My grandparents remember the day when “religious diversity” in the South referred to the presence of multiple Christian denominations.

  • Pentecostals debating spiritual gifts with Baptists.
  • Presbyterians promoting perseverance of the saints over against the Methodists.
  • Episcopalians choosing high liturgy as opposed to evangelical expressions of low church piety.

Of the various Protestant denominations that have yielded influence in the South in the past 60 years, the churches belonging to the Southern Baptist Convention have been most dominant. Even today, the SBC still stands as the largest Protestant religious group in the United States. And yet the cultural rivers have shifted away from the quiet waters of a “Southern Baptist Zion” to the rushing rapids of accelerating cultural changes.

My hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is a case in point. Once a sleepy suburb well outside Nashville, Murfreesboro boasted of dozens of Southern Baptist churches. Twenty years ago, there were 46,000 residents. Today, there are 110,000. Though the number of Southern Baptist churches remains almost the same, Murfreesboro is, in many ways, a very different city. Recently, there was controversy surrounding the development of a Muslim mosque and community center. The dominance of evangelical Christianity in this city has been dwarfed by multi-culturalism, religious diversity, and an exploding population that our church plants aren’t able to keep up with. Murfreesboro is a microcosm of the population explosion throughout the country and the new cultural setting we find ourselves in.

Let me be clear. It won’t do for us to bemoan the disappearance of cultural Christianity. There were dangers then too, including an often watered-down gospel as well as cultural respectability that masked unregenerate hearts. Each generation faces its own challenges.

My point is that the cultural setting we are called to be faithful in today will be very different than the one our parents and grandparents knew. Christians will need to be equipped for a new day - a day when the offensiveness of the gospel spreads not only from the core of our message (Christ crucified and raised) but to its implications for Christian morality. A day when Christian morality is no longer seen as decent but repressive, bigoted, and intolerant. A day when beliefs in traditional tenets of the Christian faith – the exclusivity of Christ, the reality of hell, Jesus’ resurrection – are openly mocked in ways that the tenets of other religions are not.

Two Ways to Respond

How will Southern Baptists cope with the disappearance of “Zion”?

We could just choose to blend in, as some Catholics have. For years, Roman Catholic leaders have expressed concern over parishioners who attend Mass as upstanding citizens, wear the badge of their religious faith with honor, but all the while distance themselves from their Church’s views on birth control, abortion, homosexuality, etc.

A few months ago, I had lunch with a retired pastor of a large, respected evangelical church. He commented about how the culturally prominent members of his congregation, whenever questioned about the church’s unpopular views on morality, would simply state their disagreement with their church’s doctrine and move on. “I don’t agree with my church on that.” In other words, people belong to a church without subscribing to its beliefs. As a convictional Baptist, I hope we avoid a future that leaves us with only the cultural shell of Christianity and not its substance.

Another response to the disappearance of “Zion” is to become increasingly inward focused and insulated. Blinded by the cultural dominance we once had and banking on the social capital that belonged to our grandparents, we could fail to see the urgency of this hour and the utter lostness of those around us.

We might choose to expend too much energy debating over how to allocate shrinking funds or maintain the structures of yesteryear. Blogs and newspapers would provide space for endless conversations about the finer points of soteriology and the pros and cons of adopting a nickname. Meanwhile, as we talk amongst ourselves, we lose perspective, blow our differences out of proportion, and become increasingly deaf to our new cultural setting. Sometimes it feels like we’re medieval knights debating the advantages of feudalism even though the French Revolution has just taken place.

A Third Way

But there is a third way. To make the most of the opportunity before us.

Over against the first option that maintains numbers at the expense of convictions, we ought to take advantage of the opportunity for the light of true Zion to shine forth ever brighter in the darkness of Babylon. Just think! In a day and age where cohabitation is normal, the president affirms same-sex marriage, and the pressure is on to celebrate all kinds of sexual expression, Christians can seem extraordinary by simply living what was once ordinary Christian morality. By cherishing once-common things, such as marriage between a man and woman for life, and core Christian doctrines, such as the exclusivity of Christ for salvation, Christians have the opportunity for our ordinary obedience to shine even brighter in a pluralistic world that bows to Aphrodite.

Over against the second option that turns inward and insular, we have the opportunity to lay aside our differences, unite around our common confession, and lock arms for the cause of Christ and His kingdom. When we look inward, we see all the things that divide us. When we look outward to an increasingly hostile culture, we see all the things that unite us – our belief in the gospel, our Baptist distinctives, and our submission to the authority of God’s inerrant Word.

