June 23, 2018

12 Churches, 12 Calvinists: My Response

church.jpgOver at Frank Turk’s blog, he has something of a motto up on the sidebar. It’s a phrase his pastor offered in a comment thread sometime in the past. Here it is: The Gospel is the solution to culture.

I’ve often wanted to riff on this statement. While I’m pretty sure how Frank and his pastor see the truth of “The Gospel is the solution to culture,” I’m more than a little puzzled by the statement.

Perhaps the fault is entirely mine, but it appears that the motto is being translated like this: “Culture is always a negative, and the answer to the problem that is culture is the Gospel. Whatever problems culture brings us, the preaching of the Gospel will resolve those problems.”

If I’m getting it wrong, I apologize in advance and invite Frank to come over and shed some light on what he’s hearing in that statement. In the meantime, let me apply it to the “12 Churches, 12 Calvinists” thought experiment.

The Gospel is the message of God’s solution in Jesus to the multiple dimensions of fallenness. Culture is the shape or form that human community takes in particular circumstances. As such, culture will be a mixture of God’s intentions and purposes in creation alongside the realities and effects of sin.

The Gospel is a message; an announcement. The Kingdom of God is the reality that message proclaims. The church is not the Kingdom, but is an encultured, embodied, communal witness to the reality of the Gospel and the Kingdom. As such, the church always exists in culture and gives a witness to the redemption of human beings within culture. (This is different from the redemption of culture per se, but that’s another post.)

For example, a culture may promote polygamy and the sinful expressions of male sexuality. The church will proclaim the Gospel, but it will also seek to embody and create a culture where Christian purity and marriage are realities, even if imperfect ones. A culture may glorify materialism. The church bears witness to the economics of the Kingdom.

The 12 churches present the situation that occurs when culture overwhelms the church. There are true remnants of the Gospel left in these churches and the Kingdom of God is unaffected, but the surrounding culture has become the dominant shaping force and form in these churches. Because these churches are not experiencing conversions and the additions of new disciples to the community, they increasingly resemble outposts of culture, particularly Appalachian culture’s version of religion and morality.

The Gospel is the solution for these churches, but not simply the proclamation of the Gospel or steps toward reformation. These churches need persons to come into them and incarnate the Gospel practice they have largely forgotten: message, embodied community, witness, evangelism, discipleship, etc.

The pastors of these churches must face this situation squarely and become missionaries within the church cultures they are serving. This means their primary missional tool will be the ability to adapt to the surrounding culture in a way that will allow the communication of the Gospel, evangelism, discipleship and the rebuilding of a distinctive Christian community. They must learn to live as one of their people, penetrate the culture, speak the language, understand the values, appreciate the reality map, take on the mantle of the Appalachian pastor and otherwise make this culture their passionate project.

The experiences of other churches in other places, and particularly the specific examples of successful urban “Calvinistic” churches, will be of little help. These pastors need to find churches- or any other kind of community for that matter- that have been able to adapt to Appalachian culture, then build communities of genuine transformation and change in them.

This means that long-term incarnational leadership and Keller-level missional “savvy” will be invaluable. These pastors must learn the culture by staying in it, becoming part of it, learning what it values, studying models of change, learning how to adapt and compromise without abandoning the message and mission of the church. They must abandon any strategy of “making” a church in the image of their heroes. They must find the places of congruence between their own tradition and where they are. (The history of Martyn Lloyd-Jones in rural Wales is a good example. So are some of the pastoral practices of the early Methodists.)

There are churches doing this. They may be in other traditions, but they have valuable lessons to teach the teachable. These pastors must think like missionaries, particularly in mapping how processes and power work within the culture. When knowledge, credibility, love and leadership combine, they can hope and work toward the revitalization of these churches. Step by step, person by person, small group by small group, family by family, up to the entire church, such change is possible in some of these churches.

But not all. I believe some of these churches are doomed to extinction. The cultural negatives have overwhelmed the possibility of change. The only hope for such a church will probably be a rebirth through a new congregation. It is unrealistic to assume that even the best pastors will be able to lead some of these churches back from their chosen paths.

