By / May 17

A few weeks ago, I groaned as I opened up a social media account to be greeted by a headline about a prominent megachurch pastor who was engrossed in scandal. My first thought was, “Not again.” It seems like every few weeks, we learn about more prominent evangelical leaders who have moved from rise to fall due to toxic leadership, financial mismanagement, or sexual failure. Why does this keep happening?

The right focus on the right leadership gifts 

The reason is not profound. It’s quite simple actually. May I suggest that the reason leaders keep falling is because we’ve perhaps overemphasized some aspects of leadership while underemphasizing or flat ignoring others? 

Here’s what I mean. We tend to elevate and platform leaders with certain external gifts. We put on a pedestal those men and women who are beautiful, bold, gifted, and charismatic. If they are dynamic communicators, effective leaders, and can draw a crowd or sell a lot of books, they become prominent in our evangelical world. While the ability to draw a crowd or deliver a dynamic message is not a vice in and of itself, I believe we have overemphasized the importance of these leadership gifts.

Meanwhile, we’ve ignored or forgotten certain other aspects of leadership. For instance, we’ve forgotten our theology. We’ve forgotten, as an example, that the Bible says we are completely sinful, even pastors and leaders. No one is beyond a public or private moral failure. Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:10 says, “There is none righteous, no, not one.” We shouldn’t be surprised when we put our favorite evangelical leader on a pedestal and then they fall off. Maybe they weren’t created by God to take “center stage.” Maybe the pedestal shouldn’t be occupied by anyone but Jesus. In a sense, we shouldn’t be surprised when we hear about a leader having a fall, because the Bible tells us that there is no one we can completely trust but Jesus. Jesus never fails. Leaders fail quite often.

More than that, while we tend to platform leaders with obvious external gifts, we have underemphasized the importance of internal character. The most important gift a leader can give to those who follow is their character. I heard Gary Thomas say recently, “What a trap it is to work hard on your sermons but not work hard on your character.” Ouch.

Scripture is replete with references to what matters most in leadership. Consider the psalmist’s description of David’s leadership: “So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, and guided them by the skillfulness of his hands” (Psalm 78:72). Or how about Paul’s description of the qualifications for pastors in 1 Timothy 3:1-7:

This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

Out of that entire list of qualifications, only one has anything to do with a pastor’s competency or skill. A pastor must be “able to teach.” Everything else has to do with the pastor’s inner life, what a pastor must be. The pastor must be blameless, committed to his wife, not violent, or greedy, or covetous. He must be gentle and be a good husband and father. He must be humble and have a good reputation. 

What’s noticeably absent? Paul never says that a good pastor must be any of the things we often look for in our popular evangelical leaders. There’s nothing here about having dripping charisma, nothing about being hip and cool, nothing about turning a pithy phrase in the pulpit, nothing about “velocity” or “efficiency” as a leader, nothing about the ability to grow a large church.

Good leadership is about character. Maybe the reason the public falls keep happening is because we’ve forgotten what’s most essential. We’ve forgotten that who we are in public is an overflow of who we are in private. We’ve forgotten that who we are when no one but God is looking is who we really are. And if who we really are is anything other than someone who is submitted to the Father, yielded to Christ, and indwelt by the Spirit for the purpose of obedience for the sake of his name, then our inner brokenness will become public reproach.

By / Jul 19

One of the values of Christian history is learning from past role models for the sake of present-day faithfulness. Baptist history is filled with such role models. Though none of them is perfect — who is except King Jesus? — they nevertheless offer a wealth of wisdom for those who are willing to learn from our history.

In recent days, I’ve become convinced that John Leland (1754–1841) is among the most important role models from Baptist history. Leland was a native of Massachusetts, though he spent many of his most fruitful years of ministry in Virginia. He became one of the most important Baptist leaders of his era, a time that coincided with the emergence of Baptists from their persecuted sectarian roots into a national denomination.

Three reasons to look to Leland

There are three reasons I believe contemporary Southern Baptists should look to John Leland as a key role model. 

Religious liberty: First, and most famously, Leland was unwavering in his commitment to what Baptists have often called the “First Freedom” of religious liberty for all people. This principle is a cherished Baptist distinctive that is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In God’s providence, Leland played a significant role in that signal moment in American history.

In 1788, James Madison of Virginia was running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Madison met with Leland in the hopes of garnering support from the Baptists in his district. The two men came to an agreement. Leland would encourage Baptists to vote for Madison. In return, Madison would advocate for full religious freedom. Madison won the election and subsequently authored the First Amendment that guaranteed religious freedom for all by rejecting the idea of an established state church. Leland was also a strong supporter of Thomas Jefferson, in part because of the latter’s commitment to church-state separation. In 1801, Leland famously gifted President Jefferson with a 1235-pound block of cheese from Massachusetts Baptists. In response, Jefferson invited Leland to preach at a Sunday worship service in the House of Representatives. Jefferson attended the service.

Personal evangelism: The second reason we should look to Leland is because of his zeal for personal evangelism. While Leland is best remembered for his tireless advocacy for religious liberty, he would have identified himself first and foremost as an evangelist. Leland preached over 8,000 sermons and baptized approximately 2,000 converts during the course of his ministry. In fact, one of the reasons Leland was such a strong advocate for religious liberty is because he wanted every individual to have the freedom to believe the gospel without confusion or compulsion. For Leland, defending religious liberty was not about commending an Enlightenment principle but rather was about advancing the Great Commission.

Biblical justice: A final reason Leland is an important role model for contemporary Baptists is because of his advocacy of biblical justice, which he understood to be compatible with his commitment to personal evangelism. In Leland’s day, the greatest public injustice was the system of race-based chattel slavery in the American South. Leland was arguably the most famous Baptist to argue against human enslavement. In 1791, he chose to leave Virginia and return to Massachusetts following the controversy that resulted from a strongly worded anti-slavery sermon. Though his views on how best to end the evil of slavery legally evolved over time, Leland maintained his belief that slavery was incompatible with Christianity and that Christian slaveowners should emancipate their slaves.

