Church Renewal

November 29, 2016

Why Evangelicals Must Care About Church Renewal

(This post first appeared on the Faith & Chelsen blog on Patheos and is reprinted here with permission.)

Add another congregation to the growing list of Evangelical churches operating under the assumption that truth is evolving. This time another Baptist church. In Texas.

The pattern is the same as others gone before it. Churches swerve away from core Christian teachings and congregations—sometimes denominations—fracture. Church renewal efforts aren’t just a Mainline Protestant problem anymore. Evangelicals should care about renewal and reform, too.

Dallas’ Wilshire Baptist Church recently passed a motion 577-367 to affirm unrepentant LGBTQ persons in leadership positions and allow same-sex couples to marry in the church, as The Washington Post reported. While 61 percent of Wilshire Baptist’s members are willing to affirm homosexuality, the Baptist General Convention of Texas with which they are affiliated is not.

Shortly after the vote, the Baptist General Convention of Texas sent Pastor George Mason a warning letter stating:

Should your church choose to publicly affirm same-sex sexual behavior, the BGCT will no longer be able to accept funds from the church, seat its messengers to the annual meeting, allow the church to express affiliation with the BGCT or allow its members to serve on the BGCT boards, committees or other roles.

This is the second church the Baptist General Convention of Texas has mailed a warning letter relating to the affirmation of same-sex relationships. According to reports, the First Baptist Church of Austin also welcomes openly practicing homosexual members.

Affirming same-sex relationships and fluid gender identity are the cultural issues challenging the church in America. Influential Evangelical Christian authors and bloggers like Jen Hatmaker are embracing a new morality. Another popular Christian author and “Momastery” blogger isn’t just affirming, she’s in an open same-sex relationship. On November 13, Glennon Doyle Melton announced in a Facebook post that she is dating retired U.S. female soccer star Abby Wambach. Although Melton is a member of the notoriously liberal and declining United Church of Christ, her blog and bestselling book influence a considerably broad audience.

Renewal focused on Christian morality and 2,000 years of Christian teaching bound in absolute truth needs to propagate within Evangelical circles. But admittedly, we face significant obstacles in spreading the message of renewal and getting it to stick.

Independence and autonomy are so engrained within many Evangelical denominations, that most lack an overarching accountability or disciplinary body. Even Baptist conventions are limited in their effectiveness when issuing reprimands. Since affiliated churches join the convention in mutual cooperation, neither is forever bound to the other. Discipline cannot result in clergy or lay leader changes. The most severe discipline for theological divergence is removal from the convention. Not a massive threat for a church willing to reinterpret traditional Christian teaching.

Church renewal simply isn’t a part of the Evangelical mindset. When we aren’t happy with a church’s worship style, sermon topics, or the level of friendliness, we switch churches. It’s a mindset rooted in self-fulfillment, and I admit to falling into this temptation, too.

To stay in a church where the leadership differs theologically is tough. But I have seen faithful Christians remain in their churches and denominations and renewal emerge.

Our faithful Methodist brothers and sisters are witnessing such renewal. A shift back towards orthodoxy was most evident at the United Methodist Church’s quadrennial General Conference held in Portland, Oregon in May 2016. Faithful Methodists from America and Africa were key in voting for the denomination to quit its 40-plus year membership in an abortion rights coalition, reverse its support for Roe v. Wade, and leave in place the denomination’s understanding of traditional marriage and sexuality.

Reform of a particular denomination isn’t always possible, but decline and renewal are interwoven, as my colleague Jeffrey Walton, Director of Anglican Action at the Institute on Religion & Democracy, often says. Walton speaks from his expertise and personal experience as a former member of the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church fractured and entire congregations left the denomination, but thankfully with renewal in mind. These faithful congregants picked up the pieces and established the orthodox and growing Anglican Church in North America.

We at the IRD encourage church renewal and reform. Granted, renewal efforts might look different depending in what area of the Church you are working. IRD President Mark Tooley has said, “Part of IRD’s witness in the current climate is to remind our constituency and a wider audience of what deep down they already know but are tempted to neglect about God’s lordship and the church’s vocation in society to redeem and reform.”

I remain hopeful that churches like Wilshire Baptist Church can be renewed in the future. Of course, change after theological divergence will be difficult and I don’t pretend to believe conversion of this congregation will happen overnight. Then again, if I didn’t so earnestly believe in the wondrous power of conversion I wouldn’t be much of an Evangelical witness.

And that’s what renewal ultimately comes down to: Christians’ witness to effectively participate in building God’s kingdom.

Deception of souls in the name of a more compassionate-sounding theology is still deception. Theological divergence isn’t isolated to a pastor, a Sunday school teacher, or church members’ own consciences. The deception engulfing churches seeps out of the sanctuaries into communities and harms our witness to the world. Who will speak up when churches consider compromise, if its faithful members won’t?

Because we sense the urgency in saving deceived souls, renewal should be a part of every Evangelical Christian’s ministry agenda.


One Response to Why Evangelicals Must Care About Church Renewal

  1. Joan Watson says:

    Part of the problem is, we do not have a John Wesley type voice to call out these respectable and good-hearted people and point out their inherent brokenness/lostness. Just last night I found these thoughts on original sin in my Wesleyan Study Bible:

    Original sin is a reality that is bigger than we are and from which we cannot liberate ourselves. It is “the state of every ‘natural man’: whether he be a gross, scandalous transgressor, or a more reputable and decent sinner” says John Wesley (Sermon 9. “The Spirit of Bondage and Adoption) Sin distorts our whole being, our relationships with God and other people, our ideas of success, and even our relation to wealth. There is no hope for transformation except by the grace of God. When viewed from the perspective of original sin, salvation becomes a crucial concept. It implies resistance to the sinful conditions of our time, liberation from the structures of sin and every level and new relationships.

    We need to start talking about original sin and the fact that we are naturally sinners–or as M. Craig Barnes puts it, we just love to be in control of the situation. John Wesley stated it like this: “Take heed you destroy not your own soul by pleading your righteousness.” (Justification by Faith)

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