plenty of those. I mean the reality of what happens when people actually are taught the Gospel, take it away as true, and then live as if it’s true the same way the performance of the Razorbacks in the SEC is true and an actionable item in life.

You know: I get it that “Calvinists” are sort of skinny little fellas with gigantic heads who often lecture the unsuspecting about points of minute doctrine. I realize that there are plenty on that team who earn that reputation honestly. But here’s the thing: if the SBC response against this is what we have today in the churches I visited, we could use some Calvinism for one reason only: to find out whether or not we have ever heard of the Good News of Jesus Christ, and whether or not we really believe it or if we just use it as a slogan to collect $11 billion in funds for various local civic organizations which we call “churches” for tax and political convenience-sake.

The reason we have lame communities is that we have personal convictions which do not include Jesus except as an ornament. The reason we have no gravitas is that Jesus is not the reason we preach: getting market share is the reason we preach. The reason we have the kind of ministry we have is that Jesus is not the reason for ministry: social order and repeatability is the reason. The reason we have the kind of leadership we have is not that Jesus was this kind of leader, or any kind of leader: it is because leadership has been lopped off from Jesus who is both Lord and Christ.

And let’s make it as clear as possible: these are all expressions of theology – the problem for these churches is that they are expressions of wrong theology. By “wrong” I do not mean “not Calvinist”: it would have been informative and edifying to find a non-Calvinist theology in a church which was being lived out and preached – and to be honest, I found it in at least one Arminian-oriented Missionary Baptist church in our search. I mean “not about Jesus.”

Jesus Christ

That’s the final rub, dear SBC: after I put all the issues on the table, and worked hard to be faithful to the discipleship and love given to me by the faithful and godly SBC churches and pastors I have been in fellowship with since 1994, there was a very sad lack of Jesus in the SBC churches I attended.

That’s an outrageous statement, I am sure, but let me flesh that out for you.

Jesus is God, but he didn't try to remain equal with God. Instead he gave up everything and became a slave, when he became like one of us. Jesus was humble the way only God can be humble. He obeyed God and even died on a cross. And when we say this, we should say this, when we tell people this, they should get it. Jesus is not just some icon of spiritual truth; his story is not just a story about truth: he's the one guy who understands our weaknesses because he has suffered through them, and then he died for them.

There’s nothing specifically-“Calvinist” about that, is there? That’s Colossians and Hebrews. Yet this message is almost unfound among the SBC churches I visited, and it’s certainly not applied in any meaningful way. Instead what we find are youth buildings that are more like 1980’s arcades or gaudy public gymnasiums than places in which call people to repentance and new life; we find Sunday school classes that talk about local politics and last week’s TV schedule more robustly than they do about the cost of discipleship; we find pastors who want to be separated from the complexity of living with real people like a shepherd and would rather live above them or apart from them like a CEO.

So I have chosen something else for my family, and for myself. That is: I have chosen a church which, in spite of its weaknesses and its limits, is seeking to preach Christ and live as if His death and resurrection are true. It has some people in it which may never be my friends, and the elders there do some things I will never agree with. It has disgruntled ex-members. It has its own challenges. But Christ is there, and in Him I can be reconciled to all manner of people because sin-sick, sad, weak and washed-out Me has been reconciled to God – as have all the other sinners.

It’s possible I’m wrong about you and our kin here in Little Rock, but I leave it to you to think about. I think it’s really the issue with Baptist identity we face – and I say “we” because I think you are still my brothers and sisters in Christ. I send you this letter in love and hope for your future.







41 comments:

John said...

These are all good points which are not even debatable. But I wonder if you know what the SBC is and how it works? The SBC is an association of independent churches cooperating together financially to spread the gospel (including the IMB, seminaries, Lifeway, and some peripherals). That's it. The "convention" does not have the legal authority to run any church. So it isn't really meaningful to complain about your experience of SBC churches to the SBC. That's like telling congress that Americans are ugly (thanks, Colbert). You may be right, but Congress does not have the legal authority or power to legislate how we behave (ok, bad example...)

The one thing the convention can do is train a newer generation of pastors to move into these churches with a gospel focus, and it looks like that is exactly what is happening at the SBC seminaries.

