Maryland Southern Baptist pastor, Ralph Green, indicates in an interview at SBC Today that he and his church judiciously weighed The Gospel Project in the balances and found it wanting. Or, should I say leaning toward a Calvinistic agenda. Says Green to a question asked by Norm Miller as to why he was willing to speak publicly about the issue >>>
Well, it was already public for one reason. Second, I believe I have a responsibility to my fellow pastors and all Southern Baptists to ring the alarm bell when needed. I was alarmed at what I was reading in the Gospel Project curriculum. I want to encourage everyone not to take my word for this, though. Check it out for yourselves. See what you think. I know others have blogged about this and say they see no problem with the curriculum. But I have to wonder if they are not already Calvinists. If I were a Calvinist, I’d have nothing but positive things to say about the curriculum, too (//link)
When LifeWay first publicized the new curriculum, I checked out the website and downloaded the sample lesson to scan it. However, I was more interested in the team of writers, editors, and consultants that caught my eye since they would be putting the lessons together. What I found was incredibly disturbing. I wrote then:
First, few, if any, exceptions exist concerning the theology to which the editors and writers adhere who are preparing the Bible study curriculum for Southern Baptist congregations. In short, The Gospel Project Bible studies are overwhelmingly prepared by Calvinists. From a quick look at the names Lifeway publicized who are associated with the curriculum, one may be sure that the theological trajectory behind The Gospel Project, published by Lifeway and described as a new theologically driven study exploring the profound truths of Scripture, will be nothing short of a strong, robust Calvinism (//link)
Indeed out of the 20+ names associated with The Gospel Project as listed on the website--names at every level of involvement including advisory council, editorial, and writing--not a single name existed at that time which was not associated with strong convictional Calvinism. What is more, one member of the advisory council disdains Southern Baptist congregational polity so much, he dubbed it as being "an invention and tool of the enemy of our souls to destroy the church of Jesus Christ."1 So, LifeWay's The Gospel Project, has, on its advisory council, a member who believes our non-negotiable congregational governing polity was invented in hell to destroy the church of Jesus Christ? And, LifeWay defends this decision and expects Southern Baptists to just ignore such irresponsible decision-making which goes all the way to top-tier leadership at LifeWay?
Well, predictably not all did ignore the implications of bad executive-editorial decision-making. And, Pastor Ralph Green and his Maryland church represent at least some congregations that decided to do their own research and come to a conclusion about The Gospel Project which suited their contextual understanding and needs.2 Hence, we're appreciative of Pastor Green and wish his congregation the best in their excruciating decision.
In addition, we hope LifeWay learned a valuable lesson from its experience with the Maryland church. It simply cannot make bad decisions which inevitably breach the public trust without severe consequences. Green and the congregation trusted LifeWay implicitly and had no reason to question its material. Unfortunately, Pastor Green now expresses this policy toward LifeWay:
"I’m frustrated. I’m extremely disappointed. I feel like I’ve been deceived, and I don’t appreciate that. I will never buy another LifeWay curriculum without inspecting it from stem to stern. And you know, I shouldn’t have to work that hard on materials my own denomination produces. I don’t have time to be looking for hidden meanings. That irritates me. It bothers me that I can’t trust what LifeWay sends me" (embolden added)
While The Gospel Project advocates claim 300,000 people will be using the new literature it debuted by the year's end, it's difficult to say with accuracy how many persons will actually be using it. Presumably, the 300K represents the entire enrollment in Bible study classes. Yet just how many persons on the entire enrollment actually shows up for class sessions is another question. Furthermore, given the fact that even regular Sunday School attenders frequently take the study guides home and never pick it up until the next Sunday to bring it to Sunday School with them, how can we reasonably conclude that a full 300,000 will be studying the material when we don't know the unknown factors we've just mentioned? In short, 300K sold does not reduce to 300K studied or even used for that matter.3
Finally, even if the 300,000 number could be taken at face value indicating a true number studying the new material, that number does not indicate how many Southern Baptists are among the 300K. According to Managing Editor, Trevin Wax, "Thousands of churches from a variety of denominations and affiliations have ordered the curriculum" with General Editor, Ed Stetzer, adding "We're very pleased with how Southern Baptists have responded...we've also been surprised with how many non-SBC churches have ordered as well" (//link). Let's suppose both the 300K is a hard number of those studying the material and Southern Baptists constitute 75% of the hard number, or 225,000 subscribers to The Gospel Project. Let's suppose further that we have approximately 7.6m enrolled in Sunday School in Southern Baptist churches.4
If these numbers represent an approximate scenario, then The Gospel Project material represents just over 3% of all Sunday School subscribers in the Southern Baptist Convention, hardly a reason to pass the proverbial champagne buckets. Too, given the stunning amount of advertising monies spent on The Gospel Project--monies producing barely a 3% subscriber sales rate--one wonders what motivates LifeWay to risk so much for so little return?5
Additionally, comparing The Gospel Project numbers to say, the Explore the Bible series, and one can see just how insignificant the 300,000 users are except for advertising and promotional purposes. According to Thom Rainer, approximately 100,000 adult classes used the Explore the Bible series in 2010-2011. And, given classes average about 9-10 persons present per class, that's 900,000 to 1 million adults on average using Explore the Bible. However, The Gospel Project boasts 300,000 total users--users including kids, students, and adults. In short, the only reason to tout The Gospel Project's 300K total users is for advertising purposes only. It's a commercial!