Other churches will be more leadable. They will respond to someone who cares enough to learn how to love them as opposed to someone who simply demands that they change and adopt ways that are strange to them.

Evangelism and discipleship are very difficult in these settings, but they have never been more vital. The ingrownness of these churches can make leadership impossible. (You can have any form congregational or elder government you wish, but the power and decisions in these churches will operate within extended families and perceived spiritual leaders, some of them long dead or totally absent.)

Work with young people will be key. Most of these churches are prepared to be supportive of any work with their children or grandchildren. Some missional leaders have suggested that the church that can retool to be an intentional outreach to young people, children and young adults will find older adults prepared to be much more supportive than might be anticipated. Not every church can do this, but some of these pastors may find this is a promising path to follow.

If two or three of these churches are revitalized and actual growth occurs, they will become a blessing to larger numbers of people than are currently involved in all of these churches. Because of the nature of Baptist connections in associations, two or three churches experiencing life and revitalization will influence the larger community of churches.

I doubt that the denomination will be of much help, but individual missionary minded denominational servants can be insightful and helpful. These young pastors should look to find older men who have pastored long and effectively in the mountains. Be mentored by them. Listen. Learn. Catch their ethos and pathos as servants.

Such churches are not the promised land of Calvinistic culture and conferences. Almost nothing the young Calvinist wants in his ideal seminary church is going to exist in these churches. Quite likely most of them will never adopt a recognizable version of the Reformed faith. They will remain- and should remain- “mountain Baptist” congregations.

These churches will, as I said in the comments, determine whether these are men called to be pastors or men who will demand their churches adapt to their own wants and preferences. Such churches are crucibles for young leaders, and taking them on will pay many valuable dividends.

(Kevin Hash asked what would happen if all 12 had Michael Spencer as pastor. Interesting question, considering my experience here. One local church did (it was not Baptist) for two turns totaling 12 years. When I resigned in May of 06, I never cried so hard over a church. It still is a deep pain. I did my best. We loved each other. I did all that I knew to do right, but the future was simply not there for this church in evangelism and conversion growth. My ministry there was viable, but the church was simply dying for reasons I could not touch. My best perception of God’s will was to say good-bye and pray God’s peace for the church.

I don’t take any of this lightly, and I don’t in any way mean to imply that I could succeed with these churches if everyone would do it “my” way. A thousand “No’s” to that. I’m an unworthy servant and have nothing but admiration for young pastors laboring in the fields of the Lord. My preaching career in area churches during my 16 years at the ministry where I serve has taught me that as a seminary graduate, it’s almost impossible for me to get down as far as I need to go to really communicate with mountain people. It’s a daunting calling. )


  1. This isn’t the original post! It’s my response, so be sure you are commenting at the right post.

  2. I have read both posts, and my immediate reaction is one of pain. While I’m not a calvinistic SBC pastor, I can sense the pain of the whole culture and situation. People in SE KY and many other places are afraid and beaten down. They tend to circle the wagons and resist any call to change, and/or cede power to the kind of mean-spirited folks mentioned in the other post. Anyone from the outside, especially the kind of pastor that you describe, starts, in my opinion, with two strikes against him and either the third one on the way, or a beanball aimed at his head. That’s not a healthy scenario.

    After 30+ years as a pastor, I refer to pastors as “the perennial outsiders,” as most of the time, we’re never really allowed all the way inside (however that may be defined), but are kept at least at arm’s length. That would seem to go double or triple for folks in the situation that you describe.

    If a few of the churches grow, how will the others react? Some may catch a new vision, but I’d wager that many others would fall prey to jealousy and criticize the heck out of the “success stories” for being unfaithful, etc.

    Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy!

  3. You said: “The experiences of other churches in other places, and particularly the specific examples of successful urban “Calvinistic” churches, will be of little help.”

    And: “They must abandon any strategy of “making” a church in the image of their heroes.”

    I agree 100%. Your example specifically involves churches in Appalachia–maybe this principle is more acute there–but I think it’s true everywhere. If a young pastor right out of seminary goes into any church in any location and tries to copy the forms and structures of a famous church, would they not encounter the same kinds of difficulties?