Not only that, but some thinkers in the convention have assessed how the pooled resources are being used, and come up with the great commission resurgence task force to streamline operations and make sure maximal dollars are being spent on actual gospel work. In other words, it seems like the SBC leadership is doing everything they can do in a democratic kind of association.

The alternative would be a completely different ecclesiology, maybe an episcopalian structure. I don't think anyone wants that.

Weeks said...

These problems are not unique to SBC churches, either. You'll find the same shallow preaching in Methodist churches, the same lack of community in Presbyterian churches, and the same lack of Jesus pretty much nation- (world-?) wide. As far as I can tell, it's an epidemic in Evangelical Christianity across the board. Believe it or not, you guys here at Pyro are a major voice of reason in that battlefield of insanity. I've heard you quoted from the pulpit on more than one occasion, and I've printed out articles several times to take in to Bible study.

Between you, me, and the internet, I see deeper, more cultural root causes for the commercialization of church in America. We dumb down theology because that's the prevailing wisdom in education these days anyway: meet your students where they are. Attention spans are measured in minutes, at least without gratuitous talk of sex, TV or popular culture. The people I see in church are fundamentally the same people I see in Walmart. They have the same fake smiles, the same harried sense of purpose about them, tethered forever to their apparently life-giving blackberry or iPhone. They come in, get their spiritual experience and their affirmation of status as one of the "good Christians" on Sunday morning, then go back to whatever secular life they were living before, with nothing changed.

Sorry for the rant, Frank. It's early and this was in my morning RSS read. *grin*

mike said...

While it is true that the SBC can't legislate fixes to some of the things Frank talks about, I think it is also true that many churches will seek to emulate the good or not-so-good example set by some. Look at how many jumped on the market-driven "seeker-friendly" bandwagon years ago.

I think much of what Frank describes is indicative of how difficult it is to find a solid church nowadays, whether SBC or not. My family is happy at the church we are at now (SBC--been there several years) but we also searched for quite some time before finding it and visited many places (not just SBC) where you could have forgotten your Bible and not noticed when the sermon was delivered.

BTW--Calvinistsin Little Rock? Who let them in? ;^)

Doug Hibbard said...

Frank,

As a Baptist pastor in Arkansas, though not in the Little Rock MSA, I'm saddened by your analysis.

Well, not your analysis. That would be like being saddened at the radiologist's analysis of the x-ray of a broken limb. I am saddened by the apparent broken limb.

On the one hand, I will take some comfort in these thoughts:
1. You might have missed something in the churches you visited, although that's not very likely.
2. The hope that, since I know one of the associations in the LR MSA has more than 40 churches, and there's at least 2 more associations around those parts, that your sampling was the exception and not the rule. Of course, that still raises the question of why those churches didn't show up on your radar to visit. Some of them might have had not-so-good reputations, others obvious problems, but still others you might not have known about, and the question would be why, and how, since I trust there are some good ones around there, they aren't visible.

Anyway, I can see your point. And I'd disagree with John, in that this is the SBC culture of church success you've hit on, and it's getting more pervasive, not less. 15 years ago, there were probably 3 SBC churches in the Little Rock area that were as you described. Now there are a dozen, and it's growing. It's spread from the success template that is imprinted in seminary, and is widening.

Note that it's not actually taught in seminary. It's caught. Seminaries, like all schools, teach explicitly in classes, but teach implicitly through other means. Who are the speakers invited? Who are the examples upheld? Are students encouraged to give their time and selves in churches that have good theology but less fame, or in big churches with the ministry you've described? These are relevant questions that need to be considered.

As to the rest of the apparatus of the SBC, the churches don't cooperate financially on Lifeway. We do on IMB, the seminaries, and NAMB, as well as in our state work. The convention, though, wields great influence, again, like the implicit teaching in our seminaries. It is from some of these collective efforts that "success" is identified and attempted to be copied and cloned out to churches, and the problems identified here are likely to be copied and cloned, since they exist in the "big, successful" churches in part of the South.

Doug

chipbayer said...

Frank — I completely understand your frustration. I have experienced most of what you have experienced in the SBC, except my pilgrimage began in a small SBC church in Arkansas in 1979. I’ve transferred membership to many different churches over the years including a “mega-church” in Memphis and a tiny church plant in Indianapolis that met in a carpeted and furnished garage.

