Published June 12, 2014
A recent news release from LifeWay Christian Resources indicated that in 2013 Southern Baptist Convention churches experienced another decline in the number of baptisms reported. Although the percentage of decline was not as severe as last year the reported baptisms have declined seven of the last nine years.
Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay, stated, “I am grieved we are clearly losing our evangelistic effectiveness.”
Commenting on the statistical report, Frank S. Page, president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, cited the Old Testament prophet Amos: “Woe to you who are at ease in Zion” (Amos 6:1).
He added, “That warning in the Book of Amos is a clear call to the people of God who have lowered their guard, relaxed their vigilance, and reduced their commitment and passion for the things of God. That very same thing can be said of our modern-day churches as we yet again see a disappointing decline in our ability to reach our continent for Christ.”
Surely, there are many things that have contributed to this decline in baptisms. Many of them are obvious: fewer churches with soul-winning ministries, fewer churches having revival meetings, fewer altar calls, fewer evangelistic sermons, fewer dollars being allocated for evangelistic outreach – and the list goes on.
However, there is something else I have noticed in recent years. I am hearing fewer confessional prayers and songs in our worship services.
We are well aware of David’s confessional prayer in Psalm 32 where he beseeches God, “I acknowledge my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hidden. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.”
In Psalm 52 David’s plaintive plea is: “Wash me thoroughly from mind iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”
In Daniel, the great prophet of God cries out, “We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thine ordinances … Neither have we obeyed the voice of the Lord, our God, to walk in his laws, which he set before us by his servants, the prophets.”
And in Luke 18:13 the tax collector humbled himself and prayed, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” Because this man honestly confessed his sin, he was justified by God.
Martin Luther prayed confessional prayers. He cried out to God, “I am a sinner; You are upright. With me there is an abundance of sin; in You is the fullness of righteousness.”
Charles Spurgeon prayed, “Our Father, we are very weak. Worst of all we are very wicked if left to ourselves, and we soon fall a prey to the enemy … We hear of oppression and robbery and murder and men seem let loose against each other. Lord have mercy upon this great and wicked city … As Abraham pled for Sodom; we plead for London.”
George W. Truett prayed, “Little do we know of this blessed, glorious privilege and duty, and poor has been our behavior with reference to prayer. Forgive us, we pray thee, for our neglect, our ignorance, and our disobedience. Help us to be repentant on account of every evil way, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Turn us away from every wrong course.”
In a recent conversation with Jon Duncan, GBC state missionary who provides leadership in our convention’s music and worship ministry, he reminded me that confession of sin is necessary if we are to clearly understand God’s Word and will for our lives.
He cited Isaiah as an example. In Isaiah chapter five the prophet lamented over Israel’s six woeful sins, but in chapter six he offered his own prayer of confession: “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: ...”
Not until he had confessed his sin did he hear the voice of God and respond to God’s call to ministry. Obviously, confession of sin paves the way to understanding God’s truth, knowing God’s will, having God’s favor, and being able to worship in spirit and truth.
However, today much of our praying in public is directed toward thanksgiving and adoration and little attention seems to be given to prayers of confession and repentance. If public prayers have little to do with contrition and sorrow for sin, isn’t it likely that private prayers follow the same pathway?
Likewise, most churches seldom sing choruses or songs that make any mention of sin. Today many look with scorn upon what has been called “worm theology.” The term is derived from a line in Isaac Watts’ hymn “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed,” which says, ”Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?”
I think that hymn was written when people had a higher view of God. Now we seem to have a higher view of man and choose not to dwell on the ugliness of sin. Hymns like “Out of my bondage, sorrow and night … [and] out of my shameful failure and loss, Jesus, I come, Jesus, I come” are not as palatable to the sophisticated American churchgoer.
Dr. Cornelius Plantinga, senior research fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, recently stated, “In very many evangelical and confessionally Reformed churches these days, sin is a rare topic.”
Plantinga added, “Over 158,000 churches in North America get the music for their worship services from Christian Copyright Licensing International; [and they] provide a valuable service to churches by streamlining the process of obtaining licenses for their worship music.”
Looking at the content of CCLI songs, Plantinga observed that there are “very few penitential songs.” The biblical tradition of lament, which is all through the prophets and the Psalms, is gone. It’s just not there.
“Mindful that seekers come to church in an American no-fault culture in which tolerance is a big virtue and intolerance a big vice, worship finders in evangelical churches often want nothing in the service that sounds judgmental,” he said. And for that reason “lots of evangelical churches these days are unrelievedly cheerful.”
Dr. David Wells, distinguished senior research professor at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, explained, “Leaving sin out of worship is consistent with the theology of many evangelical churches in which ‘God is on easy terms with modernity and mostly concerned with church growth and psychological wholeness.’”
The Apostle Paul would not feel welcome in many evangelical churches today, he added. “Where is [Paul’s] easy smile? Why does he want to discipline people? Why is he so doggone dogmatic? Where are the stories in his sermons? And where does he get off implying that the woman singing special music in church should not do so while also lying on top of the church piano?”
So, what does all this have to do with our decline in baptisms? If we are not praying penitential prayers and if we are not singing songs that reprove the soul it is also likely that our sermons will tend to be more suited to appeasing the conscience than bringing about conviction of sin. The bottom line is there can be no salvation of the soul until there is an awareness of sin. There is only one thing we can bring to the equation in the search for salvation and that is our own wretched, shameful, sinful nature.
An awareness of sin + God’s amazing Grace = salvation … and ultimately more baptisms.
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