Fundamental Christian colleges are challenged with what seems to be an increasing trend in carnality and worldliness in the current generation.
Historically the manifestations of carnality were revealed in superficial worldly conformity (immodesty, fleshly music, or careless social behavior). Such manifestations presented challenges, but the environment of many of the fundamental Christian colleges was relatively effective in helping Christian young people “reset” to biblical norms. Positive peer pressure and a semi-controlled environment presented positive socialization while exposure to godly examples (peers and adults) and the ministry of the Word and Spirit produced wondrous transformational changes in many Christian young people over the course of their march toward graduation and autonomy.
Recently, however, we are seeing something added to the mix of challenges facing Christian colleges and the local churches, as well. There is an increasing number of students who do not believe in what was at one time consensus morality among fundamental Baptists. Where before we would experience broken hearts and repentant spirits for those who were caught up in immorality or substance abuse, we are now hearing, “I really don’t believe drinking alcohol is wrong and neither do my parents.” For many Christian college students, pre-marital sexual abstinence is not rooted in clear scripture, but is rather a vestige of broken fundamentalism. Recently a wedding reception held at a Bible-believing church alcohol was served, and the church member parents were surprised that other members were offended.
What we are seeing is that the transmission of long-held fundamental Baptist norms, which flowed from biblical convictions, are now held by an older generation while newer or younger generations appear to be learning by parental instruction rather than from careful exegesis and passionately delivered biblical warnings and admonitions. In short, the question must be asked, “Have fundamental Baptist preachers lost their nerve?”
For purposes of beginning a conversation, let me suggest some possible places to look for what appears to be a counter-cultural anemia that is or has crept into the pulpits and pews of many fundamental Baptist churches.
Focus on the pulpit:
- No one wants to be the spiritual adult in the room.
As a child, my parents would tell me, “John, do not stick the paper clip in electrical outlet;” at age four, “You cannot ride your bike in the busy street;” and later, “We do not drink liquor in the house because alcohol lowers your judgment and is the single greatest cause of death and destruction known to man,” “You are not going to that dance,” and “You will not leave this house dressed like that.” All of these statements were made with dramatic emphasis out of a heart of passionate love and with a conviction that the warnings were truth. Christians today appear paralyzed with self-doubt, and the intractable tentativeness of the scholar who is not yet finished testing all 1,000 possible hypotheses, so he cannot be dogmatic.
- Neutered view of the pastor.
A correlation of “Nobody wants to be the spiritual adult” is the neutered view of the pastor. Contemporary pastors are often viewed in a liturgical or priestly sense as a separate “class” of Christian, rather than a prototypical norm. A Catholic teen sees the priest in his garb and stately demeanor as atypical. He is celibate, he has a vow of poverty, but “regular people” are not expected to be like a priest. “We are ‘regular people,’ after all! How the pastor lives does not relate to us.” Thus the pastoral aim to transmit biblical holiness by example is relatively ineffective. It does not matter that the preacher does not smoke, drink, cuss, gamble, dance, or go to wherever, because “He’s the preacher.” What he does or does not do is not for average Christians, and we aren’t expected to be abstinent like him. Without direct admonition, example alone is weak.
- Avoidance of subjective applications of objective truth.
The modern evangelical has long been able to do a good job in preaching exposition messages. They are interesting and often accurate, but for 50 years it has been left to the fundamentalist to say, “So this is why we don’t and why we as fundamental Baptists believe we must take a stand against .” Currently it seems like there is less difference than ever between well-trained fundamental Baptist preaching and the less conservative evangelicals. In application they both fail to deliver plain talk related to worldliness, holiness, and purity. Sometimes the hearer has to be a mystic to discern what the practical relevance of the message is to his concrete behavior. Why not plainly apply the Scripture to areas of morality, dress, speech, and entertainment, and then challenge the listener to see if the application and principles are appropriate to the passage? Why let a good message drift 10 feet off the ground, when some simple straight talk will bring it home to everyday life?
- Fear of seeming to focus on externals.
We can get caught up in focusing on mere external forms of spirituality rather than reaching the heart. Frankly, we have little danger of this with the younger generation of preachers. It is rare today to hear direct application of preaching on modesty, purity and avoidance of worldliness. So I chuckle on the “externalism” boogeyman. Besides, “fruit” is external. The manifestation of the heart is only known by men as they observe external behavior. People will have no problems being challenged on what they believe, but touch on what they do, and you have a fight.
- Intellectualism and self-doubt.
The last point that focuses on spiritual leadership is what appears to be a doubting of historic standards. The embarrassment of personality wars and intemperate criticism of some in the prior generation may have caused a general embarrassment and tentativeness in forcefully opposing sin and compromise with worldliness and wickedness. There are also some whose study has caused them to question clear positions on drinking alcohol, sexual purity, and worldly activities. They become transfixed by “What exactly is worldliness?” or “Can we say drinking alcohol is sin?” When self-doubt enters the pulpit, is there any wonder why Christian college students cannot defend a position on alcohol or premarital sex? Intellectualism can lead to prideful and inordinate regard for so many different views that the person in the pew may wish to ask, “So what is the right view, Preacher? What is the safe view, the view that strengthens the weaker brother, the view that is most consistent with righteousness and holiness, the view that most opposes the agenda or purpose of Satan and the wicked?” If preachers will just think in these terms, they usually can see where their conclusion should fall. If the leadership is tentative, what kind of conviction can we expect from the pew?
- In the past we had a problem with people trying to be “holier than thou.” Today the problem is with people trying to be “free-er than thou.”
Focus on the pew:
- Abhorrence of the battle.
Whether one is a pastor or a parent, fighting a war is unpleasant and nasty business. Only a fool looks for a battle, but excessive avoidance of a battle is what we call cowardice. Many parents have just plain given up. There is little support from the pulpit. The schools, society, and television all seem to be against righteousness. Goliath is standing in the valley thundering, and the children of Israel are cowering. Along comes David: “Is there not a cause?”
- Lowering of spiritual expectations on the part of parents.
Many Christian parents have minimalist goals for their children. For many church members, the following represents the goals they have for their children:
- Just don’t make a baby before you are married.
- Marry someone who says they are a Christian.
- Nominally attend an Evangelical church.
- Be able to support yourself at a reasonable level.
For these parents, sacrifices to send children to a fundamental Christian college seem like an unnecessary extravagance. The norm for Christian parents ought to be to rear children mighty in faith, leaders in the cause of Christ, and those who will rear godly children who can turn the world upside-down for God! Of course, just because you go to a Christian college doesn’t guarantee spiritual strength, but it surely can be a cog in the engine of God’s providence. Where would the fundamental Baptist community be today were there no fundamental colleges and seminaries? Fundamental Baptist churches and fundamental Christian colleges need to partner in communicating a robust, confident and biblical fundamentalist world view to an uncertain, tentative and anemic evangelical culture.