Denouncing Racism Is Easy, Loving Racists Is Hard

As the nation watched in horror this weekend, racial violence emerged yet again, this time in Charlottesville, Virginia, as white nationalists, Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, the KKK and others met to “Unite the Right.” The whole scene was evil and anti-Christ. Saturday’s violence and the terrorist attack that took the life of Heather Heyer got a great deal of the attention, as it should have, but the marching with torches and Nazi chanting on Friday night gives a good picture on what this was all about.

Friday night around 10pm in Charlottesville, the crowd was chanting: “One people, one nation, end immigration” & “blood and soil.” The German and Nazi “Blood and Soil” mantra was used over and over again throughout the weekend. This was a mantra focused on empowering the German “Volk” of the early 20th century and was adopted by the Nazis as a way of saying that the land belonged only to the ethnic German people. This ideology was used as a way of dividing the rural “Volk” from the urban and cosmopolitan Jews. In other words, when you hear “blood and soil,” you’re hearing Nazi ideology.

The torches are also meant to be reminiscent of Nazi rallies in Germany in the 1930s and cause any Southerner who knows his history to think of racist mobs and night riders who terrorized the black population in the 19th and 20th centuries. Any notion that this was a benign, peaceful crowd is most assuredly false. By the symbols, slogans, dress, signs, language, and the very nature of what they were doing was meant to antagonize, intimidate, and strike fear in the hearts of those who would see it.

But, at the core of all of this racism and fear is a frantic panic to promote, protect, and defend one’s “way of life.” Beneath the sin of racism is this incredible fear that white people might lose their position, their wealth, their power, or their place in society. There is a consuming desire for power, prominence, and prosperity. I see it all the time with the growing xenophobia toward immigrants. The fear of immigrants and refugees and anger toward them isn’t really about economics, safety, or even culture. It is about a fear that native born people might lose their place or their “way of life” might be threatened somehow by the inclusion of others who are different from them. So, the idea goes, we have to push them away, denounce them, and separate ourselves from them lest we die somehow. It is all rather primal and carnal. And, completely natural and human. This is how we live without God.

The way to counter this fear is not to assure white people that they will maintain power. The way to counter it is for an alternative community of Christ followers to demonstrate how to live without worldly power as we trust in God alone and love one another sacrificially.

I should not have to establish how utterly evil this all is. What we are seeing now is a symptom of our flight from God as a people. This is what Southern Baptists denounced at the 2017 convention in the Alt-Right resolution. But, for Southern Baptists in particular, and Evangelicals in general, we not only have the call and ability to denounce this evil, but we are also called to live out and demonstrate the better way of Jesus in sacrificial love. The better way of Jesus does not involve finding your identity in your race or political ideology or your economic status or your real estate address. It doesn’t involve violence or grasping for worldly power or trying to live only among “your own kind.” The better way of Jesus rejects racism and protecting one’s “way of life” (if it isn’t fully immersed in Christ) and it rejects fear, anger, hatred, jealousy, envy, and racial supremacy. It also rejects turning away from those caught up in these things and watching silently as their lives are consumed by hate and anger from the inside out. Jesus loves the man waving the Nazi flag dressed in Klan robes and He died for his sins too.

We have an incredible opportunity to once again BE the hands and feet of Jesus if we would enter into this maelstrom with the love of Christ and confident in our identity in Christ and not in our ethnicity, nationality, political party, or social status. But, we have to receive God’s love in a way that actually enables us to find our identity in Him and not our flesh (2 Cor. 5:14-21). We must put to death the anger, rage, malice, slander, and attacking of other human beings and get to laying down our lives for people – even loving our enemies … especially loving our enemies. We have to lay our own lives down. We can’t take the gospel to this people and culture as long as we’re trying to protect our own way of life and we’re angry and afraid of people. We can’t expect anyone to believe the gospel of a crucified king when we refuse to inconvenience ourselves or suffer even a little bit of loss by loving our neighbor. We invalidate our own message by our fear, anger, and dismissal of the concerns of others.

