The Belt Buckle – that is what the city of Atlanta used to be in the Bible Belt. Churches were thriving, preachers were preaching, the lost were repenting. But something happened. The Belt Buckle developed a great big hole. The church moved to the suburbs. When you think of Baptist churches in Atlanta, you think FBC Woodstock, Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, Hebron, FBC Atlanta, North Metro FBC, and maybe some others. What you will find with those churches is that they share one thing in common, they are all OTP – Outside the Perimeter.
ITP is a different story. The Christian Index, our Georgia Baptist newspaper, reported the following information in an article from July of 2008…
In 1980 the Atlanta population inside the Perimeter was 725,094 and there were 88 functioning Georgia Baptist churches reaching 12 percent of the population. One out of every eleven residents was a member of one of the Atlanta GBC churches. In 1980 these churches were baptizing individuals at the rate of 43:1.
Comparatively, there are now 80 Georgia Baptist churches inside the Perimeter although the population has steadily grown to more than 836,000, a population increase of more than 13 percent in just 27 years. Only 40 of the original 88 churches are presently located inside the Perimeter.
There are many famous Baptist churches sitting ITP that have declined or died due to unwillingness to change, an embrace of liberalism, and a host of other issues. The result is a vast cosmopolitan population inside Atlanta that has limited access to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
One theologian made a statement that has haunted me this week, “The church is always one generation away from extinction.” We are seeing this every day as we watch churches die in the middle of a sea of people because they are unwilling to do what is necessary to share the Gospel with the folks that are living their lives beyond the church campus.
Ultimately, we must understand that God’s blessings in the past do not guarantee God’s blessings today. This is what we see painfully on display in 1 Samuel 19:18-24. In this startling passage, the rejected king of Israel is held in submission by the Spirit of God, naked and on the ground, while the chosen king escapes to safety. The Spirit that had once empowered Saul to lead was the same Spirit that put him in a submission hold at Ramah at the end of his career. Saul’s prior blessings were no guarantee of future ones.
Each generation must take responsibility for itself. No matter how strong the church was yesterday, it will only be as strong today as we are willing to make it. And no matter how strong the church is today, the next generation could wipe out that strength. Certainly, we must do our part to leave the next generation a healthy church, but ultimately, each subsequent generation must take responsibility for their own work – otherwise they will quietly die out due to irrelevance and no one will ever notice that they disappeared.