Time is short. The Evil One’s specialty is to sow seeds of division, spread discord, and create enmity between brothers. The only way to push back is to display open friendship and trust, to unite on the gospel and its power to save. When we do engage in debates about theology and strategy (and doubtless, we should), we will keep them in perspective as we seek to be ever faithful to our higher calling of fulfilling the Great Commission.

This is no time for us to be like Elijah, cowering in the corner convinced we are alone and need to retreat. Our God is the God of Mount Carmel. He will not be forever upstaged by idols.

Baptist Identity

The good news is all evangelicals have something to gain from Southern Baptist faithfulness. As we move among the crumbling remains of Christendom, we can smile. After all, we’re used to being on the outs with the state. Even more, we’re used to being on the outs with the church-state too! We’re Baptists. Like that of the early church, our identity has been forged in the midst of cultural alienation and exile.

Baptists in other parts of the world (my family and friends in Romania, for example) know firsthand what social ostracism looks like. The more you get to know Baptists in other parts of the country, the more you realize that the cultural dominance we have enjoyed in the South is the exception, not the rule. 

The tributaries that have come together to form the rushing river of Baptists today (Anabaptists, general Baptists, particular Baptists) all knew something of persecution. We’ve been belittled and mocked before, sometimes by other Christians. Why not again, this time by secularists? And what if, at this very hour, we will be the ones to help other evangelicals learn how to thrive in lean times?

Hope

Let’s not shrink back from the future that awaits us. We may be given the honor of suffering for the Name. So let’s willingly put ourselves at odds with the culture, expect the social ostracism we can see on the horizon, and stand joyfully amidst the ruins of Christendom while we continue to proclaim the excellencies of the Risen One.

We may have to dig deeper and stand stronger than ever before. But no matter how mighty Babylon may seem or how dim the future looks, we must remember one thing.

There is an empty tomb in Jerusalem.

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Comments:


15 thoughts on “Southern Baptists, I Have a Feeling We’re Not in Zion Anymore”

  1. Brent Hobbs says:

    I believe (and hope I’m right) that the vision presented here reflects the desire of the vast majority of messengers who will be at the annual meeting. I hope it’s apparent in what happens there.

  2. Trevin,

    This is a great post. A quote from one of my seminary classes comes to mind that sums everything up. “We train people to minister in Jerusalem but we are living in Athens.” You may not be in Athens yet but we sure are. Being from Canada we lost whatever Christian influence we had a long time ago. But as you pointed out there are many opportunities to let your light shine in a multicultural society. For instance, I talked with a Pastor on Saturday whose church teaches English As A Second Language and they have 250 Muslim and Hindu people each week. What an opportunity!!!!!

  3. Ken Nichols says:

    Trevin,
    Very thoughtful, and helpful post.
    We are indeed ministering in a new (for us) culture in the increasingly pluralistic South. Our peculiarity as Christians has never been more important. May we strive for holiness, unity and be prepared to give a reason for our hope.

  4. Scott Place says:

    This is a terrific post Trevin! We covered a lot of similar ground with my middle school Bible study class last Sunday, so I’ll probably use this with them this coming Sunday. Very thoughtful and well written!

  5. Roger Sharp says:

    Trevin,

    Thanks for this post. Myself, having grown up in Oklahoma and enjoying ‘Zion,’ has learned much from my wife, who grew up in secular Oregon. You have correctly outlined the problem.

    Keep a close eye on Houston Baptist University. New Provost John Mark Reynolds, along with President Robert Sloan, have outlined a degree program that directly challenges the cultural influence so needed in our current setting. The Cultural Apologetics MA along with the MA Phil with Apologetics certificate, is a strong answer. Contact Mary Jo Sharp (Director of the Global Apologetics program at HBU) at [email protected] for more info. Also, here is a recent interview of John Mark Reynolds describing the degree programs: http://www.apologetics315.com/2012/06/apologist-interview-john-mark-reynolds.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=facebook

    HBU is poised to impact not only the south, but also the world.

    Blessings,

    Roger Sharp
    Houston, Texas

  6. “It won’t do for us to bemoan the disappearance of cultural Christianity. There were dangers then too, including an often watered-down gospel as well as cultural respectability that masked unregenerate hearts.”

    Best thing I’ve read all day. Thanks for the reminder, Trevin

  7. Tony says:

    While the old southern baptist may have been your “zion”…you fail to mention that this same group agreed with the Jim Crow laws and were extremely hateful to their Christian brothers. The rich man never hurt lazarus…just ignored him. While denominations argue over things the world suffers. If they were wrong then, what are they wrong about now…they’ll never know because they won’t ask.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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