The Dragon of White Supremacy is awake once again and is flying overhead, seeking to devour people all around us. We can only counter it through the Cross and the Sacrificial Love of Jesus that is more than just a message. We are called to incarnate and embody the love of Jesus for others, even for those getting caught up in white supremacy and white nationalism, which means we significantly care about what happens to our neighbors and we enter into their lives to love and serve them, even if it costs us everything. Because, that’s what Jesus did for us. Until we’re ready to do that, we can denounce white supremacy, but we show we’re not ready to love the white supremacist enough to show him Jesus.

These young men being caught up in white supremacy need to encounter the transforming love of Jesus. We won’t bring Christ to them if we are unaware of the damning nature of this hateful message against those of other races and ethnicities that God created and loves. And, we won’t bring Christ to them if we despise them or fear them. We must see them as Jesus does, with hearts moved by compassion because they are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matt. 9:35-39). I’m not excusing anyone. I’m portraying the real situation. Their ideology is evil and damaging to their communities and our nation, but the people marching with Confederate and Nazi flags are not powerful. They are sad, weak, and fearful, and worthy of our pity. Hatred and fear has overtaken them and warped them to the core. But, they are still people that Jesus died for and wants to redeem.

The scandal of the Cross is that Jesus loves and died for the white supremacist just as much as He loves the victim of white supremacy. And, he loves the victim of racism as much as he loves the Alt-Right advocate. And, He has given us the ministry of reconciliation by calling all people to Christ. I’m reminded that Simon the Zealot and Matthew the Tax Collector were both called by Jesus to be His disciples. Simon was likely a Jewish Nationalist who advocated for the overthrow of the Roman Empire. Matthew, as a tax collector, would have been a collaborator with the Empire in cheating and oppressing his own people. But, Jesus called them both to forsake their old lives and identities and find their new life in Him. This is what the church is supposed to be. A gathering of Simons and Matthews laying down their anger, fear, and pain and finding new life together in Christ. This is just gospel truth. But, we can’t recognize it if we ourselves are clinging to old worldly identities. We have to lay down our racial, political, economic, and social identities as well and find our new life in Christ to be core to who we really are. Then, we can love our neighbor sacrificially, even if they hate us.

At the root, this growing dragon of white supremacy is a problem growing on the watch of white evangelicals, in part. It is growing in our communities and would even seek to infiltrate our churches once again, if we are not aware. We can and should denounce this evil. But, words are easy. Actions are hard. Can we then turn and love the white nationalist enough to enter into his fear and pain and take Christ to him? Can we show him the better way of Jesus through how we love one another and love our neighbors who are different from us? What would it look like for Southern Baptists to really engage white supremacists, white nationalists, and the Alt-Right with the saving gospel of Jesus Christ?

Maybe that should start in our own churches. Maybe that starts with us. Instead of falling for the temptation of “blood and soil” as the Germans meant it, we should recognize that the only blood that defines us is the blood of Jesus and the soil we need is the good soil in our hearts that receives His Word and bears gospel fruit of sacrificial love to all people a hundred fold.

 

For a fuller, more in depth treatment of racism, the sin beneath racism, how we often seek to promote and protect our own “way of life,” and the power of the Cross to transform our lives and communities, see When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus. NewSouth Books, 2014.

The Coming Crisis: Why We Should Speak/Advocate on Behalf of Immigrant “Dreamers” Right Now

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.” – Proverbs 31:8-9

My young immigrant friend keeps calling me. He knows that I work with churches and groups on immigrant/refugee ministry and that I keep up with what is happening from a policy perspective. So, he keeps calling and texting. He was brought here illegally when he was 2 years old. He’s now in his late 20’s and has lived in America all of his life. He is married and has children, all of whom are U.S. citizens. He works a job to support his family and works hard. He’s never been in trouble with the law and is a leader in his immigrant community.

My friend is currently allowed to do all of this because of DACA – “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” – that President Obama instituted to protect immigrant “Dreamers” from deportation in light of Congress not being able to pass legislation. He trusted our government’s offer, came forward, applied, paid the fees, went through background checks, and has kept up with his paperwork and has continued to abide by the terms of the program. Through this, he can provide for his children, who are U.S. citizens. DACA, which protects 860,000 people like my friend, is now under assault from 10 state Attorneys General who have warned President Trump that if he does not revoke DACA by September 5th, then they will file a lawsuit to have it struck down.

