Our annual review of the top news stories of the year gone by also serves to point out likely trends for Christians and the world. Highlights of our collection:
- Illinois is the new Vegas. Legal and moral shifts are making our state the new Sin City—except that it’s a whole state. Eye on the Capitol.
- SBC grapples with key issues. In addition to abuse prevention, issues of theology and polity are surfacing, including social justice
and the role of women. Eye on Orlando Convention.
- Politics and pews. How will churches handle divergent opinions on the presidential election? In this section: Evangelical are not a guaranteed voting bloc, and what about the Supreme Court? Eye on D.C.
- Optimism or doomsday. What’s next for the Church in the new decade? And are believers still looking up(ward)? Eye on the sky.
EYE ON THE CAPITOL: New laws loosen morals
That odor you smell may not be burning autumn leaves or a new air freshener. It may be pot. The use of recreational marijuana became legal Jan. 1, thanks to the Illinois state legislature. The 2019 legislative session was called the most “progressive” by advocates for looser laws on pot, abortion, gambling, and more. More than 250 new laws were scheduled to take effect with the arrival of the new year. One, notable to Christians and pro-life advocates, is already in effect: the Reproductive Health Act, which prompted IBSA to join a religious freedom lawsuit seeking exemptions for religious organizations.
As for looser laws on marijuana, smoking in public is still illegal, but 35 medical cannabis dispensaries have been approved to sell recreational marijuana statewide. At this point, sales are restricted to operators who already hold medical dispensary licenses. Up to 75 licenses may be issued before May 1.
Several new laws concerning children and teens are of concern to Christians, including measures that allow minors 12 and older to get preventative STD treatments without parental consent, require students in sex education classes to be taught the meaning of consent, and require public schools to include the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in their curriculums.
The “gay history” law goes into effect in July. School administrators tell the Illinois Times they are “awaiting guidance” on how the history will be incorporated into the curriculum, but so far, none has come from the State Board of Education or the General Assembly. Illinois became the fourth state to require teaching LGBT history.
Illinois’ Secretary of State is now required to add “non-binary” as a gender choice for people applying for a driver’s license or ID card. Applicants can identify as male, female, or neither. And all single-occupancy public facilities are to be gender-neutral with the word “restroom” posted.
What to watch in 2020: gambling. You’ve already seen video gambling rooms in local restaurants and the proliferation of betting parlors with innocuous women’s names (Betty, Lucy, Elsa). Land-based casinos are next. Approval following 2019 legislation allowing it in Chicago is on hold while the 33.3% gambling tax, feared to discourage developers, is further debated. Applications are on file for three Chicagoland locations and three others outside the metro.
Application submissions for sports betting facilities opened in December.
EYE ON THE SBC: New Baptist leaders settle in
Baptisms in Southern Baptist churches declined again in 2018, along with church membership and worship attendance. Ronnie Floyd, new president and CEO of the denomination’s Executive Committee, called for a spiritual and strategic reset in the SBC.
“Prioritizing and elevating the advancement of the good news of Jesus Christ into every town, city, and county in America, as well to every person across the world, must be recaptured by every church,” he told Baptist Press (BP).
Southern Baptist churches baptized 7,680 fewer people in 2018 than in 2017. But the 3% decline was less drastic than the decrease the previous year, or the year before that. Missions giving, meanwhile, exceeded budgetary expectations for the fifth consecutive year. Baptists gave more than $196 million through the Cooperative Program in 2018.
In Illinois, CP giving increased 1% from the previous year. Baptisms were up 6.8%.
The increases and slowing declines could indicate the tides are beginning to turn, or at least flattening. After months of interim leadership at five SBC entities, new presidents are now in place at each. Current SBC President J.D. Greear’s “Who’s Your One” emphasis has given Baptists a clear focus and evangelism action plan. Floyd has long sounded the call to renewed commitment and unified vision around the Great Commission.
“Urgency is not an option for any of us as Christ-followers. People need Jesus and they need Jesus now,” he told BP last year. “Our generation of Baptists must believe and determine now that we will do whatever it takes to present the gospel of Jesus Christ to every person in the world and to make disciples of all the nations.”
Greear’s lasting impact
Beth Moore called J.D. Greear a “Mesther,” a term she coined for a male Esther, because he too was sent “for such a time as this.” At the Caring Well Conference on Sexual Abuse in Dallas, Greear was again front and center on the issue. And from all appearances, Moore was right. Greear has been an able leader through Southern Baptists’ most difficult trial in 40 years.