Also, consider this: apparently the usual way to speak about the use of Sunday School material is not in terms of the users (i.e. individual persons) like The Gospel Project advocates do but in terms of groups and/or classes. For example, Thom Rainer offered in his 2011 annual report to the Southern Baptist Convention several statistics on Southern Baptists' use of LifeWay material but not a single time in his report did he mention individual users of LifeWay material. Instead he spoke of classes who used various curriculum:
"Approximately 400,000 Sunday School classes assemble in Southern Baptist churches each week, with about 9-10 persons present per class on average"
"This title [Life Values] is part of the Bible Studies for Life series, which was used by about 150,000 adult and student classes who explored the same Bible text from one of the series’ eight life-stage titles, making it by far the most popular choice"
"The Explore the Bible series was used by about 100,000 adult classes each week"
"The current popular series from, Bible Teaching for Kids, will continue to be offered. Some of the current 100,000-plus preschool and children’s classes using that series may adopt the new series..." (The 2011 Annual of the Southern Baptist Convention, pp. 172-173; all emphasis added)6
Hence, to suggest that The Gospel Project's 300,000 users is an amazing phenomenon now going into its "third printing" impresses very few when they peel back the veneer and see the promotional hype designed to make sales. It means nothing (at least yet) as to Southern Baptists' desire for such a material nor speaks to its quality as a Bible study series. Nor does 300,000 users address whether or not there exists a visible Calvinistic bias in the material. At least one church is on public record stating that, from their perspective, there exists an unhealthy Calvinistic bias in The Gospel Project. Predictably, more churches will conclude similarly either publicly or privately. After all, what could one legitimately expect from a strategic literary-production team made up entirely of strongly convictional Calvinists? I think most of us know the obvious answer to that simple question.
Other churches on the other hand will surely conclude either no unhealthy bias exists, or if it is present, the quality of the material more than suffices for any Calvinistic "bias" which might be detected. After all, Calvinists have a rich theological presence within our Southern Baptist heritage, do they not? Hence, they may conclude a bit of Calvinistic bias remains irrelevant. So, for local church decisions of all Southern Baptist churches concerning Bible study curriculum albeit different, the "demonic" congregational polity alleged to be "inspired in hell" by at least one strategically involved leader for The Gospel Project will be put to good Baptist use.
Once again, thanks to Ralph Green for his courageous words in "going public" with a decision his church made to return LifeWay's The Gospel Project, a new Bible study resource they were originally excited to use at all levels in their Sunday School but, after careful scrutiny, changed their mind. We also tip our hat, so to speak, to SBC Today for posting the interview with Pastor Green which, I must confess, lends credibility to concerns I publicized when the material debuted earlier this year, concerns centering on LifeWay's obvious, strategic recruitment of almost all strong Calvinists to produce, from beginning to end, the new material called The Gospel Project.
1The Gospel Project advisory council member who wrote his diatribe against historic Baptist church polity is Dr. James MacDonald, founder of a church-planting ministry called Harvest Bible Fellowship. MacDonald's piece entitled "Congregational Government is from Satan" appeared in June, 2011. Boyce College professor, Denny Burk, offered a critique of MacDonald's anti-congregational views as did others (here).
2completely overlooking Pastor Green's repeated, explicit statements indicating he was speaking only for himself and his congregation, encouraging others to "not to take my word for this" but to "Check it out for yourselves," some strict Calvinist bloggers like Chris Roberts, Mark Lamprecht, and Josh Breland treated Green as if he were not only a theological moron, but Josh Breland, a young college student at Louisiana College in Pineville, Louisiana, went so far as to frivolously imply Green's studied conclusion concerning LifeWay's new cirriculum was equivalent to bringing "charges of sin" against LifeWay and its leadership. The careless ease in displaying moral ignorance in the public square still stuns me I have to admit. One cannot even criticize Sunday School material and mark an entity's decision as "bad" or even regretful without getting accused of bringing "charges of sin" against the entity and its leadership. What is more, as indicated above, Pastor Green repeatedly suggested no one take his word for it but to do their own homework on the matter. Clearly, says he:
"My perceptions of the curriculum are exactly that: my perceptions. If a few want to condemn me for my perceptions, that’s on them. While I believe there are some black and white evidences of Calvinism on the pages of TGP, I say again that Southern Baptists ought not take my word for it. They should do the research for themselves."