While President Trump has kept the program in place and indicated that he actually does not want to see Dreamers deported, his Justice Department has indicated that they will not defend DACA in the courts. As one Republican leader told me recently, “DACA is dead. We need a replacement.” I’m less interested in defending DACA than I am in what happens to the 1 million+ Dreamers if/when DACA goes away.

“You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”—Leviticus 19:34

“Yeah we must pray, because my wife is already afraid because if they cancel DACA, they know my address …they might come for me…i asked the attorney and he said if they cancel it they will start to deport all the Dreamers without a criminal check … I’m scared too.”

This was the message from my friend the other day. His wife is afraid. He fears what will happen to him and his family. Keep in mind, he was brought here at 2 years old. He didn’t make the decision to come here. And, he is here legally under the protection of our government. But, that protection is in danger. What are we going to do about this? These are people in our churches.

If DACA goes away this Fall, as it very well could do, and if Congress does not pass legislation as a replacement, then all of these young people are stripped of their protection and reenter the larger population of undocumented immigrants who are subject to deportation. According to the release of internal DHS memos, the reality right now is that all of the undocumented immigrants in our country  are now, essentially, priorities for deportation, whether one is a criminal or not. I’m personally aware of stories when people who came here as teenagers and young people are being pulled over for traffic stops in Georgia. Police ask for identification. When it can’t be produced, they aren’t just given a ticket, but are taken into custody and sent to a Federal detention facility where they await deportation. Whether or not they are the only provider for their family or if they leave citizen children behind is immaterial. Deportation has come not just to the “bad hombres,” but to the whole undocumented community.

It is one thing when violent criminals are being deported. But, what happens when it is a young man or woman brought here as toddlers and this is the only country they know?

Hear the story of Erick the Dreamer.

According to U.S. government numbers, there are 260,873 DACA recipients in the US South. There are approximately 860,000 DACA recipients overall in America. There might be a million more who are eligible and meet the requirements and are considered “Dreamers,” but have not applied.

“You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”—Exodus 23:9

Evangelicals have a chance to speak and act on behalf of Dreamers. The President and political party in power making these decisions are those that we have sought to have a seat at the table with for the past several decades. Evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, voted for this president with 81% support, primarily because we thought that he would best represent biblical values on issues such as the sanctify of human life. Now that 1-2 million lives are potentially to be affected dramatically, are we able to muster the courage to speak on their behalf? To write an OpEd? Pray? Reach out to them in concern and ministry? Call or visit a Congressman or Senator’s office and express a desire to see these people who qualify provided with legalized status?

It would be a popular decision. According to a recent Morning Consult Poll, the vast majority of Americans want to see Dreamers who qualify (who haven’t committed crimes, who work, speak English, have graduated or are in school, etc.) be able to stay in the United States, recognizing that they were brought here as children and this is the country they grew up in. These numbers are consistent with a myriad of polls on this issue over the past year or two. The numbers are striking and do not match what we often hear in the media:

  • 78% over voters say Dreamers should be allowed to stay. Only 14% say they should be deported.
  • 78% of Evangelicals say they should stay with legalized status, 16% say they should be deported.
  • In the South, 75% say they should be able to stay and only 15% say they should be deported.
  • And, among Trump voters, 73% say they should be allowed to stay in some form of legalized status, while only 23% say they should be deported.

So, while the Rule of Law is important, our form of government states that laws can be changed. Senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin introduced the Dream Act 2017 last week in the U.S. Senate. There are multiple versions of similar bills that have been introduced in the House. None of these bills are “amnesty.” They would only allow a path and process for these young people to get on to earn legalized status and then potentially earn citizenship down the road as they continue to work and go to school here in America.

