NASHVILLE, Tenn. – My grandparents remember the day when “religious diversity” in the South referred to the presence of multiple Christian denominations.
– Pentecostals debating spiritual gifts with Baptists.
– Presbyterians promoting perseverance of the saints over against the Methodists.
– Episcopalians choosing high liturgy as opposed to evangelical expressions of low church piety.
Of the various Protestant denominations that have yielded influence in the South in the past 60 years, the churches belonging to the Southern Baptist Convention have been most dominant. Even today, the SBC still stands as the largest Protestant religious group in the United States. And yet the cultural rivers have shifted away from the quiet waters of a “Southern Baptist Zion” to the rushing rapids of accelerating cultural changes.
My hometown of Murfreesboro, Tenn., is a case in point. Once a sleepy suburb well outside Nashville, Murfreesboro boasted of dozens of Southern Baptist churches. Twenty years ago, there were 46,000 residents. Today, there are 110,000. Though the number of Southern Baptist churches remains almost the same, Murfreesboro is, in many ways, a very different city. Recently, there was controversy surrounding the development of a Muslim mosque and community center. The dominance of evangelical Christianity in this city has been dwarfed by multi-culturalism, religious diversity and an exploding population that our church plants aren’t able to keep up with. Murfreesboro is a microcosm of the population explosion throughout the country and the new cultural setting we find ourselves in.
It won’t do for us to bemoan the disappearance of cultural Christianity. There were dangers then, too, including an often watered-down gospel as well as cultural respectability that masked unregenerate hearts. Each generation faces its own challenges.
My point is that the cultural setting we are called to be faithful in today will be very different than the one our parents and grandparents knew. Christians will need to be equipped for a new day – a day when the offensiveness of the gospel spreads not only from the core of our message (Christ crucified and raised) but to its implications for Christian morality. A day when Christian morality is no longer seen as decent but repressive, bigoted and intolerant. A day when beliefs in traditional tenets of the Christian faith – the exclusivity of Christ, the reality of hell, Jesus’ resurrection – are openly mocked in ways that the tenets of other religions are not.
Two ways to respond
How will Southern Baptists cope with the disappearance of “Zion”?
We could just choose to blend in, as some Catholics have. For years, Roman Catholic leaders have expressed concern over parishioners who attend Mass as upstanding citizens, wear the badge of their religious faith with honor, but all the while distance themselves from their Church’s views on birth control, abortion, homosexuality, etc.
A few months ago, I had lunch with a retired pastor of a large, respected evangelical church. He commented about how the culturally prominent members of his congregation, whenever questioned about the church’s unpopular views on morality, would simply state their disagreement with their church’s doctrine and move on. “I don’t agree with my church on that.” In other words, people belong to a church without subscribing to its beliefs. As a convictional Baptist, I hope we avoid a future that leaves us with only the cultural shell of Christianity and not its substance.
Another response to the disappearance of “Zion” is to become increasingly inward focused and insulated. Blinded by the cultural dominance we once had and banking on the social capital that belonged to our grandparents, we could fail to see the urgency of this hour and the utter lostness of those around us.
We might choose to expend too much energy debating over how to allocate shrinking funds or maintain the structures of yesteryear. Blogs and newspapers would provide space for endless conversations about the finer points of soteriology and the pros and cons of adopting a descriptor. Meanwhile, as we talk amongst ourselves, we lose perspective, blow our differences out of proportion and become increasingly deaf to our new cultural setting. Sometimes it feels like we’re medieval knights debating the advantages of feudalism even though the French Revolution has just taken place.
A third way
But there is a third way. To make the most of the opportunity before us.
Over against the first option that maintains numbers at the expense of convictions, we ought to take advantage of the opportunity for the light of true Zion to shine forth ever brighter in the darkness of Babylon. Just think! In a day and age where cohabitation is normal, the president affirms same-sex marriage and the pressure is on to celebrate all kinds of sexual expression, Christians can seem extraordinary by simply living what was once ordinary Christian morality. By cherishing once-common things, such as marriage between a man and woman for life, and core Christian doctrines, such as the exclusivity of Christ for salvation, Christians have the opportunity for our ordinary obedience to shine even brighter in a pluralistic world that bows to Aphrodite.
Over against the second option that turns inward and insular, we have the opportunity to lay aside our differences, unite around our common confession and lock arms for the cause of Christ and His Kingdom. When we look inward, we see all the things that divide us. When we look outward to an increasingly hostile culture, we see all the things that unite us – our belief in the gospel, our Baptist distinctives and our submission to the authority of God’s inerrant Word.
Time is short. The Evil One’s specialty is to sow seeds of division, spread discord and create enmity between brothers. The only way to push back is to display open friendship and trust, to unite on the gospel and its power to save. When we do engage in debates about theology and strategy (and doubtless, we should), we will keep them in perspective as we seek to be ever faithful to our higher calling of fulfilling the Great Commission.
This is no time for us to be like Elijah in 1 Kings 19, cowering in the corner convinced we are alone and need to retreat. Our God is the God of Mount Carmel. He will not be forever upstaged by idols.
The good news is all evangelicals have something to gain from Southern Baptist faithfulness. As we move among the crumbling remains of Christendom, we can smile. After all, we’re used to being on the outs with the state. Even more, we’re used to being on the outs with the church-state too! We’re Baptists. Like that of the early church, our identity has been forged in the midst of cultural alienation and exile.
Baptists in other parts of the world (my family and friends in Romania, for example) know firsthand what social ostracism looks like. The more you get to know Baptists in other parts of the country, the more you realize that the cultural dominance we have enjoyed in the South is the exception, not the rule.
The tributaries that have come together to form the rushing river of Baptists today (Anabaptists, general Baptists, particular Baptists) all knew something of persecution. We’ve been belittled and mocked before, sometimes by other Christians. Why not again, this time by secularists? And what if, at this very hour, we will be the ones to help other evangelicals learn how to thrive in lean times?
Let’s not shrink back from the future that awaits us. We may be given the honor of suffering for the Name. So let’s willingly put ourselves at odds with the culture, expect the social ostracism we can see on the horizon and stand joyfully amidst the ruins of Christendom while we continue to proclaim the excellencies of the Risen One.
We may have to dig deeper and stand stronger than ever before. But no matter how mighty Babylon may seem or how dim the future looks, we must remember one thing.
There is an empty tomb in Jerusalem.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum line developed by LifeWay Christian Resources for all ages. This column first appeared at TrevinWax.com, a Gospel Coalition blog.)