The 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.