Currently, there is no way for these young people to gain legalized status unless they return to their home country and start over. That is an incredibly daunting task for someone who is 25 years old, has a family, and was brought here when he was 2 years old and has no memory of his home country. I have another friend who is 18 years old and he was brought here at 6 months old, He is the oldest in his family with 5 younger siblings who are all U.S. citizens. He told me that he doesn’t want handouts and desires to work and contribute. He is just asking if he can stay with his family and not be sent away. He knew what he was up against, but he just wants to stay with his siblings and not have to leave because of what side of the border he was born on. He is set to graduate high school this year.

These stories are endless. Evangelical Christians can make a difference here. These young people are in our communities and in our churches. So many of these young people are Christians. They play ball with our kids and have grown up alongside them in our neighborhoods. I’ve met them at SBC seminaries as they prepare for ministry and have met them in colleges. They are all around us. Can we not help them? Can we not speak on their behalf? What will be said of us who could have intervened if DACA is revoked and these young people are deported? We had all that wealth and all that power and what did we do with it? Perhaps, we will speak on their behalf and we will see a miracle. Perhaps we will be a nation not just of laws, but also a nation of mercy. Our immigration problems are 30 years in the making as our government failed in this essential task. Let’s not solve these problems by wrecking the lives of 1-2 million young people who were brought or sent here without being able to give consent. Can we not speak for them right now? The time is urgent.

Yes, we need border security, and I know that is being worked on feverishly by this administration. Yes, criminal aliens who have committed violent crimes need to be deported. Yes, the rule of law is important, and a decision to help these Dreamers get right with the law in a Constitutional and legislative way actually enhances the rule of law. But, we also must remember that these young people didn’t choose this. While we need justice, we also need mercy, especially for those who found themselves in this situation through no fault of their own. How we handle this will determine what kind of nation we are going to be for the foreseeable future.

The decision to either solve this or to deport these young people will be made by early September. We are at a crossroads. The issue has been forced. We can’t ignore this any longer. Southern Baptists could help solve this in the next 4-6 weeks if we would contact our Representatives and Senators and ask them to intervene on behalf of these young people and make a way for them to stay. Submit an OpEd to your local paper. Hold a meeting to pray for them. Go to them with prayer, ministry, comfort, and the gospel. It is amazing what an open door we have right now to minister to this population of people in need. Scripture would be on our side as would the heart of the God for the quartet of the vulnerable: the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the sojourner (Zechariah 7:8-14). What if we spoke out and used our freedom and influence to solve this major problem in our country on behalf of others?

What will we do? The crisis is upon us.

 

 

Additional Ministry and Advocacy Resources:

If you’d like more perspective on the issue of immigrant and refugee ministry and biblical advocacy, you can check out the When Heaven and Earth Collide Podcast on iTunes. I have interviews with SBC leaders such as Richard Land, Bart Barber, Danny Akin, JD Greear and Todd Unzicker, Bryant Wright, Matthew Hall, Vance Pittman, David Crosby, Ed Stetzer, and Trent DeLoach up so far. More are coming!

Also, here is a short video from Dr. Richard Land, former president of the ERLC, about the immigration situation and what a solution would look like.

And, finally, a resource that I prepared for the SBC Pastor’s Conference booth in Phoenix called Preaching God’s Heart for Immigrants and Refugees: Reaching the Nations in North America. This resource contains a theological perspective on immigrant and refugee ministry from Dr. Miguel Echevarria of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a missiological perspective from Keelan Cook of People’s Next Door NC, and a pastoral perspective, from Jonathan Akin, as he works through how to preach on the topic of reaching immigrants and refugees with the gospel.

