Category Archives: Fundamentalism

More on Why Fundamental Churches are Becoming Irrelevant

As I had hoped, my first “Listomania!” submission has drawn quite a bit of discussion and comment. I’ve received several private emails, a good number of comments on this blog and even was told that there is a bulletin board that has it as a “discussion topic.” In all honesty, I’m glad about this as the provocation of discussion and debate allows everyone to learn. I think that is healthy for us individually and for the “movement” (if there is indeed one at all.)

It is also fairly typical for some to attack the “messenger” (or at least pause and say, “who is this guy and what makes him qualified to ask these questions or raise these problems) and for others to challenge whether the “WORLD WIDE Web” is the appropriate venue for such a discussion. I would concede that neither the messenger or the venue is a perfect agent for this kind of discussion, but it’s what we have for now. My tendency to ask direct questions of “us” and my proclivity for being occasionally “impolitic” in some of my observations is something that has ended up garnering a substantial amount of scorn over the years — usually from those bent on justifying the status quo or continuing to live in the past. And it is true that the Web has its drawbacks in terms of a forum, but let’s face it in that there are really no other forums available that aren’t closed, biased or inconvenient. The Web is unique in that literally everyone gets a seat at the table.

I received an email yesterday that contained several specific questions and I actually spent longer than I had intended on answering them, but they made me think through some of what I had written more thoroughly. Thus, I thought I’d share some of the questions a pastor in the southern part of the USA asked me and what I offered as a response:

He noted, “Your list pertains to Fundamental churches. From reading over it, I am sure you are talking about Fundamental Baptist churches, correct.”

Here is my reply:

I’m going to have to give you an ambiguous answer on this one. Had I been exclusively been commenting on Fundamental Baptist churches, I would have clearly said so. However, it is no secret that I have only been a member of or ministered at independent, Baptist churches, thus it could be inferred that those experiences have created an innate bias in my perspective. However, I have many friends involved in the broader world of fundamentalism and evangelicalism and its sundry derivations who are not independent Baptists — or even Baptists at all. Interestingly, I grew up near an old order Amish community and, while I believe what they practice and teach is works-based and graceless illegitimate protestantism, I see similarities in their mentality to some within fundamentalism. Quite frankly, I just finished reading a book written by an unbelieving individual who left the Mormon cult and I found some stunning similarities in Mormonism and some sects within fundamentalism. The danger in any commentary that can only be reasonably written using a few hundred words is that it can appear to be done with a ‘broad’ brush. That was not my intent. I was making generalized observations of fundamentalism, but I cannot deny that my perspective is colored by my history within the independent Baptist wing of fundamentalism. Not trying to be evasive here, just honest.

Next, he noted, “On point #3, you say the churches have emphasized standards at the expense of doctrine. What doctrine are you talking about….?”

Regarding churches that have emphasized standards at the expense of doctrine, I do want to clarify and expand my thoughts a bit. I was not suggesting any one particular doctrine as you seemed to be asking. I’m suggesting that, were as much time devoted in many fundamentalist churches to the systematic teaching of doctrine and to strategic discipleship as is spent on sermons, teaching and even tirades regarding “standards”, “associations” and other such sub-issues, our churches would be healthier. From my perspective, we have over-emphasized telling our memberships what to do and not enough time in teaching them how to think. You’ll have to understand that I’m far more of an educator than I am a theologian, but in applying education to theology, I believe we have to approach it with some sense of where we are going and how we are going to get there. A fully-equipped Saint should know first the “what’s” of his faith — Biblical literacy. He should also know the implications of those facts — that reveals itself in application (part of the putting off the old man and putting on the new man or sanctification). Finally, he should be able to defend what is Truth — Apologetics. These objectives won’t be fulfilled by accident or a willy-nilly approach to teaching. I like what Spurgeon said, “Theology is the queen of all the Sciences.” Thus, in my view, doctrine is the skeleton of a sound theology, not standards.

In my experience (and I realize the danger of anecdotal justifications), for every one sermon I have heard in my years of fundamentalism on the Sufficiency of Christ, the Authority of Scripture (inerrancy, immutability, infallibility, inspiration), I have heard scores of sermons on issues like “standards”, associations, styles matters, and other such topics. Sadly, while I might agree with some or much of what they say, the way that they reach their conclusions is intellectually and theologically flawed. One example would be the dozens of sermons I have heard based on David’s question, “Is there not a cause?” when a study of the Hebrew and the context of that verse simply does not justify it’s use for the vast majority of those sermons. That’s why I believe expositional (and largely systematic, though I’m not super dogmatic about that) is a superior way of preaching to topical preaching.

