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Strange Fire and Demography

I don’t have a lot of thoughts about this conference that haven’t already been said better by others. I do believe a happy middle ground on an assessment is important, because mischaracterizations going both ways are quite overwrought.

As I listened to Dr MacArthur’s podcast, I do appreciate his preaching style for many reasons, there were several installments over the last several months that framed out his approach and thoughts on this conference.

Perhaps the only thing I can contribute at this point is a couple of thoughts about demography and what it looks like to have a global face on theology.

It has been noted by a number of researchers, that the growth of Christianity across the world is being driven by those in second and third world countries and is primarily among Pentecostal congregations. Most specifically, Philip Jenkins has provided some insightful data to support these claims in his book The Next Christendom. This means Christianity across the entire world probably looks very different than what is taught and caught at churches like Dr MacArthur’s church in southern California.

This makes me wonder (as I did on Twitter) about what the demographic cross-section of the Strange Fire Conference would have been. Is the conference representing a global ethnic group, or one slice of the demographic pie? 

Granted, I was not in attendance nor am I aware of any data like this which has been put out. As a result, I cannot speculate as to what happened beyond a few of the pictures of the conference that were posted on social media and news sites.

It would seem that if this kind of conference were to move forward it would be bolstered by a diverse section of believers who were able to engage in compelling conversations and robust debate. For any of us that would visit Pentecostal and Charismatic congregations around our communities, we would find that they are highly integrated ethnically and often have prominent leaders from minority groups. Now this isn’t a strike against white evangelicals (as I am one of those,) but it does give a moment of reflect. If we are truly hoping to develop and represent a global reach in our theological conversations, it might be important to have recognition of the global realities we are facing.

Now, sheer numbers of adherents do not blindly qualify a theology or religious position. Yet if we are honest about what we see in our own churches it should provide us reason to either continue these conversations, or at least get another perspective. No one is helped by aimlessly talking to those who look like us, talk like us, think like us, or live like us. Instead, thorough theological reflection and conversation is deepened when we engage those who are not of our tribe.

As a white evangelical, who holds the “Open but Cautious” view of miraculous gifts, I am challenged by my brothers and sisters in Christ who are from other places in the world and report seeing these things and activities in authentic encounters. My own position has moved, because of robust conversation with friends while at college, from a cessationist position to this current one. The primary expression of these miraculous gifts, in my theological beliefs, is for the burgeoning church in communities and countries where the Gospel is not readily accessible. Having been around several experiences where these gifts were both forced and unbiblically practiced, I am challenged to think there is open license to experience all the giftings of the New Testament times in all churches today. These giftings seem, at least in my own theological and biblical research, primarily spontaneous and not planned or organized.

However, I could have stayed in my cessationist position to this day, but the kind encouragement of friends who were different than myself pushed me to reconsider and actually research that position. 

So my only though concerning Dr. MacArthur’s conference would be, are the organizers and attenders willing to engage others who differ in their perspective and have authentic dialogue. I do disagree with the harsh assessment of our brothers and sisters in Christ given by several speakers. We need not see fellow Christians as our enemies, but should see them as friends even if we disagree over theological issues. Likewise, the unfair categorization of all Pentecostals and Charismatics by extreme examples is a straw man that aids no appropriate reflection.

There are plenty of issues within these movements. Each of these excesses can be, and should be responded to and correction made. Of course this will never be accomplished if you begin the conversation with open disregard to their salvation.

A global theology for a global church necessitates a global audience.

Yes, I am worried about the continued colonialization of theology. Convinced tribes of any stripe will only rediscover their own beliefs. If there is any movement to be made in our conversations it must begin by seeing the realities that different people might practice differently but are still received legitimately.

So, what did you think of the conference and its global face? Can an evangelical audience from southern California appropriately engage a global theology in this way? What demographics do you see in the global spread of Christianity? How am I wrong?

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On the Southern Baptist Convention

Well it is that time of the year when we hear about the largest Protestant denomination in America, the Southern Baptist Convention.

The beginning of June marks the annual trek to a city by faithful Southern Baptists for the annual convention. This is a yearly assembly that takes place in differing locales for the purpose of voting on a budget…and a few other things. This week I’ll be focusing on some specific Southern Baptist issues, but initially I’ll quickly parse out some thoughts on my home denomination.

It is easy to go negative when talking about church stuff, or any stuff, because we are mired in a kind of cultural torpor that validates the bitingly negative opinion…that everyone has. So that isn’t my purpose. Instead I want to briefly talk about what I like about the SBC.

Often when I describe my affiliation to the SBC I begin by noting that “I’ve been a Southern Baptist since 9 months before I was born.” That is a true statement. I was raised by faithful Southern Baptist parents who served in Southern Baptist churches. My grandfather was a Southern Baptist pastor who, literally, built churches in Oklahoma and Michigan from the ground up. I’ve had a rich heritage of faithful people who have done their best to serve God and honor Jesus while being filled (but not too filled) with the Holy Spirit. Much of my theological formation happened in the cinderblock wall and tiled floors rooms of my home church; rooms that were separated by orange vinyl retractable room dividers. I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior (with all the evangelical theology embedded in that statement) in the pastor’s study of that church on March 27, 1985.

I was (and will always be) an RA…that’s Royal Ambassador. My sister was a GA (Girl in Action) and, later, an Acteen. Missions was the embedded formation tool for our upbringing, and it made us stronger Christians.

The heart of the SBC has always been missions and ministry. We can look historically and note that the first two boards established by the founders of the SBC (who were a diverse theological lot) were the Home and Foreign Mission Boards. Southern Baptists continue to support missions with annual offerings and an intentional emphasis. We have a strong and well trained missionary force across the world bringing the Gospel to people and places far and wide.

Nationally, Southern Baptists have developed a tremendous Disaster Relief Ministry that goes right into damaged areas and provides basic needs (meals, shelter, and resources) that deploys thousands of volunteers at a higher and faster rate that state and national agencies. That is something to remember.

Our seminaries train and send out hundreds of new pastors and ministers every year and, because of the generous and ingenious support of the Cooperative Program, makes it affordable for the students. The seminaries have long been established as top tier theological institutions and have had the largest student bodies of most ATS schools in the United States.

Central to the SBC is that they are a people lashed to the Cross by the power of the Bible.

They are Gospel centered, Bible honoring denomination that seeks to condition their actions first by Scripture and then by application. The theological and spiritual formation lessons I gained growing up as a Southern Baptist were always rooted in the Scripture. This is something that has stayed with me through several stages of education.

There are many things about the SBC that make me proud to be part of the convention. It is a good group of earnest people that often are distorted for any number of reasons. As we move towards an era of marked post-denominational life, the SBC continues to see aspects of growth and continued commitment to their core beliefs and practices.

During their annual gala this week here in Houston, the SBC will likely take up motions and make declarations. Yet at the center of their daily activities will be constant prayer, fervent preaching, honest worship, and Gospel centered efforts.

For that I continue to be thankful. The Kingdom of God is larger because of the continued ministry and missions of Southern Baptists.

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