Increasingly over the years I find more and more people have little or no desire to study doctrine. Deliberate attempts to teach doctrine and theology are embraced by only a few — the rest are “bored” by it and would rather discuss the Razorbacks (you know what I’m talkin’ about). In fact, recently the topic of predestination was discussed in my Sunday School class (we read chapter one of Ephesians) and several people became “upset” and “uncomfortable” to the point of causing quite a church-wide stir. The general consensus (at first) was we probably shouldn’t discuss such things. I didn’t agree. Complete resolution is still pending.

I say all that to say this…

I once dropped by the Bible Church of Little Rock just to get some information about membership. The very first thing I was told about was their doctrine — and the fact that they take it seriously. I was given a tour of the facility and informed of what the children learned and why. I was told about the adult education programs.

It was most refreshing.

If it weren’t for the fact that I live in a small farming community on the eastern side of Little Rock (an hour away from BCLR) and that I’m still convinced I should be able to find a suitable local church nearby, my family would probably be at the Bible Church, too.

I sincerely hope your transition is a pleasant one.

Patience said...

I am sorry to say that in Australia things are no better. I grew up in a Baptist church and my father still goes there. The Baptist union in our state now allows female pastors to preach in Sunday services(not just for ladies).

Most evangelical churches in our state are seeker sensitive. We've got a population of about 500,000 people. I know a lot of the churches in the north of the state which would be servicing about half the population. I can only recommend a dozen or so as gospel-centered and solid.

I am sickened by success being measured as the number of people on seats not number of souls being saved.

Frank Turk said...

John --

I've had this discussion with other SBC blogger, and in fact I think the core problem is that the SBC ought to be a convention in which cooperation rather than conformity be stressed, but it is in fact a denomination in which conformity rather than cooperation is stressed -- and superstar pastors are put up as role models and the ideal.

litmus test: when was the last time a pastor of a church of less than 250 was named president of the convention? Why is that, do you think -- because those are the godliest men in the convention, or because bigger is by definition better in the SBC?

Frank Turk said...

Doug --

It really does kill me that I drive past about a dozen SBC churches to get to BCLR -- probably more if you count the tiny rural churches between here and there. This is why the transition took two years to make the decision.

Edgar said...

Like others I believe it is a problem with many denominations not just the SBC. I have seen this for so many years. I am reading "Total Church" and its refreshing to read about churches going back to a NT model and away from the institutional professional model.

Cathy M. said...

You said some things here that have been on my mind for a long time. I'm not as trained, smart, or informed as the writers here, but I've made my own diagnosis: I think the seeker sensitive movement, coupled with the advent of internet sermon rip-off sites, rank materialism, and political activism have been important factors in the general malaise that has fallen over my own SBC church. Is it just unbelief? Unbelief in the sufficiency of scripture, the atonement, the apostles doctrine, God's providence? I wish I knew the answer.

Doug Hibbard said...

Frank,

I hate that you have to. But you should go to a church that is a church, and I think I read somewhere that church should have something like teaching of doctrine and stuff like that. It was some old book, though, kind of out-of-fashion these days. It does continue to be a best-seller.

Doug

Chip,

I'm in a farming community about an hour and a half from Little Rock. My contact info's in my profile, and I'd be very glad to make your real acquaintance if you're up for that.

Doug

Chris Krycho said...

It's sad: though my narrative is different, I find myself at a Bible church (Mennonite background of all things, though amicably parted) despite my desire to be at an SBC church, for many of the same reasons. Frank, I think your analysis in this last comment is spot-on. The SBC, at least in being true to its professed polity, should not function the way it does—but its actual polity is denominational, with peer pressure and hero-worship pushing in all the wrong directions instead of a single governing body doing that pushing.

The GCR is a great thing: it recognizes many of the problems. But those of us who followed that saga closely also have to recognize that there is an immense, almost incalculable amount of momentum in place that does and will continue to slow transformation of the sort that is needed. The fact that Russell Moore had cause to celebrate when the state convention decided to send half of its receipts on to the IMB is telling: the whole reason the SBC exists has gotten sidetracked into massive layers of bureaucracy that were perhaps useful in a pre-internet age twenty years ago, but that now appear increasingly outmoded and dysfunctional.

