So, we Americans want to change -- but without God and without others. That, of course, is a recipe for failure. More importantly, though, it is a call to proclaim the Gospel loudly throughout North America. It is a summons to heartfelt, broken prayer on behalf of the church and the people that we are called to reach. In that sense, the call for Southern Baptists to engage in solemn assemblies in January is right on time.
Think about it. Americans are concerned enough about our health, finances, careers and education that we have made resolutions for change. Though some Americans are concerned about spiritual matters, our relationship with God is not included in our list of resolutions. Apparently, few Americans see enough need to strengthen their relationship with God that they have resolved to seek improvement in 2011. Either they believe their relationship with God is so unimportant that it does not deserve consideration, or they think that relationship needs no improvement.
In response, the North American church must announce again an uncompromising Great Commission theology of lostness. At a time when more than 80 percent of Americans claim to be Christian, we must vociferously declare that Jesus alone is the way to the Father and that one must turn from sin and trust Christ to be a believer. Nothing less than a personal relationship with Jesus is required; no superficial, cultural, non-transforming "Christianity" will suffice.
We know these truths, but surveys still show that many self-professed Christians believe that good works can earn salvation. Our studies through Southern Seminary's Billy Graham School have shown that many Baptists in our own pews are not convinced that their non-believing neighbor is really lost. I suspect that we have proclaimed lostness, but not nearly as clearly, thoroughly, and systematically as we should. Consequently, our church members have created their own theologies regarding the spiritual condition of those who do not know Christ.
Moreover, the church must proclaim a Great Commission Gospel that is local-church based and relationship driven. Our relationship with God is primary, but relationships with other believers are non-negotiable as well. Charles Spurgeon put it this way: "God's people are not dogs, else they might go about one by one; but they are sheep, and therefore they should be in flocks." From the flock of God we find comfort when hurting, strength when struggling, and guidance when questioning. The people of God are still a marvelous people, as imperfect as we are.
The North American church has largely failed, though, to teach a principal purpose of New Testament relationships: lifestyle accountability. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we are to provoke one another to good works (Hebrews 10:24), and the New Testament is replete with teachings about accountability and responsibility. Somehow we have missed those passages, choosing to dodge them in deference to protecting church harmony and avoiding interpersonal conflict. We have allowed American individualism to trump biblical fellowship, and the result has been believers who struggle on their own to live holy lives.
In terms of the Great Commission, we have produced converts and then released these new believers to become disciples on their own. Such independent living -- never approved in the New Testament -- will lead only to spiritual failure. Our witness is then compromised by our failures, the church is painted with negative publicity, and the Gospel is perceived to be less than transforming. We need not think long to know why the world listens little as we proclaim our commitment to a Great Commission resurgence.
Finally, the North American church must confess our powerlessness to make any real Great Commission difference. We know how to generate attendance numbers, but we cannot change lives. Nobody produces better programs than we do, but our programs themselves cannot solve the problem of the soul. We educate well through our universities and seminaries, but we risk educating a generation of leaders out of their dependence on God. Unless we repent, we will be no different than most Americans: wanting change, but without God and without each other.
May God help us, particularly as Southern Baptists called to prayer and solemn assembly, to return to Him and to His church. Only then will the world take note.
Chuck Lawless is dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
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