Leaning in to Leland’s legacy

Though times have changed, our world is not so different from that of Leland. Religious liberty is under fire in our own day, not so much from the specter of state-imposed religion but rather primarily from the threat of state-imposed secularism and culturally endorsed revisionist morality. The religious freedom of Christian bakers and florists is denigrated as hateful bigotry. Churches are coerced into closing their doors because of government overreach during a pandemic. Roman Catholics are forced to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives or medical procedures that violate their religious convictions. The list could go on. Baptists must remain firmly committed to our historic principle of religious liberty for all people.

Leland lived during the period when the irreligious South was finally becoming the Bible Belt because of the influence of the First and Second Great Awakenings. Today, what was once the Bible Belt may well remain overchurched in some places but it is increasingly underreached. This is even more the case in other parts of our nation. Research shows that across the USA, the share of citizens who claim to be Christian is shrinking while the percentage of “nones” is increasing at a rapid rate. Leland stands out as an evangelistic role model at a time when Southern Baptists are recommitting ourselves to sharing the gospel with all people and planting churches where there is minimal gospel witness.

Finally, our own day is threatened by culturally sanctioned injustice. While race-based slavery is outlawed in the United States and most other nations, various forms of both personal and corporate racism persist. The modern slavery of human sex trafficking harms women all over the world, often in our own communities. Millions of unborn image-bearers are legally murdered because of the tragedy of abortion-on-demand. Too many women are abused by powerful men, far too often in religious contexts by those in positions of spiritual authority. Minority groups are the victims of state-sanctioned genocide in other nations. Countless children are exploited by pornographers. This is just scratching the surface. Leland reminds us that evangelistic proclamation and the advocacy of public justice are complementary ministries.

There is no better time than now for Baptists to become reacquainted with the life and legacy of John Leland. May his holistic commitment to defending religious liberty, spreading the gospel, and advocating for justice encourage us to do likewise.

By / May 13

“Virtual Reality and its related technologies are going to change our world. If Christians don’t drive the discussion about how this tech gets used . . . who will?” This is one of the many questions that compelled Darrell Bock and Jonathan Armstrong to co-author their latest book, Virtual Reality Church: (Or How to Think Biblically About Church in Your Pajamas, VR Baptisms, Jesus Avatars, and Whatever Else is Coming Next)

As virtual reality has emerged, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic and the way it changed the world, almost requiring that we reckon with VR and its family of technologies, these questions have entered the church’s calculus sooner than we may have imagined. So, the authors set out to help the church think biblically about the possibilities and pitfalls of integrating virtual reality and other technologies into the life of the church.

Bock, author of dozens of books, is the executive director of Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center, where he hosts the “Table Podcast,” and senior research professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. 

Armstrong is professor of Bible at Moody Bible Institute, teaching in the areas of New Testament language and literature and church history. Additionally, Armstrong consults with Christian colleges and universities on the intersection of education and technology. 

Together, Bock and Armstrong have produced a resource in Virtual Reality Church that will undoubtedly compel churches and Christians to think critically about virtual reality’s place in Christian churches.

Technology and the church, past, present, and future

Though the book’s title suggests that Bock and Armstrong deal exclusively with virtual reality, a technology they describe that “allows users to be actors in a digitally created world by their motions and manipulations in the real world” (40), they in fact survey and interact with technology a bit more broadly. And they do so in service of the church. In the opening pages of Virtual Reality Church, the authors state that the two “core goals” of the book are: 

(1) to encourage educators and ministers to think about the history of the church’s use of tech and so to be disciplined and flexible in their approach to future use, and (2) to think critically about which processes in education and church life can be improved by increased use of virtual telecommunication and which processes should be kept on campus or conducted in person in the church building (15).

Rather than seeking to win readers with a particular argument or impose their own views, the authors have sought to encourage church men and women to think critically about the history of the church and the future of the church regarding its use of technology.

Though the most cantankerous among us may snub our nose at the growing ubiquity of technology in our sanctuaries, the church has a long history of integrating the up-and-coming technologies that have marked each era of history, from the invention of writing to the printing press to radio and television. Each successive generation of Christians has been in a position to think carefully about its society’s burgeoning technologies and consider if and how to integrate them into the life of the church and the mission of God. Bock and Armstrong argue that the advent of virtual reality is no different.

The questions that Bock and Armstrong pose are not necessarily if virtual reality should be integrated into the life of the church (though that is a valid question), but how and in what environments should ministers and church leaders consider implementing these inevitable technologies. Moreover, the above questions ought not be considered before more foundational questions are asked such as: what is the missional potential of VR and related technologies (53); what might be possible that was not possible before (17); and what do we gain and lose when we apply a new technology or process (17)? These and other questions scattered throughout the book help the reader think honestly about the role that virtual reality and other future technologies may play in the church moving forward.

Two things are certain: the church will not cease to exist, and technology will not cease to advance, and rapidly. The question that this leaves for the church is what use will we make of the advancements of technology for the sake of the advancement of the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Thinking critically about the potential of technology and its pitfalls

Can a church exist in virtual reality? Virtual reality, after all, is not actual reality. This is the question that I skeptically imposed onto Virtual Reality Church before even cracking open the front cover. But that is not a question that the authors are preoccupied with, though they do address it in the book. The driving question, rather, is how an existing church can integrate technology, whether virtual reality or something else, into the life of the church for the sake of its mission. This is a question that churches and Christians in our society should be thinking about. 

While the authors are generally optimistic about the possibilities that come with introducing new technologies like virtual reality into the practice of the church, they also recognize that certain pitfalls loom. “Every new technology brings positive and problematic change for the communities who adopt them” (45), they rightly say. Though technology clearly offers great potential for the spread of the gospel and the building up of the global church, I am not sure we’ve yet thought critically enough about some of its pitfalls.

