SBC21: The Duties and Dangers of This Present Hour — Part 1

sbc21-scopeThe Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) originally started, among a variety of factors both positive and negative, to “propagate the Gospel.” We began as a denomination of churches working together to spread the gospel without violating the autonomy of each local church. We eventually, through various developments, began cooperating to send missionaries, plant churches, train ministers, and engage in many other causes. Baptist 21 believes that this original intention should be the vision for the SBC in the 21st century, and we fear that it is in danger. Our vision for the SBC is the greater cooperation of biblically and theologically grounded churches to fulfill the Great Commission. That’s it. This means churches cooperating together (at different levels) to train ministers to plant churches and win people to Jesus locally, nationally, and internationally.

This post is the beginning of a series for Baptist 21 that will seek to explain how the SBC might be able to multiply cooperation and increase effectiveness in the 21st century. This series will focus on what we have learned from our past that will propel this vision. We will focus on the dangers in the present that threaten the vision, and we will conclude by charting a course for the future that could make the vision a reality. The goal is a multitude of theologically grounded, healthy local churches fulfilling the Great Commission in cooperation with one another.

Our fear is that this picture is in danger presently in the SBC. There are several trends within the convention that are causing many to question the direction of the convention and its future effectiveness. There are certainly positive trends such as sending out more missionaries and seeing more students enrolled in our seminaries than ever before. But there are also negative trends.

  1. One trend is that attendance and baptisms are in decline (see research by Ed Stetzer). Quite simply, if the purpose of the convention is seeing more people worshiping Jesus, then we are failing.
  2. Participation in the annual meeting is in decline. There is a generation gap in terms of participation, leadership, etc. in the SBC, even though there are record numbers of young men and women being trained for gospel ministry, which is concerning to many.
  3. Some perceive a widening division within the SBC between two groups. This risks caricaturizing, but the basic issue is a smaller tent versus a bigger tent in terms of cooperation. There are likely other trends as well that cause many to be skeptical about the future of the SBC.

Where do these trends stem from? There are a variety of factors that threaten the SBC.

  1. There is pressure to compromise with the culture. We are at war with the spirits of the age, and the churches/people of the SBC are biblically called to be counter-cultural. This does not mean somehow recapturing the culture of the 1950’s. It means being a counter-cultural light in the darkness that does and views marriage, sex, family, money, relationships, vocation, etc. differently than the larger culture as a loving invitation to that larger culture to come to Jesus. Some of the cultural pressures that threaten the SBC and cause us to compromise are: gender confusion, eradication of roles in family and church, skepticism towards revealed truth, relativism, materialism (unprecedented prosperity for Americans, including Southern Baptists), increased secularism, and many others.
  2. To quote Vance Havner, the SBC is “like a cat drowning in cream.” We have become big and fat. There is a huge bureaucracy in the SBC causing much logjam. This bureaucracy often distracts the SBC from its main task. Reform is desperately needed, but those who are feeding off of the system will be unlikely to reform it. This problem shows up in all sorts of areas like the giving/keeping of CP funds by certain bodies, the allocation of CP funds, maintaining of status quo, viewing numbers as the only measurement of success, rising questions about the effectiveness or possible outdated-ness of local associations and state conventions, unnecessary denominational positions and the like. This bureaucracy allocates funds often away from the primary (original) task of the SBC, which is missions and church planting. We have quite simply lost our focus and become institutionalized.
  3. Political in-fighting. Instead of squarely facing the enemies of this present age that are pushing the culture (see above), we are pointing our guns at each other. There seems to be little charity and much distrust. There is little unity and teamwork. The theologians rail on the pastors who are labeled “pragmatists.” The pastors rail on the theologians who they label “out of touch” and unevangelistic. Non-Calvinists and Calvinists alike take aim at each other. Traditional takes aim at innovative. Innovative takes aim at traditional. In Philippians 1:15-18 Paul writes, Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from good will: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice.” Paul does not just say that he disagrees methodologically with these guys. Paul actually attributes sinful motives to them, and yet he can still be grateful that the gospel is preached. Yet, we rarely rejoice over the gospel ministry of others because of something as petty as wearing jeans or playing drums. Many want to attack rather than rejoice.
  4. Weak theology and legalistic, straight-jacket theology threatens our convention. Weak theology is evident in the incapability of our people to think with a biblical worldview, and this stems from pulpits where “tips for living life” are more important than biblical truth. Our SBC pastors sound too much like Fosdick and not enough like Peter. In many of our churches the gospel is good enough to sing weekly, but apparently not good enough to preach weekly. Straight-jacket theology is evident in extra tests for orthodoxy that go beyond the BF&M 2000. This kind of theology wants to elevate preferences to first tier theological issues.
  5. There is a lack of communication as to how the SBC works. Some operate as if the SBC is a hierarchy that is top down in structure. Autonomy is not understood. There are no “powers that be” that can stop a local church from a certain method or strategy that they deem biblical in reaching people for Christ.
  6. One major problem is that the local church is no longer seen as primary. The SBC in many ways functions as a para-church ministry that does the ministry the church was created to do, instead of being a tool that aids local churches in fulfilling the task its King originally assigned to it.

