What Is Christian Mission without Any Call to Conversion?
In 1999 I moved – from one Baptist institution of higher education (college and seminary) to another one. Two different Baptist denominations (conferences, conventions, fellowships). Very similar in many ways, but culturally very different. One mostly northern, the other one mostly southern. One rooted originally in the Northern Baptist Convention (now the American Baptist Churches, USA), the other one rooted in the Southern Baptist Convention. Both broke away from their “root” denominations and became separate. Still, they shared a similar ethos—broadly evangelical, mission-oriented, strong on witness and evangelism, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving, church-planting, etc.
I realize that most people in the United States and even in other countries hear “Baptist” and immediately think “fundamentalist” if not “right-wing, religious nutcase.” The media have spread this stereotype based on some radical right-wing Baptist preachers and denominational leaders. In fact, there are many kinds of Baptists in the United States and around the world; it’s difficult to say what they all have in common that is truly distinctive to them and not shared with other Protestant groups.
Neither of the two Baptist groups I mentioned in the first paragraph—to which I belonged for about thirty years—could rightly be considered fundamentalist or uniformly “right-wing.” In 1999 both were middle of the road, centrist evangelical fellowships of churches—each having around one thousand congregations in the United States (or in one case, also Canada). Both were and are mission-oriented.
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I recently received the Summer 2021 issue of my current Baptist denomination’s magazine. (This denomination, like many, denies being a “denomination” and calls itself a “fellowship of churches,” but, sociologically, anyway, it is a denomination. I am still a member of one of its affiliated churches and was a member of another one for many years. I won’t go into the reasons I changed congregations. Interestingly, perhaps, both had women pastors.
The magazine I referred to above (Summer 2021) is about my current Baptist denomination’s “Impact” and contains “Stories from Around the World”—about its “field personnel” around the world. (The words “missionary” and “missionaries” are notably missing.) The magazine contains about ten articles profiling this Baptist denomination’s work in America and many countries. I sat down and read every article, even every word of the magazine. Notably missing, so far as I can tell, is any mention of evangelism, telling people about Jesus and inviting them to accept him as Savior and Lord, or conversion. Everything is about social work, advocacy for the disadvantaged, offering suffering people “hospitality and hope.” But nary a word about inviting people to become Christians or even just to accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
One article says that “the deepest root of our Baptist story” is “freedom of religion or belief for all.” That is an important emphasis of traditional Baptist belief and practice, but is it “the deepest root of our Baptist story?” I don’t think so. Baptist are Christians (or should be) and the deepest root of our story, together with all true Christians, is Jesus Christ and the gospel. I failed to find the gospel of Jesus Christ explicitly mentioned in this magazine which makes my heart sink. Twenty-two years ago, when I first entered into this fellowship, this Baptist denomination, I researched it, met some of its leaders, joined one of its leading congregations, began teaching at a seminary affiliated with it, and knew that it was Jesus-centered and gospel-centered and mission and witness-centered. I’m sure they will say they still are all of those things, but this magazine leads me to think otherwise.
Lacking is any conversion story or any story of a “partner” who leads someone to faith in Jesus Christ. Nothing even remotely approaching that appears in the magazine so far as I can tell.
Put this together with the “testimony” I heard not long ago at my church and I am convinced, but willing to be unconvinced, that this denomination has lost its way. She is a paid partner of the denomination working with immigrants to the United States. She talked endlessly about “transforming initiatives” but failed even once to mention witness to Jesus Christ. The “transforming initiatives” were/are what the magazine calls offering “hospitality and hope” to people with physical and emotional needs. Not once during her thirty minute presentation did she say anything about telling people about Jesus.
Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that my denomination is no longer evangelical, even in a broad sense. I am open to correction, but someone from the denomination will have to tell me how and where its partners in America and around the world are actively inviting people to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior by faith in him (conversion).
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