This does not mean that virtual reality or any other technology, for that matter, should be resolutely shunned and evicted from our church buildings. But it does mean, as this book encourages and models, that church ministers and members alike should be actively engaged in an ongoing conversation about the place of technology in the local church. What is a church? What are its nonnegotiables regarding the weekend gathering, the Lord’s Supper, and baptism, for example (which the authors do address)? Where are technologies like virtual telecommunication and virtual reality welcome and unwelcome in the life of the church and its sacred practices? These are the conversations that Virtual Reality Church have kickstarted for us and that we should take back to our local churches for consideration. 

“Evangelicalism has existed at the crossroads of tradition and innovation from its inception” (55). The church of Jesus Christ has encountered and utilized technological advancements for the entirety of its history. Though today’s technology is new, the questions we must ask have been asked for millennia by our forebears. Like Bock and Armstrong have modeled for us, and others before them, we should continue to ask and answer today’s questions for the sake of the gospel and the building up of the church.

By / Nov 17

Even though the religious freedom situation in Russia is already challenging the traditional and therefore ineffective political correctness of international rights organizations and Western governments, few of them acknowledge that the continuing limitation of freedom is affecting the actual life and missionary practice of local evangelical churches. Today, churches unwillingly appear in the center of attention of officials and security services as the main spiritual extremists and terrorists. As is well known, in July 2016, the president of Russia signed a package of “antiterrorist laws” that became known by their co-author name as the Yarovaya Laws. In practice the so-called anti-terrorist laws turned out to be anti-missionary and even anti-church laws. Instead of a war on terror, the state unfurled a very real war against religious freedom.

It is remarkable that even during a pandemic there have been numerous instances of limiting the religious freedom of evangelical believers, mostly fines for distributing spiritual literature and bans on conducting worship services.1Russian Evangelicals Fined for ‘Missionary Activity’ During Pandemic The fact that the state is so active in its attempts to control the activity of evangelical communities even in the midst of more global problems shows plenty about the priorities of state policies.

Worship services in the forest

Recently in the news about religious freedom in Russia, an interesting headline caught my attention, “Vladimir Ryakhovsky Agreed with the Mayor of Novorossiysk About Solving the Problem of Evangelists Conducting Services in the Forest.”2Владимир Ряховский договорился с мэром Новороссийска о решении проблем евангелистов, проводящих богослужения в лесу // The news appeared on Sep. 10 on the official site of the Russian President’s Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights.

Immediately I thought of two things. It was strange to see a Baptist church in the woods as the result of all the heroic efforts of the president of Russia and his Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights. It was even stranger to hear that it is necessary to “agree” on the implementation of constitutional rights of freedom of conscience and assembly.

I learned from the news that “believers turned to a human rights defender because in July 2019, the judicial authorities sealed the living room of a residence where a church of evangelical Baptists conducted a worship service. A ban on the owner and other persons using the yard and the residence for religious purposes was imposed by a court decision. As a result, the congregation was completely deprived of a place for worship and forced to conduct worship services in the forest during the summer of 2020.”3Ibid.

Thanks to Vladimir Ryakhovsky’s personal intervention, the congregation gained the hope that it could restore worship services in its church building. In order to understand the seriousness of the situation, one should know that Mr. Ryakhovsky is a prominent Russian attorney, a member of the presidium of the President of the Russian Federation’s Council on Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, and co-chairman of the Slavic Center for Law and Justice. His brother, Sergei Ryakhovsky, heads the very large union of Pentecostals of Russia, and even so, is considered quite loyal to the Kremlin.

It seems that even such a highly-placed intercessor is unable to defend local churches. The role of the Council regarding “human rights” is more and more becoming a façade, leading to an illusion of freedom and even hiding its absence. At the same time, anti-missionary limitations are becoming a part of a consistent government policy directed against the most active religious congregations that are not controlled by the government.

Forum 18 announced that before it went to the forest, the Novorossiysk congregation was subjected to systematic pressure by the security organs.4RUSSIA: Losing places of worship // Its pastor Yurii Kornienko was fined for conducting a worship service in a private home owned by a church member. Although there were only Baptists at the service and although the pastor himself had permission to conduct missionary activity, the ban on using the building was imposed by the Novorossiysk administration. Thus, a small Baptist congregation lost the right to gather in a building and was forced to transfer to the forest.

Suppression of evangelical church locations 

This event is part of a general problem in which the state does not allow believers to exercise even minimal rights to a designated place for assembly, forcing them into a semi-legal space and clandestine existence. Evangelical believers assemble in private homes not because they do not want to build separate church buildings (“cultic facilities”). Rather, they are not allowed to do this by the state itself, which then punishes them for this. Thus, the state deliberately creates the conditions under which no place for congregations remains in the legal space of social life and then forces them to break up into clandestine small groups or to gather in the forest.

This is a well-known story for local evangelical believers who still continue from the times of furious Soviet anti-religious campaigns when all churches were closed and when believers went underground and gathered secretly in private homes or in remote unpopulated places. Little has changed since then. Although in the first years after the collapse of the USSR, the state closed its eyes to the “self-willed-ness” of the evangelical churches and tolerated their missionary activity, in the last 20 years it transitioned to active countermeasures against further growth and church activity. Even so all this time, the Orthodox Church was allowed full government support and built luxurious religious buildings in the very best locations.

Today we see a shocking contrast between the golden cupolas of the Orthodox Church and the humble congregations of evangelical believers in the forest. These contrasts speak volumes. First, that in distinction from the Soviet practice of fighting against religion as such, the current Russian authorities are quite discriminatory in their attitudes toward religion. They maintain a course of state support for one confession and of marginalizing the others. That which can be controlled winds up in a golden cage. That which opposes control winds up behind prison bars, or in the forest.

