August 7, 2020

12 Churches, 12 Calvinists

tmbapt.jpgHow about a little thought experiment? No hidden agenda; just a way to explore the contention that certain things make all the difference.

Imagine for a moment 12 Baptist churches (that may be enough for some of you right there) in my own little Appalachian corner of the world, southeast Kentucky. These 12 churches are scattered across our area, which is almost entirely rural, quite poor, deep in Appalachian culture and all that goes along with it. They are churches dating back a century or more, the people are largely uneducated and some are even illiterate. There are deep problems of unemployment, health care, family dysfunction and substance abuse.

The churches are declining. For the past 15 years, the membership has been ingrown, with no significant influx of outsiders into the area and no significant church growth. The churches are growing older in average age, though several of the churches keep some kind of youth ministry going on. It is very rare to see young couples in church, and the congregations are graying rapidly.

The churches have been led by a variety of area men called to be pastors, with only a couple of local Bible school graduates in the mix. Pastors come and go quickly, with many leaving before two years have passed. Going from one church to another in a type of “Merry-Go-Round” is often a reality.

The theology of these churches is poor. They are a mix of Baptist doctrine- remembered, never written-, revivalism, second hand Pentecostalism, strong moralism (especially in regard to the Ten Commandments in school and strong enforcement of drug laws), and mountain “Holiness” religion with its emphasis on legalism and externals. Most of these churches are KJV only. A clear proclamation of the Gospel has been almost unheard of. Instead, repeated experiences of surrender and getting “really saved” have prevailed.

Music is a major drawing card in each church. This includes traditional hymns (mountain style) and “mountain music” played on local instruments. Contemporary worship music only appears in rare “youth services.” Some churches take very strong stands against any innovation in worship, defending their “mountain ways” as important to being a “real Christian.”

As in often true in this culture, these are churches that are very suspicious of outsiders. Pastors from outside the region will find it difficult to break into the “clans” and family groupings that dominate these churches. Attention to the needs of extended family members is considered a pastoral priority. There is a special appreciation for those in the military.

These are people with genuine faith. They love God, though many do not know correct Christian beliefs and are guided by their loyalty to what older family members and respected pastors of the past have believed. What they do believe, they believe with tenacity, but with zeal and genuineness.

These are people who believe in prayer, and they love one another. A public testimony is important to them. In this culture, getting “saved” assumes a deep and observable change of life.

There are many events that cross denominational lines in the area, such as “singings,” “youth revivals” and special holiday events on th Fourth of July and Christmas.

All things being equal to the current trajectory, within ten years, many of these churches will be on the verge of closure due to the deaths of their core, loyal membership.

So…..imagine all 12 of these Baptist churches come “open” at the same time, and by some unknown arrangement, 12 new seminary graduates from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary all come to pastor these churches.

Calvinists all, going to churches that don’t know what Calvinism is; churches that are strongly inclined toward revivalism and emotionalism.

These are young men trained in TULIP. They believe in verse by verse exposition of books. Eight years in Romans is real preaching. They believe in no public invitations, church government by elders and the regulative principle. Their models are Macarthur, Piper, Mahaney, Dever and Keller. They understand the church planting ideas of Mark Driscoll and ACTS 29. They are sympathetic to the missional approach of Ed Stetzer. They believe in doctrinal Christianity as the basis for experience and church life. They love the Puritans and believe in books as a way to disciple their people. They have a strong commitment to complementarianism. They are the new breed of SBC pastors and this is their chance.

What’s going to happen?
What could happen?
What won’t happen?
Will it work? Can these churches be turned around?
Will it work?
Are these the men to do it?
What will be the key factors in success or failure?

(If you don’t talk about this, then this post will be a real dud.)

I’ll give you my thoughts in the comment threads later.


  1. I’ve pastored two churches in the past 30 years. I stayed 13 and 1/2 years at the first one, in a small town in North Carolina, about 40 members. This was a mistake. I stayed too long. It wasn’t good for me, my wife, my kids, or the congregation. Oh, we had good fellowship, the Word was preached, children were brought up to know the Lord, we did VBS, missions and so on. But that sort of church is meant by God Himself to be a stepping stone for new pastors. Using it as a stepping stone is the right thing to do. God needs good pastors with some experience to move into wider fields of influence, and burying yourself in the country isn’t good for anyone: the church, your family, and yourself. It makes no difference if you are a Calvinist or not. Preach the Gospel, and move on after a few years. Everyone, including the little country church, will do better with that scenario.

  2. Marshall,

    I can see what you are saying but I think you are applying your own experience to broadly. “That kind of church is meant by God Himself to be a stepping stone for new pastors. Using it as a stepping stone is the right thing to do”. I can’t go along with that. In what way was this church not good for you, your family, or the church? Based on that philosophy you have stayed at your current church 3 years too long. In my opinion it is generally helpful for a pastor to have a long intentional tenure at a church no matter what size it is. Burrying oursleves in a mega church is just as rotten as burrying ourselves in a small rural church. Burried is burried.

  3. Sir, you don’t need to wonder what will happen. I’ve seen the results in Southern California. The church attendance either will drop like a rock, or it will become a cult-like gathering of 10 people. Doctrinal Calvinism can work only if preached by a pastor with true people skills and a heart for the community. Otherwise, it’s just a lecture for people who appreciate Berkhof and Calvin.

  4. Well, the church will fight. This is what occurred in our church. We helped start the small church we are in. My husband eventually agreed to fill the pulpit but he let the congregation know he was Reformed.

    At first they didn’t care. They just wanted a pastor and could only pay $500.00 a month.

    Then they told him he couldn’t preach reformed messages. They held a business meeting to see if they wanted him gone.

    We are still there preaching reformed messages. No one has left. They are slowly growing in knowledge.


