Dr. Alvin Reid is the Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism Professor at Southeastern. He is a student-favorite on the seminary campus as well as among many high school and college-aged students who have the privilege to hear him speak. He is an author, and we at Baptist21 wait eagerly for his co-authored book with Mark Liederbach entitled “The Convergent Church.” This guest blog we post because it hits at one of the main ideas we hope to converse about, “why we are Baptist.”
One of the more common subjects of discussions among Southern Baptists today regards those who are leaving, have left, or are considering leaving the SBC. I can sympathize to some extent. As a younger man in seminary in the 1980s, I considered the possibility as well, disillusioned by some things I had seen and heard theologically. I decided to stay, and have never regretted that.
Some who read this, particularly among my Facebook friends, may wonder what the big deal is, why it would matter whether I am a Southern Baptist, or another form of Baptist, or a Methodist or Charismatic, etc. After all, Jesus saved me from sin to become part of the Kingdom, not the local Baptist church. True enough, but while I would not put my being a Baptist on the level of being a Christian, it still matters. We all choose to be a part of this group or that because of some overarching values that guide such decisions. We should give more a little thought to something as vital to our discipleship as the tradition we serve Christ (and raise our children, for that matter). Be a little more random when it comes to your musical choices or clothing style; be a little more intentional about the church in which you live your life for Christ.
So why have I chosen to be and to remain a Southern Baptist? In particular, as a minister of the gospel, why do I choose this fellowship to serve God? Here are a few reasons. You the reader must make up your own mind about your convictions on the issue.
1. I am a Southern Baptist because I value relationships over technology.
We live in a throw away society. I have owned at least 7 laptops and probably more desktops in our family. I have lost count of how many TVs we have had. I have driven several types of automobiles. Sometimes we replace these things because they stop working. More often than not we do so because something better comes along (yes, I have a smartphone but want an iphone). We recently purchased a sweet 50” flat screen. I love watching sports on it. The other TV was fine. This one is simply better.
We throw away things in our society for better things. But more than a few confuse technology with relationships. In a throw away, consumer driven culture, too many let their attitude toward technology (an item is fine until something better comes along) bleed into other aspects of life that matter more. Today, marriages are thrown away, even in the church. Too many parents throw away their parental role, too many friends break their friendships far too easily, and too many hop from local church to local church, seeking something new and better. Too many in ministry leave their churches for poor reasons. If I had a dollar for every opportunity to go and do this or that in ministry I could retire early. And some leave the SBC because they simply want to find something better. Or they so undervalue relationships that the next better thing becomes more important than the people with whom you have shared much of life. So, is the SBC your family, or just a convenience for ministry—training, experience, etc—until something better comes along?
I will not fight for a lot of things. But I will fight for my family. I would die for my wife and kids. And I would kill for them. Really. I would. I would not die or kill for my convention. But I will fight for her. I am a debtor to many who have invested so much in my life financially (the Cooperative Program underwrote much of my educational cost), in discipleship (so many men of God have poured their lives into me), in friendships, in providing places of service. So, if the SBC is your place until something better comes along, why not just go ahead and leave? You are hardly here anyway. I just hope Jesus is not next (No I am not comparing Jesus to the SBC, don’t miss my point). I do not sit around and whine for months when my laptop is bad. I get a new one. But I am very careful about terminating relationships. And it would take more than a level of dissatisfaction to make me leave the SBC.
2. I am a Southern Baptist because of theology more than politics.
Some say they want to leave the SBC because it is nothing more than a big political organization. More than one has said, “I was once a Democrat, but the Democratic Party left me. Now, I once was a Southern Baptist, but the SBC has left me.” Maybe it’s just me, but I find it a little ironic to use a political analogy to complain about politics in the SBC ☺. Still, I can understand the concern. I once thought the SBC was drifting so leftward theologically that she was about to leave me. But a conservative resurgence gave me hope. I am a Southern Baptist because of theology. Does the political aspect bother me? Sure. I loathe it when some seem to choose personal loyalty over truth. That is a local church issue also, for we would rather not hurt someone’s feelings than tell them the truth.
A convention as large as ours must have some political aspect. Any entity this large does. But I would rather work in a system like ours to bring about change than complain about it. Someone recently said to me, “If Hillary becomes president I am leaving the US.” Fine. Go live in Somalia a while. Go move your letter to the First Baptist Church of Darfur. You will find the US a little better place to raise a family regardless of who is president (I am not voting for Hillary or Obama, don’t miss my point).
I am a Southern Baptist by conviction. Jesus got me first, but the Baptists were not far behind. I am not a Calvinist. I do not affirm a limited atonement (or particular redemption, choose your term). But I believe in the sovereignty of God, and some of my greatest heroes historically were. I know enough history to know lots of Calvinists were used of God in great awakenings. So I think there is plenty of room on the theological plateau that is the SBC for Reformed SBC people who love the Great Commission and for those who are not who also love the Great Commission. I will not let the cocky Calvinist (yes there are some) or the utilitarian pragmatist (who too easily water down the gospel for the sake of numbers) push me out. If you truly are a classical Pentecostal on the one hand or a Presbyterian on the other, you likely will never be happy as a Southern Baptist (I have plenty of friends who are Pentecostal and Presbyterian, by the way. Do not miss my point ☺). But at our best we are a theologically robust people, and there is room on the plateau for people with whom I disagree. Truth matters, and the BFM2000 forms a confession of faith I can follow, for example.