Despite these challenges Baptist 21 is hopeful that the SBC will thrive in its mission in the 21st century and beyond. This is possible if the various entities and groups, but mainly the local churches and their leadership, embrace a common vision for the future. Baptist 21 would like to lay out what that vision of the future might look like, and what we need to include for our mission to be viable in the 21st century.

Part 2 of this introduction will give the outline for the rest of this series…The title of this series, while capturing the essence of the series, is an homage to our Southern Baptist heritage. E.Y. Mullins’ delievered a talk at the 1923 Southern Baptist Convention that bears the same title. We are grateful for our heritage and those that have passed down the gospel to us.

Comments 0

  1. SBC21 thanks for a great blog post.

    All of your points rightly mark the problems in the SBC, but points #2 and #6 underscore that the convention has left God’s ordained purpose of accomplishing His work through the local church in the world. In my personal estimation for there to be true biblical reform in the SBC the convention structure as we know it must be dismantled or we must lead our churches out of the convention.

  2. Of course my above comment is assuming that we all agree that the top priority for biblical reform is the recovery of the gospel and the sufficiency and authority of the scriptures in our churches. But again it seems that the convention structure works against such reform.

  3. James,

    I’m gonna have to disagree with you a little. Are you saying that any cooperation of multiple churches in a task is not biblical? What structure would you rebuild if we dismantled? Our aim at b21 is not to encourage less cooperation. We want more. The beauty of the sbc is that it doesn’t violate local church autonymy.

  4. Jonakin,

    I apologize for not being clearer in what I wrote. I am NOT against our churches cooperating together. We need our churches to work together and I believe it is healthy for churches to cooperate, it is biblical. But biblical or historic Baptist cooperation has been lost, the SBC has become like the US federal government.

    >>What structure would you rebuild if we dismantled?

    Something that looks much more like our Baptist associations before 1900. It would be something that is very local church driven.

  5. Excellent article on the dangers that the SBC currently faces. My greatest fear is that many will turn a blind eye to the warning signs you cited above (Declining baptisms, membership, and annual meeting participation). I believe it is time for everyone, both young and old, to check our guns at the door and have a honest conversation about the future.

    I recently returned from a tour of the IMB and ILC with my church. While I agree that the SBC is becoming too bureaucratic in many ways, we cannot sit idly by and let this infighting destroy many of the blessings that we have (such as the International Mission Board). We should not be silent when we see the future of these entities threatened nor should we dismiss the years of sweat and blood that was shed to help build some of the greatest training centers and agencies for the propagation of the Gospel.

    I think one of the greatest questions we need to ask is where will the SBC be in 20 years? For when we realize the dark future that awaits if we do not change the current course, maybe we will turn our focus to the real threat that awaits…

  6. “There are no ‘powers that be’ that can stop a local church from a certain method or strategy that they deem biblical in reaching people for Christ.”

    True, but those powers that be can stop a local church from sending one of their own to the mission field through the IMB.

    It’s not like the BF&M 2000 was formed by a Baptist association and then other Baptist associations took notice and adopted it as their own and then state conventions took notice and adopted it as their own and then finally the national convention took notice and adopted it as their own.

    That would have been going “up” from the more grassroots level.

    The BF&M 2000 was adopted “first” at the national level and then has somewhat, but not absolutely flowed down to the state, associational, and local level.

    That IS flowing from the top down. And advocating that further is not advocating any kind of resurgence since a resurgence is, by definition, something that rises.

    It’s trickle down doctrinomics.

    God Bless,


    P.S. It’s sad that preaching 1 Cor. 12:13 from the “ESV” translation could possibly keep someone from the mission field through the IMB.

  7. Luke,

    I’m really not trying to be overly negative but if these entities are so wonderful at training others for the propagating of the gospel, why are we presently trying to recover the gospel in the SBC? If these entities are so helpful to our churches why are so many of our churches in such poor condition?

