In 1914, Ernest Henry Shackleton led an expedition to cross the entire continent of Antarctica, but wound up shipwrecked on an uninhabited island. To rescue his team, Shackleton sailed a tiny boat across 850 miles of rough seas to South Georgia Island. Despite the choppy waters and gray skies, Shackleton was able to safely navigate the boat to their destination. If his coordinates had been off by even one half of one degree, his team would have missed their destination by hundreds of miles and perished.
Ship captains, airplane pilots, and astronauts will be the first to tell you that the tiniest navigational error can have disastrous consequences. The same is true for those of us who have been commissioned to lead our churches. A seemingly insignificant shift in direction can have major implications.
In recent years, leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention have bemoaned the falling number of baptisms. Pastors, missionaries, professors, and analysts have all offered a variety of reasons for why our numbers are declining, along with advice for how we might get back on track.
But I wonder if one of the main reasons for the dwindling number of baptisms is represented by a subtle shift in vocabulary—so subtle that we might overlook it.
There was a time when we spoke of unsaved people as “lost and dying and on their way to hell”—a phrase that painted a vivid picture of the stakes of being outside of Christ. We spoke of unsaved people in this way for so long that such terminology became something of a cliché.
Today, it seems that many pastors and church members tend to shy away from terms like “lost,” “unsaved,” and “unbeliever.” Instead, we speak of the people we are trying to reach as “unchurched.”
I believe that this change in terminology betrays two mistaken beliefs:
1. First, it indicates that our people believe the goal of the church is to grow the church.
Evangelism becomes less about reaching the unsaved in order to see them get saved, and more about reaching unchurched people in order to get them churched (or even worse, reaching other-churched people in order to get them to our church). Outreach becomes little more than an attempt to sell people on the benefits of coming to church.
Church-focused outreach is easier than Christ-focused outreach. In many places in the South, church attendance is still woven into the fabric of the culture. Many unchurched people already assume that they should go to church. So our outreach merely reinforces the cultural assumption that church attendance is important.
Furthermore, we are more comfortable reaching out to people with a Christian background than we are witnessing to Muslims and Hindus. In our increasingly multi-cultural world, it is much easier to reach the nominally “Christian” who already share our assumptions than the foreigners who are moving into our neighborhoods.
2. Secondly, our shift in vocabulary indicates a lessening of the eternal stakes of salvation.
I am thankful for the Conservative Resurgence in our denomination that has brought a renewed emphasis on orthodox theology. But I wonder how much of that orthodox theology is truly believed by the people in our churches.
Do we truly believe that Jesus is the only way to God?
Do we truly believe that people outside of faith in Christ will perish eternally in hell?
Do we truly believe that people who claim to be Christians and yet show no fruits of repentance have a false assurance of salvation?
Do we truly believe that people of other faiths are “lost and dying and on their way to hell”?
If so, why do we lessen the stakes of evangelism by speaking in a way that emphasizes church attendance over salvation in Christ?
Of course, evangelism includes inviting people into our churches. But inviting people to church is not the goal; it is only one means whereby God may accomplish his mission of seeking and saving the lost.
So yes… we believe that people need what the church has to offer. But we are not called to sell others on the greatness of our church, but to proclaim the greatness of our Savior.
In the choppy waters of our postmodern, increasingly post-Christian society, staying on course is no easy task. Jesus told us the way is narrow. God commanded the Israelites: “You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.”
If we need a course correction, let’s do it now. Let’s remind our people of the Christ-centeredness of the Great Commission. Let’s plead with lost people to flee to Jesus and escape the wrath to come. Let’s make evangelism and outreach about Jesus again. Maybe then, we will see lost people be found, unsaved people get saved, condemned people be pardoned, and then (and only then) unchurched people be churched.