Seeing Church Renewal in a New Light
“Money was scarce; the people discouraged; the times were awful.” So went the report of J.M. Carroll to the BGCT annual meeting in 1894. Carroll provided great leadership to Texas Baptists after a bruising effort to consolidate Texas Baptist ministries under one state convention. Carroll became the subject of great ridicule in the state, eventually being accused (falsely) of fraud when cash ledgers containing information were stolen from his buggy en route to the convention. Many Texas Baptists also did not see eye-to-eye with Carroll regarding his appointment of “general missionaries” to help out superintendents (DOM’s) across the state, as such action was deemed too costly. Carroll’s successor even brought a report two years later that “brought sadness and dark foreboding to the hearts of many a Texas Baptist.”
There is nothing new under the sun. I often hear reports similar to Carroll’s from fellow pastors and Texas Baptists. It can be quite discouraging to deal with declining budgets, grieving members, and times marked by upheaval in our culture. History shows, however, that Texas Baptists have a penchant for renewal.
For instance, just a few years after Carroll’s grave report, Texas Baptist women predated the American suffrage movement by generating one of the greatest missionary movements in our state’s history, some people sharing the sentiment of missionary pioneer Jennie Anderson who said, “The pastors will not do it. Who will?” Texas Baptists also became enamored with educating their students in the ministry and started a “new thing” called Sunday school at the local church level. They even built an enduring ministry to orphans called Buckner.
Renewal can and ought to happen in your church, should you find yourself in an apparently dismal situation. I define renewal as the process by which a Christian is equipped for more effective ministry in his/her local church. At least four features will likely be present in your context for renewal to take place. First, local church membership will be defined by discipleship. If we are not approaching church membership in terms of our journeys as students of Jesus, we have missed the point of being a church member in the first place. Some churches would do well to think seriously about why people join the church and are rarely seen again.
Second, renewal happens in a church when her members examine the necessity of church reform. Church reform is not “change for change’s sake.” Rather, it creatively comes to fruition in the life of a church that embraces soul competency, as some of our most esteemed Baptist forefathers and foremothers have done for the past four hundred years. Soul competency asserts that the ground is level at the foot of the cross. Every church member then must get creative in his/her approach to personal evangelism and church ministry. Reform also takes place in church environments that are less programmatic and more personal. T.B. Maston said, “Nothing reveals our preoccupation with methods and programs more than the tendency of some to believe that a method or program will solve every problem.”
Third, renewal occurs when a congregation lives up to its potential in a given cultural context. We often talk about a church’s potential in terms of buildings, budgets, and baptisms, but these are not helpful when assessing congregational health. The ultimate “measuring stick” for a church member is Jesus’ standard. Are we walking as Jesus did (1 John 2:6)?
Finally, church renewal happens when members consider new paths for church growth. Walking these paths can become downright messy work, and there are times (if we’re doing missions and evangelism correctly) when situations arise that will not be addressed in your church’s bylaws or programming. Yet, we ought not to let the organization of the church determine the direction of the organism that is the church body.
There’s something to that old church concept called the imago dei. We are created in the image of God, so it is our privilege and responsibility to be about the missio dei—the mission of God. So, when someone in your church says, “The money is scarce, the people are discouraged, and the times are awful,” you can lead out positively in church renewal.
For more information on historical accounts and quotes listed above, please see Harry Leon McBeth, Texas Baptists: A Sesquicentennial History (Dallas: BaptistWay Press, 1998), 95-105 as well as T.B. Maston, “Christian Living and the Way Ahead,” Quarterly Review 25 (January, February, March 1965): 47-57.