AUSTIN?Citing research that shows that about one in 10 Southern Baptist churches are experiencing healthy growth through conversions, the North American Mission Board’s Ed Stetzer told SBTC messengers that churches must be “biblically faithful and contextually appropriate” to reach their communities.
Comparing Paul’s approach before the Jews in Acts 13, before superstitious pagans in Acts 14 and before the intellectual Athenians in Acts 17, Stetzer said Paul began his messages differently before each group, but always took them to the same place: a bloody cross and an empty tomb.
Research from the Leavell Center at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary shows 89 percent of SBC churches are not growing through baptisms, Stetzer lamented.
“So in all probability your church is not growing in healthy evangelism,” he said.
Churches must be engaged in the culture to speak to people in the culture who need Jesus, Stetzer said.
Describing Paul’s troubled spirit at the idols he saw as he came upon the Areopagus in Athens in Acts 17, Stetzer noted how Paul began his speech to the pagans there.
“When we look at Acts 17 ? we see this description of this encounter with culture and we see how Paul models for us a biblical response to engaging culture. I want you to know culture is a scary thing to Christians and it should be. Many in the name of cultural relevance?they even used the same terms in the ’60s and the ’70s?many denominations in the name of cultural relevance decided that the key to get more people to come to their churches was to stop teaching hard things about morality, to stop teaching hard things about the Word of God. So they abandoned those things in the name of cultural relevance ? they did away with the hard things so people would come, and in an incredible twist of irony nobody came.”
“So there’s something more in engaging the culture than simply being like the culture,” Stetzer said. “Now the challenge, on the other hand, is there are whole ministries that exist among Southern Baptists and in evangelical life that tell us, ‘Don’t engage culture. Culture is bad.’ There are whole sermons that are preached, whole conferences that are planned, that preach against culture. Preaching against culture is like preaching against somebody’s house. It’s just where they live.”
Stetzer said Paul’s model in Acts 17 shows that he first acknowledged their spiritual questions.
“It’s so important that we recognize that there are questions being asked by people in culture all around us,” even if the questions are framed from wrong motives.
Stetzer said the Athenians probably asked their questions wrongly, but nevertheless the gospel was preached.
Citing statistics that show Baptist divorce rates that are equal or higher than the larger culture, Stetzer said churches must be a “biblically faithful, culturally relevant counterculture in the culture.”
Regardless of the culture, whether reciting Jewish history in Acts 13 or talking to pagan philosophers about creation in Acts. 17, Paul “comes back to a bloody cross and an empty tomb.”
Stetzer warned, however, that some “pursue cultural relevance as an end in itself ? Cultural relevance is a missionary strategy to reach people in culture.”