In the face of this open, clear admission that he was offering his perceptions and only his perceptions, anti-traditional SBC Calvinists like Roberts, Lamprecht, and Breland offer detailed rebuttals to Green as if Green was making a formal case as to why everybody else ought to dodge The Gospel Project and come to the identical conclusion as did he and his church. They meticulously suppose numerous "logical fallacies" Green allegedly committed in offering extremely brief answers to specific questions in an interview format and proceed to rebut each alleged "logical fallacy." Nevertheless, to attempt to criticize a Q/A interview format in the same way one would criticize a reasoned literary piece, the purpose of which is to lay out, in formal fashion, a case for a particular point of view, is so fundamentally skewed, it remains difficult to believe educated men would actually publish such critical rubbish with their names attached. Not even the college student would have missed this had he paid attention in English 101.
Indeed one blogger (apparently unaffiliated with Southern Baptists) was so obsessed in showing off his wikepedia-type knowledge of "logical fallacies," he listed no less than 20 supposed fallacies Pastor Green made in his brief Q/A session with Norm Miller (by the way, all three anti-traditional SBC Calvinists named above linked to this blogger apparently as a model of "reasonable" critique). Here is the stark reality: nothing will count as verifiable evidence for Calvinistic bias in The Gospel Project material so far as anti-traditional SBC Calvinists are concerned. If knowing that virtually 100% of the team producing the curriculum will not even suggest the possibility of Calvinist bias much less the probability of bias, then there's little point in attempting to satisfy their unquenchable thirst for evidence which meets their standard as evidence. About all one may expect in return, among other really "intelligent" responses, are--"Red Herring!" "Begging the question!" "Strawman!" "Slippery slope!" "False dichotomy!" "Bandwagon!" "Cum Hoc!" "Weak analogy!" "Tu Quoque!"
Of course, from my perspective, this puts strong, convictional Calvinists in a precarious situation. If, as anti-traditional SBC Calvinists apparently presume, strong Calvinism displays no marked theological difference in the interpretation of biblical soteriology than strong, convictional non-Calvinism--or perhaps even "Semi-Pelagianism" (see my response to Roberts' and others hopeless polemical errors here)--a curious presumption concerning The Gospel Project material, then what is all the theological fuss lamenting the waning of strict Calvinism in the convention? If a strong convictional Calvinism cannot be theologically detected, then why should we even be concerned with Calvinism? What is more, are we to believe that when strong, convictional Calvinists write, they sound precisely like strong, convictional non-Calvinists or "Arminians" as anti-traditional SBC Calvinists like to dub them? Are there no real differences between Calvinists and "Arminians"? Suggesting there are no visible theological differences seems to be the implication coming from anti-traditional SBC Calvinists like Roberts, Lamprecht, and Breland pertaining to The Gospel Project producers. Even so, for me, this constitutes little less than pure nonsense and serves as one more piece of evidence that double-talk exists all-too-often in our "Reformed" brothers' camp.
3And, yes, this goes for all SS materials no matter who writes it or produces it. It's just a dynamic of small groups. In addition, I do not fault LifeWay for using the 300K as a promotional number, a perfectly legitimate tool for advertising purposes. However, when advocates attempt to exploit the 300K as evidence it is a "raving success" it needs to be pointed out that the 300K is for advertising purposes and should not be taken at face value
4the 7.6 million is actually taken from the 2011 SBC Annual (p.124)
5presently one can hardly receive any brochure from LifeWay that does not have The Gospel Project splattered across the front page or in a very prominent location. In addition, Lifeway "wined and dined" (i.e. a simple figure of speech not to be taken literally) several bloggers after it was revealed that the entire strategic-literary production team were strong Calvinists. Nor to my knowledge were any of the bloggers given airfare, meals, and hotel expense all courtesy of LifeWay who were not already sympathetic to LifeWay's project
6I also note with interest that though several future projects were mentioned for release in 2012, Dr. Rainer never mentioned The Gospel Project in his report. I find this entirely strange since The Gospel Project appears to be the chief promotional pursuit so far as LifeWay curriculum is concerned. Yet The Gospel Project does not appear to be on the radar in the 2011 annual report. Why?