Pastor Chris Baker, Centralia First Baptist Church
On November 5, 1955 a teenager named Marty walked into Hill Valley for the first time. What he
saw amazed and confused him. The marquee at the Essex theatre trumpeted a showing of The Cattle Queen of Montana starring Barbara Stanwyck alongside a handsome 40-something who had been in several pictures but starred in few named Ronald Reagan.
Outside the record store a sign proclaimed the arrival of The Ballad of Davy Crockett. The “Welcome to Hill Valley” sign dubbed the town “A Nice Place to Live” and affixed to the sign were the crests of a number of service organizations—Rotary, Jaycees, the Lions, and the Kiwanis. This was all very confusing to young Marty, but not to anyone else. Everyone else on the town square that afternoon went about business as normal. It was confusing to Marty because he had just driven a DeLorean back in time 30 years from 1985. If you hadn’t already guessed, I’m talking about Michael J. Fox’s character in Back to the Future.
That’s one of those movies that I never intend to watch but can never seem to turn if off if I catch it on TV. And the first scene when McFly stumbles into idyllic 1955 Hill Valley has always fascinated me. Culture shifts so rapidly now that the shock of going back 30 years would likely be even greater today. Can you imagine dropping a 16-year old into 1988? The era before cellphones, tablets, and the internet? They wouldn’t even know how to make a phone call!
As someone who since March 2018 has been charged with leading an institution that is just two years shy of its 150th anniversary, the rapidly changing culture has never been more frequently in my thoughts. There was a time when church—not any one in particular, but ‘The Church’ as an idea—was part of the culture. For better or for worse, to be a part of a local community was to be a part of one of its churches—and as you’re aware in this town there are many.
But culture has changed. Sundays are no longer a day off, or a day of rest. They’re another day to get things done. Cultural changes are rapid and it is difficult as an institution to shift with that culture without compromising the things that make us who we are. One of the reasons that Back to the Future scene has fascinated me so much over the years is that I really think many churches are the closest thing that we have today to that trip back in time. If you walk in and look around, not too much has changed over the past few decades. From the way we dress to the music we play, a church service today in a lot of places can be extremely similar to the way that was 2-3 decades ago.
And when we look at effectiveness, most markers show us that churches like ours—traditional churches that have been around a while—are in a state of decline. We’re an independent congregation, but we cooperate with the Southern Baptist Convention—meaning that we financially support the missionary efforts of that organization but they don’t have any role in governing our local church. SBC churches like ours have seen a decline in membership for 11 consecutive years. And much of our struggle—both locally and globally—has been in reaching the upcoming generations. According to Barna Research, “Over the last six months, over half of all millennials have not attended any church. Sixty percent have dropped completely out of church.”
So it’s not just a Baptist problem, it’s something that a broad spectrum of churches struggle with, and—from what I understand—it’s been an issue with service organizations such as this one.
For a number of years I thought the answer to this issue was simple—do things differently. In 2006 I was part of a new church that began near where I grew up in East Tennessee. The leadership of that church recognized the trend we’ve been talking about and so our solution was to be as visibly different from other churches as we could be. We intentionally wore blue jeans, we drank coffee in the sanctuary, we had a rock band instead of a choir. And do you know what? It worked. For a little while. People loved different. But over time it grew stale because to a degree we were more committed to being different from the church down the street than we were to the core convictions of what we were in the first place and that is church that existed to bring glory to God by fulfilling the great commission.
I was there for about six years and the biggest thing that I learned was that the key to engaging a changing culture isn’t just to change for the sake of changing.
So, how does an aging organization engage a culture seemingly obsessed with the new, and next? Well, I can’t actually tell you. Because I don’t want to stand here and pretend I have answers that I don’t have. But I do have a couple of ideas. I can tell you what we are doing, as a 150-year old institution, to engage a town that, though we may look like Mayberry to outsiders, really is rapidly changing.
The first thing we are doing is this: Identify your core convictions and never compromise. In our view of Scripture, the local church actually has a really narrow mission. We are to make disciples of Jesus Christ—and for us a disciple is someone who is a learner. Someone who is learning who Jesus Christ is and what it means to live like Him. Essentially, we believe the world is a deeply broken place and the gospel is the solution for all that brokenness. That’s the thing we’ll never compromise on and it really should drive everything that we do. We’re striving to exist as a church in such a way as to make that core conviction the very center of what we do.
That’s the first thing. The second is this: be willing to compromise on everything else in order to engage a rapidly-changing culture. Our staff and key leaders are probably tired of me asking the question “why” at this point. Every time a calendar event pops up or we talk about an ongoing program I ask why. Why do we do this? Why do we keep doing it? Why did it start in the first place?
As a culture ages we become comfortable with certain traditions and ideas that aren’t always well-suited for our current culture. And to remain relevant we must be willing to adapt some of those things or even let them die so that we can better engage the community around us.
Without going into too much detail, one of the primary ways we are doing this is trying to find new ways to serve our local Centralia community. I love your motto of “Service over Self.” To engage a modern culture, especially in the Show-Me state, we have to be willing to put our institutional money where our mouth is and be active in serving the community we say that we care about. To know our community is to serve our community and we have to be willing to adapt to new ways of doing that as needs arise.
Ecclesiastes 10:10 If the ax is dull, and one does not sharpen its edge,
then one must exert more strength; however, the advantage of wisdom is that it brings success.
Too many times we find ourselves frustrated at the culture because we are beating at it with a dull axe. In the years to come, we as an institution hope to be sharpening our ax of engagement. That will mean that some of the way we do things will change. But if we change our core message, then we lose who we are as a body.