Unfortunately, lots of history, and lots of jobs, are bound up in those bureaucracies—and because we do not, by and large, have gospel centrality and primacy in our churches, we do not have it in our systems, either. Accordingly, when a call comes to streamline state conventions, the NAMB, etc. and use the funds more appropriately, the response is not, "I will gladly suffer loss so the gospel can go forward in power," but rather "But that's my job!" (It will indeed cause suffering. No two ways around it, and the SBC should make such moves in a way that hopefully minimizes those transition pains. The ultimate question, however, should not be not how we can provide jobs to lots of people but how we can most faithfully use our monies to advance the good news of Jesus Christ.

Until that priority shift happens, and until there is a clearer recognition that gospel faithfulness is as likely in small churches as in large (not more, but not less), we will stay on the merry-go-round, getting merrier and dizzier until we cannot see straight at all.

DJP said...

We tried two nearby SBC's in our church-search. One was starting a new program to give a prize to visitors. The other features Blackaby doctrines -- the pastor stopped his sermon before he was finished because the Holy Spirit "told" him to, and if he went on, it would be in the flesh.

jigawatt said...

Frank, it was good to meet you at BCLR when you and your family joined a few weeks ago. I also found out that we share a somewhat common interest in our professions. A big part of what we're doing at Ameren in STL is getting ready for all that wind energy that is going to flow from the upper midwest through Missouri and Illinois to the East Coast where the Important People live.

Steph and I are former members of BCLR, and we are very gruntled former members. Back in 2001, we searched for a church in LR and felt a lot of the same frustrations that you have.

But your post is pretty sharp, and I have a couple of questions:

we could not find a church in Little Rock which we felt free to join
Suppose BCLR didn't exist and all the current members (minus your famliy) were not in LR. Does the above statement mean that you couldn't join any church? I understand picking BCLR as the best out of several (after all, that's what we did), but in all of LR is there no other church which you could, in good faith, be a member of?

Second, suppose your former SBC church in NWAR were transplanted to LR, without your knowledge, and you had amnesia and didn't remember anybody there, would you have joined it or at least "felt free" to join it? Would you have even found it in your search? What I'm getting at here is that I find it hard to believe that NWAR has an SBC church that you feel free to be a member of, but LR does not.

And don't get me wrong, I never go out of my way to try and defend the SBC. In fact, being an SBC church was almost more of a con on my list when we were unsure if we wanted to join the Journey in STL.

John said...

Frank - I've had this discussion with other SBC blogger, and in fact I think the core problem is that the SBC ought to be a convention in which cooperation rather than conformity be stressed, but it is in fact a denomination in which conformity rather than cooperation is stressed -- and superstar pastors are put up as role models and the ideal.

I'm not sure what you mean by this, but the fact is that the cooperation has no legal authority to legislate how local churches are run or how they behave. If they want to copy each other or stress conformity or whatever, that is their business. That is akin to a peer pressure argument. It may be true, but it is by the choice of the local churches. The president of the convention, be he from a large church or small, is voted in by the delegates from the churches. It is a democratic process. The way these independent churches operate is up to them. The SBC has neither power nor authority to change them. And as Baptists are traditionally congregational, that is exactly how we want it.

I'm not arguing with your analysis, which is spot on, I'm only saying that addressing these problems to the "SBC" only makes sense if the convention had the ability to legislate change. It can't. Perhaps your post is better addressed to the many independent evangelical churches which cooperate with the SBC.

John said...

Doug -
I have studied at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and I have never come come across a "success template" anything like what you mention. In fact, just the opposite is often preached, as demonstrated by Kevin Smith this last week.

one busy mom said...

Frank,

Well put. How sad to hear about the SBC though- I was saved in a SBC church in the south years ago -and held out hope that those types of problems in our area were a uniquely "northern -non Bible-belt phenomenon." ....I guess not.

Reminds me of an expression a pastor I had was fond of: "As go the leaders..so go the people".

JR said...

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism mixed with the organizational savvy of a Fortune 500 company.

These issues are pandemic.

Frank Turk said...

John --

As blunt as this is, I think you're naive. The Gilligan's Island study I referenced here? It's a Lifeway product -- and the say that Lifeway is not the de facto sunday school mill for SBC churches is simply not researched -- and that is not a democratic process.