Regrettably, many Western experts on religious freedom are inclined to follow the lead of Russian propaganda and to equate the Christian revival in Russia with the expansion of the official Orthodox Church. They are simply deceived by the results of surveys in which the majority of Russian confidently declare their adherence to Orthodoxy. Even more, they are deceived by the beauty of the Orthodox churches. Therefore, instead of solidarity with evangelical believers in defense of their freedom, the experts advise reconciling with the reality of Orthodoxy and the pro-Putin consensus and to accept the rules of the game, which are written in the Kremlin. But there is another path, a narrow path of faith in God and one’s conscience, which leads to the forest, and for some to prison.

I recall my childhood experience of being a part of the underground evangelical community. I committed my life to God in such a church, which we called Church in the Forest. Then we gathered in worship services in deserted places far from the cities and walked many miles to worship God freely in lap of wild nature. There were harsh crackdowns on congregations and frequent fines and searches of homes. But my parents were prepared for this; and we, the children of Christian parents, were proud of their courage and valued our freedom to believe in God and to be faithful to him. Sometimes the church can remain the church only in the forest.

That which occurs today in Russia is not Christian revival but determined state support of Orthodoxy and discrimination against all other confessions. But knowing the history of the evangelical church, including the history of my family which included not a few martyrs and prisoners, I can confidently say that the result of the state’s anti-missionary campaign will be not the cessation of the churches’ missionary activity and the isolation of believers but the general mobilization of the church and the creative search for new forms of service. Having been deprived of buildings, the church does not cease to gather; but it finds its place even in the woods and in prison. 

The difficulties for the evangelical church created by the anti-missionary laws aid its growth and its active mission much more than gifts or temporary concessions or privileges by the government. The church in the woods is an excellent illustration of the faithfulness to God and its mission. The persecutors of the church never did and never will understand that this history of faithfulness never frightens believers but strengthens their faith and motivates them to a more sacrificial mission.

  • 1
    Russian Evangelicals Fined for ‘Missionary Activity’ During Pandemic
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    Владимир Ряховский договорился с мэром Новороссийска о решении проблем евангелистов, проводящих богослужения в лесу //
  • 3
  • 4
    RUSSIA: Losing places of worship //
By / Aug 31

I wore it with the confidence of a No Fear brand ambassador. I believed my neon yellow WWJD bracelet flashed the message I’M A CHRISTIAN, setting me apart from the world and in with the Jesus freaks.

Like other Christian movements of the 1990s, the “What Would Jesus Do?” phenomenon spawned a generation of youth group zealots motivated by peer pressure and rewarded with false assurances of holiness. Yet also like other movements during that era, WWJD carried a grain of truth. Christians should act like Jesus. Even in our current politicized evangelical landscape, the command to imitate Christ is indisputable.

Though WWJD had obvious flaws, I wonder if it deserves something of a reboot today. Hop onto any social media platform, and you’ll soon find examples of Christians acting in less than Christ-like ways. While many evangelicals have panned cancel culture, the problem extends beyond casting out a public figure to casting stones at anyone who expresses a thought or opinion that bothers you.

Take the example of the debate about COVID-19 gathering restrictions. Various opinions have been shared and stances taken on social media. In one situation, a commenter tagged several friends and told them to come after a particular individual in order to “share truth.”  Within 48 hours, more than 500 accusing comments maligning this person’s character had been recorded. 

You’d think that Christians would rise above such malicious behavior and strive to maintain a credible witness. Yet, we seem just as likely to set comment threads ablaze as the next keyboard warrior.

Tracing the source of the fire

Why is it so hard for us to tame our tongues on social media? Social scientists posit several theories about what ignites these online firestorms. One study suggests that people become aggressive online to punish those who are violating social norms—for example, insulting a politician who is abusing power. Aggressors assume their words are justified because they believe they’re standing up for the greater good.

Another study indicates that moral grandstanding—the use of moral talk to seek higher social status—contributes to vicious speech online. That study also found a link between moral/political conflict and social vigilantism, which is the desire to correct others for espousing what you consider to be bad or incorrect beliefs. Both moral grandstanding and social vigilantism are associated with polarization and breakdowns in effective communication.

Given our mission to shine truth in a dark world, it’s understandable that Christians could fall into harsh communication patterns while trying to champion moral imperatives. You could call it a misguided inversion of WWJD: “I believe I’m doing what Jesus would do, and will take down anyone who opposes Jesus’ (my) conviction.”

The problem with this mindset lies in a basic yet often forgotten truth: We’re not Jesus. We’re sinful. We don’t possess all authority, wisdom, and power. We can’t peer through our screens and pierce the thoughts and intentions of other people, nor do we bear responsibility for correcting every person for every wrongdoing we think they committed. 

Asserting ourselves as Jesus doesn’t effectively serve Jesus. As Christians who are being sanctified in truth, we still make mistakes and jump to wrong conclusions. So we can’t rely on our assumptions as a compass for how we respond to other people. In fact, the Bible issues a stern warning against those who assume superiority while speaking venomously: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26). And as fallen human beings, we still have trouble taming our tongues (James 3:8). 

Christians are supposed to submit every idea we encounter to the authority of Scripture, but we rarely submit our gut reactions to the same scrutiny. Even when righteously indignant fires burn within our chests, we should bring our frustration to the Lord first before spewing it online. Though there might be times to correct error and call out false teaching, we should try to do so gently and with humility. Recognizing our own faults and exercising patience with others can help us avoid the ruin of foolish talk. “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Prov. 18:2).

Looking to the author and perfecter of our speech

Following Jesus’ lordship means we should learn from observing his communication style during his ministry on Earth. Jesus spoke to others with compassion, gentleness, and concern for their physical and spiritual welfare. He talked to strangers, practiced active listening, sat with the suffering, and remained silent under false charges. At no point did he tell his disciples to gang up on someone who offended him. Throughout his life, Jesus submitted to the mission that directed his every step: to obey the will of his Father.

