Last week at The Washington Post, Barry Hankins and I offered three reasons why Southern Baptists are on the decline, and three ways to address it. They include getting serious about evangelism, defeating “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” and making politics secondary.
One of the most interesting “pushbacks” I got was against point #2 – aren’t there a number of “megachurches” who peddle theological pabulum and self-help therapy, and are growing in spite of it? Bad theology does not prevent growth, it would seem.
Fair enough – but here are several observations in response. First, “megachurches” often get stereotyped as shallow. But there are plenty of megachurches (congregations with more than 2000 average weekend attendance) that are teaching solid evangelical theology. And whatever you may think about Joel Osteen-type churches, they are not “liberal” in the same way as a “liberal” Episcopal congregation is.
But the point remains that there is no automatic formula for growth or decline. There does seem to be a close correlation between liberal theology and denominational decline, as seen in the mainline churches. The role of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism [MTD] is admittedly more complicated, partly because its influence is insidious. (MTD is basically the idea that if you do your best, you will go to heaven – the gospel of the American Dream.) MTD can sound more conservative than outright liberal theology, but it similarly risks mimicking the messages we get from secular, media-driven pop culture.
I propose that if you mirror the priorities and values of the surrounding culture, over the long haul you can expect decline. I would not want to generalize about what all Southern Baptist churches are teaching, but to the extent that people – especially children – are getting versions of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in any SBC churches, it will influence the denomination’s long-term decline.
Second, while there are undoubtedly things churches can do to foster decline, no theology or ministry style can guarantee growth – spiritual or numerical – at the congregational level. The reason for this is that conversions, effective evangelism, and real revivals are undergirded by prayer and the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit blows where He will. Jonathan Edwards called the 1734-35 Northampton revival “surprising” because he could not identify any substantial change he made in ministry or preaching to bring it about. He saw it as a surprising work of God, precipitated by an outpouring of the Spirit.
Third, even megachurches with bad theology often do a good job in presentation, relevance, and (in spite of their reputation) getting people connected to small groups in the church. Whether we like it or not, a church’s presentation of itself matters. Systems for connecting with people, and connecting them to the church body, matter too. As I have written before at the Anxious Bench, churches should never pander theologically to younger people, but they should keep in mind that the means of communicating the church’s teachings is always changing. Some principles of reaching and retaining people don’t change much, they just require hard work. These include effective systems of welcoming people, following up with guests, funneling believers toward membership, having substantial expectations of members, and making it hard for the flock to wander off without anyone noticing.
The point, then, is not how to guarantee growth in the SBC – that would be presumptuous. But if we don’t emphasize effective evangelism, and solid biblical teaching that majors only on the things of the Kingdom, we have no reason to think that the SBC’s decline won’t continue.
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