You have also avoided my point about the presidency of the SBC -- which is a piece of interesting sociological data. If only large-church pastors are made president over the methods of cooperation, what does that say to small-church pastors? What will those large-church guys guide the convention's cooperative efforts toward?

Case in point: look at the stink over the Great Commission Task Force. Isn't it bizarre that Pastor Ronnie Floyd captained that team -- when historically his church has given less to the convention than it received back in pastors' retirement funding? He may have turned that around after it cost him the presidency a few years ago, but the fact is that for a guy like him -- a christian man, no doubt, but someone for whom cooperation goes has historically only gone one way -- to be the GCTF chairman speaks to the way the convention is governed. The way it is governed causes the pastors in the convention to run their churches a certain way.

Citizen Grim said...

We switched to a church here in Lexington KY this summer that I found through the 9Marks church search tool. It's SBC, although they don't seem to advertise it. :) Incidentally, they're reformed, as well.

After 10+ years in quasi-seeker-oriented, seat-filling churches, it felt like coming home for thanksgiving. In a way, that's exactly what it was.

Aaron said...

I'm personally glad you're at the BCLR. I've been wanting to start up a Wii Bowling Outreach and you'd be the ideal guy to head this up.

jigawatt said...

Aaron,

Wait, it's the BCLR? I've been saying it wrong for 9 years!

Robert Kunda said...

"The reason we have lame communities is that we have personal convictions which do not include Jesus except as an ornament."

My word, what a sad but too oft fitting statement.

Sir Brass said...

Compared to Carter's yearly "I quit the SBC" tomfoolery, this is actually good: grievances listed and defined, and biblically refuted.

Well written, Frank. I'm sorry that you had to write this, but you did as your conscience directed you to do in order to remain faithful and obedient to Christ. So, definitely approval for doing the right thing.

Oh, and you're right, there is nothing 'calvinist' in what you said there. Except that calvinism is biblical, so I guess the two are actually synonymous to a point ;).

Matt said...

There is a fundamental truth in the church in America that I think we need to come to grips with:

Only 3.5% of Americans are Christians.

And that is a conservative (high) estimate. Feel free to check out my blog if you want to see how I arrived at that figure using various Barna studies.

The most interesting thing about my study was that this statistic was quite similar across all denominational lines. In fact, to my surprise, pentecostal churches actually ranked slightly higher than baptist churches (non-denominational Bible churches were the strongest, but really not by all that much).

The "church" is in a dismal state in America, and our nation is far from being "reached". My family is in the process of moving across the country for the specific purpose of finding a good church. I am hearing more and more stories of others who feel led to do the same. God is calling out His people and drawing them together.

I pray that you truly have found the body of Christ in your new home. May God bless and use you within His Church.

David Rudd said...

Frank,

I'm sorry for your troubles, but it does sound like a happy ending.

I think this was a very gracious post when clearly it could have been something different.

Thanks.

TeWesty said...

If the SBC church I formerly belonged to had not become so weakened, my wife and I would still be members. As it came about, we searched and joined a bible church. I have met and listened to Phil Johnson, Al Mohler, John MacArthur,Steve Lawson, Bruce Ware, Don Whitney, and Tom Pennington, since leaving the SBC. My wife and I are sure there are many others left behind. We have gone back and talked with our Sunday School class and they can cannot conceive of a reason to leave the SBC. Many are called, but few hear it. Now that I moved to Tulsa, I have yet to find a church home after looking at many. We have had to endure more than our share of Rick Warren in churches try to be God centered, but are man focused. Praise God.

daniel vance said...

I just wanted to echo the comments of thanks about the content and tone of this post. I have been a member of the SBC for many years, and have observed (and said, in some form) virtually everything you've written here--just with less grace and thoughtfulness. I tend to agree with the others commenting here that it is endemic to Evangelicalism. I worked for five years at well-known Bible College (this summer was my last), and am increasingly dismayed by the milquetoast presentation of doctrine, and the skin-deep perception of holiness. Always coupled with a business-model mindset that seems more focused on feeding the goats then with true discipleship.