    This also gets back to my original point (see post above), the bible is very clear that the church is the greatest training center and agency for propagating the gospel, it is not the IMB or some extra biblical entity. The conservative resurgence has yet to embrace the sufficiency of the Scriptures.

    I believe the Scriptures teach that the churches of Christ are to cooperate in accomplishing God’s purposes, but our current SBC structure is not the answer. Al Mohler has made the statement that one day he hopes that the churches put the SBTS out of business, because he believes that ultimately pastoral training is to take place in the local church. And I believe if our local churches become serious about the spread of the gospel to the nations we can do more than any bureaucratic SBC entity has ever dreamed.

  8. James,

    Question:have you been trained in an sbc entity? Have ministers you’ve learned from and served with been trained in sbc entities?

    I’m not saying our entities are perfect and I certainly don’t think my theology is flawless. But who and what I am and believe about the gospel has been greatly influenced by our entities. So I wouldn’t say they are failing. I think exciting things are happening in terms of gospel recovery.

    As far as what you’re saying about the primacy of the local church I could not agree with you more. This series will address these isues largely. That’s what we are driving for. But here’s part of the problem: we’ve had theologically weak pulpits and churches. The unhealthiness of a large number of churches has contributed to the problem. That’s why we need to plant many more healthy churches and revitalize established ones.

  9. Luke,

    I think you are right in that we need to ask “where” the SBC will be in “20 years,” or maybe even 10. I believe those questions are being asked by the B21 guys and others. This is a good thing, no doubt. The problem is not that there is a “blind-eye” that is being turned towards the problems we face. No, the problem is that there are more than a couple opinions as to how the ship gets aimed in the right direction.

    You have the Baptist Identity guys, the Great Commission Resurgence guys, the Calvinist, Non-Calvinist, and probably a few more groups that all have opinions. There is little consenus on how to move forward.

    I am no theologian like the writers of this blog and many others. I simply read all I can on the issue, and as many blogs and articles from people on various sides of the aisle. There can be no honest denial of the fact that there is little unity right now.

    Luke brings up an interesting point. The BF&M 2000. What is its role? Is it a minimal document or a maximal document? Peter Lumpkins, Bart Barber, and others would be on one side while Wade Burrelson (misspelled I think) and others on another side. This creates tension when we start looking to appoint missionaries and when it comes to credentials committees. We need to determine what role the BF&M will play.

    There are so many other issues that it would be hard to address them here. With such a large convention and a plethora of opinions, open and honest dialogue (with our guns left at home) is the only way forward. Baptist 21, I think, is an attempt to open those communication channels.

  10. James,

    I believe that we need to restore power to the churches. In my opinion, a large disconnect has developed between churches and many of our entities. For example, instead of doing missions ourselves, we can just send money to the Lottie Moon offering and instead of training up promising young men, we let the seminaries take care of it. We do need churches to be involved and active in all of the areas where we currently have entities.

    The Bible does not explicitly mention a denominational structure including things like the IMB or a seminary. However, it does not mean that such organizations are wrong. I know of very few churches that can provide missionary support or training that is close to what the IMB offers. Furthermore, I know that my home church could not educate me the way that our seminaries can.

    As for the absence of the gospel? I would not fault the entities themselves for this, but the individual churches. Perhaps in the past some of the entities contributed to this, I really can’t say without research. However, what I do know is that I am currently in a sermon delivery class here at SEBTS and I know our professor constantly exhorts us to have our sermons point to Christ and to have a gospel-focus. If we preach a sermon that is not gospel-centered, we will be “called out” in front of the class. At least here at SEBTS, I feel students and professors are constantly talking about the gospel and how it is central to every aspect of life.

  11. Jonathan,

    I agree that many are starting to see the problem and talk about it. Based on my observations, I am not sure that the average church is concerned about the decline and future of the SBC. I think that if the churches were concerned then there would be higher attendance at the Convention each year.

    I wonder if we actually all agree on the future of the SBC. From my little exposure to the different groups, I see different views on what the focus of the SBC should be. Some groups believe that we need to focus more on doctrinal integrity, some want more of a clearly defined identity, others want more cooperation for the sake of the Great Commission. Now that I have reflected more on this issue, I wonder if we might need to identify the essentials that each of these groups can agree on and move from there. All of the groups might say that they agree on the Great Commission, but what exactly does that mean for each of these sub-groups?

    I do agree that Baptist21 is addressing and discussing these issues which is why I have begun reading and interacting with this blog. I am very grateful the questions they are asking and answering.

    BTW, I think you bring up a very interesting point about the BFM 2000

Leave a Reply