His presence in office at this point in our history, rather than two years earlier when he stepped aside that Steve Gaines might have the presidency in a narrowly contested race, raises thoughts about providence. But it also brings up the question of legacy.
Just 45 when elected, Greear could leave office with decades of opportunity ahead to influence the denomination. But the North Carolina pastor has already made laudable contributions:
Greear’s election marked the ascendance of Gen-X to the top levels of elected national SBC leadership. Begun earlier as David Platt headed the International Mission Board, more recently by incoming seminary presidents at Midwestern, Southwestern, and New Orleans, and in the June naming of Illinois native Ben Mandrell to lead LifeWay, the baton was passed it seemed. But Baby Boomer Ronnie Floyd’s election to head the Executive Committee and peer Al Mohler’s nomination to succeed Greear as SBC President (not a done deal, but his election seems possible, even probable) indicate the generational shift is not complete.
With the “Who’s Your One?” evangelism campaign pioneered in his church, Greear has given Southern Baptists in thousands of churches a laser focus on sharing the gospel. However, lasting results of the lifestyle witnessing emphasis won’t be known for several years.
Under Greear’s leadership, the SBC has made more diverse nominations to elected positions than ever before. But the role of women in Baptist life and church leadership, in particular, has swelled again, so that issue is not settled.
Greear brought energy and casual style to the convention platform. We remember fondly the Jordans (tennis shoes) he wore at his election in 2018. But his sartorial flair does not define him.
It’s Greear’s work to address sexual abuse that sticks. He appointed a task force to explore the issue months before accusations of longterm and ongoing abuse by some SBC church leaders was reported by the Houston Chronicle. Since then, Greear has worked continuously (and his team has worked tirelessly behind the scenes) to bring truth to light and to give abuse survivors a voice for their pain and airtime for their warnings to inattentive churches. Ask again in a couple of decades, but from here, it appears meaningful ministry in the #metoo era will be the legacy of Greear’s SBC presidency.
Gender roles in the SBC: Is civil debate possible?
John MacArthur’s two-word dismissal of Beth Moore took the complementarianism debate from its traditional home—Twitter—to church pews and Sunday school classes around the country.
In October, the venerated pastor told Bible teacher Moore to “go home.” His admonition came months after Moore tweeted suggesting she planned to speak at a worship service on Mother’s Day. “There is no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher,” said MacArthur, an evangelical but not a Southern Baptist. “Period. Paragraph. End of discussion.”
In the aftermath, some on Twitter expressed support for MacArthur’s position. Others, including J.D. Greear, came to Moore’s defense. “You’re welcome in our home anytime,” the president of the Southern Baptist Convention tweeted to Moore.
A month later, MacArthur doubled down on the admonition to all would-be women preachers. The Christian Post reported on his Nov. 10 sermon at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif. “Women need to get themselves under control and realize they are not to speak in a church,” he said.
The debate over complementarianism (the view that men and women have different but complementary roles) has been focused on whether it can enable and fuel sexual abuse. As Baptists come to terms with better strategies for preventing abuse and heeding the stories of survivors, gender roles will continue play an important role in the conversation. The heat around MacArthur and Moore has given rise to another, albeit familiar, question: When disagreement is a certainty, can the SBC have helpful, meaningful debate while still rallying around the mission of gospel advance?
As in past conversations about Reformed theology and the denomination’s name, the legacy of Baptists on complementarianism may not be whether we have the debate, but how we do it.
EYE ON THE CHURCH: Gen Z looks for meaning in new places
Millennials have grabbed most of the spotlight over the last decade, especially among church leaders working to reach them (and keep them). But the country’s most recent crop of college grads are part of the next generation, Gen Z. Born in 1997 and afterward, they shared some characteristics with their forebears. But reaching Gen Z will also require new creative measures from churches.
According to a 2019 Barna survey, Gen Z rates volunteering/acts of service higher than any other expression of generosity. Barna noted in another study that Gen Z tends to derive their sense of self from achievements, rather than religious beliefs and other characteristics. The generation that values helping others may not connect servanthood with belief in Christ.
A lack of religious rootedness may also cause many to seek out and combine a mixture of belief systems for a sort of “have it your way” religious experience.