Yesterday a JW couple visited my house and I invited them in. Gayle and John are both 87 years old, out on a 90 degree saturday morning in dress clothes, going door-to-door to share the "good news" of the watchtower. During our conversation Gayle mentioned that she was raised Methodist, and had been an Episcopal for twelve years. She said that she was sure that I would come to believe JW doctrine, because I was taking the time to read the scriptures with her--something no one, parishoner, cleric, or parent, had ever done with her in her 32 years in the Christian church. I was certainly sorrowful when we (amicably) parted, but the over-riding emotion was (hopefully righteous) anger. While I understand that that Gayle and John ultimately made their own decision(s), it sickens me to think that after 32 years within some form of the Christian church, they had never once heard a clear explanation of the gospel, nor even been invited to open the Word. I lay a substantial portion of the blame before an ecclesiastical and educational structure that is utterly indistinct from the world and derives most of its content from pop-culture and latest business trend.

Rant over, thanks again for your post.

Rachael Starke said...

Frank,

What a difficult letter this must have been to write, and what copious doses of genuine love, and difficult truth are in it! Well done sir.

That being said, should you wonder if it will ever bear fruit -

I originally read this yesterday, while sitting on the sidelines of a soccer game of my daughters' somewhat pricey, mega-church-sponsored soccer league, the same mega-church with the school where they're newly enrolled. The head of the Sport Ministry just left for some reason or other (I'm afraid to ask), and they just sent a letter out indicating that they're looking for a new leader and a new direction for the program. I think I'll write them a letter....

So thanks for the unexpected dose of conviction. You can know that at least one person read it and thought "Ouchie." And I'm not even in the SBC!

Do me a favor and send up a signal when your train your Convicto-Ray Gun on some other SBC issue like wine, so I can be sure to schedule serious computer problems for that week...

Robert said...

Matt,

I don't think using Barna studies is a great method to trying to determine percentages and such. Also, how do you account for immature Christians versus unbelievers? I think it is dangerous to throw numbers around like that and even moreso with your obvious bent towards Pentecostalism and charismatics (displayed in previous posts). I certainly think there are many who are deceived, but I don't like the subtle attempt you have made to derail this meta and I have a hard time leaving your comments unaddressed.

Frank,

I have a friend who is a pastor of an SBC church who would concur with what you have written. His current church is actually a new church he formed after being forced out of an SBC church much like the ones you described. One of the complaints made was that he used the term biblical too much. Just plain sad.

Rhology said...

GREAT post. Anecdotally confirmed by all my friends who have moved away from my church to different cities and found a quality church pretty much impossible to find. No, my friends are not too picky.
May God have mercy.

Tad Thompson said...

Not to mention that most of the mega-church pastors who become presidents are the least cooperative.

Frank,

I think your assessment is sobering, honest, and real. The good news is that some of our SBC seminaries are attempting to train pastors to be something other than CEOS. maybe a fresh day is on the horizon. I will say, we need SBC laypeople to lead reform in the church. So all your SBC readers must not abandon SBC churches. Fight the good fight!

Frank Turk said...

You can see why I miss my old church. Tad Thompson is one in 10,000.

Frank Turk said...

jigawatt --

Your question is the question which I toiled over for the last two years. I'm still toiling over it. Because the church at Corinth was still a church in Paul's eyes in spite of its massive shortcomings, I think there are churches I drive past in Little Rock which are actual churches which, if there was no BCLR, we might have joined.

BCLR is not a perfect place -- a fact that I think the Elders there are painfully aware of, and a fact I think they confront daily. But the starting place for their introspection is not, "how big ought we to be," or "what will cause more people to come," but in fact, "what does God ask the local church to be," and "what is the role of the elder in that calling?"

Again: I don't think I agree with these guys on everything. But I think their consciences are clear when it comes to seeking to be the men God would have leading His people.

Matt said...

Robert,

You obviously did not read my blog entry regarding those statistics as I addressed the very issue you raised, and I was not trying to divert the meta. This meta is a reflection of a reality in America -- the vast majority of people in American churches are not Christian. It goes across denominations and is based not just on doctrine but is evidenced in the actual lifestyle (read: fruit) of people. The problem, I believe, is not so much with the denomination itself but rather the state of the American church as a whole.

Merlin said...

Wow! A topic about which I have experience! As a former Episcopalian, I have experience in church hunting. I love how you can get recommendations for a church over the internet because such and such church appears on someone's list or is of this type or that type. Frank's tale speaks to exactly why that doesn't work.