Finally, he asked me to explain what I meant when I said churches see “cultural adjustments as theological compromise.”

I have answered dozens, perhaps hundreds of questions from good folks over the years on matters like, “when is it acceptable for women to wear slacks if ever”, “is a church truly fundamental if they do not have Sunday night services”, “does the presence of percussion instruments in a church service make it unacceptable”, “is it appropriate to use any Bible version other than the KJV” (something that is quite interesting in the context where I currently serve where there are 70 different ethnic groups in a typical Sunday attendance), “is academic accreditation for a college tantamount to theological compromise”, etc…. I believe personally that it if we believe the right things theologically, we will do the right things culturally and practically. You see, I grew up in a church where if a woman (saved or unsaved) came to church wearing slacks, she was politely, but firmly told that we didn’t dress that way at our church. She would be “permitted” to attend this once, but in the future, she would have to wear a knee-length skirt. Interestingly, we never had a problem with what they wore the second time. They never came back. I do not believe that our churches are so weak that we cannot accept people where they are and to lovingly teach them to where they need to be. I am grieved to this day at what our rigid cultural standards communicated to people who really needed Truth, grace and the Gospel.

Anyway…. I thought I’d post these additional comments for the discussion mill for any who are interested. Thanks for participation and keep it up!

Can We “Franchise” the Church — and if we can, Should We?

mcchurch2.jpgThe June 13 edition of the Wall Street Journal had an interesting article featured in their “Weekend Journal” section entitled, “Inspired by Starbucks”. The story, by Alexandra Alter, focused on Broward County-based, Flamingo Road Church, which is located not far from where I now live and has a weekly attendance of around 8,000. I’ve known of Flamingo Road — which is loosely affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention — since my previous ministry in Palm Beach County and I can remember when it was a fledgling congregation of fewer than a couple of hundred. Under the leadership of Dan Southerland — someone I consider a friend and now a resident of the Charlotte, NC area — the church exploded and would largely be classified as “Purpose-Driven”. Dan wrote a book called “Transitioning” which is a fascinating study of Nehemiah applied to helping a church change its mindset on ministry.

The article, well worth reading, examines their current pastor’s (Troy Gramling) efforts to use technology ranging from DVD’s to satellite hookups to replicate what is going on at the main campus around the world. Other churches are trying this as well including Fellowship Church (Ed Young, Jr./Dallas) and North Point Community (Andy Stanley/Atlanta).

Other mega-ministries have their own methods of replicating their techniques in churches elsewhere including Saddleback Community (Rick Warren), Willowcreek Community (Bill Hybels), Grace Community (John MacArthur) and one of the original pioneers — First Baptist of Hammond (Jack Hyles/Jack Schaap). For forty years, these various churches have used conferences, associations, product lines and other tools for spreading their influence (and perhaps the Gospel as well) to other churches and communities. Indeed, this has become a major economic fuel in the industry known as the “Church Growth Movement.”

The more I think about the concept of “franchising” — albeit a loose and perhaps ill-defined term — in terms of church replication and ministry outreach, I arrive at more and more points of concern. Today, I share a few of those.

1. A replica is never as good as the original, but a replica of a replica is even worse.

I own several beautiful Remington Sculptures. They are large, beautiful and inspirational (for me at least). But they are not the real McCoy’s. I have not made enough money in all my years of employment to afford even one original one. To no one’s surprise, they are not as valuable as the original, not as accurate as the original and not as authentic as the original (insert “duh” here.)

When it comes to churches, I’ve rarely seen someone how has “copied” the strategy or methodology of some other church and have it end up “better.” I have, however, seen it split churches wide open, waste a lot of money, become yet another “flavor-of-the-month” attempt to create forward motion and other unintended consequences.

Indeed, shouldn’t each church be replicating itself after the “Master Church Design” found in Acts as the Church at Jerusalem was established realizing that cultural contexts, settings, socio-economic factors and myriad other variables will impact the dynamics, but using Biblical principles as the infrastructure will provide what is necessary for a healthy church? Instead of using a copy of the original as the model, would it not be better to use the original in whatever context we are placed by God?

2. Franchising would seem to skew what we view as “successful”

So what level of “success” makes a ministry worthy of emulation? Size? Pace of growth? Budget? Profile of the Senior Pastor? Franchisees?

I’m not against large churches and have been the Senior Pastor at a large church and a megachurch. However, growing up in the hills of Missouri, I can tell you that if numbers equals success then I’ve seen some pretty stunningly successful “failures”. We’ve heard all the arguments that “size doesn’t matter” — but, let’s face it….basically everything in the Church Growth Movement tells us that it does. (It doesn’t.)