Of course, we can’t overhaul our sinful speech habits by simply parroting Jesus’ words. Change must begin in our hearts. Michael Horton emphasizes this distinction in Pilgrim Theology: “The evangelical call of the New Testament is not to be like Christ, but to be in Christ.” When we root ourselves in Christ, digging into the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study and meditation, and service, we can banish corrupting talk and speak what is “good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). As we draw close to our source of renewal, words of life will naturally pour out of our mouths like fresh springs instead of cesspools.

So what would it look like if Christians today committed to examine our words before engaging online? Making such a radical pledge of self-moderation could revolutionize the digital forum and testify to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.

Think of how reflecting on Jesus’ example might change the way you interact on social media. What if, before firing off a nasty comment on someone’s Facebook rant, you prayed for them? What if, instead of bashing a person who tweeted something you considered wrong or offensive, you DMed them to initiate a private conversation? What if we, as children of God being conformed to the image of his Son, made the shocking decision to not post anything on social media when we’re too riled up to communicate in a gracious, God-glorifying way?

We can’t say with certainty what Jesus would post or not post on social media, or if he would create any accounts in the first place. Rather than invent hypothetical scenarios of what Jesus would do if he were to take over our social media platforms, I suggest we adopt his main ambition in life. Before posting, let’s pause and ask, “Would this please God?” For we aren’t ambassadors of our own opinions or feelings, but rather imperfect, in-progress followers of Christ.

By / Apr 11


As followers of Christ, we are called to engage the world around us with the unchanging gospel message of hope and reconciliation. Tools like technology are able to aid us in this pursuit. We know they can also be designed and used in ways that dishonor God and devalue our fellow image-bearers. Evangelical Christians hold fast to the inerrant and infallible Word of God, which states that every human being is made in God’s image and thus has infinite value and worth in the eyes of their Creator. This message dictates how we view God, ourselves, and the tools that God has given us the ability to create.

In light of existential questions posed anew by the emergent technology of artificial intelligence (AI), we affirm that God has given us wisdom to approach these issues in light of Scripture and the gospel message. Christians must not fear the future or any technological development because we know that God is, above all, sovereign over history, and that nothing will ever supplant the image of God in which human beings are created. We recognize that AI will allow us to achieve unprecendented possibilities, while acknowledging the potential risks posed by AI if used without wisdom and care.

We desire to equip the church to proactively engage the field of AI, rather than responding to these issues after they have already affected our communities. In light of this desire and hope, we offer the following affirmations and denials about the nature of humanity, the promise of technology, and the hope for the future.


Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24


Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being.

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23


Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1


Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Furthermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4​


Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10


Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4


Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16


Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7


Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14


Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4​


Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone.

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14


Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

*Please note that the title and institution listed for each signatory is used for identification purposes only and does not necessarily constitute an official endorsement by the institution.

Russell Moore
The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission

Matthew Anderson
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion

Vincent Bacote
Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics
Wheaton College

Hunter Baker, J.D.
Dean of Arts and Sciences
Union University

Bart Barber
First Baptist Church Farmersville, Texas

Phillip Bethancourt
Executive Vice President
The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission

Darrell Bock
Executive Director for Cultural Engagement &
Senior Research Professor of New Testament
Dallas Theological Seminary

Denny Burk
Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

Matt Chandler
Lead Pastor
The Village Church, Flower Mound, Texas

Hee Yeal Cho
Executive Staff
Grace Covenant Church

Mike Cosper
Harbor Media

Michael A. Covington
Senior Research Scientist Emeritus (retired)
Institute for Artificial Intelligence
The University of Georgia

Daniel Darling
Vice-President of Communications
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission

Jim Daly
Focus on the Family

Dan DeWitt
Associate Professor of Apologetics
Cedarville University

David S. Dockery
Trinity International University & Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

Erick Erickson
The Resurgent

Jason G. Duesing
Provost & Associate Professor of Historical Theology
Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary & Spurgeon College

John Dyer
Dean of Enrollment Services and Educational Technology
Dallas Theological Seminary

Albert Erisman
Institute for Business, Technology, and Ethics

Nathan A. Finn
Provost & Dean of the University Faculty
North Greenville University

Ronnie Floyd
President & CEO
The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention

Micah Fries
Senior Pastor
Brainerd Baptist Church

Mark J. Galli
Editor in Chief
Christianity Today

J.D. Greear
Pastor, The Summit Church
President, The Southern Baptist Convention

Wayne Grudem
Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies
Phoenix Seminary

Daniel R. Heimbach
Senior Professor of Christian Ethics
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Casey B. Hough
Senior Pastor
First Baptist Church of Camden

Michael Horton
Westminster Seminary California

Johnny Hunt
Pastor, First Baptist Church Woodstock
Vice President, North American Mission Board

Dean Inserra
Lead Pastor
City Church, Tallahassee, Florida

Scott James, MD
The Church at Brook Hills

Richard Land
Southern Evangelical Seminary

Heath Lambert
Senior Pastor
First Baptist Church Jacksonville

Mark Liederbach
Dean of Students & Professor of Theology, Ethics, and Culture
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Fred Luter
Senior Pastor
Franklin Avenue Baptist Church

Ken Magnuson
Professor of Christian Ethics
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Katie McCoy
Assistant Professor of Theology in Women’s Studies
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

James Merritt
Lead Pastor
Cross Pointe Church Duluth, Georgia

Paul Miller
Research Fellow
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission

Matthew C. Millsap
Assistant Professor of Christian Studies
Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

C. Ben Mitchell
Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy
Union University

Richard J. Mouw
Professor of Faith and Public Life
Fuller Theological Seminary

Philip Nation
Director of Advancement and Global Impact Churches
Baptist World Alliance