We have a last child coming through youth ministries at our megachurch before I get to restart the search in earnest. We are leaving her in place because she likes it, actually knows a thing or two about what the Bible says and means, and she is becoming a good Christian despite the rest of us.

But I would say one thing about lay people staying around to fight the good fight. When I left the AEC in 2004, it was not without great gnashing of teeth. I did not receive a lot of instruction or encouragement about staying and fighting the good fight. Quite the contrary, the leadership was so damaged, most urged us to leave sooner than we did.

So, where and how do you draw the line about staying and going? If you believe that voting with your feet has value, then you are playing right into the CEO types' hands. I personally don't think that laity has or should have significant influence over the running of the church. We, as a whole, are just not equipped.

Having said that, a layman must exercise some discernment when selecting a church. This is the rub for me. If a person has never heard the Word preached as it was meant to be preached and for what it is, how does one go about exercising selection? This is the problem facing the whole of the church. We are evangelizing into something other than Christianity and then we are surprised when our laity lacks the vocabulary to have a Christian conversation and the discernment to recognize what is actually Christian.

Brad Williams said...

Frank,

Ah well. I wish you had found gainful employment in Albertville.

christianlady said...

Praying the church you are attending keeps it's focus where it belongs and doesn't hire some young new fangled pastor (or old but new fangled) and get some elders who decide to bring in some sort of new way of teaching that turns it all sour. How do we keep the churches that treasure the truth pure? After leaving a "purpose driven/spiritual formation" nightmare (we took a while to wake up) our fear is in joining a church only to see it all happen again. Not so good. It's really rocked my heart, and sometimes I feel I'm digging my fingernails in to hold on to my faith (realizing that it's God holding me...and I am so glad because I'm not strong enough).

Blessings!

Phil said...

TeWesty:

Tulsa area churches

Bethel Baptist, Owasso, Bill Ascol pastor (http://www.bethelowasso.org/)

MercyHill Church, Tulsa, Steve Harden, pastor (http://www.mercyhilltulsa.org/)

Both are Founders Friendly churches. Bill is Tom Ascol's brother. Steve was in Ponca City at Southside/Providence Baptist for years.

Jim Pemberton said...

"BCLR is not a perfect place -- a fact that I think the Elders there are painfully aware of...But I think their consciences are clear when it comes to seeking to be the men God would have leading His people."

Frank, I was going to post this before I read the comment above:

One issue with leadership is that we tend to misconstrue decisiveness as good leadership and then conflate it with spiritual maturity. Too often this results in spiritually weak successful businessmen on the deacon boards. Decisiveness isn't good when the decisions are for a bad direction. If anything good comes of it, it's because subordinates bend over backward to make a bad decision work. But because someone is insistent about the rightness of an opinion, too many people think that he must know what he's doing and put him in charge. In the business world this sense of confidence, badly placed as it may be, does tend to generate revenue. In a church, where spiritual maturity is supposed to be the mark of a good leader rather than bullheadedness, placing such men in charge is detrimental to the spiritual health of a Christian fellowship. I'd rather have a spiritually mature man who is a little indecisive in charge rather than someone who knows how to hype his own opinions but doesn't know the difference between brokenness and false humility.

But this also begs the question that we can discern good leadership when we've never experienced it. Merlin brought up a good point when he asked "If a person has never heard the Word preached as it was meant to be preached and for what it is, how does one go about exercising selection?" Let's call it a discussion on ecclesiological epistemology.

The question begged is this: What constitutes Church?

The question is general, but it applies to knowing the difference between how much of a local congregation looks like what Church really is. Knowing that Church consists of the elect, and that the elect are indwelt by the Holy Spirit who guides us into all truth, we should in the course of our study of scripture come into a reasonable understanding of what it means to be Church, even without having experienced it. This is probably the most important teaching ignored by SBC pastors as well as those in most mainline Western denominations. The fact is that in the gravest matters of running a church we often fail to trust the very God we claim to worship.

I'm blessed to have a healthy church. In practical terms, my church has it's flaws. But we deal with those flaws like David dealt with his own sin. That's what's healthy. It sounds like the elders at your new church tend along that same pattern. I pray that more churches would use the discernment available to them and be truly humbled before an almighty God in the way they carry out the business/ministry of being a local congregation of His people.

Jim Pemberton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.