Shouldn’t success be defined by absolutes? Adherence to Truth? Faithfulness to orthodoxy? Attention to doctrine? Fulfillment of the Great Commandment and the Great Commission?

3. There is an inherent danger in replicating error

Whether it is flawed from the start or moves toward error after a period of time, many (perhaps most) megaministries have some pretty major “holes” in their ministry ranging from theology to methodology. Willowcreek has recently admitted to missing the boat with their Seeker-Driven philosophy of the last quarter century and is completely “reworking” their strategy. By many standards, the Crystal Cathedral/Robert Schuller icon is a success, but from my theological perspective it has never been worthy of two seconds of my attention because I believe it teaches a flawed Gospel. Rick Warren has come under blistering criticism from some quarters and there are many who believe the old Independent Baptist “Hyles” model to be one step removed (or perhaps not even one step) from cultism.

Yet, there are thousands, yea, tens-of-thousands of churches, pastors and assorted sycophants who have visited one of these evangelical Meccas and become convinced that if they just did it they way that they do it “there”, then they too would have an amazing ministry filled with success and all of its trappings.

I’ve often wondered, after the very public “oops” of recent days offered by Willowcreek how this is playing in the churches of the Willowcreek Association? Do people get a refund on the millions of dollars they spent on conferences, books and video series telling them to do it the Willowcreek Way?

4. It is possible to substitute a canned “program” for “hearing from God”

Waiting on the Lord, studying His Word, discipling leadership, praying for God’s vision and timing are all time-consuming tasks. Today’s postmodern generation enjoys McSolutions for problems that leads to superficial and unhealthy habits, spiritual nutrition and outcomes. We glibly throw out “meat” because milk is easier to digest. We offer “cake” because they want it and neglect the substance that they really need.

Sure, one can exist on fastfood and microwave dinners, but will they flourish? How much wiser is it to invest time in the process from the garden to the table and know that it is authentic and healthy and straight-from-the-Maker.

Because every community is unique as is every pastor, elder, deacon, church, generation and family, should not more attention be given to seeking God’s unique plan for each local assembly rather than pushing for rubber-stamped, cookie-cutter templates that have the form of church — but too often at the cost of substance.

Much more could be written and I’d encourage you to add your own thoughts. I’m not trying to be a curmudgeon that sees a new-age conspiracy on every Christian bookstore shelf. But after 40 plus years of watching and even participating in various waves of the CGM, I’m seeing some serious flaws. Over the course of the history of the church, forty years isn’t a lot of time. But perhaps it is time that many of us in ministry ask the CGM some serious questions about whether or not what they are producing is good — or even necessary — in terms of the long-term health of the church.

You Betchya’ Doctrine Matters!

We’re still unpacking boxes after our big move over the week-end, but I thought I’d jump back into blogging for a couple of minutes to touch on a couple of thoughts regarding doctrine.  In our Christianity “Lite” generation, many of the Emergents have willfully chosen to de-emphasize doctrine — some even going so far as to declare doctrine “transient” and to be examined in light of current cultures and worldviews.  This denigration of doctrine comes in the backwash of the 1990′s mantra of avoiding denominationalism.  While I don’t believe a church has to have Baptist on its sign to be doctrinally sound, denominational distinctives built on sound doctrine aren’t something to be glibly dismissed.

Today, the Pew Report on Religion in Public Life issued findings that included the disheartening statistic that stated that 57% of “Evangelicals” believe that there is more than one way to get to heaven.  The seeker-driven mentality of the modern church growth movement has created a generation of alleged “believers” who don’t know what they claim to believe and why they believe it.  Apparently John 14:6 isn’t “friendly” enough to be taught to those who must deny all except Christ for Salvation.

Dr. Charles Wood also offered some additional thoughts a couple of days ago that I found important in his “From the Woodchuck’s Den”.  I’ll leave his ruminations with you in closing….

————–

    Generally, I read (or more accurately, scan) Christianity Today at Barnes and Noble.  This week I actually bought the June, 2008 issue because of a number of items I saw while scanning.  When I got it home and went through it carefully, it had even more interesting information than I had realized.

 

    Previously, I mentioned the controversy surrounding the termination of a professor at Wheaton College.  That situation involved a procedural issue without any discernable (at least to me) doctrinal overtones.  I also mentioned the so-called “situation at Cedarville” which started out centered around a doctrinal/philosophical matter.  At the end of the day, however, it was also a procedural matter that brought about the termination of two faculty members.  That story made its way into the June issue of CT!

