Southern Baptists held their annual convention in Pittsburgh, PA during June 1983. That year the Baptist Association of Southwestern Pennsylvania had fifty-three churches, church plants and home churches. The 2017 directory for our association lists fifty-three churches, church plants and home churches. A record of zero net growth over thirty-four years.
During those three-plus decades’ hundreds-of-thousands of dollars were spent, countless mission teams came and went, strategies were implemented then replaced with new ones and churches were planted. Some flourished while others quietly passed. Denominational workers, pastors and lay-leaders thoughtfully and prayerfully guided the association to the best of their abilities.
So, after investing all these efforts, skills and resources, why has Southwest PA Baptist life languished in stagnation? I believe the answer may be discovered in the Lord’s response to the Pharisee’s test to name the great commandment. “And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.'” (Matt. 22:37-40) The first addresses our vertical relationship. How believers are to respond to God. The second instructs us on our horizontal relationships. How we’re to respond to others. This passage contains the New Testament ethic for Christian behavior. It is the starting point for living right with God among people in need. It is Christ’s second imperative that challenges us the most. But I believe it holds the key to breaking our cycle of stagnation.
Jesus inextricably binds love for the Lord our God with loving activity toward our neighbors. To love God with all our heart, soul and mind necessitates taking loving action toward those of the church and anyone who needs our help. To neglect the second is biblically unethical. We cannot be right with God and disconnected from serving our neighbors in need.
If expanding the number of churches in Southwestern Pennsylvania is not simply a question of adding more resources … we have a history of strong resourcing … is it then a matter of every church, church plant and home church being more intentional about loving their neighbors? Please understand that I am not pointing a finger at anyone or any church. I failed to lead my church in neighborly love far too long. And the result was … you guessed it … stagnation. Since refocusing our efforts on moving from the pews (yes, we still have them) to the pavement through prayer-walking and community service among some of the toughest neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, the Lord is graciously renewing our church.
Lord, help us if after thirty-four more years this area has only fifty-three gatherings. Something is missing and times is passing. I kindly encourage you to love your neighbor as yourself. It’s what ethical churches do.