Recently I stumbled across an stimulating book by Tony Campolo entitled Speaking My Mind. In the opening chapters of the book he performs a verbal autopsy of what led to the demise of the Mainline denominations like the United Methodists and the Presbyterian Church USA. As I read his account and projected his insights upon the Baptist General Convention of Texas it occurred to me that Campolo may be uncovering our future if we do not change the direction we are going.
Campolo noted that “if some strategists had sat down and planned how mainline churches could go from being the dominant expression of American Christianity to churches struggling for survival, they could not have come up with a more effective scenario that what has been evident in the practices and policies of these churches over the last quarter of a century” (Campolo, Speaking My Mind, pg. 3).
At this point, Campolo had captured my imagination and I wondered where did the fall begin? I was surprised with his first point. He suggested their first critical mistake was in “their attempt to be relevant (the ‘in’ word) to what they perceive to be the mind-set of the prevailing culture”. Isn’t it strange that their first misstep was the same quest for relevance that many of us have felt compelled to pursue in our constantly changing world?
This attempt at relevance from Campolo’s perspective began in the pulpits across the land. The preachers moved away from calling “sinners to repentance” and began to preach a rational, Post-modern gospel. He noted “Numerous leaders of mainline denominations promoted a theology that ‘demythologized the Bible’ (to use Rudolf Bultmann’s expression)…Pastors fed many of those who attended mainline churches a steady diet of sermons that had little or no emphasis on the need for sinners to have a ‘born again’ experience. Mainline church leaders just did not get it when their people began to complain and say they wanted something more”. (Campolo, Speaking My Mind, pg. 4).
Ideas have power. Truth sets people free. In one of the most powerful theological writings of all time Paul wrote to a secular powerful city:
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” Romans 1:16-17 (NIV)
The gospel must stay at the heart of who we are as Texas Baptists or we too may lose our way in our quest for relevance. Let’s face the truth the gospel defines relevance for every person who draws breathe because the gospel is life itself to those who believe.
As our churches have become increasingly more powerful and affluent have we wandered away from the very roots of who we are? In our fear of the excesses of Fundamentalism have we needlessly watered down what we believe in order to be more politically correct in our pluralist society?
As a preacher of the gospel I live in the tension. I preach within six blocks of a secular university campus. I look into the eyes of dozens of young university students hungry for real answers not just relevant answers. I interact with highly educated professors struggling to find a place to stand in a secular/sacred world. I have found Jesus alone has the words of life.
It’s my hope and prayer we will not make the fatal mistake mainline churches have made and wander away from the gospel “because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes”.
(To be continued)