 

    These two stories were absolutely eclipsed by other items in the magazine.  A female faculty member at Southwestern Seminary was dismissed by Paige Patterson because he saw the role she was playing (or had arrogated to herself?) as in violation of Biblical teaching regarding the proper role of women in ministry.  That is somewhat a question of practice, but it is based on doctrinal concerns.  [The woman moved on to Taylor University but filed an unlawful dismissal suit against Southwestern Seminary.  The suit was dismissed – as almost all such suits are, at least currently – on the basis that the court has no jurisdiction in matters that involve the doctrine or internal workings of churches or even of church-related organizations.]  So maybe Paige Patterson ought to join the rest of us dinosaurs as we sit in that cave and read ancient manuscripts.

 

    But just a minute!  Venerable Westminster Seminary in the Philadelphia area (founded by J. Gresham Machen as a partial answer to the departure from the faith of the old Princeton Theological Seminary) has, by a split decision of its Trustees, dismissed two professors over positions they have taken on the doctrine of inspiration.  This one is a full-fledged difference over doctrine.  The Trustees voted 18-9 for dismissal so I guess we may have to make our cave a little bigger.

 

    And then the bomb was dropped.  The “Head Lines” page includes an article titled “Willow Creek’s Huge Shift.”  This is only my opinion, but I think the matters reported caught CT a bit by surprise (or may have occurred just before publication deadlines). and I expect a much fuller treatment of the subject in a future issue.  The article appeared to me to be a bit “thrown together,” and had a distinctly negative slant toward Willow Creek, but it was literally a bombshell.

 

    For some time it has been public knowledge that Bill Hybels has not been happy with the state of discipleship at the church.  It appears now that he has decided to do something about it.  The article begins, “After modeling a seeker-sensitive approach to church growth for three decades, Willow Creek Community Church plans to gear its weekend services toward mature believers seeking to grow in the faith.”  The next paragraph may mean that I will get to have fellowship in the cave with Bill.  It says, “The change comes on the heels of an ongoing four-year research effort first made public last summer in Reveal: Where Are You?, a book co-authored by executive pastor Greg Hawkins.  Hawkins said during an annual student ministries conference in April that Willow Creek would also replace its midweek services with classes on theology and the Bible.”  Further on in the article we read, “Greg Pritchard, author of Willow Creek Seeker Services, told CT the church sporadically has recognized it was not teaching a robust enough theology and needed to turn the ship around.”

 

    There is more to the article than I have quoted, but much of it seems to me to belittle the change at Willow and to indicate that it very likely will not work.  For those of us, however, who have long been unimpressed by many of the aspects of the “seeker-sensitive” paradigm, this all comes as a striking admission that at least some of our concerns were legitimate.  I greatly admire Bill Hybels for recognizing and admitting an area of weakness or failure and for taking steps to correct it.  Actually, the “seeker-sensitive” approach of Willow appears to have produced little more depth than the very different. but no less “seeker-sensitive” approach of Jack Hyles and First Baptist of Hammond.

 

    E. F. Hutton is no more, but when they were and spoke, everyone listened.  I’m not sure everyone listens to Bill Hybels, but when he speaks and Willow Creek changes, hundreds – if not thousands – of pastors and churches are going to listen (and, in the majority of instances), respond to at least some degree.

 

    In our postmodern world that some of the various manifestations of the emergent churches would reach by down-playing or even elimination any attention to doctrine, it is refreshing to find that one of the largest and most influential ministries in evangelicalism is about to issue by example a call for increasing the importance of and stress on doctrine (just another name for “theology).  I rather think that the Apostle Paul would be pleased.  After all, he said, “Take heed unto thyself and unto the doctrine, continue in them….”

 

    Hang in there, Bill.  You’re going to take some hits and lose some people, but you may be the means of turning the church back once-again to stressing theology for what is was once known as, “The Queen of the sciences.”  May God grant us a steady-stream of well-trained men who can “rightly divide the Word of truth” by study of the systematic approach to the content of the Word and also by consulting the history of doctrine, and may they come to stand in the influential pulpits and places of leadership in a day when post-modernism appears not only to dominate in the public square but also to have seriously infiltrated the church.  God bless you Paige Patterson, Al Mohler, John MacArthur, John Piper, Warren VanHetloo, and now – apparently – Bill Hybels (and others).  May your tribe increase until the Word of God rather than the (mis?)perceived needs of people dictates our agenda and our approach!

