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December 10, 2012

by Brian Robertson, Ph.D.
Pastor,  First Baptist Church Kenton, Tenn.


I attended a Southern Baptist church nine months before I was born. I come from, if you will, a “minister’s family,” as my father is retired from a Southern Baptist entity; my grandfather was a Minister of Education; and my uncle has been an IMB missionary more than 35 years. Both my parents were not only “saved,” but they have lived their lives as true, yet, imperfect, examples of born-again believers.

Through experiences in life, I have had the privilege to observe several thousand churches, listen to numerous pastors, worship in practically every style available, dialog with brothers and sisters in Christ, and read countless books on the church. As a pastor, I have served four churches, three of which were seminary pastorates, and have a Master’s, and Ph.D. from a Southern Baptist seminary in evangelism.

I have read thousands of books, articles, blogs, etc., concerning the state of the church. People make statements such as, “We’re not growing because preachers don’t preach expository messages,” “We’re not growing because we don’t sing hymns,” “We’re not growing because we don’t sing praise choruses/contemporary music,” “We’re not growing because we’re not planting churches,” “We’re not growing because of the Calvinism/Arminianism debate,” “We’re not growing because we don’t do it the way we used to,” “We’re not growing because we’re not using the right evangelistic strategies,” and so forth.  I have attended conferences on church growth, planting, evangelism, Sunday school, preaching, worship, and the like, but I am not convinced a lack in any one or more of these is the single reason for the decline not only in our denomination, but also, in the fervor of the average church member. Yes, we often try and emphasize church maturity/discipleship through contemporary books such as Radical, Not a Fan, and Crazy Love (I do not personally subscribe to the theological positioning of these works). While discipleship is critical to the spiritual development/growth of a born-again believer, the greatest sources of discipleship are the Word of God and the Holy Spirit.

It seems that my generation is bogged down in such areas as a theological understanding of the Gospel through the eyes of John Calvin and Jacobus Arminius; preaching that is either too contemporary and less biblical, or preaching which is more biblical with no practicality; and worship as the purpose of the church instead of worship as a result from obedience to Christ—that is, making disciples (Matt 28:18-20). I have read others writings, studied my discipline—evangelism, heard preachers (some with genuine hearts, others with agendas), examined the Scriptures, and served churches, and all the while, I witness our world growing colder to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Many people have tried to explain through various means as to why the church in the West is in decline. Some would say it is the government. While others would argue that our morality is the chief cause. Yet, I believe the answer is simple. What I am about to say is not earth-shattering, but it is what Jesus himself says in one of the letters to the 7 churches in Revelation. He says, “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet, I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first” (Rev 2:2-4).

We can try to explain the decline in our denomination and the influence of the local church, but I truly believe that for many, we have forsaken our first love—Jesus. Yes, we say that we love Jesus. We sing songs to him. We give of our tithes and offerings. We participate in local church ministries, serve on state boards, prepare and preach Spirit-led messages, and so forth. Yet, less than five percent (and that is a generous number) of all evangelical Christians in America will ever one time, verbally share their faith with someone who is lost. Why is this so? We could write volumes on the response, but simplistically speaking, we have lost our passion and zeal for the Gospel of Jesus Christ because we have become so inundated with secondary issues, we have neglected the primary issue—our love of Jesus.

1 John 4:8 proclaims, “God is love.” Paul, in Romans 5:8, points out that “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Yes, Christ is all about love, and while sin nailed Him to the cross, love kept Him there; but He challenges us in Revelation 2 to return to the time when we first fell in love with Him and there remain. Remember what He says in John 15, “Remain in Me, and I will remain in you.” If you have ever been married, then you understand the meaning of a “honeymoon.” It is a time when you and your spouse grow closer spiritually and emotionally. Often, when a couple returns from this occasion, the love will last for a while, but eventually, the rigors of life creep in, and pretty soon, while love remains, the intimacy that once existed, seemingly is forgotten. Jesus wants the born-again believer to never leave the honeymoon time with Him. Our churches are filled with people when asked about their salvation who say, “I was saved.” Friend, our salvation is a continuous action as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” We are justified through Christ’s sacrificial death (and yes, “saved” from the consequences of sin and sealed in the Holy Spirit), sanctified through His Spirit to become more like Him, and one day, we will be glorified and our salvation be made complete. I wish people would respond to the question, “Are you saved?,” with “Yes. I am, but Christ is not through with me. I want to know Him more through our relationship, and I want others to know the joy I have in my life since Jesus has taken control.”