 

Eugene Peterson and Perhaps the Deepest Kind of Repentance

By now, you’ve heard of what happened with Eugene Peterson, the 84 year old pastor/professor/writer when asked what he believed about gay marriage and gay relationships. I don’t want to get into all of the details of that, give links, and make arguments that have already been made. But, I do want to focus in on something I haven’t seen many talk about. His statement affirming gay marriage came out on Wednesday in an article. On Thursday, he released a retraction. He recanted. And, there are three statements that he made here that are particularly worth exploring and should consider:

  1. “To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.” Here, Peterson submits his statement released on Wednesday, which was based on his personal views of gay people and their spirituality, to the authority of the Word of God – on everything. He moved back away from his own view formed by sentiment, observation, and his own love for gay people and desire to help them, and back to what he recognized as God’s will as revealed in the Bible for human relationships. “A biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman.” I’ve seen conservative evangelicals criticize this as not genuine or a strong enough statement. I’ve seen people say that this is insufficient. But, it seems to be the strongest of statements possible. He submits his will and thinking to the Bible. On everything. He lets us work out the rest of what that means.
  2. “When put on the spot by this particular interviewer, I said yes in the moment. But on further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that.” Some have said that Peterson has had this view for some time and that he clearly articulated a view affirming gay marriage. Then, they attacked him for this statement and said it wasn’t genuine. But, let’s back up. He admits to saying something that he now says isn’t true. He perhaps shouldn’t have blamed the interviewer and his question here, I admit. He is responsible for his own statement. But … he says that he thought it through and wants to retract. When do we see this? He rethought his position and changed his mind.
  3. “We are saved by faith through grace that operates independent of our resolve or our good behavior. It operates by the hand of a loving God who desires for us to live in grace and truth and who does not tire of turning us toward both grace and truth.” In context, he is speaking this about gay people and is saying they can be saved apart from their works because of God’s grace. Now, let’s turn that view toward Peterson himself. I read some people who said that because Peterson was in error here on Wednesday, that his soul was in danger of hell because he affirmed what God rejects. Then, he repented, but there were still concerns about whether he was clear enough. But, let’s just consider the man for a moment and not the arguments. He looks to a God who saves us by faith through grace operating independent of our resolve or good behavior, desiring us to live in grace and truth, and who does not tire of turning us toward both grace and truth. That is important. In other words, Peterson isn’t putting his faith in his right beliefs at every moment. Rather, he puts his faith in God who saves even when Eugene errs and never tires of turning us away from ourselves and back toward him. We are prone to err and wander. God never tires of coming after us and turning us around. This sounds like good news.

Peterson potentially demonstrates something rather remarkable here for a major Christian leader and scholar, in my opinion. Instead of defending his position, he rethinks and shows submission to God and His Word rather than the position he staked out initially. The focus here isn’t what makes sense to Peterson. It is what God has revealed. And, even though he was going off after what made sense to him for a time, this episode possibly jerked him back to God as the authority on this. I responded to a comment on Facebook with this observation …

You know what we possibly see here? It could be the deepest kind of repentance. In other words, he isn’t saying what “HE” believes. He is saying what God says and says that isn’t what he would want to do or what he thinks should happen on his own, but after reflecting further, he will affirm what the Bible says and God’s Way of marriage being one man – one woman. Maybe in the interview we got what Eugene, the man, thinks is fair based on his own understanding and observation. After reflecting and seeing his own words, he relents and says, “But, God …” and resubmits himself to Scripture and God’s character. I don’t know, but when do we ever see this? I hear what preachers think and believe. Rarely do we ever see the struggle. Rarely do we see a man like Peterson want to go one way, get started down the road, and then get jerked back by the Bible and Spirit of God and that all happen in front of us. People with the stature of Peterson always seem to be the authority – never the pilgrim. Why attack him? Perhaps this is his greatest lesson for us? You might want to go one way on your own, but when it comes to the God you love, you are arrested by the Spirit, you relent, you submit, you humble yourself, you reengage in that “long obedience.” Isn’t that the real story for all of us?

I don’t know Peterson’s heart. I can’t look inside his soul. And, it isn’t my place to justify him. That isn’t my point. But, when have we seen this? When have we seen a significant leader say, “I think this because it makes sense to me based on what I’ve observed …” and then after it is made public and he reflects on what he said, he says, “I retract my statement. I submit to God’s Word and God’s Way”? When do we see a man say “I was wrong” and it be because he prays and resubmits himself again to God’s Word? It happens in our churches every day. I rarely see it among leaders at this level.

