This article is part 2 of “8 Trends Affecting GARBC Churches,” a continuation of the September/October “Front Row.” John Greening presented these trends during a “Men in Ministry” session at the GARBC Conference.
How do we live out our faith in a postmodern world? How is the church to engage nonbelievers with the gospel? With our Western society’s awareness of Christian values and Bible literacy at an all-time low, the church is reexamining how to communicate the gospel in an understandable manner to nonbelievers. This reexamination becomes increasingly relevant, given that the natural tendency of an aging constituency of churches and ministries is to institutionalize and focus inward. We must force ourselves to look beyond the cloister of our churches and ministries to see a lost world that needs the gospel. Evangelism is an essential assignment of the church.
As clear and straightforward as that assignment may appear, there is a growing divergence of opinion regarding the definition and nature of the gospel, on whether it is redemptive or restorative. Is the gospel defined as the substitutionary work of Christ on the cross in becoming the sin-bearer so that through His death, burial, and resurrection, the penalty for sin is paid, death is conquered, and eternal life is offered as a gift of divine grace?
In a recent 9Marks Journal article, Jonathan Leeman warns about a new gospel definition from missional church advocates who suggest that “conversion is not just a profession of faith in Christ. Salvation is not only the rescue of the individual’s soul from the threat of God’s retribution. The gospel is not merely the news of what God has done in Christ to pardon individual sinners. Rather, the gospel, salvation, and conversion are construed much more ‘holistically’ or ‘comprehensively,’ with ethical implications for every dimension of life and the message of reconciliation, justice, peace, healing, liberation, and love for the entire world.”
Historically, we in our movement have believed the first definition. Our practice is to preach the gospel of redemption to the lost as the only hope for mankind. A growing frustration exists in that we are attempting to carry out this assignment in a culture that is increasingly ignorant of and resistant to the gospel message. The reality of communicating the gospel to people who are ideologically removed from it could cause us, out of frustration and despair, to shift our focus toward the second definition and begin to emphasize reinstituting the values of Christianity and the gospel at the grassroots of society. As the missional church movement and, to a certain extent, the emergent church propose, the work of the church in proclaiming the gospel shifts toward an incarnational model. Leeman identifies the shift in terms of preaching of the gospel, “bringing the reign of God to bear in every aspect of public life. ‘For a more benevolent government, that may mean legislation that benefits the poor or the marginalized. For a bank, it might mean granting loans in formerly redlined neighborhoods. For a public school, it might mean instituting peer mediation among students’” (quoting Darrell Guder, editor of Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America).
As the church, we must grapple with the necessity of living out our faith in today’s social milieu. However, we must not lose sight of the truth that the only message of “hope and change” that counts for eternity is the redemptive message of the gospel by which people are saved from their own depravity. We must proclaim and preach the true gospel.
The community in which I live may have been primarily mono-ethnic long ago, but not today. The “all nations” mandate of Matthew 28:19 no longer requires that I take an international air flight. I simply step outside the front door of my home into my neighborhood. My “all nations” experience is shared beyond those who live in a big metropolitan area. Consider the immigration of workers such as Togolese meat packers to rural Illinois, Cuban doctors to southeastern Florida, Mexican farm laborers to Western Michigan, Filipino casino resort employees to Nevada, and German auto-parts entrepreneurs to northwestern Ohio.
What plans have we in our churches designed to reach internationals in our communities with the gospel? What changes will we have to make as churches to ensure these people will be welcomed and assimilated? These are serious questions that demand thoughtful planning and action. Familiarity with routine will not be an adequate excuse when we give account to the Lord of our faithfulness to our Great Commission assignment. Our neighborhoods are changing. Our churches must not be the last ones to change!
The pipeline of new pastors flowing into the ministry is not moving as freely as it once did. Reasons for the restricted flow may include the high cost of schooling and the limited availability of positions that pay adequately. With increasing frequency, I hear from churches who desire to have a younger pastor, but the congregations cannot afford to pay an adequate salary to a man with a family or to provide benefits such as health insurance. Is the solution to have bi-vocational pastors? If so, we will have to change our pastoral training model to give men a trade in addition to pastoral skills. To have pastors serving full-time, churches must be serious about strategizing for growth. As people receive Christ as Savior and assimilate into the church, the church will have more resources. Also, in dealing with economic realities, we will have to come up with new ways to make the training model for pastors affordable.
Recently I talked to a dad who was venting his frustration regarding his son’s search for a ministry position. The dad had helped his son go to Bible college, but the son could not find a position in a market that has few openings. This father’s observation is correct. I have only to look at the significant imbalance in our pastoral referral database between the large number of pastors looking for positions and the small number of churches needing pastors. The solution in part is that we will have to get more aggressive about planting churches. More churches mean more positions for pastors.
Our nation’s struggling economy is having an impact on ministries. Donor pools are limited. Budgets are being cut. Staff benefits are being reduced. Salaries and support are not increased. Programs are being trimmed. Certainly God can provide, but greater faith may need to be linked with creative consideration of solutions. We will need to take a careful look at the “business models” we have in place. Are we duplicating services that could be combined? Are there inefficiencies in the system resulting in overstaffing and underutilization? Are we maintaining larger facilities than needed because we are using a dated conventional approach to achieving our mission? What solutions are available through the judicious use of technology? What skills will be needed to explore, design, and implement the operational models of the future?
Together these four trends and the four listed in the September/October Baptist Bulletin deserve thoughtful consideration. We need to have conversations about these topics. Think tanks could bring together key leaders to identify challenges and work toward solutions and action plans. We have to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Our network represents a like-minded brain trust that can be tapped. We must not allow ourselves to be victims of circumstances, waiting for someone else to think of something. We need to be proactive leaders.
John Greening is national representative for the GARBC.