I was perusing the news that came out of last week’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. I briefly mentioned my frustration at the fact that they passed a resolution about alcohol that went beyond Scripture into legalism while overwhelmingly voting not to consider a resolution calling for integrity in reporting church membership. Taken together, one might surmise that the SBC prefers to focus on outward conformity to rules (ie no alcohol) rather than something that more closely resembles true evidence of inner transformation (regenerate church membership, discipleship, and accountability). But that’s not what caught my eye this time (though, as you can tell, it still catches my ire!).
I was looking at the continued emphasis on the theme, “Everyone can… and I’m it.” The theme is oriented to personal evangelism – and let me be clear that I am in favor of personal evangelism. But what does that mean?
Consider the words of outgoing SBC president Bobby Welch: “We will baptize a million in a year. I don’t know if it will be this year. [But] we could baptize a million this year if you’d get up and get out of here and go to work.”
Does Welch mean what he says? He seems to believe that conversion is simply the product of the right amount of work. If you work more for conversions, more conversions will come. If they don’t come its because you aren’t working hard enough to get them. So it is up to YOU to save people from their sins! So they devise new programs and buy fancy tour buses in an attempt to manufacture conversions.
Again, Scripture certainly teaches that we are to go and make disciples, to share the good news with others. But it nowhere indicates that it is up to us to generate conversions. Rather I think, for example, of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:5-7 : “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. ”
Paul didn’t seem to think that conversion was a result of his level of effort or the mastery of evangelistic technique, though he certainly toiled and labored at the task.
In considering the way the subject is often treated by the SBC I’m reminded again of Charles Finney’s theology:
“There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature. A revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means—as much so as any other effect produced by the application of means…. A revival is as naturally a result of the use of means as a crop is of the use of its appropriate means” [Charles Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, n.d.), 4-5].
(Quoted in this interesting article on Finney.)
The SBC, from my vantage point, seems to be heavily influenced by a revivalistic tradition rooted in Finney. Figure out some means, some program or method of getting people down the aisle to “pray the prayer,” and your job is done. The idea that we can thus generate conversions can easily and quickly lead not only to undue pressure and guilt on the part of believers, but to manipulative, shallow, and theologically compromised presentations of the Gospel. Evangelism often bears resemblance to selling something and you close the deal when the person signs the dotted line today. I tend to think that most people in our culture are turned off by the evangelist as salesman approach anyway, but when it “works” I fear that often times people are responding to something less than the Gospel, often in inappropriate ways. They wind up deceived when they think they have signed their spiritual life insurance policy.
Now let me be quick to note that I don’t mean to impugn such motives and practices to everyone in the SBC. I think Bobby Welch and others mean well and are pure in their intentions. I just think that the mentality that is expressed in saying “Everyone can and I’m it” can lead to dangerous implications, and may arise from theology that is muddled at best.
These ideas also succumb to the typical modern American idea that bigger is better and statistically measurable growth is the only mark or sign of success. True growth – growth in godliness and discipleship is often not measurable in ways that look neat and clean and detectable in annual reports. So there is a natural tendency to focus on statistical growth, numbers of baptisms, size of churches (even if half the people on the rolls haven’t attended in months or years…. which ties things back together to Tom Ascol’s failed resolution on church membership.)
It turns out to be quite a mess when we manufacture conversions, doesn’t it?