“Mixing It Up” in Church

multicultural.jpgPeriodically, as a pastor in Florida and in North Carolina, I would schedule a service which I’d call “Reconciliation Sunday”.  In Florida, I was blessed to pastor a church that had a vibrant congregation of over three-dozen nationalities.  I found deep-rooted cultural traditions and at times latent racism in North Carolina which made my goal of having a multi-ethnic congregation much more difficult, but we made some progress.  In my heart, I loved the Sunday when we purposefully reached out across racial, ethnic and cultural barriers and chose to worship the Lord in unity.

One of the things I’m looking forward to in our move back to South Florida is the diversity of the culture in ministries there.  What seems “unusual” in the Bible Belt and other parts of the country is common place in many churches in large metropolitan areas like Miami — seeing people from all over the world in church together.  It has been said that the most segregated places in America are churches on Sunday mornings.

This isn’t just a “white church” problem though it is a white church problem.  As evidenced by the awful rhetoric of Barak Obama’s pastor, “Rev. Wright” — some African-American congregations aren’t exactly places where caucasians or hispanics are going to feel warm and fuzzy.  Whatever the racial composition of a church, we should hope and pray that the issues of bigotry and racism would be absent, but we know that this simply isn’t the case.  However, the fact that it isn’t the case, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be working on it.

Not every church exists in a diverse area where folks from other cultures or even other races mix in the local community.  I attended a church once in the rural Northwest and there probably wasn’t a person of color in the entire city — so it simply wasn’t an issue there.  But few cities of significant size don’t have the opportunity to cross the bridges of monocolor ministry and reach out to those who hail from other parts of the world or who share a divergent ancestry.

Without a doubt, there are cultural differences in worship and churches.  My Jamaican friends have long teased me about my insistence on starting services on time.  They operate on what they call “island time” which means, “we’ll start when we get here, whenever that is.”  My African-American and Latino friends mock me for being “rhythmically-challenged”.  In their words, I “clap like a white boy.”  I tried to learn Spanish from a friend from South America who would call my mangled efforts, “Spanglish”.  But the love we had for Christ and for each other overcame all of our differences and drew us together on common ground.  What started off being a little uncomfortable at times, became one of the things I enjoyed most about church — worshipping with folks that didn’t look just like me.

One of the exciting fruits of an international congregation is the impact that it can have on a church’s vision for missions.  Many folks who attended the churches I pastored and were from other parts of the world would return to their countries of origin and even the ethnic communities of the US for visits.  When they went, they often faithfully took the message of Jesus Christ with them.  We were delighted to see many people introduced to a saving knowledge of Christ as church members became personal missionaries.

Developing a multi-cultural church takes time and effort.  Sometimes it works best when it starts from the ground up as my friend, Jason Janz is emphasizing as he plants Providence Bible Church in Denver, Colorado.  His new church plant is committed to a spirit of multi-ethnicity and they’ve even rented space from a historic African-American congregation to help make the point.  Having a multi-cultural church isn’t simply a matter of being “friendly” to folks who visit and happen to be of a different skin hue or have an accent.  It’s going out and making relationships with folks in the community.  It’s inviting them over to dinner.  It’s not about shaking hands, but embracing people.  It’s not feeling some sense of foolish pride for being “open-minded” and “tolerant, it’s getting to the point where you don’t even notice any more.

Blended churches indeed have challenges, but the blessings far outweigh the burdens.  Perhaps it is time for more believers to lift the blinders from their eyes and way of thinking and to reach out to the diverse cultural and ethnic community that is right at our doorsteps.  It’s not just the job of missionaries and evangelists.  In a period of history where our world grows smaller every day, the mission field has now come right to us.

Dr. Dino Pedrone Named as New President at Davis College

dino.jpgI am pleased to tell my readers that my good friend (and part-time employer), Dr. Dino Pedrone of Miami, FL has been named the new President of Davis College (formerly known as Practical Bible College) in Johnson City, NY.  (See the Press Release HERE.)  Dr. Pedrone suceeds George Miller, III who recently announced his resignation.  Dr. Pedrone is also an alumnus of the school.

Dr. Pedrone is the Senior Pastor of the New Testament Church in Miami, FL which has satellite congregations in Broward County and north-central Miami-Dade county in addition to their main campus located in Miami Lakes.  He is also the President of Dade Christian Schools, The Master’s Academy, His House Academy, the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools and the International Association of Christian Schools.  He will remain in Miami and has announced that a satellite campus for Davis College to serve South Florida will be opened in the fall at their Miami Lakes campus and will offer evening classes toward a fully-accredited degree. 