Here’s the thing: If we can’t err and retrace our steps and come back again to God – if we can’t repent of trusting in ourselves and resubmit to God’s authority – then what are we actually believing? What are we preaching? I’m not saying that Peterson is perfect and should be totally affirmed and “followed.” Obviously. But, no one should. No one’s beliefs or actions are perfect and without any kind of error. Only God and His Word is. We are all in process. We all err. We all fail. We all desperately need grace every moment of every day. But, when we stumble, can we then look to Christ? Will we? He calls out to us – each one of us no matter where we are.

Peterson is now retired. He is 84. He will no longer speak publicly or write. This was the last episode of a long life of service to God and His people and the world. Perhaps, this is his greatest lesson of all. He erred and then recanted. He resubmitted to the God who “does not tire of turning us toward both grace and truth.” It was messy and all unfortunate. But, in the end, he affirms God’s truth. That seems to be the very best way that any of us could leave the public stage. Perhaps God was holding him all along and didn’t abandon him because his beliefs were wrong. Maybe that is a lesson for how we should see all people, no matter their situation.

This will happen a lot more. But, how can we help people reconsider? How can we affirm God’s truth in a way that allows people to change and that demonstrates they are loved? Perhaps this was Peterson’s final lesson for us encapsulating a lifetime of journeying with God. Maybe this was the deepest kind of repentance – from his own way back to God’s way, even when it might not have been what made sense to him or what he would have chosen on his own. Maybe that’s where grace intervenes and saves us from ourselves apart from ourselves? Maybe.

The final chapter of Peterson’s story is perhaps that he never stopped being a sojourner with God. I’m glad.

 

“I affirm a biblical view of everything.” ~ Eugene Peterson

Real Numbers: SBC In Free-Fall Compared to Southern Population, But Green Shoots Are Everywhere

We need a Southern Missiology combined with faith in Christ and manifesting in personal sacrifice for the sake of the gospel and the people among us.

We all know about the flatlining and then declining numbers of the SBC related to baptisms, church membership, and worship attendance. We’ve talked about them for years, heard Ed Stetzer’s warnings years ago (“facts are our friends”), and we’ve seen it with our own eyes. While SBC megachurches are still doing well numbers wise, there continues to be consolidation going on, churches struggling, and many churches in steep decline. With the new numbers set to come out in the next few weeks, I thought some overall analysis might be helpful.

From last year’s ACP report:

While the number of SBC-related congregations increased (up 294), reported membership declined more than 200,000, down 1.32 percent to 15.3 million members. Average weekly worship attendance declined by 1.72 percent to 5.6 million worshippers.

Southern Baptists also experienced a decline in baptisms, down 3.3 percent to 295,212. Reported baptisms have fallen eight of the last 10 years. The ratio of baptisms to total members decreased to one baptism for every 52 members.

“God help us all! In a world that is desperate for the message of Christ, we continue to be less diligent in sharing the Good News,” said Frank S. Page, SBC Executive Committee president and CEO. “May God forgive us and give us a new passion to reach this world for Christ.”

If you look at those numbers more closely, the SBC had 414,657 baptisms in 2000. In 2015, we had 295,212. That’s a 29% decline. In 2005, we had 16.6 million Southern Baptists. In 2015, we had 15.3 million. That’s an 8% decline. Now, we all know that those numbers have been inaccurate for a long time, so the decline might partially reflect more accuracy in reporting overall numbers, but it is still a decline of 1.3 million in one way or another. We can only work with the numbers we actually have.

Average weekly worship attendance is down to 5.6 million people. It was over 6 million a decade or so ago, if memory serves. I have not found the actual numbers online, so I could be wrong. That is also a sketchy number because people might be heavily involved in a church and not actually be there every Sunday due to travel, illness, etc. We live in a very mobile society. But, even the most generous assessment of those numbers show that they are way down.

However, we do now have over 20,000 students in the six SBC seminaries, up from around 15,000 students over a decade ago. Church planting is increasing, so perhaps those seminary students will plant new churches? Replace aging pastors in established churches? Go into the regular workforce as missionaries in a variety of vocations? Lots of possibilities there, as well as questions.

