evangelism

Southern Baptists facing hard truths behind the red ink in their great book of numbers

Southern Baptists facing hard truths behind the red ink in their great book of numbers

It was the rare Billy Graham Evangelistic Association event in which Graham was in the audience -- incognito in a hat and dark glasses -- and his brother-in-law Leighton Ford was in the pulpit.

Graham was set to preach the next day, noted Ford, who told this story many times. At the altar call, Graham saw that the man seated in front of him was struggling. Leaning forward, but remaining anonymous, Graham asked if he wanted to go forward and accept Jesus as his Savior.

No, the man replied, "I'll just wait 'til the big gun preaches tomorrow night."

There was a time when Baptists and other evangelicals could count on ordinary people -- unbelievers even -- showing up at crusades and local "revivals" for a variety of reasons. Some were worried about heaven, hell and the state of their souls. Some were impressed by strong local churches and figured they had little to lose, and maybe something to gain, by walking the aisle and getting baptized.

That was then. Anyone who has studied Southern Baptist Convention statistics knows that times have changed. That will be a big subject looming in the background when America's largest Protestant flock gathers next week (June 11-12) in Birmingham, Ala., for its annual national convention.

For decades, Southern Baptists have "relied on revivalism" as an evangelistic engine that would deliver church growth, noted the Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ken.

"The problem is that revivalism only works when Christianity is triumphant or on the rise," he said, reached by telephone. "Revivalism … it isn't going to be as effective when Christianity is seen to be in eclipse -- like it is in American culture at this point."

Southern Baptist membership hit 14.8 million last year, down from 16.3 million in 2006 -- falling 8 percent in that era. That reality cannot be ignored, even if it isn't has stunning as the 30-50 percent declines seen in mainline Protestant churches since the 1960s. The most telling statistics point to declines in baptisms, which fell 3 percent in 2018 -- 246,442 baptisms -- following a 9 percent drop in 2017.

Memory eternal: Billy Graham

Memory eternal: Billy Graham

Oklahoma was shrouded in grief after the deaths of 168 people -- including 19 children -- in a homegrown terrorism attack at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.

President Bill Clinton spoke at the memorial service. So did Gov. Frank Keating. But everyone knew who would deliver the sermon and face the hard questions.

That was a job for the Rev. Billy Graham.

"The Bible says … there is a devil, that Satan is very real and he has great power," said Graham, focusing on the 9,000 mourners in the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds Arena. "It also tells us that evil is real and that the human heart is capable of almost limitless evil when it is cut off from God and from the moral law.

 "The prophet Jeremiah said, 'The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?' That is your heart and my heart without God. … I pray that you will not let bitterness and poison creep into your soul, but that you will turn in faith and trust in God even if we cannot understand.  It is better to face something like this with God than without Him."

Graham didn't end those 1995 remarks with an "altar call," urging sinners to come forward and make a profession of faith. But he could have -- even with the president of the United States in the front row.

Then again, Clinton was from the South and attended Graham's 1959 crusade in Little Rock, Ark. The young Clinton was so impressed by the preacher's message, and his refusal to bow to segregationists, that he began sending part of his weekly allowance to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

In the wake of his death this week, at age 99, diplomats, scholars and journalists will struggle to describe Graham's impact via preaching, television, radio, books and other writings. It's hard enough to do the math when discussing his 417 crusades in 185 countries, along with countless other gatherings ranging from presidential inaugurations to tiny youth rallies after his 1938 ordination as a Southern Baptist preacher.

To be blunt, it can be argued that Graham spoke -- in person -- to more people than any other leader in world history.

Tim Tebow vs. Colin Kaepernick? Not according to centuries of Christian doctrine

Tim Tebow vs. Colin Kaepernick? Not according to centuries of Christian doctrine

Say "Tim Tebow" and Americans imagine a quarterback, kneeling with his head bowed and eyes closed.

For millions this image is inspiring. For others it's a ridiculous joke.

Say "Colin Kaepernick" and Americans imagine another quarterback, kneeling with head bowed or with his determined eyes gazing straight ahead.

For millions this image is inspiring. For others it's infuriating.

"They're both Christian football players, and they're both known for kneeling on the field, although for very different reasons," wrote Michael Frost, an evangelism professor at Morling College, a Baptist school in Sydney, Australia.

"One grew up the son of Baptist missionaries to the Philippines. The other was baptized Methodist, confirmed Lutheran and attended a Baptist church during college. Both have made a public display of their faith. … This is the tale of two Christian sports personalities, one of whom is the darling of the American church while the other is reviled."

According to Frost, these men symbolize two approaches to faith that some believers think cannot be reconciled. When his weblog essay was picked up by The Washington Post the headline proclaimed: "Colin Kaepernick vs. Tim Tebow: A tale of two Christians on their knees."

Around the world, Frost added, Tebow and Kaepernick represent a church "separating into two versions, one that values personal piety, gentleness, respect for cultural mores and an emphasis on moral issues like abortion and homosexuality, and another that values social justice, community development, racial reconciliation and political activism.