Trillia Newbell
Director of Community Outreach
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission

Samuel W. Oliver
Union University

Esther O’Reilly

Ray Ortlund
Immanuel Church

Tripp Parker
Senior Manager, Technical Program Management

Jackie Hill Perry
Author & Speaker

Matthew Pinson
Welch College

Vance Pitman
Senior Pastor
Hope Church Las Vegas

Karen Swallow Prior
Professor of English
Liberty University

Rhyne Putman
Associate Professor of Theology & Culture
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

Tony Reinke

Jim Richards
Executive Director
Southern Baptists of Texas Convention

Jeffrey Riley
Professor of Ethics & Associate Dean of Research Doctoral Programs
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

Rev. Gabriel Salguero 
National Latino Evangelical Coalition

Jimmy Scroggins
Family Church, West Palm Beach, Florida

Jacob Shatzer
Assistant Professor of Theological Studies
Union University

Colin J. Smothers
Executive Director
Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

John Stonestreet
Colson Center for Christian Worldview

Jason Thacker
Associate Research Fellow & Project Leader
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission

Mark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy

AB Vines
First Vice President
Southern Baptist Convention

Todd Wagner
Senior Pastor
Watermark Community Church

Andrew T. Walker
Senior Fellow in Christian Ethics
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission

Keith S. Whitfield
Dean of Graduate Studies
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

K. Marshal Williams, Sr.
Senior Pastor, Nazarene Baptist Church
Past President, National African American Fellowship, SBC

Malcolm B. Yarnell, III
Research Professor
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Hershael W. York
Dean of the School of Theology
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Christopher Yuan
Speaker, Author, Bible Professor
Bearer of Christ Ministries

By / Apr 5

WASHINGTON, D.C., April 5, 2019—The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention will host a convening to unveil a new statement on artificial intelligence, April 11 from 2:00-4:00 p.m. ET on Capitol Hill at 915 F Street NW, Washington, D.C. 

The statement is designed to equip the church with an ethical framework for thinking about artificial intelligence and has been signed by more than 30 leaders and experts across the fields of economics, public policy, business, technology, ethics, biblical theology and medicine.

ERLC President, Russell Moore, will join these leaders to discuss the role that evangelical Christians can play surrounding these issues in this important cultural moment.

"There are many heated debates in Washington, many of them important,” said Moore. “But no issues keep me awake at night like those surrounding technology and artificial intelligence. The implications artificial intelligence will have for our future are vast. It is critical that the church be proactive in understanding AI. It's also critical that the church insist AI be used it ways consistent with the truth that all people possess dignity and worth, created as they are in the image of God. This statement does just that, and much more. I'm honored to be a part of this important conversation and join these outstanding leaders on this excellent statement."

Members of the national media are invited to attend the public convening and can receive a free promo code by emailing Elizabeth Bristow at [email protected].

The full statement of principles will be available at the day of the event.

By / Jun 9

Jon Akin moderates a discussion between Kevin Ezell, Afshin Ziafat, Nathan Lino, and Josh Patterson at the Southern Baptist Convention Pre-Conference in Dallas, Texas, on June 9, 2018.

By / Jul 24


But it simply isn’t true.

Wrong side of history argument…

Our key anchor point is always the Scripture.

2,000 years.

That’s a long time.

It’s here we should stop and acknowledge that history is never a sterile environment. Political and economic ideals intertwine with philosophical questions as they bump against theological concepts. Sometimes dividing between Individuals of the past were every bit as flawed as present ones. The famed orator and preacher John Chrysostom used his gifts to move audiences to repentance but used those same talents to move masses to violence against Jews. Gregory the Great may have brought significant reform to a drifting church in the 6th century, but he also codified the concept of purgatory, an extra-biblical conjecture.

4 decades.

That seems like a long time.

In 2016, we will be four decades from what Newsweek famously proclaimed “The Year of the Evangelical.”

In the modern political and cultural realities we face, that feels like eons ago.

Since the heady days of 1976, we’ve traveled the road from Carter’s election to “Evangelical” being a term that loses an election. We reveled in the triumphantalism of the Moral Majority but became relegated to the minority because of our morality.

Yet we are talking mere decades.

For nearly two millennia, the church stood rooted and grounded in the person and work of Jesus Christ.. The church offered the freedom of the cross to people groups that openly accepted the Gospel as well as to cultures that fully rejected the claims of Christ.

For nearly two millennia, the church has contemplated and been faced with it all:




Wanton consumption.

Social inequality.





The list goes on. It’s all there. As Solomon once stated, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Since the very beginning, the church has spoken to the challenges of their day by driving believers back to the ultimate authority – the Scriptures. In certain eras, the church engaged the needs of the day effectively. In other eras, the church itself became so enmeshed with the cultural norms of the day, prophetic voices arose not with new message, but one as old as the church itself – to return to the Word of God.

Each generation received a missiological mantel to engage the cultural issues of their day. They presented Truth. The Truth of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior over and again. As a pilgrim people who have not yet reached their homeland, voice after voice in the church championed the claims of Scripture to encourage positive aspects of culture or prophetically condemn the atrocities of the era.

For Christians, we engage the situations of the day standing not alone, but amid the throngs of generations. This “great cloud of witnesses” provide encouragement, balanced insight and a deeper context than the flash-fire of the present. It gives us the ability to wrestle with ideas along with our forbears – even when the process is less than neat and clean.

Consider the question of abortion. Evangelicals continue to hold the ground on issues of life in the womb. Not only in the Scriptures is all life upheld as precious in God’s sight, but the church carried this teaching forward. In the early 3rd century, Tertullian writes his apologetic work, Treatise on the Soul, arguing for a clear understanding of life beginning at conception. By the 6th Ecumenical Council in 680 the question of abortion was re-iterated leading Eastern churches to affirm in 692 that those who abort a baby or produce drugs that lead to an abortion are committing murder.[1]

Sound like issues we might face?

