Brother Bill Harrell has done it again. In this two part series he presents to us some of the issues we must be aware as we lead our churches.
William F. (Bill) Harrell, has been the Pastor of Abilene Baptist Church in Augusta, GA for the past 30 years. He has served in many capacities in the Georgia Baptist Convention as well as the Southern Baptist Convention and has just completed his second eight year term on the Executive Committee of the SBC. Brother Bill, as he is affectionately called, was vitally involved on the Executive Committee during the years of the Conservative Resurgence chairing one of the main sub-committees through which many of the necessary changes were made. He is the preacher on Strength For Today, the television ministry of Abilene Baptist which has a potential audience of over two million people each week in Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee.
In the early nineties, a movement was born in the Evangelical world which has grown beyond the expectations of even those who started it. A pastor in Chicago, Bill Hybels, is credited with being the genesis of the contemporary movement and even he has acknowledged the destructive side of it and has stated so. When I concluded my first eight year term on the Executive Committee of the SBC, I delivered a short devotional to the subcommittee on which I was serving. In that devotional, I stated that there were two things which were going to have to be confronted and solved in the coming years and that they both begin with a “C”.
The two things to which I was referring are Contemporary worship and Calvinism. Concerning the Contemporary worship style, I made the following observation: There is the risk of losing our denominational identity because people, by their nature, would always be looking for something new and fresh and that they would ultimately seek things which have, traditionally, been outside of who we are as Southern Baptists. I stated that we would finally become confused as to who we are and if we become confused about it, the society around us will see nothing distinctive about us at all. The result will be that we will blend into the surrounding spiritual landscape to the point that we will no longer be recognized as the Southern Baptist Convention we have known. This is in the process of happening to us and it is happening at warp speed.
The second thing I mentioned beginning with a “C” was Calvinism. In the SBC of the early nineties hardly anyone could see that, ultimately, this would be a problem. We have always had Calvinists in our midst and we have coexisted with no problems. Even a cursory reading of history will show one that, while seventeenth and eighteenth century preachers in our developing country disagreed on this issue, they respected each other and worked together. After the formation of the SBC in 1845 we might have disagreed with each other but we never sought to bring the SBC to a unified position on the issue. Everyone could believe as he preferred as long as salvation through the blood of Jesus was the unifying factor. However, I believed then, in 1994, and I believe now, that the Calvinists had an agenda to identify the SBC as a “reformed” convention. While no one denies that many of our prominent founders were Calvinists, there were others who were not. Whatever the case, the SBC began to turn away from that position near the middle of the nineteenth century. This has resulted in those holding to Calvinism being in a small minority among our people and churches.
While Calvinism is in the minority in the SBC, it enjoys influence far beyond its numbers. As certain leaders have committed themselves to the “reformed” position for the SBC, they have affected this effort by intentionally raising up an “army” of Calvinists through the educational system that the people of the SBC have paid for with their Cooperative Program dollars. This army is dedicated to the task of seeing that Calvinism is the major theological position of the Southern Baptist Convention. These leaders have known that the young people who have been indoctrinated with the five point Calvinistic model will be just as dedicated to seeing it succeed as those of us were who fought the Battle for the Bible and dedicated ourselves to the task of dealing with the issue of inerrancy.
As I have said on other occasions, I feel it is necessary to reiterate it here: I have no problem with one holding the “reformed” or Calvinistic theological stance. They are free to believe as they wish and though I believe they are wrong, I have never let this disagreement hinder my fellowship with those people. Let it also be stated that I do not seek to “convert” a person to my viewpoint. Many lively discussions have been held but that was the end of it when the discussion was finished. The fact that I have had noted Calvinists lead revivals in my church are proof of the fact that I harbor no ill feelings toward someone who follows that theological model. However, I am opposed to the effort to “reform” the SBC especially through a planned, orchestrated process which has that end as its goal.
Anyone who has followed the situation closely knows that one of our theological seminaries in particular is leading the way with this agenda. A second seminary has joined the effort in recent years after employing a new president who is in the process of taking that school into the same camp. That Calvinism was taught at our seminaries in the past was not a big deal to most Southern Baptists, but to intentionally transform those schools for the intended purpose of installing Calvinism in the SBC in order that we be touted as a “reformed” convention is too much for me to tolerate. I also feel that the majority of the people in the SBC share the same feelings. The above statements will be vigorously denied but as my Grandmother used to say, “the proof is in the pudding.”
Competition for members between churches in a given geographical area has resulted in those churches taking the contemporary movement to the extreme in order to attract the largest crowd. When one church goes to a certain level of the contemporary, casual model, others feel they must do the same things or either invent some new twist which will attract more people than their “competition.” One noted pastor said that he wanted his music to get more “edgy” because he was tired of losing members to another certain church in town. This approach is dangerous because of the nature of human beings. When people are being entertained they always want something more sensational than they had the time before. Human nature is never satisfied with its experience and is always seeking something new in order to keep itself entertained. Just ask Disney about this. Why are they always adding new attractions? Once people have been there, done that and have the tee shirt, they want something new in order for the entertainment factor to always be there. Churches are experiencing the same thing.
First, there was the addition of screens with graphics for an audience which was raised on television and video games. Then there was the abandonment of hymn books and those old, musty hymns for the new, bright, entertaining choruses. Of course, they were tailor made for the video screen and for quick and easy access. Besides, one no longer had to hold the hymn book….that heavy old thing. Along with that came the idea that everyone, no matter their physical condition, should stand for thirty minutes or so while they look at the video screen, read the words and sing the choruses. This has its roots in the rock concert scene where young people stand for hours and listen to a rock band. So let’s copy that behavior in our church. Surely, it will work here too. Then, lo and behold, in order to further emulate what the world does, let’s bring more entertainment and excitement by adding strobe lights and smoke framed up in a black background. Don’t forget to make it so loud that one can hardly stand the decibel levels. That is what one gets with the secular rock bands. I believe this: the medium becomes the message if one cannot understand the words. And, in most cases, a person would be hard pressed to understand the words as performed by the “Christian rock bands” which copy the style of the secular bands. While we are doing all of this, we must do away with that old choir. Too many older people in it and the young people won’t come to our church if they see that. We can replace it with about six people with microphones and a pied piper in order to lead our people in the choruses they are going to read off the screen. This writer is not trying to be sarcastic but when the truth sounds sarcastic, so be it.