So far I have discussed how the political shift in the traditional SBC states and our growing ethnic diversity have fed some of the tensions we are currently experiencing in SBC life. Today I want to briefly address the broader cultural changes that are impacting Christianity in America. History has often been described as a series of cycles, or some have used the image of a pendulum swing as we constantly move from one extreme to another. The book of Judges provides a classic picture during a 400-year period of Israel’s history. The book describes what happened to the twelve tribes as they constantly moved through a clearly defined cycle: spiritual health and national vibrancy, a failure to pass along a God-focused spiritual legacy from one generation to the next and a slow but perceptible turning away from God, God’s hand of blessing is removed and life becomes very difficult, people finally cry out to God and God raises up spiritual leaders, then spiritual health returns, and the cycle is repeated (Judges 2:7-19).
As a nation, we have very few remaining from what is called the Greatest Generation (those who lived through the Great Depression and WWII). As a Baby Boomer, I have experienced SIGNIFICANT changes in my life as we have moved from a time of spiritual vitality driven by the adversities faced by our parents and grandparents to a period of unparalleled prosperity. Our affluence was generated to a great extent by their sacrifices, the Protestant Work Ethic they instilled in us, and the Divine blessings that come with obedience. However, that affluence has generated a high level of self-sufficiency. We are reminded of Jesus' words: “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 9:24).
Slow and subtle spiritual shifts have taken place, yet over time they have become clear and evident. These changes have begun to accelerate in recent years. One very simple and widespread example I hear regularly is related to youth sports. There was a time when Wednesday night and Sunday mornings were set aside for church. Today, active church members regularly choose sporting events over church attendance. Sports have become gods for many in our nation. But, my goal in this article is not to rail against the darkness, but to hopefully shed light on the harsh realities of where our nation is in the spiritual life-cycle I just described, and to awaken us to the fact that a typical American church looks more like our culture than we look like Jesus.
Communication changes have deeply impacted church life. The invention and expansion of the radio and television quickly come to mind. They formed the foundation upon which our current information age has been built (internet, smartphones, social media, etc.). One blessing we have received has been the opportunity to hear great preachers. History has always had great preachers, but the ability to hear one live was extremely limited. Today, even if you miss a live broadcast, you can listen to an archived copy, or you can even choose to listen to a sermon preached by one of the great pulpiteers of the past. Subtle shifts began to take place in church life as high-profile orators became the center of attention. Inspiration and information became the focus of Christian discipleship. The idea that an individual didn’t need to “go to church” to be a good Christian was reinforced. Pride began to creep into the heart of some high-profile pastors. Consumer Christians were created as families shopped for the church with the best programs. Denominational names became irrelevant—theology began to take a back seat. Two times a month Sunday morning Christians became the norm. COVID19 didn’t create our current challenges it merely put a spotlight on where the American culture is today.
For older Baptist Baby Boomers we can remember a time when Sunday meant you were in Sunday School, morning worship, discipleship training, and evening worship. Monday was visitation, and Wednesday meant prayer time. For Southern Baptists, you could throw in the two-week spring and fall revivals as well. In that cultural context, Christian discipleship focused on providing the right Bible information within a relational context that provided the opportunity for God’s Spirit to produce genuine life transformation in those who had accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Transportation advances combined with our affluence have provided us with almost unlimited opportunities and options. Who would have dreamed about having a “Destination Wedding” during the 1950s? Prior to COVID19’s restrictions, the pace of our lives seemed to be on an annually accelerating trajectory. I personally believe that God has given us the opportunity of a lifetime to slow down, to be still and to know that HE is GOD! (Psalms 46:10) The ball is in our court.
I believe the challenges we are facing in Southern Baptist life, for the most part, have been created by self-inflicted wounds. From a sports analogy perspective, we are constantly committing unforced errors. This reality tells me that we are in the world AND of the world more than we want to admit. My prayer is that we use this gift of reflection and rest to take an honest look in the mirror and ask God to let us see ourselves from His perspective. Or we can glance in the mirror and then use this time to recharge our batteries so we are ready when restrictions are removed and the “rat race” begins again
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:23-25)
We get to choose how we spend our time!
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
Retiring in April 2022, Mark R. Elliott served as a Director of Missions (Associational Mission Strategist) in Western Iowa and Eastern Nebraska for almost three decades. He is a strong advocate for obedience and Biblically based disciple making. As such, he knows that making healthy disciples requires Christian leaders to be constantly pursuing spiritual maturity—be lifelong learners. Because of the time constraints of ministry, most pastors focus their reading list on resources that assist them in teaching and preaching the Word of God. As such, books focusing on church health, leadership development, and church growth tend to find their way to the bottom of the stack. With that reality in mind, Mark has written discussion summaries on several books that have helped him to personally grow in Christ and that tend to find themselves on the bottom of most pastor’s stack. Many pastors have found them helpful as they are able to more quickly process great insights from other pastors and authors.