Even the Reformers challenged their culture. Luther called out those who abort their children as violating an understanding of the gift of children in his commentary on Genesis 25:4.[2] Calvin famously stated his opposition to abortion in his commentary on Exodus 21:23 where he states,

for the foetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, (homo,) and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a foetus in the womb before it has come to light.[3]

Here’s the point: We do not stand in isolation from those who have gone before us.

Yet this brings a new challenge to our churches. Much of our practical outworking of Christian history only goes back as far as “the-last-time-something-great-happened” or “the-worst-event-ever” in our recent memory. Our churches become untethered from the anchor of our rich heritage which points over and again to the faithfulness of our Savior.

So what are we to do about our historical amnesia?

I believe there are several solutions that start with church leaders but it can move through our congregations quickly.

• Highlight historical figures and stories as illustrations in sermons or teaching series. Bring awareness to our congregations that people in the past understood the power of the Gospel and stood for the truths of Christ.

• Educate our children in the heroes of the past. The Torchlighters animated series highlights several key persons that your family should know. They are readily available to rent online and can help kids connect with the giants who journeyed before us in the faith!

• Read biographies of faithful men and women. Read their letters and their words. Read the sermons of pastors and church leaders of prior eras. While this type of reading should never replace Scripture, it should be a regular part of our spiritual disciplines! For pastors and church leaders, I frequently recommend a reading plan that’s as simple as 1, 2, 3. 

1 – Read at least one treatise by a key figure in the history of the church annually. This could be Augustine’s Confessions or Athanasius’ Life of Anthony. It could be Calvin’s Institutes, or Spurgeon’s The Soul Winner. I recommend reading this in a community of other Christians so you can talk about the ideas presented by the author.

2 – Read at least two biographies of individuals who faithfully followed Christ. Do this every year. There is a reason why biographies have played such an essential part of Christian spiritual life and discipleship for centuries!

3 – Read at least three sermons by leading figures like Spurgeon, Luther, Chrysostom, Ambrose of Milan and Calvin every month. Read sermons on whatever text you are teaching or currently studying to gain a fuller understanding of how the church understood these passages in the past. In the process you will hear how leaders encouraged their churches during times of persecution or times of plenty. You will hear cautions about heresy or be amazed at reports of the advancement of the Kingdom of God.

As the Bride of Christ, we join the throngs of Christ-followers who stand on the “wrong side of history” over and again as we rally around truth, not the shifting tides of culture. In the history of the church we find encouragement for the challenges of today and tomorrow.

[1] The Quinisext Council in 692 was largely attended by Eastern Bishops and considered a continuation of the 5th and 6th Ecumenical Councils by the East, but not in the West. Canon 91 condemns abortion.

[2] Martin Luther, Jaroslav Pelikan, et al, Luther’s Works, Vol. 4 (Saint Louis : Concordia Publishing House, 1999) 4:304.

[3] John Calvin, Harmony of the Law, Vol 3 (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1854) 3:42

By / May 13

In his famous review in the philosophy journal Mind, Sir Peter Medawar said of the work of paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that, “its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself.” Something similar could be said for Jonathan Merritt’s latest column on how evangelicals have “misread America’s religious landscape.” Merritt isn’t intentionally trying to mislead his readers; he’s probably just gone to great pains to deceive himself first.

Merritt’s column is based on an extensive survey by the Pew Research Center that reveals that certain sectors of Christianity—particularly Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches—continue to shrink while the number of evangelicals in America is growing. But because the results do not fit with Merritt’s predetermined narrative he attempts to shift the metrics of what constitutes “growth.”

“Yes, mainline denominations remain in sharp decline, and yes, evangelicals have fared slightly better overall.” Merritt claims that, “Yet many evangelical bodies have begun shrinking as a share of the population as well.”

Until recently, the claim made by critics like Merritt was that people were fleeing evangelicalism. But survey after survey has proven that idea to be false, and that the number of evangelicals has in fact been increasing. The reality is that the number of evangelicals in America has been growing since 1972. That requires a shifting of the goalpost in order to save their preconceptions. “Okay, evangelicalism is growing,” they now admit, “but they aren’t increasing as a percentage of the total population.”

That’s true, but so what? As the Pew survey shows, the evangelical share of the population has remained comparatively stable. From 2007 to 2015 the percentage of evangelicals changed slightly from 26.3 percent to 25.4 percent of the population, while Mainline and Catholic groups declined by more than 3 percent each.

If we use the “percentage of the population” as a metric then the current rate of decline for evangelicals could continue for 95 years before we’d reach the same percentage (14.7 percent) that the Mainline churches hold today. By that time—in the year 2110—Mainline churches would have (assuming they continued to decline at their current rate) ceased to exist for more than 60 years.

But maybe when Merritt refers to “evangelical bodies” he means individual denominations, rather than evangelicalism as a whole.

If we look at the short-term (year-to-year) trends, we may be able to detect a decline in some groups, especially in large denominations. For instance, Merritt mentions the Southern Baptist Convention—the largest Protestant denomination in America—declined “as a percentage of the population” by 1.5 percent. Yet as Merritt notes,

During this same time period, among mainline denominations, the United Methodist Church declined by 1.5 percent, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declined by 0.6 percent, the Presbyterian Church (USA) declined by 0.2 percent, the United Church of Christ declined by only 0.1 percent, and the American Baptist Churches USA actually grew by 0.3 percent.

This certainly sounds bad for the Baptists until you remember that the SBC comprises, by itself, 11 percent of all Protestants in America, while the four denominations Merritt mentions comprise only 15 percent of Protestantism combined. Additionally, 5.3 percent of all U.S. adults belong to the SBC—again more than all four of those denominations combined. It was inevitable that the phenomenal growth the SBC has experienced since the mid-1960s would slow or plateau. But it would be reading too much into the data to assume that after a 45 percent increase in SBC membership over 50 years, a 1.5 percent shift over seven years would be a sign of rapid decline.

