Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Cultural Perspective

I watched a 1974 rerun of The Lawrence Welk Show last Saturday night on our PBS channel. When it started at 7:00 p.m., my wife said, “No, it’s dorky.” To her credit, however, she tolerated it well. I suggested to her that her reaction stemmed from her mindset as a high school senior in 1974. I also shared my opinion about the wholesome qualities of the program. Upon reflecting on the experience, I can understand the differing emotional reactions that each of us had to the program. When I was growing up in Memphis, watching the program on Saturday nights was a family ritual for me. Watching it again in 2007 brought back some of those pleasant feelings that I had in 1974. Ironically, watching The Lawrence Welk Show made me feel young again. My wife did not experience the same Saturday night ritual as she grew up in Florida and Alabama, and her initial reaction to the program in 2007 reflected the negative feelings she had about the program in 1974.

Many of our emotional reactions to events in our present cultural milieu can be traced to our cultural backgrounds. Understanding this phenomenon is important to our successful adaptation to a new culture. I experienced culture shock as an IMB missionary to South Korea, but I think it is also possible to experience culture shock in the United States. Our country includes a variety of very diverse cultures. Rather than being a melting pot, America is a stew pot or salad bowl. We must be careful to distinguish morally neutral cultural differences from things that are morally right or wrong.

Duane Elmer wrote a very helpful book entitled Cross-Cultural Connections (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2002). He drew a line with three areas of varying sizes, depending on one’s perspective: right—differences—wrong. Elmer made some useful comments about this line:

“Over time, it dawned on me that the things I put into the category of ‘right’ were the things that were like me and the things I pegged as ‘wrong’ were the things and people that were unlike me. . . . This kind of thinking will likely cause serious problems since we live in a world bursting with differences. . . . The Bible does speak of right and wrong. The modern tendency to categorize everything as a difference—‘your thing’ or ‘whatever’—leads us to very dangerous ground. A mindset where everything is ‘just different’—and nothing is judged by Scripture to be wrong or sinful—must be rejected. Contemporary culture has shifted from the rigid right-wrong categories of my childhood to the opposite extreme where virtually everything is different and nothing is declared wrong. Throwing out all absolutes doesn’t solve anything. Both extremes need to be avoided. . . . If we treat everything as right and wrong, we do a great disservice to the human diversity God has placed in his creation. If we treat everything as a cultural difference, we do a great disservice to the God who authored an uncompromising word of truth. I attempt to respect both God’s world and the Scripture.” (pages 24-25)

It wasn’t difficult for me to handle the cultural differences that I had with my wife in regard to The Lawrence Welk Show. The cultural and theological differences we have with other people in regard to more serious issues, however, are sometimes very difficult to handle. Our culturally different backgrounds may lead to different interpretations of Scripture passages. We should strive to exegete Scripture in a way that minimizes our own cultural biases. Sometimes it is very difficult to apply Scriptural principles to our own cultural context without doing so in a biased way. We must pray often for God's assistance in this very important activity.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Interesting Stats in Regard to Church Growth in the Memphis Area

On June 18, 2007, an interesting article appeared in the Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, in regard to church growth in Memphis. The article was entitled “Pews Filling Fast,” and it was written by James Dowd and based on research done by Laurie Cooper Stoll, a former graduate student at the University of Memphis. Her work was supervised by Larry Petersen, interim chairman of the Department of Sociology there.

Dowd described some of Stoll’s findings:

“Stoll researched 1,200 Christian churches in Shelby County. Of those, she tracked membership trends at 133 randomly selected Catholic and Protestant congregations from 1998 to 2003. The report draws on Census data from 1990 and 2000 as well as questionnaires and telephone interviews with clergy. The findings show that Evangelicals, broadly defined as theologically conservative and who teach the Bible as inspired by God, posted the highest level of growth. Close behind were fundamentalists, who accept the Bible as the literal and inerrant Word of God. Moderate and liberal branches mirrored national trends and experienced smaller gains. Other local findings that support national statistics show that congregations with myriad programs for young families and single adults tend to experience greater growth.”

Dowd also said, “The overwhelming majority of churches in Shelby County are growing, with evangelical congregations leading the way. But regardless of denomination, Christian churches here are thriving, with 70 percent reporting membership gains.”

I did a bit of research myself to see how the SBC churches in our local association have done in regard to growth. The Shelby Baptist Association (known as the Mid-South Baptist Association since 2004) consists of 139 churches. It is now a regional association, and it also includes some churches from two other states. In 1998 the average Sunday School attendance for churches in the association was 29,210, and in 2003 it was 28,078. Thus, the gains reported in the research done by Stoll were not reflected in our association as a whole. (The average Sunday School attendance for the association in 1980 was 33,885, and in 2005 it was 31,013.) I suppose it could be argued that worship attendance may have increased while Sunday School attendance remained stable, but I do not have average worship attendance data for the association.