Memory eternal, for a quiet giant in American Orthodoxy

FRANKLIN, Tenn. -- It was a typical evangelistic crusade in rural Alabama and, as he ended his sermon, the Rev. Gordon Walker called sinners down to the altar to be born again.

Most Southern towns have a few notorious folks who frequent the back pews during revival meetings, trying to get right with God. On this night, one such scalawag came forward and fell to his knees. 

"Preacher! I've broken all the Ten Commandments except one," he cried, "and the only reason I didn't break that one was that the man I shot didn't die!"

It didn't matter that this man repeated this ritual several times during his troubled life, said Walker, telling the story decades later at Holy Cross Orthodox Church outside Baltimore. Now wearing the golden robes of an Eastern Orthodox priest, Walker smiled and spread his arms wide. The church, he said, has always known that some people need to go to confession more than others. The goal was to keep walking toward the altar.

With his gentle smile and soft Alabama drawl, Walker -- who died on July 23 -- was a key figure in an unusual American story. The former Southern Baptist pastor and Campus Crusade evangelist was part of a circle of evangelical leaders that spent a decade reading church history before starting an Orthodox church for American converts. Then in 1987, the late Metropolitan Philip Saliba accepted more than 2,000 pastors and members of their Evangelical Orthodox Church into the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

Crash course in how to offend visitors to your church

For generations this greeting was included in the announcements during Sunday services in the typical American church.

The pastor or another leader would cheerfully say how glad the homefolks were to have visitors in their midst and ask newcomers to stand and be recognized. Members might even point at guests, to make sure they were spotted. Visitors would then be asked to share their names, where they were from and perhaps even why they were visiting.

A friendly gesture to help guests feel welcome or a sure-fire way to freak out introverted people who may have struggled with the decision to visit a pew?

"This is one of those things that truly divides people into two groups, depending on their personalities," said the Rev. Thom Rainer, head of LifeWay Christian Resources at the Southern Baptist Convention's headquarters in Nashville. Before that, he was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

"Some see this as a sincere gesture of fellowship," he said. But for others "anything this overt may make them feel uncomfortable or even pressured."

At some point, some churches tweaked this rite and, rather than asking visitors to stand, asked members to rise -- while guests remained seated.

Rainer laughed, and added: "Now the poor visitor is surrounded and singled out even more. It's like they're in a spotlight. … They don't even get to mingle with others on their own terms, like normal people."

Holy Week 2015: Hearing confessions in the Silicon belly of the high-tech beast

It would be hard to live closer to the belly of the high-tech beast than Menlo Park in Northern California's Silicon Valley.

Close to Stanford University? Check. A highway exchange or two from the Apple mother ship? Check. Not that far from Googleplex? Check. It's the kind of home base from which an Opus Dei (Latin for "Work of God") priest -- with the organization's emphasis on leadership among laypeople as well as clergy -- can lecture, as Father C. John McCloskey recently quipped, to "300 actual and would-be Techies and Masters of the Universe."

It's also an interesting place to hear lots of confessions as Catholics near the end of Lent and prepare for Holy Week and then Easter, which is April 5th this year for Western churches. Eastern Orthodox churches use the older Julian calendar and will celebrate Pascha (Easter) on April 12th.

"One thing we stress during Lent is a sense of detachment from the things of this world," said McCloskey, an apologist and evangelist in Washington, D.C., and Chicago before this West Coast move. "We even do this with good things, if they've become temptations. It can be a kind of food or it can be alcohol. It can be other good things, like running and being obsessed with your health. …

"But if you can't be happy living without something, then that tells you something. It tells you that this thing is using you, rather than you using it."

But what if this good thing is woven into most of the details of daily life?

A (liberal) church-growth strategy to save the Episcopal Church

Once upon a time, the Anglican bishops at the global Lambeth Conference boldly declared the 1990s the "Decade of Evangelism." 

 This effort was supposed to spur church growth and it did, in the already booming Anglican churches of Africa, Asia and across the "Global South." But in the lovely, historic sanctuaries of England and North America? Not so much.

 "There was some lip service given to evangelism at that time," said Ted Mollegen, a businessman with decades of national Episcopal Church leadership experience. Membership totals continued to spiral down and the Decade of Evangelism "basically faded away without much success ... because of a lack of effort and institutional commitment."

 The Episcopal Church then created a "20/20 Vision" task force committed to doubling baptized membership by 2020. The goal was a renewed evangelism emphasis, along with programs for spiritual development, emerging leaders, church planting and improved work with children, teens and college students. Mollegen was the task force's secretary and a founding member of the Episcopal Network for Evangelism.

Episcopalians, however, promptly entered yet another period of doctrinal warfare and schism, symbolized by the departure of many large evangelical parishes following the 2003 election of a noncelibate gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire. Mollegen served on the national church's executive council from 2003-2009.

A wry case for using beer in evangelism

While he knows that millions of teetotalling Christians disagree, Father William Miller believes he can make a theological case for the moderate consumption of beer through a simple use of evangelistic math. "Beer is the universal beverage.

If you want to sit down and have a friendly, personal conversation with about 90 percent of the people in this world then that is probably going to take place over a beer, that is if you want them to open up and level with you," said Miller, who is -- logically enough -- the author of a chatty book called "The Beer Drinker's Guide to God."