  4. “If a young pastor right out of seminary goes into any church in any location and tries to copy the forms and structures of a famous church, would they not encounter the same kinds of difficulties?”

    Involved (on the “attending,” not “leading” level) with a church that is directly copying a model seen in two other churches, I think it is my observation that the difficulties are relative to the difference of situation.

    Copying a church-model that succeeded in New York city into the major international metropolitan area of Toronto certainly involves situational adaptation–but not nearly to the extent of trying to adapt to the rural Appalacian culture.

  5. Michael your insights give us principles applicable to ministry of all kinds throughout our country. The mission field is in our own backyard as well as overseas, especially due to our post modern culture. Blessings.

  6. Bror Erickson says:

    I don’t think culture is the problem, the gospel was meant to fix. The gospel forgives sins, and power is unleashed in the forgiveness of sins. Maybe as a Lutheran I think in these terms differently, but when I here Gospel, I hear forgiveness of sins. I cringe when I hear that we need to fix culture, or create a Christian culture. I also cringe when I hear that a Church “should” remain Baptist. If pastors would go about doing there God given task of forgiving sins, especially to all those poor souls in their sanctuaries on Sunday, then the gospel would be heard, and the power of the Holy Spirit would be unleashed. We can never forget that it is the Holy Spirits work, not ours. We should never get dismayed, God’s word has power, the same as it did on that first Pentecost. But we pastors need to listen to it too, and remember that our sins too are forgiven. Lets not use this term gospel for a culture fixing program that has to do with preaching the law, and forcing non Christians to live by rules Christians have a hard time living by.

  7. Culture is a natural result of sinful humans living in the same geography. Each family has their own as well. Old people have a culture, teenagers have a culture, preschoolers have a culture, everyone usually has several cultures overlapping their lifestyles. Cultural sets and subsets. Denominations also usually have created a religious culture.

    The message must be presented in an understood way within each culture while paying particular attention to the preservation of God’s truth. The two bookends are when believers refuse to take culture into consideration in order to maximize communicative undeerstanding, and when others conform the truth within the culture and it becomes solely understood in the cultural context and continually morphs as does the culture.

    We are not called to change the culture, we are called to preach the gospel and allow the Spirit to change the individual. Even when this occurs it does not guarantee a mirrored Biblical culture either within the church or in the community. As is evident in America, even the ecclesiastical culture is wide, varied, and mercurial, even in orthodox circles.

    Visit Grace Community one Sunday and Times Square Church the next and see two “fundamentalist” communities with divergent religious cultures. We do not seek cultural uniformity but Christ. Or…we should.

  8. “be a missionary within the church”….

    To me, that is the best thing ever posted on the internet..ever. Please allow me to buy you a virtual soda.

  9. urban otter says:

    Late to the party as usual, but I must ask something of everyone who suggested that (part of) the solution would be to have our 12 churches hear the Gospel (or words to that effect). The implication is that the Mountain Baptists are not currently hearing the Gospel. Surely they know and believe that Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, died for their sins and rose on the third day so that all who believe in him may go to heaven, and surely their pastors must be mentioning this. (Otherwise what’s the point of having a church?) So if that’s not the gospel they are hearing, what is?


  10. Bror,

    Bingo! That’s the problem that distracts. Seeing the Gospel as a thing that will “fix” the culture or such. As soon as a pastor, congregation, denomination, local church begins to look in those terms – they have already started down the prim rose path of no longer giving the Gospel (forgiveness of sins) and down that path of “no longer being a church”.

    And we see that in MANY denominations today not just the SB. Because the Gospel may in fact, more often than not, turn things upside down. I’m not Lutheran, at least in my official church membership, but I heard a Lutheran once say this was the charge to their pastors, “You are to preach the Gospel (Word and Sacrament), EVEN IF everyone in the church (building) leaves.

    But soon as the temptation arises to have “numbers”, ‘effect a local moral goal’, even “produce fruit”, ‘produce a “regenerate church”‘…any of those things…you’ve lost it, you’ve lost the Word of God altogether or will shortly there after.

    It goes to the mind set that kind of thinking produces.

    Bror, you nailed it on the head!



  11. Lavonne Farley says: