Third Generation Conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention, Part 2

steve-mckGuest Blog by Steven A. McKinion
You can read the first part of this post

In the previous article I attempted to identify distinctives of a segment of third generation SBC conservatives.  In this article I will explain some ways in which those distinctives are the result of the influences of first and second generation conservatives.

The first generation of Southern Baptist conservatives includes theologians and pastors such as Paige Patterson, Adrian Rogers, Bailey Smith, Jerry Vines, and Charles Stanley, among many others.  Churches such as First Baptist, Dallas; Bellevue Baptist in Memphis; and First Baptist, Atlanta, are examples of first generation influencers.  Thousands of first generation churches preached the gospel faithfully, and held tenaciously to the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture.  This generation of SB conservative faithfully passed on to the next generation the distinctives of Southern Baptist faith and practice.  They are more than influences, they are heroes, rightly, to many of us, and should not be forgotten.

Second generation conservatives such as Danny Akin, Ken Whitten, Ken Hemphill, James Merritt, and current SBC president Johnny Hunt among others, received the mantel from first gens and ran with it.  They continued to embrace Baptist distinctives and to practice gospel-centered ministry guided by a firm commitment to inerrancy and the Great Commission.  Through their churches, their conferences, and their personal influence, they have helped shape the third generation of conservatives identified in the first part of this series.

Together, first and second gens paved the way for the current generation of conservatives.  Upon reflection, I believe there are five ways in which first and second generation conservatives influenced the current, third generation of Southern Baptist conservatives:

  • They cooperated with non-Baptists for the progress of the Gospel.  The most obvious manner of this cooperation was in Billy Graham crusades.  Though a long-time Southern Baptist, Graham’s crusades were never Baptist events.  His strategy was to be broadly ecumenical for the good of the Gospel.  The “counselors” who handled follow-up at the crusades and afterwards were from nearly every Christian denomination represented in a particular city.  By being active participants in, and supporters of, the ministry of Billy Graham, first and second gens taught the next generation the importance of partnering for the sake of the Gospel, and not simply for denominational gain.  Proponents of a strict separationism, such as John R. Rice and the Sword of the Lord fundamentalists warned against cooperating with ministries like Billy Graham crusades, believing such participation was ecumenism.  First and second gens considered that level of ecumenism to be acceptable, as it was for the good of the Gospel.  In their churches they participated in Evangelism Explosion, the evangelism tool created by James Kennedy, a Presbyterian.  Third gens who now participate in movements such as Together for the Gospel, the Gospel Coalition, and Acts 29, consider themselves to be following in the footsteps of those who bussed them to Billy Graham crusades and Christian music concerts so they and their friends could hear the Gospel and become Christians.
  • They cooperated with nonBaptists for social concerns.  First and second gens were serious about pro-life matters.  An example they regularly, and rightly, gave to SB churches illustrating the need for a Conservative Resurgence was the more liberal positions taken by the Christian Life Commission during the 1970s (see Barry Hankins, Uneasy in Babylon and Jerry Sutton, Baptist Reformation for a more expansive survey of the pro-life cause within the CR).  Conservatives cooperated with other groups, including pro-life Roman Catholics, in support of pro-life causes.  James Dobson, himself a Nazarene, and his Focus on the Family published literature used in countless conservative SB churches.  The primary sources of information in support of these social concerns, in fact, were not Southern Baptists, or even Baptists at all.  First gen conservatives saw a difference between partnering in social and political causes and partnering for the Gospel.  The even broader ecumenism of first and second gens when it came to social issues, particularly that of protecting the lives of unborn children, trumped denominationalism.  Third gens continue to see friends outside of Baptist life with whom they can partner for social causes.
  • They placed diminishing emphasis on the moniker “Baptist.”  First generation Baptist churches wore the label “Baptist” proudly.  Many of these churches had tag lines that said, “A Southern Baptist Church,” highlighting the particular brand of Baptist they were.  With second gens this began to change, and change quickly.  One example was the “exciting” church movement of the late 1980s.  Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, MS (where, incidentally, I was baptized), became simply, “Exciting Morrison Heights.”  Ditto for “Exciting North Mobile,” and “Exciting Idlewild.”  Though not dropping Baptist entirely from their official name, their signage emphasized the exciting, and all but erased the “Baptist.”  Many second gen churches did erase the name Baptist from their church signs.  A second gen president of the Southern Baptist Convention, James Merritt, pastors Cross Pointe Church after a long tenure at First Snellville.  In 1998, first and second gens changed the name of the Baptist Sunday School Board to LifeWay Christian Resources.  Baptist Book Stores all became LifeWay Stores.  This pattern can be seen in third gen pastors such as Matt Chandler and J.D. Greear, who led Southern Baptist churches to rebrand themselves without a “Baptist” moniker.  Third gen SBs value the distinctives that make them Baptist, but have little regard for the name, “Baptist”; a practice they see in the second generation conservatives as well.
  • They read and promoted non-Southern Baptist thinkers.  Real Evangelism Conferences in the 1980s and 1990s featured, among others, John MacArthur.  MacArthur’s expositional preaching, Calvinist theology, and elder-led ecclesiology all influenced second and third generation Southern Baptists.  By promoting preachers like MacArthur, Chuck Swindoll, and James Montgomery Boice, first gens pointed those who followed to men outside Baptist life who exemplified faithful Gospel ministry.  These men were gospel-centered inerrantists who model fidelity to the Bible and Jesus Christ.  Even eventual Southern Baptists such as David Jeremiah and Jerry Falwell were featured preachers before joining the fold.  First gens also read and promoted Carl F. H. Henry and Francis Schaeffer, non-Southern Baptists.  They encouraged their students to read F.F. Bruce, Don Carson, and other conservative Bible scholars who were not Southern Baptist, exposing the minds of young pastors to these influences.  Third gens continue to read these men, along with others such as Richard Wells, Len Sweet, John Piper, and, now, Mark Driscoll, and desire to learn from them what may aid them in their own ministerial contexts.
  • They did youth ministry separate from Baptist life.  First generation churches perfected the art of non-denominational youth ministry.  Whether that meant going to a Power Team crusade, having non-Baptists speak at State evangelism conferences, featuring a celebrity athlete at a revival, or inviting non-Baptist Contemporary Christian musical groups to give concerts, second gens, like me, grew up never hearing that being “Baptist” was of great importance.  Instead, speakers exhorted second and third gens to be Christians, not to be Baptists.  Teenagers in conservative Southern Baptist churches were not taught what it meant to be a Baptist, they were taught what it meant to be a Christian.  Discipleship Training classes for teens covered topics like drinking, drugs, sex, and dating, not denominational concerns.  The music in youth services of first generation churches was exciting and culturally appropriate.  Youth ministries in first gen churches did not sing from hymnbooks accompanied by the organ.  Instead, there were drums, electric guitars, and guys with long hair leading the latest Al Denson or Vineyard praise song.  When these teenagers grew up, they expected more of the same.  And they got it; just not in the churches that had produced them.  Pastors like John Dees and Ron Sylvia have gone on to leave their first gen churches where they did youth ministry in order to plant third gen churches in the same city.  The churches current third gen pastors plant or serve have the same values as their youth ministries that produced them: theological integrity, biblical fidelity, cultural relevance, and intellectual honesty.

Third generation conservative Southern Baptist pastors, missionaries, and other leaders, are the products of the two generations of conservatives who preceded them.  They saw the leaders of the Conservative Resurgence partner with non-Baptists for the progress of the Gospel and for social concerns, and they emulate them in their own networks and associations.  Third gens learned to read great theologians and scholars, and to listen to non-Baptist expositors by observing their two generations ahead of them.  They saw their pastors remove “Baptist” from the name of their church and the entire SBC overwhelmingly support removing Baptist from the name of its publishing house, and they did the same in their own churches.  First generation youth ministries were gospel-centered and authentic.  They used technology and new music.  Second gen pastors and youth ministers followed this same path.  Now, third generation conservatives continue this model of gospel-centered, authentic ministry.  Ironically, third gens are Baptist in their faith and practice because they believe and do what they have learned from their influences.  They do not believe and act because they are Baptist, they are Baptist because of what they believe and do.  This may be what is at the heart of some ongoing conflicts among various third generation groups.  Some may see Baptist identity as the means to faithful biblical faith and practice, while others may see faithful Christian life and practice resulting in a Baptist identity.  Perhaps the question is really of the chicken-and-egg variety.  But that discussion must wait.