Also, in the case of the SBC and other conservative denominations, the trend seems to be that if churches are losing members it is mostly to other conservative denominations, especially non-denominational ones. (Many non-denominational churches are all but indistinguishable from SBC churches in theology and ecclesiology). As Pew notes, the most significant growth in Protestantism is in the increase of nondenominational churches, which grew from 4.5 percent to 6.2 percent of all U.S. adults.

Merritt also points to the decline in Catholic churches to show how “conservatives” churches aren’t growing:

America’s largest “denomination”—the Roman Catholic Church—further challenges the notions conservatives have been peddling. From prohibitions on contraception to resisting same-sex marriage, no body has held the traditional line more than Roman Catholics. Yet between 2007 and 2014, Catholics declined by 3.1 percent as a share of the population.

The fact that Merritt believes American Catholicism is generally conservative shows a lack of understanding of that “denomination” internal battles. While there isn’t space in this article to detail the liberalism of modern Catholicism, it should be noted that few traditional, mass-attending Catholics in America would agree that “no body has held the traditional line more than Roman Catholics.”

Merritt goes on to add, “Simply put, almost all of America’s largest Protestant denominations are declining, regardless of political or theological alignment.” This claim simply can’t be supported by the data.

Since the 1960s almost all conservative evangelical denominations have increased in number while liberal Mainline churches have decreased. Now let’s look at a few of the primary non-Mainline denominations, every one of which has increased in membership since the mid-1960s.

Church of God in Christ: In 1965, the CoG had 425,000 members. In 2012, the membership was 5,499,875, an increase of 1,194 percent.

Presbyterian Church in America: In 1973, the PCA had 41,232 members. In 2013, the membership was 367,033, an increase of 790 percent. (Note: The Presbyterian Church in America was founded in 1973 by conservative members of the Presbyterian Church in the United States who rejected that church's merger with the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.)

Evangelical Free Church of America: In 1965, the EFCA had 43,851 members. In 2013, the membership was 372,321 , an increase of 749 percent.

Assemblies of God: In 1965, the AoG had 572,123 members. In 2013, the membership was 3,030,944, an increase of 430 percent.

Southern Baptist Convention: In 1965, the SBC had 10,770,573 members. In 2013, the membership was 15,735,640, an increase of 46 percent.

Merritt adds that, “Conservatism does not necessarily lead to growth, it seems, and liberalism does not necessarily lead to decline.” If that were true then why do conservative denominations continue to grow significantly while almost every liberal denomination has declined rapidly? Because he can’t refute that data, he tries to explain it away:

According to Mike Hout, a sociologist at New York University, evangelicals who want to blame the decline of mainline Protestantism on liberalism are simply not paying attention. He says that population data has always indicated that the mainline decline was mostly attributable to birthrates, a notion he published in an article in the American Journal of Sociology.

“Seventy percent of mainline decline as it was known in those days was due to the fact that evangelical women were having one more child on average than women in the mainline tradition,” Hout says. “This trend prevailed until right around the turn of the [21st] century.”

Merritt has an odd habit of providing “evidence” that refutes his own claim. Why do evangelical woman have more babies than women in Mainline churches? Because of the pro-natalist/anti-abortion convictions of conservative evangelicalism. What other explanation is there? If it were not based on religious beliefs, then why would there be a difference between the two groups of American women?

Merritt also trots out the tired old claim that the rise of the “Christian right” has caused people to flee conservative evangelical churches: “As conservative bodies became more partisan, members who couldn’t stomach the political agenda waved goodbye.” He also quotes a source that says,

“Among those who disaffiliated during this period, most were raised in evangelical denominations but were centrist to leftist politically,” Hout says.

Again, if that were true, then why would evangelicalism be increasing in total numbers? And why aren’t the Mainline churches which are presumable “centrist to leftist politically”, gaining those who are leaving conservative churches?

The reality is that 65 percent of adults raised as evangelicals still identify with their childhood religion, and 1.2 people join evangelicalism for every one that leaves. Additionally, more Americans who self-identify as gay or lesbian (a group that tends to be politically liberal) identify as evangelical (13 percent) than mainline (11 percent), atheist (eight percent) or agnostic (nine percent).

In an odd shift, Merritt claims that it really doesn’t matter anyway about the Mainline churches since they aren’t the point:

Triumphalist evangelicals have missed the point. The biggest threat to evangelicals is not some form of liberal faith, but rather faithlessness itself. Most people aren’t leaving evangelicalism for more liberal expressions, but rather for nothing at all.

While conservative Christians were crusading against their more liberal brothers and sisters in the mainline, the real growth has been in neither camp—the share of religiously unaffiliated individuals in America skyrocketed by a whopping 6.7 percent.

Rather than taking pot shots at more liberal strains of Christianity, evangelicals would do well to focus on the threat that all Christians are now facing: the growing number of people who are apathetic or antagonistic to the claims of Christianity.

On almost every point of fact, Merritt is simply wrong. There are more evangelicals in America today than at any time in our nation’s history. Conservative denominations have continued to grow for the past fifty years while liberal denominations have declined. Currently, 1 in 5 Americans is an evangelical, including 22 percent of older Millenials and 19 percent of younger Millenials.

Acknowledging this reality, however, should not blind us to the challenges faced by evangelicals in America. Merritt is correct that a key concern is the “growing number of people who are apathetic or antagonistic to the claims of Christianity.” But that should not lead us to conclude that is evangelicalism that must change. We shouldn’t abandon the gospel or water it down to make it more palatable. That is true also for the social and political ramifications. Staying faithful to the Bible means that evangelicals will never be accepting of two grooms or killing babies in the womb. We can’t pretend people can become Christians and reject the ethical implications of the gospel.