When you look at these current numbers and compare them to past numbers, they show a significant decline. But, when you look at these numbers and compare them to the increasing population of the U.S. South, where the vast majority of SBC churches and members reside, we see not just a flat-lining or a decline, but we see a massive free fall.

The first map shows us what the U.S. Census calls the “US South.” The second map shows the area that is considered to be the “Bible Belt.” The third map shows the counties where Southern Baptists are the largest religious group per county. The final map shows who Republican voters chose in the GOP primaries per county, just to give a picture of where this region aligns politically with candidates (blue is Trump, gold is Cruz, red is Rubio). Obviously, each Southern state went red in the general election and Southern Evangelicals were a huge part of that.

 

According to all statistics that we have, the US South is still largely synonymous with both the “Bible Belt” and the Southern Baptist Convention, as far as what the predominant religious expression is. Southern Baptists clearly have their largest expression in the South and are the most significant religious body by far. This is also where the Republican Party dominates and Evangelical affiliation with the GOP is well established.

This, however, shows that the decline in the SBC over the past 10-15 years is even more drastic than just looking at the numbers would suggest. I contend that it is inaccurate to just compare the SBC numbers in 2015 to the SBC numbers in 2000 or 2005. Rather, you have to compare the numbers to the region of the country where we have the largest numbers of Southern Baptists.

Free Fall statistically, but, great opportunity. 

In 2000, there were 100 million people who lived in the US South. In 2015, there were 121 million people who lived in the US South (according to US Census reports). That is a 17.5% INCREASE. An increase of 21 million people. So, while the SBC has decline by around a million people overall in that time frame, the region where the majority of SBC churches and members exists has increased by 21 million. So, SBC churches are in decline while the region is in dramatic increase. We aren’t talking about the Rust Belt here. We’re talking about what is by far the largest region of the country with 38% of the US population.

121 million people would make the US South the 12th most populous nation in the world with the 3rd largest GDP, if it were its own nation. The US South has been called the “economic engine” of the United States. In this region, Cooperative Program giving was $195 million in fiscal year 2016. However, it was $200 million in fiscal year 2005. So, CP giving is still down in real dollars over the past decade. But, adjusted for inflation, that $200 million in 2005 would be worth $253.74 million now. So, we’re looking at a real loss of over 23% of CP giving over the past decade.

In a region of the country with the population booming, people moving in from all over the nation and the world, and having the 3rd largest GDP in the world (with over $5 Trillion) on its own only after the rest of the United States combined and China, the SBC is in decline – steep decline in relation to the massive growth of the region.

In addition, the Nations are coming to the South as the region is becoming more and more diverse. 13.1 Million people in the South are first generation immigrants from all over the world. That’s almost 11% of the population. More significantly, 46% of all first generation immigrant growth from 2000-2015 in the whole United States happened in the South (according to data I discovered while working through the US Census data state-by-state). 4 million of the 21 million newcomers to the South from 2000-2015 are first generation immigrants (that’s 19% of all growth). Immigrants are attracted to areas with booming economies and they contribute to entrepreneurship and the business start up culture (1 in 4 new businesses in America are started by immigrants). Fortunately, over 50% of new SBC church plants over the past several years have been predominately ethnic minority, so we are addressing this to an extent. But, there is so much more to be done.

Green Shoots: New Hope

My purpose in this post is not to just say that everything is terrible. It isn’t. I am full of hope in the Lord and in what I’m seeing God do in the South. I travel all over the Southeast encouraging and equipping churches to minister to and advocate for immigrants and refugees. I constantly go in and out of cities like Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Orlando, Birmingham, New Orleans, and more and I also go through smaller towns and cities. The sheer numbers of people are incredible, traffic grinding, businesses booming, and immigrants from all over the world are everywhere doing business and living life alongside their neighbors. The idea that the South is primarily a rural, traditional, white, religious, conservative area is still true in many ways, but it misses the much larger narrative that is emerging.

