Leaving the back door open
Feed the flock but don't let the lambs escape
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Almost certainly, when Southern Baptists gather in a few days for their annual convention in Nashville, things won't be as noisy and fractious as they were at similar meetings a decade ago. Conservatives are in charge of the denomination, and everyone knows it.
But nailing down political control of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention isn't quite the same thing as guaranteeing that the folks who occupy the pews of its 50,000 congregations will still believe the right things a generation from now. Even if you control all the seminaries, the foreign missions board, the church planting efforts, and the publishing apparatus-a feat which SBC conservatives for the most part have accomplished over the last 15 years-you have to recognize, if you're a realist, that you're fighting a losing battle.
Here's why. And the lesson isn't just for Southern Baptists. It's for everyone interested in leaving a heritage of faithfulness for the next generation.
The reason we're all fighting a losing battle is that even if we controlled every last detail of the denominational structures we find ourselves in, we have left the back door of the barn flapping so wildly in the wind that most of our livestock have escaped. In this case, the livestock are the littlest of our lambs.
For the fact is that most evangelical Christians continue to leave the primary task of teaching their children not to their churches but to the secularist state. Statistics are hard to come by-but I don't know of a single evangelical denomination where at least two-thirds of the children don't get the bulk of their education from the state. At least 85 percent of Southern Baptist children get their elementary and secondary education from the state-and except for the Christian Reformed Church and the Missouri Synod Lutherans, who have emphasized Christian schools for generations-the 85 percent figure probably applies to most other evangelical church groups as well.
The result, of course, is that a huge majority of our churches' young people inherit an education to which we should be objecting on two critical fronts: First, because that education is so ineffective. And second, because it is so effective.
Even the defenders of state education admit regularly how deficient their product is. That's why they always want billions more to improve it. By every measurement-educational, behavioral, moral, financial-the statist system tends toward bankruptcy. Dozens of individual schools, of course, and hundreds of individual teachers, stand as exceptions to that pattern. But such exceptions tend simply to prove the rule.
But it's the effectiveness of statist schools, much more than their ineffectiveness, that should concern us. In the task of secularizing our society, they have been wildly, overwhelmingly, and devastatingly successful. It is not too much to say that in many cases, they have neutralized the work of our evangelical churches.
Such secularism is never as neutral as it sounds. It is a high-octane religion of its own, imposed on Christians at their own expense. These high priests of ultimate American values, from kindergarten through the great graduate programs of the state universities, tell us what is politically correct. They tell us what to believe about our origins, about what is wrong with the human condition, and how to make everything right again. Those are not merely educational concepts; they are the most profound of all religious issues.
And we in the evangelical church have sat by while 85 percent of our young people are indoctrinated with such alien theologies. We wring our hands as we watch more and more of our young people forsake the faith of their fathers. We wince every time another poll tells us how little different our kids are from those of the public at large. But why should we be surprised, when they are all basically products of the same system?
I'm thankful for the valiant fight in recent years of faithful conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention, in my own denomination, and elsewhere in the ecclesiastical structures of various churches. Those were battles that had to be fought. It's sobering, though, to realize that the enemy may be doing his worst damage on an altogether different front.
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