We could continue for many pages with such statements, but as a Baptist preacher, let me leave you with three applicable points.

1) Surrender. For many, we received the message of Christ and believed it was true, but we did not surrender everything to Him. Jesus pleads with us and demands our surrender (Luke 9:23) if we are to follow Him. Surrender is simply throwing up the white flag, putting down your defenses, and allowing God to have all of who you are.

2) Sell Out. Paul said, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Paul was completely sold out to the Gospel and growing in Christ. Yet, more than anything, he sought to see people saved. He says in Romans 10:1, “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.” In his dialog with King Agrippa, he asserts, “I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am” (Acts 26:29). Why does Paul’s heart bleed for those who are lost? In his own words, because “God wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). If Jesus is everything to us, and we love Him more than anything else, then we ought to have a passion to proclaim evangelistically the Gospel that Christ Jesus is risen indeed!

3) Sell All. The rich young ruler was willing to follow Christ, but he was not willing to sell all that he had. Whatever it is that keeps us from loving Christ without limits, may we throw that away and enter into a love relationship with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. As Paul says, “I no longer live, but it is Christ who lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Oh, how He loves you and me!

As we love Him and experience His never-ending, never-failing love for us, let us continue preaching with fire and steadfastness the Word of God, praying in a penitent manner for the condition of ourselves, the lost world, and our leaders (local church, denominational, and government), worshiping in Spirit and truth, writing encouraging words towards one another, engaging the lostness of mankind through missions and evangelism, being filled with the Spirit of God, and equipping one another for service. No matter what our methods may be Jesus must be LORD in our lives! It may seem that the situation is dire and the circumstances are bleak, but I am reminded of what John says about Jesus, “The light shines through the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome/understood it.” May God bless us as we seek to be His blessing to the world by telling people what Jesus Christ has done for us!

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Adam Harwood

Dr. Robertson,

Thanks for your clarion call to fix our eyes on Jesus.

In Him,

Adam

Bill Signer

Dr. Robertson,

Thanks for your post. When I think of the most besetting sins in my life, it boils down to a failure on my part to fully love Jesus as I should…..thank God for the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit.

I would like a clarification…. explain worship being a result of obedience. When I read the Bible, worship is an act of obedience, but not a result of obedience.

Thanks for reading,

Bill

    Brian Robertson

    Bill,
    Thanks for your reply. It is a “both” “and” scenario. While yes, worship itself is an act of obedience, worship also is a reflection of obedience in one’s life. You cannot separate the two. God tells Saul, “I desire obedience, not sacrifice.” You are probably aware of what the prophet Amos shares in Amos 5:21-24 where God states He is tired of the worship Israel offers to Him. In our culture today, worship is pressed/encouraged as something we do to honor God alone. Absolutely! Worship is all about God and His greatness; however, worship w/o obedience is not worship . . . it is attendance. We have too many people who attend services, lift “holy” hands to God, sing songs (doesn’t matter the style), and place a check by their names because they have “come to church.” While church attendance and participation are crucial to the spiritual development of a believer (Heb 10:25-26), we must be a people who are sold out to what Christ asserts is “Making disciples.” In the “Great Commission” (we use 1 passage to define this, while there are actually 5 GC texts in the NT in each Gospel + Acts-1:8), “make disciples” is the ONLY imperative given to the church. Baptizing and teaching result from this activity of confession/profession/repentance. If one is to worship Christ, and Christ demands obedience, and obedience is making disciples, then as Christians, we should be concerned with sharing the Gospel through personal evangelism, praising God through a person’s surrender of self to Christ, and seeking God as to how we might encourage a person to walk with Him through discipleship.
    I pray this helps as an explanation. But again, it is a both, and situation–I used “result” simply for the context of the article.