I presented a paper a few years back at New Orleans Seminary on Congregational Polity and the Great Commission. I tried to argue that for congregational polity to keep us focused on the Great Commission we must have two things: first, a core conviction about the truth of the gospel (theology). Second, a strong leader to keep us on said focus (leadership). Unfortunately a “good old boy” system can overtake bold, courageous leadership, pushing for conformity over creativity and for control over respect. I do not care if you are a liberal or a conservative, a good old boy system can warp your view of reality. Theology must drive our politics, not vice versa.
Some of you are tired of the sectarianism you see. I agree. I wonder if some have forgotten that the most famous sectarians in the New Testament were the Pharisees, whom Jesus did not really compliment (unless you think being called a white washed tomb is some new street term for cool). But I am secure enough in my convictions to work with those who embrace our fundamental beliefs, even if we disagree over other issues.
3. I am a Southern Baptist because of the God-given passion in my soul to be part of something that matters. Yes, a convention as big as ours sometimes fails to be the stewards we should. You and I can complain about the bureaucracy, the repetitive, duplicating ministry at the national, state, association, or even local church levels. It is frustrating. You want to plant a church and discover there are four or five different groups, all of whom are trying to do the same thing, and all of them turn you down. That can hardly be encouraging. I too am weary of the waste, the fat budgets and the number of people who spend as much time in ministry defending the reason for their position than actually ministering. Part of me almost wants an economic downturn to force us to refocus our priorities. But leave the SBC for that? Seriously?
I guess I could leave over that if I never found myself being wasteful. You have probably never bought a candy bar you never needed or got a credit card statement you regretted. Well, I have. I have been guilty of bad financial decisions. But I am not going to close my bank account and sell my house. I am going to try to keep learning better how to be a steward. And I will keep pushing the SBC to do the same.
Some younger ministers who want to or are leaving are GenXers. Not to be a big proponent of generational studies, but if you are not careful you will prove the pundits right. After all they call those in your generation slackers, complainers, uncooperative, cynical, relativistic, things like that. Prove the pundits wrong. Go against your generation. Have some conviction, trust some people, and work for change. Hang in there and do something that matters with others who seek to be about the same. Be part of the solution not a statistic. (I am thinking that I just made a lot of people mad. But don’t miss my point ☺).
It is ironic that we complain about money spent in the SBC when our church and personal budgets rarely reflect the kind of mission commitment we expect of the convention. But when we take a moment to see the good–the disaster relief after Katrina, the growing numbers of converts overseas, the rise in urban church planters, and so on, perhaps we can see that despite her imperfections and no small amount of waste, the SBC still makes a great deal of difference globally. Every time I walk into a classroom at Southeastern I am reminded that I am part of something that matters.
4. I am a Southern Baptist because of a sense of call to change the world, not because I am an opportunist. I know the game. I know how to shake the right hands and make the right people happy. I know the temptation to be in the “in” crowd in a community or in a convention. I get along with most folks pretty well, but I have ruffled a few feathers in my day. God did not call me to kiss the ring of any person, but to serve the Most High God. I have found I can do that just fine here. If you are a reader who is unhappy with the SBC, is your dissatisfaction over the state of the SBC because your opportunity to climb is diminished? I doubt this reason would describe many. But, the “I am going to take my ball and go home” mentality has been evident more than once to me. I am in the SBC in part because I am part of a movement that is literally touching the world. I want to change the whole world. I want to be part of that which can.
One can easily become discouraged with the programmatic ministry, the confusion between truth and style (yes, some really do think changing the worship service from a piano, organ and robed choir to a praise team is the work of the devil), and the institutionalism that often thwarts the movement of God in our time. My call to ministry was not a call to the path of least resistance or to mark time until He returns. My call is to be a part of changing the whole world with the amazing gospel. And I have found no better place to do that than as a Southern Baptist.
5. Finally, I am a Southern Baptist because I love a challenge, and these are challenging times. A close friend of mine said something in our seminary days I have never forgotten. It was the height of the conservative resurgence, when so many like us longed to see our leaders, our schools, and our agencies unapologetically affirm the Scriptures. “Alvin,” he said, “I want to tell my grandchildren that when it came time to take a stand for truth, I did so.” I agreed. And I agree.
At many levels the Southern Baptist Convention is sick. And even worse, in many circles leaders are in denial. We are in decline. We have been pathetic at evangelism in the US for a long time, not just recently. We have too often confused preference for truth in embarrassing ways. Imagine that, we are at the place where we have no hope but to trust in God to move us forward. I like that challenge. I am giving my life to the next generation, in particular those under 25. I still believe God is at work and we can turn this big old aircraft carrier toward a new horizon. I want my children and grandchildren to see the SBC as a movement of God capable of touching the globe. It is so easy simply to pack and go, to leave a church, a community, even a family. But there is so much more joy in hanging in there, watching God work, fighting for change, and knowing you were a part of that. I want to be a part of that. By no means do I think that Southern Baptists are the only Christians on the earth doing that. In fact, I have met more than a few in the SBC whose salvation I would question! But I have a sense of call, and passion, and urgency to be a part of God’s great work in this world. And I do so as a Southern Baptist.
I hope you will as well.