  5. Bobsnotmyuncle says

    I can tell you what happened in one church in a neighboring state.

    People continued coming as before. Most of them thought the preaching was excellent, but, after a time, began to wonder about the pastor’s lack of excitement for traditional activities.

    Members who believed strongly in the church’s mandate to use their wealth in ministry to the poor ultimately became discouraged because of the pastor’s desire to keep the church free from such encumbrances; so, they left to find a church that would accept their offerings and channel them as they desired they be channeled.

    Miracle of miracles, a few adults became believers and were baptized. Some were ecstatic about this, but the majority just assumed that God did it for His own reasons, and, more concerned about the lack of enthusiasm during worship services, from the pulpit, and in consultation with the pastor.

    Ultimately, the church began to fight over a relatively important issue, and the young pastor returned to seminary to study *more*.

    Names omitted to protect the guilty, but forgiven. Personally, I’m still trying to figure it all out.

  6. Bobsnotmyuncle says

    Blagh, soz. “fight about an *un*important issue.”

  7. What’s going to happen?
    I don’t know. “I don’t know” is a theological statement. God can do anything, and often likes to surprise us.

    What could happen?
    If the new pastors are faithful, they will preach the word well. If they’re faithful *and* risk-takers (which I believe is *really* part of being faithful), they’ll also allow for some spirit-led experiences (like organized sessions of prayer for each other, words of knowledge, etc.).

    What won’t happen?
    I don’t know. Another theological statement.

    “Will it work? Can these churches be turned around?”
    What does “work” mean? One day, over 10,000 people were following Jesus. The next day, Jesus successfully narrowed that down to 12. Jesus considered pruning as necessary as watering. Or, as Dr. Gene Scott liked to put it, “Elimination is as necessary as assimilation.”
    What will be the key factors in success or failure?
    Again, what is success or failure? How do you measure it? These men, if they take some steps to love and identify with the sheep they’re going to serve and lead, may reach the hearts of their new congregations. The congregants, for their part, may have renewed interest in digging in deep into the Word, and seeing what it really says, and letting their traditions be challenged.

    My prediction: 4 responses from the congregation. Some will say, “What are these guys saying? Doesn’t make sense.” This response might include a (not physical) violent resistance to change. Others will say, “These guys are great!” but when they see the changes that are required of their way of life, will soon resist and go back to the way things have always been done. Others will take longer to reach the same state. Others will be whole-hearted and embrace the good changes that the new guys are bringing in. Whether the following comes about in a permanent way in the community is another matter: Better theology, better church life, less in-bred-ness, more ministry to the needy in their area, more cohesive community life while at the same time being more welcome to outsiders, more Scripture-based supernatural activity. There might not be enough of a critical mass of good soil to maintain a change.

    Will it work?
    Are these the men to do it?
    If God calls them, yes. If not, no.
    What this really all depends on is if this is God’s will or not. When it was God’s will for the Israelites to go into the promised land (Numbers 13), they would have succeeded, though the odds against them looked great. But just one chapter later, when the people revealed their stiffnecked attitude, God said he would no longer be with them in going into the promised land. Nothing had changed in 1 chapter–nothing but the potential outcome. This is what makes me wary of measuring success by some simple external standard (though I suppose one of the reasons you started this post is to stimulute such a discussion).
    Or what about a single man, Elijah, hanging out with a widow. That’s kind of suspicious. And he takes advantage of her, saying “feed the prophet”, even though she’s about to starve. But Elijah was just the person God picked to help her, and he helped her big time. Would I have chosen Elijah for this task? Would you?

    Your question could have been equally posed if you replaced reformed-type pastors with Clark Pinnock or Greg Boyd type pastors, and I would have answered similarly.

  8. M Clinton MS says

    I am a convert to the Southern Baptist Church and live in Mississippi. I was raised Methodist until my mid 20’s, but had no formal indoctrination in Methodist theology. I have studied extensively (though informally) Calvinism and Reformed thought, mainly because the university I attended had an attractive and healthy Reformed Youth program. Though I have come to agree with some of it’s points, it never fully took, as I couldn’t reconcile the limited atonement with the Christ I knew. Anyway, as I was not brought up in the Southern Baptist Church, I am not fully aware of the controversey surrounding the 1979 “Happening” (for lack of a better description) at the SBC. Could someone fill me in, or direct me to a neutral site/books on the subject?

    Also, to add my opinion to the above: Since most SB churches are still very congregationalist, wouldn’t the people know that these were Calvinist pastors and so probably not hire them in the first place?

    Thanks for listening.

  9. Regular Baptist says

    Jesus turned the culture on its ear with his teachings. The gospel turned the world on it’s ear. They both reacted violently. When will we learn that it is about the gospel regardless of what the culture says. As a calvinist, my theology does not excuse me from following Jesus and spreading the gospel. When will we learn that the culture is sick (not only in appalachia). These churches are already dead, “fixing”them is a waste of time. The SBC is lost in a “christian culture social club”. Armed with education (a god of the culture) many of these young pastors will simply engage in the same broken techniques to convert the masses through some new, trendy or CCM based salesmanship which after years of practice has produced the mess the church is in today. When the REAL gospel is lived & communicated, real impact on the culture will result. But the culture will also react violently. We are too connected to our money, jobs & stuff to really care. The elephant in the room is the church really does not care for the lost, we simply create the illusion to pat ourselves on the back & tell Jesus what a great job we are doing. We have our monuments to ourselves and they are emptying fast. When living & spreading the gospel becomes authentic the world will then be impacted. The early church did not try to fix the culture, it replaced it with personal community. When the urgency of reaching the lost & the reality that people are lost every second of every day motivates the church to throw our stuff aside for precious souls, then the church will again assault the culture.