On social issues, Gen Z mirrors the Millennial generation and often goes a step further. Pew Research reports Gen Z is the most likely generation to say forms and online profiles should offer options other than “male” and “female” when requesting gender information. Half of them say society isn’t accepting enough of people who don’t identify as either a man or a woman.
While Millennials learned about technology bit by bit in their formative years, Gen Z-ers were born into a world with all current technology literally at their fingertips – prompting Barna to call them the “connected” generation.
Gen Z is already known for the strong belief that people must learn to care for the environment. They could be drawn to churches that make an effort to help that cause through recycling, buying local, and reusing items for ministry.
Additionally, churches may need to adapt their outreach strategies to connect with the so-called “connected” generation.
The challenge for churches: Take 2020 to purposefully mentor younger generations. Find ways to channel that volunteer energy so Gen Z can clearly understand that Christ’s love and sacrifice fuels our servanthood.
Pundits somewhat optimistic
Reports about the growing persecution of Christians worldwide are cause enough to be pessimistic about the future of the church, but some observers say believers have reason to turn that frown upside down. In fact, facing into a new decade, there may be reasons for optimism.
Not all young people are leaving the church. Minnesota pastor and former head of the National Association of Evangelicals Leith Anderson says strength of number is not the only effective measure of evangelicalism. There’s also strength of faith. Surveys show that young Christians who take their faith seriously are more dedicated to those beliefs than the generations before them. The waning cultural identification as “Christian” serves to make those who remain stronger.
In a Christianity Today article, Anderson also point to two demographic shifts as positives: the aging of America and the rise of minorities to majority status. He says in some churches, calling a senior adult pastor rather than a youth pastor will become the trend: “Beginning in 2035, we will have more old Americans (78 million over 65) than young Americans (76.7 million under 18).”
And, separately, a recent Barna survey showed a rise in Boomers expressing an interest in spiritual matters as they reach retirement age.
As for minorities, the number of Anglo evangelical congregations has declined in the past 20 years, while ethnic churches more than doubled. Ethnic populations are expected to surpass the current white majority by 2044.
Multi-site churches are growing. Church health expert Thom Rainer is upbeat about the model where a church meets in multiple locations and on multiple days. The rising challenges of securing land and zoning approval, especially in metro areas, may be met by holding more frequent, smaller services. Rainer points to facility-sharing as an effective outreach to ethnic and language groups. And as construction becomes more expensive, and schools limit their rental options, new churches are finding homes by bunking in with existing churches.
Anderson says ignore the worrywarts.
Wish we’d all been ready
Is 2020 the time for a renewed Messianic Hope? Whether it’s the countdown in Times Square, unrest in Washington, unrest in the Middle East, or the worldwide rise in terrorism, the need for relief and a lasting peace grows. And it will only come when Jesus does.
Starting in the 1960’s, we talked a lot about the imminent return of Christ. Preachers preached it; televangelists trafficked in it. The 700 Club was as much about the second coming of Jesus as it was the first coming of Pat Robertson. And the gospel songs of the day reinforced our dispensational worldview: The King is Coming, Jesus is Coming Soon, Soon and Very Soon, Wish We’d All Been Ready. A Distant Thunder rumbled, and we knew Jesus would come like A Thief in the Night. The lost would be Left Behind.
Then talk of the Parousia subsided. The Cold War warmed; the looming threat of nuclear holocaust eased; our national anxiety calmed a bit; and we could breathe. Maybe we didn’t need Jesus to come back so soon.
Those unnerved by Y2K postulated Jesus would return in 2000. But that deadline passed. Here we are 20 years later. The world’s problems are great, almost paralyzing. If ever we needed the Lord’s return, it’s now. Yet, he tarries, giving us just a little longer to urge a few more souls to salvation.
Is this the year? Perhaps. Can we live in the hope of seeing Jesus soon? Yes. Eagerly. “So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28 ESV).
And what shall we do in the meantime?
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, instructing us to deny godlessness and worldly lusts and to live in a sensible, righteous, and godly way in the present age, while we wait for the blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:11-13).
If the Lord waits, we will face political upheaval in the U.S. and a presidential election, theological debates in the SBC and a presidential election, and the challenge to deal with the issues of our time—those we agree on and those we don’t—in a Christlike manner. As we lean into the new year, may our refrain amid its ups and downs remain, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
Reported by the Illinois Baptist team: Meredith Flynn, Leah Honnen, Lisa Misner, and Eric Reed