I am often asked what I see on the landscape of Oklahoma Baptist life. I wrestle with this question on a regular basis because I believe Oklahoma Baptists are key to reaching our state with the Gospel and advancing the Kingdom of God in Oklahoma. We, as Oklahoma Baptists, are not the only group who preaches the Gospel, but we are the largest evangelical group in this state. I have concerns about our future. Let me share some of the most prominent of these concerns.
Above all, the health of our churches is a major concern. When I look across our state, I see churches, once strong and effective, now weakened and displaying only a shadow of their former glory. Why? Print space limits my answer, but let me give just a few observations. Part of the reason is due to population shifts. In other cases, churches refused to change when the neighborhood changed and kept trying to reach “their kind of people.” The only problem was that “their kind of people” were no longer in the neighborhood.
One glaring blind spot among us is the inability to see the people groups who live around us. In many of our larger communities, the world has come to our doorstep. Yet, we do little to form relationships with people from other “tribes, tongues and nations.” Many of these new Americans long to have friendships with us, and, as a result, these friendships build bridges to the Gospel. Our churches must find ways for people groups to hear or read the Gospel in their heart languages. Beside those people groups who speak different languages, there are also English- speaking people groups who are native to this land. Who will pay the price to reach millennials? What will you do to reach young families? Or, who will develop ministries to reach senior adults with the Gospel?
Perhaps the greatest challenge to church health is conflict. Yes, there are many reasons for conflict, and on some occasions, there are legitimate reasons. For example, when there is a clear compromise of truth, someone needs to stand up for the truth. However, most church conflicts are not centered on battles for truth; conflicts are about preferences, carnal attitudes, and selfishness. Change brings conflict when people refuse to put personal preferences above advancement of the Gospel and when change is pushed rather than led.
Few things have reduced the impact of Oklahoma Baptists in our state quite like the decline in an emphasis and practice of personal evangelism. By this I mean that Christians and church members have lost the burden to pray fervently for the lost and to regularly, boldly witness to the lost. What is true of the members is true of the leaders. Our churches have more paid staff than ever before, yet our baptisms continue to decline. If personal evangelism is not the priority of the leaders, it will not be the priority of the followers.
While I could wish for greater Gospel fervor in the pulpit, I do not think this is the key. In most of our churches, we are preaching to the choir—lost people are not present in our services. However, when the Gospel is taken to the streets and people start seeing individuals come to Christ and walk the aisle to publicly profess Christ, the spirit of the church changes. Just this week, I had lunch with one of our pastors who has seen a remarkable revival in his church. Why? He has returned personal responsibility to witness back into the hands of the laity. He has led the way in preaching and witnessing and has modeled personal evangelism.
On the heels of the lack of personal evangelism is the lack of personal discipleship. Sunday School is a valuable tool to teach and model the Christian life. Sunday School provides an ongoing powerful opportunity to both present the Gospel and to engage the larger congregation of believers in spiritual growth.
I would suggest, however, that to develop leaders who can develop more leaders, a more strategic and targeted approach must be taken. Pastors, staff, and mature leaders must disciple others who can become the future leaders of the church and become disciple makers themselves, which happens one on one or in small groups that focus on aggressive spiritual growth. Discipleship is less about content and more about transferring heart and soul. As Prov. 27:17 says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Jesus set the example. He preached to and taught the crowds, but He focused His attention on the twelve. These 12 men were the ones He would entrust with the advancement of the Gospel and the building of the church. We should follow in His footsteps.
The obstacles to a bright future among Oklahoma Baptist churches does not center on money, but on biblical transformation of our ministry. A return to New Testament ways would revive, renew, and reshape our future one church at a time.