For more information on Davis College visit their website HERE.

Dr. Wendell Kempton, President Emeritus of ABWE, is with the Lord

I received word this morning that Dr. Wendell Kempton, long-time missionary leader, conference speaker and President Emeritus of the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism went home to be with the Lord early today.  Please pray for his family as they celebrate his graduation to heaven and they mourn the loss of his daily presence in their lives.  More information HERE.

“Whirled Views’” Top Ten Religion Stories of 2007

10topb.jpgAnother year has rolled by and it’s time for my annual list of Top Ten Religious Stories for the last 12 months.  In years past, I have issued the “Top Ten Fundamentalist Stories” and “The Top Ten Fundamentalist and Evangelical Stories” and last year, I offered two lists – one for Fundamentalists AND one for Evangelicals.  But this year was a relatively slow one, so it’s back to a combined list.  Doing a combined list is awkward at best for a variety of issues.  Most fundamentalists don’t like to be connected to evangelicals and vice versa.  I’m also one of those folks who isn’t completely comfortable with either “term” when they are being used to describe me.  I’m a self-identified “theological fundamentalist”, but I have rejected much of the baggage that the term has accumulated over time.  From a big picture view, secular observers would associate me with the evangelical wing of Christianity, but I have multiple “issues” with modern evangelicalism.  There is one positive element to a combined list however.  These lists are notorious for causing debate and even a bit of controversy, so by combining the two groups into one list – I’m sure to excite even more angry retorts, flaming emails and calls for my impeachment.  So….let’s let the fun begin!

The Top Ten Stories Impacting Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism from 2007

10.  Answers in Genesis Opens New Creation Museum

Ken Hamm’s Answers in Genesis organization opened a $27 million dollar young earth museum designed to explain creation science and to challenge Darwinism.  The 60,000 square foot museum, located in Petersburg, KY, drew more than twice the projected attendance during its first six months of operation.

9.  Supreme Court Upholds Legislation Prohibiting Partial-Birth Abortions

In a close 5-4 ruling, the US Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to state legislation that prohibited Partial-Birth Abortions which involve delivering a viable baby except for its head, then puncturing the skull and sucking out the brains, collapsing the skull and delivering the dead remains.  This marks a long-awaited victory in the courts reducing the scope of legalized abortions – an issue which has motivated many “religious right” voters for the last quarter century to elect conservative Presidents who would appoint life-friendly justices to the high court.

8.  Jacksonville, FL Pastor, Bob Gray, faces child molestation charges and then dies prior to the trial

In a scandal that has shaken many fundamentalists and the Bible-belt city of Jacksonville, FL, former Pastor Bob Gray of the Trinity Baptist Church – one of America’s earliest so-called megachurches – was charged with multiple counts of child molestation involving little girls and at least one boy who attended the day school sponsored by his church.  Mere days before the beginning of his trial, Gray fell at home, dropped into a coma and never recovered, dying without ever facing earthly justice.

7.  Passing On – the Deaths of Falwell, Kennedy, Ruth Graham, Fremont, Roberson, Malone

Multiple strong leaders went to be with the Lord, further marking the end of an era of iconoclastic leadership among Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals.   Most notable was the sudden death of Jerry Falwell (more on this later).  In addition, we lost Dr. D. James Kennedy, Senior Pastor of the venerable Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and founder of Evangelism Explosion, Ruth Bell Graham, wife of America’s evangelist Billy Graham,  Dr. Walter Fremont – long time Dean of Education at Bob Jones University and Christian school pioneer, Lee Roberson – founder of Tennessee Temple University and Seminary and long-time Senior Pastor of Highland Park Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN and Tom Malone, long-time fundamentalist firebrand and founder of Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, MI.

6.   Frances Beckwith Converts to Catholicism

The President of the Evangelical Theological Society waited until his term expired and then converted (actually re-converted) to become a full member of the Roman Catholic Church.  Such a decision seemed to underscore the suspicion of many theological conservatives and fundamentalists that main-stream evangelicals is adrift with a theological mushiness that fails to note or define the significant differences between Catholicism and evangelical and reformed/Protestant Christianity.

