To be certain, there are conversations churches should have

Churches seek to convey certainty. Specifically, churches want people to be certain of the gospel of Christ.

At the point of overlap between the church’s desire to communicate the certainty of the gospel of Christ and what I’ve observed during some 20 years of ministry, I see some conversations churches should have.

Why do we do what we do?

Simon Sinek may have made himself independently wealthy teaching leaders to “start with why.” Certain that most of us focus on what we do and how we do it, Sinek advocates placing our “why”—our raison d’être, our reason for beingat our center. Everything else circles around our “why.”

Concern expressed before and during the 2021 SBC annual meeting about the decline in membership and baptisms in Southern Baptist churches provides a case study. The solution prescribed is for SBC churches to focus more on evangelism. But why? And why do baptisms matter so much to Baptists, anyway?

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“What” questions look like, “Do we offer a traditional service, a contemporary service or both?” Similarly, “how” questions look like, “How are we connecting to young people or young families?” “How” questions tend to presume “what” a church is doing—such as trying to connect to a particular demographic—is the right thing to do.

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One effect of majoring on “what” and “how” questions is churches, rather than conveying a certainty about the gospel, communicate restlessness about themselves. That restlessness smells like a lack of confidence, which may be generalized to uncertainty about the gospel.

Before engaging in “what” and “how” conversations, churches need to start with “why” conversations. Why do we hold services? Why do we have Bible studies or Sunday school? Why is the Great Commission our starting point? Why do baptisms matter? And they should assume the answers aren’t already known or agreed upon by the congregation.

Why are we (insert denomination)?

Building on foundational “why” questions, churches also should examine why they are connected to or disconnected from a denomination. Denominational connection has featured several times in recent articles published in the Baptist Standard. For example, whether African American churches would remain part of the SBC was a live issue ahead of the 2021 annual meeting.

In the week before that meeting, Lifeway Research reported 78 percent of pastors surveyed “say they personally consider it vital to be part of a denomination.” We might expect a large number of pastors to say such a thing. But why?

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Evan Henson—a youth pastor and a product of a Texas Baptist university and its Baptist Identity course—names the Baptist emphasis on priesthood of the believer and separation of church and state as key reasons he is Baptist.

Evan Duncan—also a pastor and product of a Texas Baptist university—described in a full-length article why he is Baptist. Baptist governance that gives voice to the whole church and the Baptist distinctive of religious freedom are two of the three reasons he gives.

The Lifeway Research article cited above reports most Americans in general in 2015 were favorable to denominational connections. However, 20 years of ministry tells me most don’t care, partly because many don’t know about denominational differences. Is it because their pastors don’t teach denominational distinctives? Maybe. If not, why not? Or is it that denominational distinctives don’t really matter? Or do they, and why?

Trying to understand why anyone is part of a denomination is why we started asking, “Why are you Baptist?” in our Deep in the Hearts of Texans interviews. It wouldn’t hurt to read people’s responses. If you are Baptist, do other’s reasons resonate with yours?

Knowing denominational differences helps explain why some will not be drawn to your church no matter what you do or how you do it.

Jared Brandt, in his article about leaving the Baptist church for the Anglican, grounds his family’s move in matters of “why,” not “what” and “how.” Music, hospitality, Bible study opportunities, demographic connections—these were not among the most important reasons for his family’s move, if they were reasons at all. Rather, their move is rooted in matters of belief—in “why.”

To answer, “Why are we (insert denomination)?” requires a church to examine what it really believes about a whole host of things. Few conversations are more important than that for a church. The answers can ground a group of believers through turbulent times. That alone is a confident demonstration of the gospel.

Of this, I am certain

Being an editor doesn’t mean my opinions are (always) correct, but it does mean I’m supposed to communicate them as though I think they are. It’s a strange space to occupy.

Opinions are one thing; communicating the gospel is something else. No amount of confidence I invest in my opinions makes them unassailable. As opinions, they rightly are subject to critique—such as Bart Barber’s response to my last editorial.

To many outside and inside the church, much of what we do and how we do it is a matter of opinion elevated to doctrine. To the degree the church is the body of Christ, it must center itself on what is more certain. There are doctrines that amount to much more than opinion and ought to ground everything we do.

And all God’s people said, “Why?”

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @EricBlackBSP.

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