The anecdotal evidence that I have heard about church growth in our association is not good. I’m not sure what the reasons are for the lack of growth in our association, but I am disturbed by the fact that we are not reaching the harvestable people as efficiently as other groups apparently are.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Where Are the Young Folks?

Last Saturday night I did something that I had wanted to do for a long time. I visited one of the ten fastest growing churches in America. It is not a Baptist church, and it is located in my area. In about 20 years of existence, it has grown from zero to about 7,000 members. (Prospective members must go through a six-week series of classes before they are official members.) Fortunately, the church has a Saturday night service which is exactly like its Sunday morning services, so I was able to get a good taste of its worship essence. I went with my wife, my two sons, a seminary student that I mentor each week, and his wife.

I enjoyed the experience. The worship building arrangement was unique. The podium was between the gymnasium and sanctuary, where I suppose a wall used to be in place. I assume that neither the gym nor the sanctuary would accommodate the crowds, so the decision was apparently made to utilize both. When I walked into the sanctuary, I thought at first that I was looking at a mirror when I saw people sitting on the other side of the podium in the gym. A couple of praise team members faced one side, and a couple of them faced the other side. The pastor switched sides at regular intervals during his sermons, but his face was always projected on the screens on both sides. The music was contemporary in style. The pastor utilized some movie clips to make his points during the sermon. The whole thing lasted exactly one hour. The church is presently building a new worship center.

What surprised me was the average age of the people gathered to worship. I looked around the room, and I noticed that most of the people were baby boomers like me. Everyone dressed very casually, and some guys my age wore shorts, etc. I had expected to see a lot of teenagers and younger adults in that type of atmosphere, but they just were not there. I was shocked. The experience confirmed what I have been hearing about young folks in America—they have left the churches. We went out to a restaurant for supper after we left the church, and we discussed the experience during the meal. I remarked that I had recently heard that seven or eight out of every ten students who grow up in American churches leave them within two years after graduation from high school. My seminary student friend, who is a youth minister, told me that 88% of our church kids leave church soon after high school graduation. I responded by noting the stats that each generation has a smaller percentage of Christians. The WWII generation has the highest percentage of Christians, and then the percentage lessens with each succeeding generation starting with the baby boomers. When one takes into consideration that most people become Christians when they are young, the stats are sobering, indeed. In most of the SBC churches that I have seen recently, there is a lot of silver hair but not much else. I fear for the future of our denomination and our country.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A Lack of Small Group Accountability for Witnessing

Lately I have been thinking about how to improve the efficiency of SBC evangelism in America. The problem is complicated. It is affected by cultural and demographic changes. Thus, I don’t want to sound too simplistic. We can control some factors such as training and motivation, but we cannot control other factors such as the aforementioned cultural and demographic changes in our communities.

Speaking of training programs, I think we have some very good ones available to our churches. I have been certified in EE, CWT, and FAITH. All three are valuable programs. Our SBC pastors received good evangelism training in our seminaries, and presumably they are imparting that training in their preaching and teaching. I don’t think training is the problem.

I also don’t think a “general type” of motivation is the problem. Most of our SBC pastors frequently mention the priority of evangelism to their people: keeping the main thing the main thing. I think most of our SBC people want to witness to others, in spite of whatever level of fear they might have of doing so. They have a general type of feeling that they want to witness.

What is missing is a “specific type” of motivation for witnessing on a regular basis. Merely scheduling a weekly visitation night is not enough to give most people in our churches that specific type of motivation. There should be an accountability factor that affects them on a regular basis. It should involve the community of believers in their immediate sphere of influence (their small group in their local church). This type of thing is quite difficult in our individualistic American culture. I served as an IMB missionary to South Korea for ten years, and I noticed in that group-oriented culture that small group accountability was a very powerful type of motivation for witnessing on a regular basis. FAITH has attempted to involve Sunday School classes more so than EE or CWT, but we still seem to be weak in the area of small group accountability. (There is a small accountability group for EE and CWT as long as the individual is in the witnessing program, but the group only contains EE and CWT participants, and thus it provides no accountability for other church members.) I can remember the 10-point system on offering envelopes many years ago. Church members put their money in the envelopes, but they also indicated on the envelope whether they had read their Bible daily, made contacts, etc. The class secretary tallied the total points for the class as well as the total offering. That is just one example of an attempt at small group accountability. Unfortunately, I don’t have a new accountability system in mind, but the problem is certainly worth studying.

Hopefully all SBC folks agree that accountability is important. Our children would probably not study very much if there were no tests and report cards. Wouldn't it be great if we could train our children to witness at a young age. They would become more and more skilled as they grew older. Why not require a mandatory witnessing course at Baptist high schools, colleges, and universities? The students would not graduate unless they passed the witnessing course. The course would include memorization of an outline, illustrations, relevant Bible passages, apologetics, and cultural analysis and adaptation. I hope this post provides some food for thought.