Ron F. Hale

It is good to read your inspirational challenge, but to also know that you are living it out as your congregation is reaching out to people in your community and seeing a good number of people saved and following the Lord in baptism and involvement in the local church. Blessings My Brother!

Mary

Very meaningful article. Thank you for the challenge!

volfan007

Brian,

Great insight. This is what I’ve saying for years. I, too, have heard much about Church growth, and what’s causing us to not win more lost people. I, too, have heard of so many “new programs,” which are gonna result in growth. I am growing weary of all such things.

I think you’re right. The Church needs to just fall in love with Jesus, again.

BTW, it was great singing with you in the Christmas Musical. I look forward to singing with you, again, this Sunday at Bethel!

David

Brian Robertson

David,

I had no idea you were VolFan 007. Bless your heart. I was secretly hoping you would choose Bobby Petrino . . . ha ha ha! Anyway, thank you for the words. After much soul searching, this article is simply a release of some passion that has been brewing in my heart and soul for years. The answer to the SBC’s decline and really, for that matter, the decline of evangelicalism, is that many, if not most, believers are just not in love with Jesus. We fall in love with things such as music, our churches, religious settings, evangelistic outreaches, and even the Bible (we become infatuated w/ the book and not the author–God), to the point “love of Christ” becomes rote. I believe that what Jesus seeks is a true, genuine/authentic relationship with Him whereby we are making disciples through professing He is our Risen Lord and Savior to a lost and dying world. If we have the light, that light must be shared outwardly or else it will burn itself up.
See you later this week! Brian

Johnathan Pritchett

Amen, I agree. Which means…

Sadly, for all the chest-thumping about the Conservative Resurgence and decrying liberalism, typical SBC churches act just like liberal mainline denominations in practice. We are just bigger, and say “uh-huh” to the things they don’t. That makes it worse, not better.

As someone who has recently dabbled in being a professional church visitor, SBC or otherwise, I can scarcely tell the differences between any of them as far as the that “fervor” bit goes.

In any case, I can’t say I am too worried about the decline anymore. Maybe we need to bottom out in order to start anew. In such cases as falling out of love with Jesus, it could be that we deserve it.

Though, we’ll always have those lies told on the membership rolls to make the decline look not as bad as it really is… ;)

    Norm Miller

    Johnathan: I would be interested in all of your observations as you search for a new church home. — Norm

      volfan007

      Johnathan,

      I love you, Bro. But, you werent around to know just how bad things were getting in the SBC before the CR took place. It was bad and getting worse….way worse. Things are a million times better in the SBC now….even with the problems we’re facing, and even with too many Churches being dead; lacking the love and fire of the faith.

      But, you are right about the SBC needing to fall in love with Jesus, again….we really, really need to be filled with the Spirit’s fire in a fresh way….

      David

        Johnathan Pritchett

        What I am saying is that there is a “honor me with their lips, but…” thing going on.

        Affirmations that are empty are just that…empty. That is all I meant. If the practical difference between many SBC churches and many liberal Protestant churches is zero, then I don’t think that is much to hoot over. At best, we can pat ourselves on the back for having orthodox affirmations, but at worst, it is politicking in the name of conservative principles for its own sake. Yuck to all that. What good is it to affirm inerrancy and so forth if the contents of those inerrant texts are disregarded?

        Here is my thing. The SBC is in decline…a slow, but steady decline. This means something is wrong. We can say “fall in love with Jesus again”, but that is axiomatic. There are actual issues tied to that.

        We can’t blame the TBN and Osteen crowd for it. That has scant to do with the SBC. We can’t blame the Calvinism debate either. It is issues at the local church level, and at the heart level, regardless of what the Convention leaders, seminaries, and local church doctrinal statements affirm. Whenever I teach on the doctrine of inerrancy, I always close with asking, “what does it matter that we believe in inerrancy if the Bible has no authority over us?”

        You know how many sermons I have heard, from big names like David Platt to the no name preachers here in North Little Rock that bemoan the woes of what is ailing the SBC?