5.  “Religious Right” Drifts Politically

Disillusionment with politics in general, disappointment with the Bush administration on multiple levels,  a resurgence of evangelical social activism which lends itself to more liberal politics and the lack of a clearly viable conservative Republican candidate for the Presidency has, thus far, watered down the influence of religious conservatives in the 2008 Presidential contest.  Confusing endorsements by Bob Jones, III (Romney) and Pat Robertson (Giuliani) led to criticism toward the endorsers while few seemed to follow their lead.  In recent weeks, former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee, has caught on with some values voters, but some leaders (like Phyliss Schlafly of Eagle Forum) have loudly questioned even his conservative credentials. (In addition, others have noted that the former Southern Baptist pastor did not publicly side with inerrantists in the on-going conflict with the SBC.)  James Dobson has even suggested the option of running a third-party candidate if the Republicans nominate a pro-abortion candidate like Giuliani.  Whether or not the religious right will coalesce around a Republican nominee remains to be seen.

4. Hybels Admits that Seeker-Driven Philosophy is Flawed

After completing a multi-year study on the effectiveness of their programs and philosophy of ministry, the leadership of Willow Creek Community Church has admitted that what they have taught millions of pastors, church leaders and converts to “do” is “not producing solid disciples of Jesus Christ“.  Hybels confessed, “We made a mistake.  What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and became Christians, we should have started telling people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’  We should have gotten people taught people, how to read their Bible between services, how to do spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”  Talk about a big “oops” on that one.

3.  Death of Iconic Leadership

The 1900’s was a century of “icons” in evangelicalism and fundamentalism.  Large than life individuals often built followings bordering on personality cults.  Sunday, Jones, Rice, Criswell, Lee, Roberson, Norris, Hyles, Graham, Rogers and scores of others had thousands (if not millions) of supporters composed of mere admires to ardent sycophants.  They could, with a single sermon or a press release, influence elections, draw tens of thousands, sell millions of dollars worth of product or make front page articles in newspapers.  Today’s generation tends to be far less loyal to individuals and far more cynically-minded toward those who would claim to be spokesmen.  The frequent scandals of the last quarter century along with the rise in internet “conversations” (blogs, discussion boards, forums and forwarded email newsletters) which question, challenge and debate endlessly and provide a seeming “equal voice” to anyone with a computer and an internet connection have diluted, if not muted, the voice of many powerful leaders (and egos).  Today’s generation of believers don’t want to be told for whom to vote, what to read and how to behave.  They are more likely to ask “why” and “says who?” than previous generations.   The children of yesterday’s fundamentalism are better educated, more cynical, more sophisticated and less likely to follow in their parent’s footsteps than previous progeny.  They are far more influenced by the culture and far less influenced by dogmatism.   This change will demand better generational dialogue, patience, thoughtful discourse and thorough explanations if historic positions are to be passed to future descendants.

2.  The Growth of Distance Learning

This trend is not limited to the world of religious conservatives, but it is definitely impacting how we educate and train our future spiritual leaders.  Internet-based learning systems, distance learning programs and non-residential forms of higher education are exploding across the spectrum.  In evangelical/fundamentalist circles, the pace setter tends to be Liberty University which is approaching 25,000 distance learning students in enrollment.  At one time, correspondence schools were the only form of distance learning available and many of those were so substandard that the degrees obtained through that method were the cause of smirks among academicians.  Today’s distance learning programs are accredited, innovative and often contain practical observational and practicum strategies that make them ever more popular.  The flexibility of distance learning programs also appeals to those who want to take longer to complete a degree, want to stay in their hometowns or want to keep their current jobs.   As this spreads beyond graduate schools to include undergraduate programs, the impact on residential-oriented Christian colleges could be significant.  Accredited programs, particularly those who are eligible for GI-related tuition assistance for their students, are exploding with growth and have the greatest potential for influence the next generation of graduates.

1.      The Death of Jerry Falwell and the TRBC/LU Transition

On May 15, 2007, even network news channels interrupted their regular scheduling to report on the death of Jerry Falwell.  From CNN to Foxnews, hours was spent discussing and debating his influence on American politics, society and religion.  Falwell, no stranger to controversy from within evangelical/fundamental circles and without, was a large-than-life personality who wrapped his unique style of leadership and dogma in a warm, amiable package.  His ability to defuse tension with humor, his knack for remembering names, faces and details and his seemingly unending visions and big dreams made him hard to dislike personally though many took umbrage with him positionally.  What has been striking since his death has been the smoothness of the transition within the myriad ministries he founded in Lynchburg, VA.  A transition plan was reportedly laid out several years ago that included a colossal life insurance payout that left Liberty University debt-free for the first time in its existence.  Jonathan Falwell assumed leadership of the church ministries while Jerry Falwell, Jr. took the reins at the University.  Jonathan is by far the superior communicator and there are reports that as many as 1,500 new members have joined Thomas Road Baptist Church since he assumed the Senior Pastor position and it now ranks in the top ten largest churches in America.  Jerry, Jr. is known to be an astute businessman and planner, but is far more uncomfortable in the public eye than was his father or is his brother.  But enrollment at the University continues to climb with over 10,000 resident students expected this year in addition to the 20,000 plus students in the distance learning programs.  Neither son is perceived to be as politically-oriented as their father.   Few mega-ministries have experienced similarly smooth generational transfers and if this one continues as it has started, it will be interesting to see the what the future holds for “Liberty Mountain” in the sleepy southern town of Lynchburg, VA.

