Getting back to Christian Basics

bargraphBy Joe LaGuardia

There has been much discussion over a recent study from the Pew Research Center.  It reveals a rise of people of no faith (“the unaffiliated”) and the demise of Christianity in our nation.

The percentage of “unaffiliated” people rose from 16% to over 23% in the last seven years, while the percentage of Christians has steadily decreased.

Some say the decline is a result of the lack of institutional loyalty, while others blame a loss of “traditional values” in the public sector.  Many argue that these trends are regional and the statistics should be taken with a grain of salt: Christianity represents the largest religion in the world, and it is actually growing in continents located in the southern hemisphere of our planet.  Christianity is flourishing, just not the way we westerners are accustomed.

Diagnosticians like Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, see it differently: He contends that Christianity is not dying, but “jettisoning” a type of faith too liberal to be called as such, one that promotes atheism in disguise.

“We do not have more atheists in America; we have more honest atheists in America,” he wrote.

Also, the percentage of evangelical Christians, who tend to be more conservative, are stable if not in decline.  The number of evangelicals only decreased by less than 1%, which seems to support Moore’s assessment.

The devil, as they say, is in the details.  For one, evangelicals have remained steady not because of growth (decline is decline whether it is 1% or 3%), but because evangelicals retain more children than other Christian subcultures.

Second, a growing population of immigrants and minorities, who err on the side of conservatism, helps fill pews otherwise empty in evangelical churches.

Third, more mainline churches now consider themselves “evangelical,” as denominations fracture over liberal and conservative fault lines.

Fourth, studies show that growing churches tend to be evangelical megachurches with founding pastors.  Saying that the decline of mainline churches is due to theological liberalism is actually beside the point because all small churches are declining rapidly, not to mention that the Southern Baptist Convention has experienced decline in the past decade.

No matter who is providing an assessment on the Pew Research results, I think that the truth is somewhere in the middle.  I agree with Moore that Christians who are, in his words, “almost-Christian,” have rarely helped Christ’s cause in our nation.  I just disagree with Moore’s caricature of theology as the reason for decline.

mosaicChristian liberalism did not add to the faith’s decline; rather, it failed to bring out the best of what Christianity had to offer in the last century of our nation’s history.  In the first four centuries of the Christian church, the population of Christians grew from a few hundred people to millions–as many as half the population of the Roman Empire by some estimates.  Christianity grew not because is was more traditional or conservative, but because Christians readily adapted to a culture in need of radical hospitality.

According to Roman pagan philosophers, Christianity’s hospitality was too liberal to take seriously: Churches were egalitarian in outreach and leadership.  They did not enjoy prestige or privilege.  They included people normally marginalized in the ancient world–a liberal value if there ever was one.

Christians in the first century did not refuse to provide pizzas or wedding cakes to people; rather, Christians opened their doors to all people, and it often got them in trouble with the authorities.

The wave of Christian decline shouldn’t cause Christians of different theologies to turn on each other.  A large percentage of Americans view all Christians, no matter the denomination, as hostile, exclusive, prejudiced, and out of touch with the rest of the world.  This is the reason for decline.

We Christians have a choice to make.  We can circle the wagons and blame each other for our faith’s decline or we can take a look at our own failures.  It is time to overcome our differences, and develop a fuller outreach program that is surprisingly inclusive, vibrant, creative, and grace filled in a culture that longs for the type of belonging only churches can provide.

What’s in a name? Southern Baptists and Baptist identity

A conflict in my church’s recent history concerned a rumor that made its way through the congregation.  Some were under the belief that the staff was planning on dropping the “Baptist” in Trinity Baptist Church.

Not sure how the rumor got started, especially since staff then (and now) are more Baptist than many folks in the pew.  It points to the importance that names have, especially when it conjures notions of identity and history.

Back then, church name-changing was common; and although its been nearly a decade, churches are continuing to drop denominational monikers all over the country.

Even denominations are reconsidering.  In an article for “USA Today,” Jonathon Merritt reported that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) executive committee put together a task force to study whether having “Southern” in the name hinders its mission.

SBC execs argue that “Southern” points to an antiquated, regional identity.  The Convention no longer advocates for a “Southern agenda nor a Southern vision,” according to Albert Mohler as quoted in Merritt’s article.

That may be true in theory; but, although I do not have any right to opine on the wisdom of this latest discussion (since I am not involved in the Convention per se), it would be hard to argue that the Convention does not reflect a southern ethic.  I can speak confidently about that because I am, after all, a Yankee in King Mohler’s court.

I once visited a church that refused to identify itself as Southern Baptist.  The goal was to not turn away visitors, but ten minutes into worship and three minutes into the sermon, my wife and I knew the church was nothing less than Baptist.  It was not just the pastor’s southern drawl that gave it away.