        Plenty. One thing I can’t help but think is that “hey, this church probably stinks too…”

        The reality is, with all these unhelpful critics not pointing to their own churches, or bravely naming some church down the road or even nationally known as an example of the problem, it will not be corrected. Paul pointed to specifics and named names. There is obviously a decline in the SBC, and obviously, the only way people will talk about it is vaguely. That is most unhelpful in my opinion. Because, it is never “our church”, but “those churches”, but if all the churches are saying “other churches” and not “our church”, then which churches is it?

        See the problem in all this?

        People cry out for revival, but I can imagine God saying “don’t look at me, my Word tells you what to do already and has for centuries.” Revival is a bit silly in my opinion anyway. Repentance, now that is Biblical. Asking the Holy Spirit to show up at such and such time when the tent gets set up and the speakers’ itineraries are confirmed is contrived nonsense. It is no wonder God doesn’t come at the beckon calls. The hearts are right for it.

        The reason the SBC isn’t “revived” is because no matter what people claim to want, they don’t actually want it, or otherwise, it would happen.

        When I was a pastor, I knew what was wrong with the SBC…my church was one of those problem churches in the SBC. Call people to repent, and guess what, people start showing up… and then the church “movers and shakers” send you packing. So it goes. There were 13 when I got there, 45-50 when I left, and now there is about 7 still hanging around looking for a pastor to control.

        Change starts in the pulpits. More pastors need to put their own congregations on blast before they start bemoaning the SBC in general in their sermons, especially if they are the vague, unhelpful critic types. We all don’t love God as we ought, have sin we ignore, and so forth. I want things to change, and be used by God to bring about change, but still, I don’t love God as I ought, have sin I ignore, etc. too.

        Repentance and correction (gasp, church discipline), that’s the key, as that is what the Bible teaches, not revivals.

        Just my $0.02

        If I am wrong, well, I’ll simply ask, “how’s the alternatives going so far?” ;)

      Johnathan Pritchett

      I would love to tell you about it. Maybe I will write something up. The good news is that we have found an SBC church we are attending and will probably join. The pastor is a Calvinist, and a dear friend of mine, and doesn’t push it from the pulpit. He’s one of the good guys who thinks “New Calvinism” and its accompanied attitude is worthless and embarrassing for Calvinism.

        Norm Miller

        J: I think your observations — unvarnished and frank — would be good info for all of us who are associated with ministry. My wife and I have struggled to find a church we deemed thorough-goingly New Testament during the years as we have moved for ministry’s sake . The adage is ‘if you find a perfect church, don’t join it.’ I get the two implied truths. 1) there are no perfect churches; and 2) I am not perfect (but am being sanctified, PTL!). Our single-most important criterion was the preaching. My conviction is that, if the pulpit is strong, then the church has a chance at effective ministry. But if the pulpiteer is a convention climber, or ear tickler, or deacon pleaser, or platitude repeater, then keep looking. When a true man of God stands behind the sacred desk and rightly divides the Word, spiritual food is proffered. That’s what happens at the church we now attend. Thanks be to God. — Norm

          Mary

          Norm wrote: “My conviction is that, if the pulpit is strong, then the church has a chance at effective ministry. But if the pulpiteer is a convention climber, or ear tickler, or deacon pleaser, or platitude repeater, then keep looking.”

          This is a very wise way to decide which church to attend. I think I will save this helpful comment in my computer. Thanks!

          Johnathan Pritchett

          My friend (John Winters is his name) is the kind of pastor you’d like then, even if he is Reformed. He is a good preacher, doesn’t embellish his personality nor his Calvinism from the pulpit, and he has been there for seven years at that church, which only runs about 80.

          He is about to finish his Ph.D at B.H. Carroll, and his professors initially shopped his resume without his knowledge, and he constantly turns down bigger churches since he feels God isn’t done with him where he is at and there is still much work to do in that community. At 35 in his position, he could have the pick of the litter of SBC churches looking for pastors, Reformed or not, and chooses to stay put.

          For these things and more, he has my deepest respect.

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