Christianity is growing numerically around the world! With books such as The Next Christendom and Theology in the Context of World Christianity we are reminded of the work of the Holy Spirit in communions in third-world countries and even nations like China. However, we are reminded of the decline of Christianity in North America. Not only are mainline churches shrinking (as they have been since the 1960s) but even the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest of conservative Protestant denominations, will be half it’s size by 2050.
So the question facing American Christianity now is, Are we good as dead? Is there no sign of renewal, reform, and revival for American Christianity? Before any verdict is announced, I think it would be most beneficial to ponder about recent events regarding two very dissimilar conservative evangelical denominations and see if our prayers might be more motivated to prayer for a move by the Holy Spirit in American evangelicalism.
Two of the bigger stories from this summer’s plethora of synods, assemblies, and conventions have come from the biggest denomination and one of the smallest. Both the Southern Baptist Convention and the General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church witnessed historic decisions and events within their assemblies in June. The evangelical empire itself saw the rise of young pastors in the SBC call for a Great Commission Resurgence and for a task force to examine how the largest denomination in America might be more efficient (and more biblical) in being intentionally missional and Great Commission-friendly.
The ARP Church has itself made great strides in the last couple of Synod meetings. This 200 year old denomination that is about 35,000 members over 200 churches is mainly relegated to the southeastern region of the United States. Yet, the denomination does a lot for its size with its own mission agency (World Witness), a church planting agency (Outreach North America), conference and camp grounds (Bonclarken), a college (Erskine College), and a seminary (Erskine Theological Seminary). Last year the denomination renewed its commitment to the doctrine of inerrancy (something that was controversial for the small fellowship in the 1970s and 1980s). This year, as WORLD Magazine has reported, the ARP Church has responded the cries of Erskine College students and has appointed a commission to investigate the Board of Trustees and Administration of the college and report its findings and recommendations within a year. Joel Belz notes that the action to see Erskine become more rooted in its conservative Christian liberal arts mission is fueled by a conservative resurgence in the ARP Church.
In both denominations, it seems that there is a movement of younger pastors as well as older gospel-minded individuals seeking to not accept the bureaucratic, old way of doing things. The “old guard” is seen as ineffective. In the SBC, the younger crowd has the support of men like Al Mohler, Daniel Akin, and SBC President Johnnie Hunt. In the ARP Church there are Erskine College students informing the denomination of its failures. In both cases, the rejection of an old way has made room for the acceptance of a gospel way that makes the kingdom of God a priority over “good ol’ boy” networks and church politics.
The providence of God in moving two very different denominations to renewal and rethinking the church’s mission is exciting to watch! God may not yet be done with our nation. Perhaps there will be a Great Commission Resurgence for a majority of evangelical churches and maybe there will be greater acknowledgement of Christ’s lordship over all things. This writer is optimistic for the expansion of the kingdom through both the SBC and the ARP Church.