I understand the Convention’s reasons for giving up the name.  Southern Baptists have the reputation for being too far to the right, too politically involved, and too exclusive.  Whether or not that is true of Southern Baptists in general or in particular is besides the point.   Even Merritt points to a survey in which 40% of 18 to 24-year olds would not visit a church if it was Southern Baptist in name.

Many times, perception is reality.  Trinity has had several families visit just in the past year who said they hesitated coming to church because we had “Baptist” in our name.  Likewise, if the Convention wants to focus on church planting in North America, it will be an uphill battle to found a new Southern Baptist congregation in say, Manhattan.

Nevertheless, if it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck…

For years, many friends and I have been salvaging the “Baptist” part of our churches to rebrand what many feel is a more mainline trajectory in church life.  Opponents of this trend have labelled many a church “liberal,” hoping to hinder our own church growth for some rhyme or reason.  We argued all along that at least we didn’t give up on our heritage.

That brings us to the heart of the matter: Is subterfuge an effective means of evangelism?   Perhaps the Convention should take it from us and not give up on what it means to be Southern.  That, and focus energy on fixing their reputation.

Don’t give up on “Southern,” just help the public discover why many thousands of individuals are proud to be Southern Baptists in the first place.  Don’t abandon an identity because of polls; rather, work hard in the years to come so that the polls reflect a different perception.

No amount of name-changing will shape the SBC in the near future.  Its reputation for good or ill still precedes it.  Perhaps its time to ask what needs to be done about those perceptions instead, because even if it quacks like a duck, one will still eventually find out that it could be a Baptist in disguise.  It’s just a matter of time.

The year of the Bible [translations]

As the 400th birthday of the King James Version comes and goes this year, several new Bibles are hitting stores to offer “fresh” translations to a timeless word.  Whether these newbies will find a captive audience and dominate the Bible market as did the KJV is yet to be determined.

Regular readers of my column know that I have an affinity for Bibles.  Every year, I devote a column or two to Bible translations and point out the various nuances that make the world of Bible publishing an exciting one.  For this column, I offer a short report to keep us up-to-date.

One version due in September is called the Common English Bible, published by a consortium of denominational printers ranging from the United Methodist Church (Abingdon Press) to the Disciples of Christ (Chalice Press).  As a “paraphrase” translation (a mixture of word-for-word and thought-for-thought translation), it intends to reach a wide audience of all ages.

According to the CEB committee’s website, the version will be a “bold new translation designed to meet the needs of Christians as they work to build a strong and meaningful relationship with God through Jesus Christ.”

Although I think the use of the word “bold” is a bit brash, the New Testament (available in paperback and ecoleather since 2010) does seem to offer a rich structure and a clear, concise voice to God’s good news.  It has a single-column “readers” format, so it makes for easy reading in a favorite armchair.

I am interested to see how the CEB holds up to congregational worship, and it can’t be all that bad: One of the board members, Sharyn Dowd, is a noted New Testament scholar on staff at the First Baptist Church of Decatur.

The second translation coming out this year is a bit more controversial.  It is the “2011 edition” of the New International Version (NIV) published by Zondervan.  Unlike the Common English Bible, which is a new translation altogether, the NIV 2011 is a revision of the bestselling 1984 edition.

The NIV 2011 is already causing a stir because it utilizes “gender-neutral” language. This move on the part of the translators recalls the curse of the Today’s New International Version (TNIV), which came out in the late 1990s.  It, too, had gender-inclusive language and apparently flopped.  Many evangelicals and conservatives despised the tampering of God’s word, and they insured the TNIV’s death in 2009.

The same conflict is resurfacing now even though the NIV 2011 committee (according to their website) reconsidered and voted on each verse in which gender-inclusive language was used.  That, despite the fact that the new edition retains over 95% of the NIV’s original language.

At least one denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, practically banned the Bible.  Last month in Phoenix, messengers at the SBC general convention passed a resolution that warns fellow Baptists of the new translation and “respectfully requests” that Lifeway bookstores (the Baptist chain) avoid selling it altogether.

For others, there is the fear that Zondervan–the sole publisher of the NIV–will cease publication of the 1984 version once the 2011 edition hits bookshelves.  This spells the end of nearly three decades of one of the best selling Bibles in recent history, and it ironically insures the exclusive reign of the gender-inclusive enterprise.

Yet, a third hurdle for the ill-fated edition is the current phone-hacking news scandal by media conglomerates tied to Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp.  Fact is, Murdoch owns Zondervan, and the accusations can potentially tarnish the Zondervan brand for many a Christian.

My guess is that translations will continue to rise and fall with the times.  None will replace the beloved King James Version; none will be without its particular controversies.  My encouragement to you is simple and always the same: No matter what Bible you decide to use, read it and read it often.  That’s what counts in the end.