Honorable Mentions:

Certainly there are a few “honorable” mentions that could be considered including:

-          The investigation of multiple high-profiled (mostly charismatic) ministries by Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa for financial irregularities.

-          The tragic shooting of four young people at the Denver YWAM training center and the New Life Church in Colorado Springs.

-          The forced resignation of Richard Roberts from the Presidency of Oral Roberts University.

-          The switch of alliances by well-known former fundamentalist Joe Zichterman who used to be a professor at Northland Baptist Bible College and formally associated with Willow Creek Community Church.

-          Appointment of Dr. Chuck Phelps to be President of Maranatha Baptist Bible College.

-          Appointment of Rev. Jim Edge as President of Baptist Bible College, Springfield, MO

-          Installation of Rev. David Melton as President of Boston Baptist College

-          Disaffiliation of most Southern Baptist Colleges in North Carolina from the state convention.

-          Application for affiliation with the Tennessee SBC by Tennessee Temple University

-          Infamous Huckabee “floating cross” ad

-          Evangelicals and environmental activism

-          The rise of anti-Christian books from atheist authors like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

-          Persecution of Christians in Turkey, Iraq, India, Afghanistan, China, Burma/Mynamar and other countries

-          Grave illness of former ABWE President, Dr. Wendell Kempton

-          Serious illness and recovery of Al Mohler

-          Growing controversy over Joel Osteen’s theology and lack of clarity during media interviews

-          Dedication of the Billy Graham Library which brought three former Presidents together in Charlotte, NC

-          Efforts by Democratic candidates Presidential candidates to reach out to “values voters”

-          Continuing rift over gay ordination in Episcopalian denomination as conservatives revolt.

So that’s my list for 2007.  Let the debating begin!

Disturbing

From the “What ARE They Thinking?” department, another one of those infamous “joint letters” that come out of touchy-feely evangelicalism every so often has recently been published which touts the potential for “unity” between Christians and Muslims (think “oil” and “water“).  This particular effort is sadly reminiscent of the dastardly ECT document of the 1990′s in which “Evangelicals” and “Catholics” tried to make nice.

Once again, several leading evangelicals and evangelical institutional heads have signed onto a document that is unBiblical, confusing and just simply wrong.  To suggest that Allah has anything in common with Jehovah or Christianity capable of working alongside of Islam is just blasphemous and shows an apalling lack of comprehension about orthodox doctrine and the necessity of Biblical absolutism and ecclesiastical separation.  As I have often said, “Compromise may be the lifeblood of politics, but it is the deathknell of sound theology.”

Inexplicable, among the scores of rank theological liberals, one will find a smattering of “evangelicals” who have signed on to this wrong-headed tripe.  Among them is Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Leith Anderson, the President of Wheaton University and various officials from Bethel University, Taylor University and Youth with a Mission.  If the so-called leaders of evangelicalism have no more discretion or no deeper commitment to Biblical orthodoxy than this, then evangelicalism may be further lost than many have thought.

In a word, it’s just disturbing.

Read the document HERE.

I’m off to Israel for a few days and will not be available to approve comments submitted regarding this article until I return.

A Tale of Two Men

I’ve been watching a couple of threads on an Internet blogging site for the last couple of days where a few extreme fundamentalists have been using the opportunity of the death of Ruth Bell Graham to attack some of Billy Graham’s associations and some statements he made in the latter years of his ministry. I am on record regarding both issues, but find it in the poorest of taste to incessantly raise these issues when reasonable people express sympathy to a family during their time of loss. I would also note that Franklin Graham has stepped up to the leadership role of his father’s ministry in such a way that those who want to suggest that today’s BGEA is guilty of a murky gospel or even some of the associations for which it was criticized in the past end up looking out-of-touch and silly (among other things).

But if we could or would get a new macro-view of Billy Graham’s legacy, it might begin by reading an editorial a missionary friend of mine who minister’s in Liberia sent me. Take a moment and read THIS perspective. I think you’ll find it thought-provoking and honest.