"Think about it. If you're serious about talking to ordinary people about God, are you telling me that you don't want a chance to sit down and connect with about 90 percent of the world?"

Miller is aware that it's easier for an Episcopal priest to make this case than it would be for clergy in many, but not all, doctrinally conservative Protestant flocks. In an admirable demonstration of restraint, he resisted the temptation to open his book with the old proverb that wherever two or three Episcopalians are gathered together, "you will always find a fifth." Instead, he went with Catholic wisdom from St. Bridget of Kildare: "I should like a great lake of the finest ale for the King of Kings."

Then again, the great Protestant Reformer John Calvin took part of his salary in barrels of wine and the feisty German theologian Martin Luther was, truth be told, a German Lutheran who wrote classic hymn texts -- such as "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" -- to fit the melodies of popular drinking songs.

Since Miller grew up steeped in the traditions of the Church of Christ in Texas, he is very familiar with conservative arguments against the use of alcohol and he is quick to quote biblical injunctions against drunkenness. This is handy since, in addition to leading St. Michael and All Angel's Episcopal Church in Kauai, Hawaii, he is part owner of a bar -- called Padre's -- in Marfa, a West Texas community so edgy and artsy that, despite it's tiny size, it has been granted its own National Public Radio station.

The bottom line for Miller is that alcohol is part God's creation and can be used in ways that are sacramental and glorious, as well as sinful and depraved. He is convinced that Jesus would, as his first miracle, have turned water into beer if that particular wedding party had been held in Texas.

Unusual challenge from a Greek Orthodox bishop

It happens all the time: Church leaders stand at podiums and urge members of their flocks to go and share their faith, striving to win new converts. These speeches rarely make news, because they are not unusual. But something very unusual happened earlier this month in Brookline, Mass.

"You will surely agree that our mission ... is to lead our brothers and sisters -- both inside and outside the church -- to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," said the featured speaker.

"This is becoming more and more difficult because many hesitate to share their faith, fearing they will be considered quaint and bothersome. This is especially the case in America's colleges and universities where atheism and indifference on matters of faith and religion reign supreme."

This would be ordinary, if not tame language in a gathering held by Campus Crusade for Christ, the Southern Baptist Convention or any Bible Belt megachurch. But this speaker was Metropolitan Methodios, the white-haired leader of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston, addressing clergy and laity in a conference center dedicated to Greek culture.

The spiritual leader of Greek Orthodox believers in New England didn't stop with this call to evangelize people inside and outside his flock's sanctuaries. Instead, he directly challenged the lukewarm or even compromised version of the faith that may result from the media "bombardment of materialistic and hedonistic philosophies" that shape the public square.

All too often, he said, the result is neither orthodox nor Orthodox.

"People today fashion their personal beliefs by integrating Orthodox and non-Orthodox elements," he explained, in the speech text posted online (.pdf). "Without realizing it, they become 'cafeteria Christians.' Just as they do not partake of every food item in a cafeteria line -- but only those foods which they like -- in the same way they feel they can pick and choose from what Orthodoxy teaches. ...

"Let me be clear: Core teachings of our faith are not subject to popularity polls or political correctness."

Metropolitan Methodios even, without mentioning a specific name, criticized a New England legislator who "claims to be an Orthodox Christian" and who "champions Greek political causes" because of his public advocacy of same-sex marriage.

It's important to note that, through the years, Eastern Orthodox bishops have released occasional public statements in which they affirmed basic tenets of their ancient faith. In some cases they have applied these doctrines to public issues in American life.

For example, the Eastern Orthodox bishops of North and Central America recently released a document that expressed "deep concern over recent actions on the part of our respective governments and certain societal trends concerning the status of marriage in our countries, in particular the legalization of same-sex unions."

Also, the symbolic leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians (including me) recently addressed challenges to church teachings on marriage. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Istanbul stressed that the "partnering of the same sex is unknown and condemned" in church teachings, along with the "contemporary invention of 'mutual cohabitation,' which is the result of sin and not the law of joy."

These kids of documents are good, but only carry so much weight, noted Father Johannes Jacobse, head of the American Orthodox Institute in Naples, Fla. It is one thing for bishops to affirm two millennia of church teachings. It is something else for a bishop to openly challenge his people to life by them.

"This is the first time I have heard a Greek Orthodox bishop speak publicly with this kind of clarity and certainty on some of the pressing moral issues of our day," said Jacobse, who served as a Greek Orthodox priest from 1991 to 2009 and currently leads an Antiochian Orthodox parish. In this case, a veteran bishop "just stood up there and SAID IT. There seemed to be no sense of hesitation or fear that someone might think that he sounded like -- heaven forbid -- an evangelical or a moral conservative or something."

The bottom line, concluded Metropolitan Methodios, is that clergy and lay leaders must recognize that they need to "re-evangelize, to re-catechize, to re-teach the faith" to their own people, especially those on the margins of church life.

"The truth," he stressed, "is that many brethren sitting in the pews of our parishes are not knowledgeable of even the basic teachings of Orthodoxy."