JACKSON, Tenn. – Oct. 12, 2009 – The pressing need to evangelize a rapidly changing culture should drive denominational approaches to the post-modern and emerging church movements, according to two leading Southern Baptist scholars.
“What happens is that the old way of presenting the gospel ceases to communicate with the changing culture and its questions,” said Hal L. Poe, Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. “This situation creates no particular problem unless Christians have confused a particular way of presenting the gospel with the gospel itself.”
“Culture profoundly affects the conveyance of meaning,” said D. Mark DeVine, associate professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala. “Culture should be studied with great care, with missiological purposes in mind, as it has been by missionaries in foreign fields for years.”
Poe and DeVine made their comments in separate presentations Oct. 6-9 during “Southern Baptists, Evangelicals and the Future of Denominationalism,” a conference hosted by Union to mark the 400th anniversary of the Baptist movement.
Poe has served in the evangelism office of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. He has also taught courses in evangelism and church growth at two seminaries.
“How do we help a culture that does not understand the concept of sin grasp it and claim it and say, ‘Oh, what do I do about it?’” Poe asked. “These are some of the challenges that face us.”
Poe emphasized that although the gospel message does not change, it is important to answer questions relevant to the current culture rather than relying on established presentations of the past.
He traced the development of modern evangelism programs to John Stott and his book “Basic Christianity,” published in 1958. The book’s four main parts were Christ’s person, man’s need, Christ’s work and man’s response.
Poe said those four thoughts developed into a formula for presenting the gospel that greatly influenced evangelism programs developed in the two decades that followed, including Bill Bright’s “Four Spiritual Laws,” D. James Kennedy’s “Evangelism Explosion” and the Southern Baptist Convention’s “Continuous Witness Training.”
“To a certain extent, evangelism programs represent a sign of failure,” Poe said. “They suggest that Christians and churches no longer talk about their faith in Christ as a normal part of everyday life.”
Poe said this failure to know the gospel apart from a presentation creates obstacles to evangelizing a post-modern culture that views sin as a matter of breaking irrelevant rules.
“The essential Christian faith embodied in the gospel never changes, but the questions that people and cultures ask change with each generation and each age,” Poe said. “Jesus is the answer, but Christians do not always attend to the question, so they can explain how Jesus is the answer.”
DeVine has spent most of this decade studying the emerging church. He said the movement got his attention after an emerging church congregation helped revitalize a declining congregation where he served as pastor in Kansas City, Mo. The once-dying church is now growing rapidly in a transitional neighborhood made up of singles, young couples and a diversity of ethnic groups.
DeVine presented the emerging church within the context of two branches: those that receive orthodoxy and those that largely reject established doctrine. He said the doctrine-friendly emerging church often sets good examples for other evangelical groups to follow.
“The doctrine-friendly stream believes in conversion-seeking evangelism,” DeVine said. “They are church-planting fixated.”
DeVine said many churches, including Southern Baptist churches, have failed to account for the changing culture. They continue to practice evangelism and ministry as they have for generations.
But DeVine also pointed to ways in which emerging church leaders sometimes fail to recognize the benefits of a larger denomination and the historical success of the SBC.
For example, he said emerging church leaders often do not understand that perhaps the most successful church planting movement in modern history was led by Southern Baptists from 1845 through the late 20th century.
“We didn’t think missionally to do it because we didn’t have to, said DeVine. “Now with the changing cultural landscape, we have to treat our own land as a mission field.” DeVine said that although the cultural differences within North America are less jarring than would be experienced between Jackson, Tenn. and Jakarta, emerging church leaders are often more adept at addressing the diversity of cultures that continues to grow in American society, especially within the urbanized settings where such churches frequently are planted.
“The emerging church is here to tell us that these lesser cultural distances are real,” DeVine said. “And that nonchalance with respect to them will inhibit effective communication of the gospel.”
Both addresses are available in audio form at www.uu.edu/audio/event.cfm?ID=2515.
By Mark Kahler