Nearly 1,000 packed the conference room for the sold-out event, with some attendees lining the walls and sitting on the floor at the Baltimore Convention Center. The annual panel, which takes place during the SBC annual meeting, featured R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources; Matt Chandler, lead pastor at the multi-site Village Church in Texas and president of the Acts 29 Network; David Platt, pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Alabama; and Daniel L. Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
"A generation is coming that was never deceived by cultural Christianity," said Mohler, describing how previous generations felt a social and professional compulsion to attend church regularly. "Every single new believer is going to be hard won by the old continual task of telling people the Gospel story."
Akin noted the signs of decline for some churches but praised the efforts of the North American Mission Board and SBC church planters engaging metropolitan areas and seeking out unbelievers.
"The key for us right now," he said, "is hold the line on biblical truth -- we cannot compromise on this -- we all see the tides coming on issues related to universalism, inerrancy and gender understanding. We must speak the truth, but we speak the truth in love."
Jonathan Akin, co-founder of Baptist21 and moderator of the discussion, asked the panelists to respond to the controversy surrounding New Heart Community Church of La Mirada, Calif., which embraced homosexuality after the pastor affirmed his gay son.
"As a Gospel people, we should be thankful for the Bible's specificity on what sin is," Mohler said, denying the possibility for Southern Baptists to create a so-called "Third Way" between condemnation and acceptance of homosexuality. "It's not kindness to throw people into the pits of hell -- it's kindness to know that we're sinners and ultimate kindness to say, 'There's a remedy for that sin, and His name is Jesus.'"
Arguing for a pastoral approach to homosexuality, Chandler urged pastors to recognize that someone in their congregation could be struggling with sexual orientation, and not to dehumanize the issue from the pulpit.
"When you talk condescendingly or ignorantly and lack compassion, you push people who struggle into themselves so they feel unsafe to confess, unsafe to seek out help, unsafe to be honest," Chandler said. "You create an environment in which the healing of people by the power of the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of the Word becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible."
Jonathan Akin also questioned Mohler on the pastoral response to sexual abuse in light of the case involving a youth worker in a church in the Sovereign Grace church network convicted of child molestation that allegedly had gone unreported to authorities.
"If you get any report of any kind sexual abuse, certainly involving a minor, be committed that before you leave that room, you're going to dial 911," Mohler said to loud applause. "We're not in the position of being investigative agents."
Calling it a "Gospel ministry stewardship imperative," Mohler said churches need to "create a safe place where people can come and report this kind of thing, knowing we're going to respond in the right way." While churches in the past didn't understand the issue, he said "there's no excuse right now for not knowing what you're going to do before you have to do it."
Jonathan Akin set forth his perception to the panelists that the recent success of church planters in North America has led to a lack of interest in young pastors to revitalize established Southern Baptist churches.
Church planting and church revitalization "should not be in conflict with one another, and they certainly shouldn't be in competition with one another," Rainer said, emphasizing that church growth and church health are inseparable.
"The reality is we are reaching less people for Christ. There can be no doubt about that," Rainer said, noting that some churches are either not reporting baptisms or refusing to baptize nominal believers.
"Our theology should drive us, compel us, to share the Good News of Christ," Rainer said. "There is evangelistic dearth taking place, and less evangelistic health."
Despite the decline of baptisms in Southern Baptist churches, the most rapid growth in baptisms is among children. Mohler noted, "The vast majority of people who have ever been baptized by our churches are our own offspring."
But Platt cautioned pastors to assess children's understanding of the Gospel message. "We want to always affirm what God is doing in children's lives," said Platt, who advocated walking children through the basics of faith before baptizing them.
"Keep encouraging this posture of repentance and faith in a child's heart and life, but be wise with the public expression."
Pastors and messengers who registered for the event received more than a dozen free resources, including a DVD of W.A. Criswell's classic sermons and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's Church Planting Survival Guide.
For more information on the Bapist21, including a video recording of the panel, visit www.baptisttwentyone.com.
S. Craig Sanders writes for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
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