In these travels, I am seeing some amazing work being done by Southern Baptists to reach people from all different backgrounds and walks of life. I’ve visited incredible churches, met sincere pastors and church leaders, and have spent time with associational and state convention leadership who are working through difficult problems in innovative ways. There is so much good gospel and ministry work happening all over the South that it is really hard to keep up with it all. There is not a need for a new initiative to emerge out of nowhere. The best approach would be to build on the great work that is already happening everywhere and help link good work with areas and churches that are struggling. God is alive and so is the SBC in many respects through the gospel working and producing fruit in churches, ministries, and all over the South. You can’t look at overall numbers from a 30,000 foot view to get the true picture. You have to get on the ground and see what is actually happening in many places and then build on the good – strengthen what remains.

The numbers overall are dire if you’re pining away for glory days of ascendance. If you compare the current numbers to the massive growth happening in the South with population, economics, and diversity, the SBC statistics represent an actual comparative free fall, not just a slight decline, and that is important for us to recognize. But … (and this is also important), what if all of this represents not some kind of a failure, but a new beginning and an amazing opportunity to not just try to rebuild the past but to thank God for it and put it behind us while we look to what God is doing today and what He wants to do in the future? If we keep looking back to the past and comparing ourselves only and then we make decisions based off of that, we will miss what God could do with us today. The past is passed, even in the South, despite what Faulkner told us.

Some questions for all of us that have emerged from some of my many great conversations with Southern Baptist pastors and leaders over the past year and a half:

  • How can we actually love God and love one another sacrificially? To bear one another’s burdens? To hear the cry of desperation and need from all parts of our cities and towns and then suffer alongside one another? How can we love the way Jesus loves us?
  • With an increasingly diverse South, how do we prepare our churches to reach the nations among us? How do we welcome the immigrant, refugee, and newcomer to our churches, our homes, and communities?
  • In a racially and politically polarized region and nation, how can we consistently BE a people that will love all people and sacrifice our lives to take the gospel to them and share in the partnership of the gospel with people ethnically, racially, and socioeconomically different from us (no matter what ethnicity or demographic you are)?
  • What does real repentance and reconciliation look like in our communities across racial lines? Shouldn’t Baptists take the initiative in that?
  • We need significant movements of African American, Latino, Asian, and Arab pastors and leaders into SBC leadership at every level not so we can just say this happened, but so we can all learn from each other, submit to and follow one another, and BE the body of Christ together in this land.
  • How can we see our faith as not something that exists to promote, protect, and defend our own way of life, but how can we lay our lives down for others so they will experience the love of Christ and the gospel?

We need a Southern missiology desperately. We need to walk in the way of the Cross according to Philippians 2:1-11 in ways that truly seek the good of others and not just ourselves. We need a way to see the South and our churches that no longer considers the Southern region of the United States “home base” for the gospel. It isn’t and it hasn’t ever been, really. We need to stop culturally locating our understanding of Christianity in a Southern white perspective and find ways to join with all of the people in our communities and throughout our area in revived church expressions as we humble ourselves and learn from and submit to brothers and sisters from all kinds of backgrounds from all over the world that God is sending to us for the purpose of revival and renewal. All of that is happening in many places and as it happens, I would contend that a gospel renewal of the cultural South will make us more vibrant, more loving, more hospitable, more open and caring and joyful and free than we’ve ever been before. I’m seeing it every week everywhere I go. There is incredible vitality, sacrifice, and gospel fruit being born all over the South at this time. God is at work in powerful ways. But, we need more of it and that story needs to become more of the dominant narrative. We need an infusion of hope and a recognition that declining numbers may just position us for gospel advance … IF we will humble ourselves and look to Jesus instead of seek to protect ourselves in a culture that can’t ever provide salvation, no matter how “down home” it feels to us. Only through Jesus can we “tell a better story” together – a story of sacrificial love for God and people.

Jesus is at work on the margins and all through the center. Let’s join Him there no matter what the numbers say.

Author’s Note: If you or your church or association would like help thinking through how to reach the nations and immigrants in your midst and engage in gospel-centered reconciliation across races and ethnicities, let me know. I’d love to help. I have gospel-centered resources and approaches designed for that purpose.