Monday, April 02, 2007

Missouri Baptists, Culture War, and the Gospel

There was a very interesting article on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this morning, titled omniously, "Missouri's most powerful Baptist takes on the 'emerging church'." In some ways, it was a follow-up to an earlier article that the P-D had run on The Journey, a very successful Acts 29 network church in our city that was (unfortunately) titled "The Bible and Beer" (that article had highlighted the church's "Theology on Tap" conversation held at Schafly's Brewery).

The article this morning focused on Roger Moran, one of the leaders of SBC conservatives here in this state. And admist some of the silliness, there were some very interesting quotes that moved beyond the "issue" to the real issues.

First, it appears that Moran lumps together "emerging" churches such as The Journey with the SBC moderates that he defeated earlier. But the reason for doing this was that these emerging churches are places "where you can drink beer in the bar, you can talk about rock 'n' roll, you can watch R-rated movies on film night." In Moran's mind, these were the moral excesses of the SBC progressives in the 1980s (and when I was in Louisville, stories of SBTS keggers were legendary and probably a little overblown); these cultural and moral markers that characterized the progressives are the same as the emerging church; hence, the Acts 29 network must be moderate.

But this line of reasoning is an uneasy fit, even for Moran. Though he doesn't acknowledge it in the P-D article, there are major theological differences between SBC progressives and the Acts 29 folks like the leaders of The Journey. Chief among them is that the Acts 29 network actually believes the Gospel (in its classic and Calvinistic formulations), holds to the inerrancy of Scripture, and is passionate about evangelism and discipleship. As a result, the identification of the emerging church leaders and SBC "moderates" is an uneasy one at best.

Even more striking, Moran identifies the nature of the church (and its Christianity) based on external practices--drinking, rock music, and movies--that were the bellweather issues for Baptist conservatives of the 1970s and 1980s. And yet, those issues don't seem to resonate as much as they used to do. In fact, many younger evangelical Christians view those issues as matters of indifference compared to the "weighter" matters of love, justice, and mercy to the poor or the need for sustainable care for the creation. While Moran's issues may have "worked" during the early days of the SBC conservative resurgence, they may not work as well now--because they seem to be culturally as opposed to biblically derived.

Second, I thought it was interesting how Bill Leonard, a Baptist scholar, characterized the state of the current SBC: "The Southern Baptist Convention is growing increasingly terrified that they've spent all this time recreating the denomination in this (conservative) image, and now nobody cares. Young seminarians are challenging them on issues and saying, 'Your vision of reality is not ours.'" It does seem that the Gen X generation that is moving into pastoral leadership--both in the SBC and in my own denomination--struggles with viewing the church in the same terms as some leaders might.

For example, if the church (or a particular denomination) is meant to stand for "conservative evangelicalism" and that means standing for certain political or cultural positions, or standing for those positions in a harsh or insensitive manner, then the "emerging" generation will have none of it. As Darrin Patrick, the pastor of The Journey, put it in the article, "When you're stricter than God about what he commands and permits, younger pastors are not going to play ball. They're not going to take one for the denomination" (emphasis mine). I actually think this stance of "not taking one for the denomination" could be a good thing--if it forces church leaders to reorient themselves to Gospel priorities and attitudes.

And yet, to forsake denominations for "networks" doesn't necessarily solve the problem. Because there will be times when the "network" will prove to move in directions that feel denomination-like and could illegitimately bind the conscience as well. Thus, the goal is not necessarily to cop the attitude that "if you don't play ball the way I want you to, I'm taking my ball and going home" or to independency or whatever. The goal is biblical reformation of church mission and structures so that the church to which we belong evidences to a greater degree the reign of God.

And so, the article provide a great deal of food for thought--about the Gospel, the nature of the church, and the future of evangelical Christianity.


Nathan Finn said...

Uh, Bro. Sean, if you are intent on blogging about the problems with some of "my people," I would prefer you be less insightful. :-)


Timothy R. Butler said...

That's interesting, Dr. Lucas. So do you think this will actually reorient the denominational leaders to the Gospel?

David Filson said...

As usual, very, very good, Sean!

Jonathon Woodyard said...

Very insightful. Do you see a difference in the "emerging church" and the "The Emergent Church"? I think there are some churches that have changed some methods that scare those in the SBC, but these churches are truly "emergent". I don't really know, just thinking through the issue for myself.

For you see a difference between Brian McLaren and that sect and maybe a Mark Driscoll or the Journey?

Jonathon Woodyard

Jonathon Woodyard said...

I meant to say that those who have changed their methodology are not necessarily "emergent".

Brad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brad said...

Dr. Lucas,
I'm a student at Covenant and found your site through Tim Butler's.

Awesome synopsis and analysis of the core issue. I wholeheartedly agree, and wrote about this on my blog as well (guess I wasn't as original as I thought). I'd like to post a comment and a question:
Comment: I found the reporter's bias towards Moran far from subtle. I found his close-mindedness very appalling, but I know that the writer contributed greatly to this.
Question: Could you expand on your last section concerning denominational v. network affiliation? Coming from an unchurched background, and only recently subscribing to ANY denomination (EPC), I'm unfamiliar with the argument you are posing.

I'm stoked to hear my professors have this gospel-centered view and are not afraid to renounce man-made tradition when it is in contradiction to scripture, or merely extra-biblical. Just more proof that I'm exactly where I should be. Many thanks!

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Jonathan: I actually wrote about McLaren and distinguished his views from Driscoll's in a review essay that is in the current Presbyterion (the Covenant Seminary journal). If you want a copy of the essay, email me through my website (; there is a contact section there), and I'll email it to you.

Hi, Brad: I think one of the notable things about the rising GenX church leadership generation is their preference for "networks" over "denominations." Usually the comments go like this--denominations are oppressive/restrictive/centralized/power-oriented; networks are freeing/enabling/decentralized/ministry-oriented.

But it is not that simple. Networks can easily become "denomination-like" with their own unspoken creeds and limitus tests. What I was trying to say was that it may be better to be in a denomination, like the EPC or PCA, where creeds and polities are published, subscribed, and contestable, than to be in "networks," where these things are less formalized but no less present.

If more guys stay in denominations, and work for reformation within those structures, the more likely the mission and resources of those institutions will be used for God's glory and reformed im appropriate, Gospel-oriented ways.

Hope that helps, sml

Brad said...

Awesome, that makes complete sense. On simple common sense, having the existing infrastructure in place to make those kinds of changes and reforms can be nothing but good anyway. It also strikes me as a great mark of spiritual maturity to submit to the eldership and biblical authority of a denomination (obviously, I'm making a lot of assumptions on the denomination here).

Hehe, and I can see how a "network" is still a "denomination" under another name. Thanks very much for the clarification. Great point.

Reformed Catholic said...

I'm reading this about a month after it was first published, as I found the link, through a link, through a blog.

Reading the original artcle in the P-D, I found the reference to 'Bible and Beer' interesting, as it brought back the old joke my wife, who was brought up in the old PCUS, tells:

"What's the difference between Baptists and Presbyterians ??

Presbyterian's say hi to each other in the liquor store !! "