What conversations are worth our time and energy?
a new conversation
by James Forlines
In the last issue of ONE Magazine I urged Free Will Baptists to consider changing their conversation. I suggested that perhaps we have given too much time and energy to discussing things about which we do not agree, things we do not have in common.
After reading such an article, logical questions include: What should we be discussing? What things are worth our time and energy? The following article addresses those questions. I am not suggesting this list is exhaustive. It simply indicates the kinds of communication that will be beneficial, uplifting, and essential as we move forward. Along the way, we might discover that we have more in common than we thought.
Free Will Baptists believe that the truths necessary for mankind to be in right relationship with God are found in the Bible, His inerrant Word. We all believe:
Everyone has sinned and is separated from God.
Heaven and Hell are real, and they are forever.
Jesus is the only way to salvation.
All may come to Him if they accept Christ (a foundational distinctive for Free Will Baptists).
Sadly, many live as if they did not believe these truths. Knowing the truth is no help to a dying world if we do not act on those truths. We may not agree on the best methods of evangelization, but is inactivity not a greater vice? When hundreds of churches do not record a single baptism in a given year, is it not time to establish a culture that challenges and encourages each other to share our faith on a regular basis?
From my earliest memories of attending National Associations in the 1960s, Free Will Baptists have been comprised of 2,500 churches and 250,000 people. Even a modest 2% growth will double in 35 years. In 1965, if we truly were a denomination of 250,000 people, and we grew by an average of 2% each year, we should have topped 500,000 by the year 2000. At the end of 2008, we would have averaged 585,797 in membership.
This growth simply will not happen without a concerted attempt to plant new churches. I agree with Aubrey Malphurs when he states, “The future of American Christianity is church planting.” (1) The Home Missions Department should be lauded and supported generously in its diligent efforts to plant churches in areas of North America with the greatest need. But shouldn’t church planting be in the DNA of every church?
Richard Atwood is on staff with Home Missions. As a home missionary, his church in Delaware planted a church in a nearby town with little outside help. What if, over the next 10 years, 250 of our churches followed suit? We could experience 10% growth in the number of churches in the next decade.
I believe we could benefit by considering what our colleagues outside of North America have done. Cuban Free Will Baptists started in the western corner of their island nation. In spite of limited resources and significant impediments by the government, they have gone systematically from one coast to the other planting churches.
In 2005, Central Asian Paul Hagelgans spoke at a session at the national convention. His passion for church planting shone through when he described the goal of believers throughout Central Asia. Their mantra is, “Every Christian an evangelist; every home a center for evangelism, and every church an organism to plant new churches.” With only 500 churches, they planted an additional 300 churches in five years.
What church-planting models are most effective in our culture? This is a conversation worth having. Is it not critical to our relevance as a movement?
Holiness in the culture
Most of us have seen recent studies that compare the ethical behaviors of evangelicals with those who do not attend church. Sadly, only a marginal difference is demonstrated on key issues such as divorce, pre-marital sex, and honesty in the workplace.
The Church has a rich heritage of confronting culture. Early church history defines a distinct difference in the behavior of those who followed The Way (as it was known). That difference attracted many to the cause of Christ. Do we not agree that this distinction is largely missing in the evangelical church in our culture? What are we to do?
The writer of Hebrews spoke to this issue when he said, “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works” (10:24). Without this conversation it will be impossible to please God.
Let’s jump ahead 15 years and attend the National Association in 2025. As we look around, what do we see? Who is rising into leadership? Do we find diversity in our leadership and the overall makeup of our convention? If not, I wonder if we can expect the power of God to continue on our movement. If we still gaze out over a sea of white faces, can we truly believe we are reaching our Jerusalem?
I live in Davidson County, Tennessee. Over 100 languages are spoken in the public schools in our county. The same is true in cities and rural communities across the country.
Individually, we maintain a strong element of identity through our national culture and ethnic/cultural heritage. Truly, this is our comfort zone. Early in life it provides the framework we use to assume how human interactions will take place. When we begin to engage other cultures, our assumptions are challenged, creating discomfort. But is this not the will of the Father who created all cultures, as well as a foretaste of Heaven? Is it not a way in which this world will see His love for all mankind?
“Believers loving one another intra-ethnically is noteworthy; however, when believers are in loving relationship with each other inter-ethnically, this is an exceptional testimony before the watching world. It is the visible witness our Lord desires. The world sees the transforming power of the gospel when those who are not naturally together are together in Christ. This demonstrates a kingdom character, where interrelationship witnesses to the presence of Christ. The church at Antioch exuded this sort of character—and it was there they were first known as ‘Christians’.” (2)
Finally, I urge us to practice encouragement. The book of Hebrews was written to those experiencing intense pressure to go back on their faith. In that context the writer says, “Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees; and make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed.”
This was a common theme in Paul’s writings. When writing to the Thessalonians, he reminded them how he had exhorted them. The word translated exhorted is often translated encouraged. The following sermon excerpt explores the word exhorted in 1 Thessalonians 2:11.
“The Greek word is parakaleo, which literally means ‘to call alongside.’ It presumes that its object is under pressure (fearful, weak, overwhelmed), and it means to strengthen by giving appropriate aid. Ancient Greek authors sometimes used it to describe military reinforcement during battles. (2)
Biblical encouragement presumes that Christians live under intense pressure—not just the normal pressures of everyday life in a broken world, but also the pressures of serving Christ in a spiritually hostile environment—and therefore need to be spiritually strengthened on a regular basis.
Biblical encouragement communicates God's truth and hope in ways that personally strengthen others to follow God's will for their lives.” (3)
I’m sure most people would describe their lives as being under intense pressure right now. We all need encouragement. Is that not a conversation we ALL need and would enjoy?
One more thing needs to be said about conversations. It is not possible to have conversations about important things without coming to disagreements. These should not take us by surprise nor cause anxiety. On the contrary, it is a natural part of healthy dialogue. Yes, disagreements are healthy. In fact, silence of dissent, or choosing only to talk with those who narrowly agree with you on all issues is a most certain way to become imbalanced. We need each other. As Proverbs states, “Iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.”
Now, this is a conversation I have been waiting to have.
(1) [Pouring New Wine Into Old Wineskins: How to change a church without destroying it. Baker Book House. Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1993. P. 13.]
(2) [Evangelical Missions Quarterly, April 2009. Vol. 45, No. 2 – Church Planting and Kingdom Building: Are They The Same?, p. 166.]