It’s been a while since I posted on Southern Baptist life. It is not that I have become uninterested in all things SBC but that my blog focus has focused mostly on the gospel and church-related issues. I’d like to offer a few personal reflections for what they’re worth as I know many others will be doing the same in the coming days.
Changes from 2008-2013
I have been attending the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention for 5 years, which is not a long time. Yet, there is much that has changed in this short period of time. In 2008, there were numerous motions against Acts 29, Mark Driscoll, and Calvinism. In 2013, not one motion or resolution was against Acts 29 or Calvinism. In fact, NAMB and Acts 29 were on the same IX Marks stage encouraging one another in planting gospel-centered churches. AND the Calvinism Advisory Committee produced a healthy and constructive document which has changed the tone of the convention regarding this controversial issue. Instead of talking about one another, Calvinists and non-Calvinists are talking to one another and standing shoulder to shoulder (differences notwithstanding) in a spirit of voluntary cooperation forwarded by meaningful theological consensus. In fact, I did not hear one derogatory statement about Calvinists the entire time in Houston (Louisiana College excluded). These changes are no small thing.
Additionally, the two leading topics last year were the name change/descriptor and the “Traditionalist” statement. Interestingly enough, I did not hear one reference to either of them this year. The term “Great Commission Baptist”, for all the attention it drew last year, did not merit a passing nod on the platform (or in any of the auxiliary conversations/discussion). The Traditionalist statement, which was an attempt to give positive description to the term “non-Calvinist” has not garnered support or convention attention outside the SBC blogosphere. Like the Memphis Declaration and Joshua Convergence of 2005-2006, it appears that this will not have enduring significance.
Where Are All the Messengers?
What stood out to so many in Houston was that so few were actually there. We are in megachurch capitol of the world. We are in a state with the most Southern Baptist churches. We are in a region of the country where the highest percentage of Southern Baptist pastors could make it in a day’s drive. And yet, we had the second lowest number of messengers in 50 years (around 5,100 messengers). I asked several folks about this and was given various reasons. Some think this is a sign of health. Remove the problems, there’s no need to go to the doctor. The lack of controversy means lack of a crowd. This view sees the annual meeting like surgery room, where the conventions “exorcises” its demons. Others agreed by arguing that, when there’s strong trust with leadership and satisfaction with the ways things are being done, there’s no need to show up for a business meeting. Just get on with it, and keep moving forward.
For others, however, the small attendance signals alarming concern. Does this mean that Southern Baptists show up for controversy but not cooperation? Does the crazy uncle resolution register more attention than the 133 unreached people groups newly contact through our missionaries? Are Southern Baptists becoming increasingly ambivalent about the convention (at least not enough to merit giving a week to travel to the annual meeting)?
There’s no secret that readers here know I’m a Calvinist. In 2008, Calvinists were 10% of the SBC. In 2013, it is more than 30%. Yet, I would argue that the Reformed “tribe” is finding their identity and cooperation around theological affinity, not in denominational life. Therefore, you have 8,000 show up for T4G where it is argued close to 2/3 (6,000) are Southern Baptist pastors (most of whom are under the age of 40). In addition to this shift of identity from denominational to affinity, the older generation (over 65) who had attended the 45,000 messenger annual meetings are either dying off or physically unable to attend. So the younger generation are excluded for philosophical reasons while the older generations are excluded for physical reasons. And this leaves us the remnant, I believe, of the 5,000 messengers we saw this weekend. Any way the statistics are spun, the fact that are a convention of 46,000 churches and supposedly 16 million members with so few (5,000) actively participating in its annual meeting is worth nothing.
Denominational Entity Health
When people ask me why I participate (and simply care about) in the SBC, I go first to missions and theological education. And Southern Baptists have good reason to be encouraged by the IMB and NAMB and the work of their newly appointed leadership. In recent months, NAMB disaster relief has demonstrated the value and impact of cooperating Southern Baptists in West, TX and Moore, OK as they were seriously impacted by disaster. This is a reminder that we are not simply about gospel proclamation but also gospel demonstration–meeting the needs of people spiritually and physically.
This year, the baton was passed at ERLC with Russell Moore replacing Richard Land, and we have good reason to believe this will result in faithful, gospel-commending representation on key cultural and political issues affecting Southern Baptists. As for theological education, one of our smaller seminaries, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, has a new seminary president with Jason Allen. Already Jason has made a significant impact on the vision, mission, and perception of this school. Skepticism has given way to optimism through his strong leadership over this school. I attended the SEBTS luncheon, where I heard more of the record-breaking results of enrollment in school and engagement on the field. All of this this is a good sign of entity health.
LifeWay Transformation and Impact
Perhaps the most significant and positive change I’ve seen in the past five years is LifeWay. Before, I considered them as a publishing company of Sunday School curriculum and resources. Now I seem them on the cutting edge of assisting Great Commission churches on training leaders, making disciples, and planting churches. Their curriculum is more theological robust and gospel-centered than ever, and they are publishing books that I actually want to buy and read (many of them actually). Our local church is benefiting from The Gospel Project, Transformational Church/Discipleship Assessments, Ministry Grid, and numerous practical books. LifeWay is a Christian powerhouse with financial and personnel capital being leveraged for the good of the local church. Big props to Thom Rainer and his team for what they are doing for Southern Baptist churches and beyond.
Questions and Concerns for the Future
With all the good news of entity health and solid leadership from men like Frank Page, Fred Luter, et al., are there major concerns for the SBC? Gratefully, the concerns are not about inerrancy and homosexuality. Nor are they about non-essential matters that comprise most of the rancor on Tuesday morning resolutions. Here are the concerns and question that remain in my mind.
1. Will Southern Baptist become increasingly relevant to my generation? In the day of tribes, Southern Baptist don’t have brand that folks are buying. They are going to T4G, TGC, Catalyst, or Exponential. Granted, I know it is a business meeting, but Southern Baptist leaders need to find a way to re-introduce Southern Baptist life in ways that are compelling and inviting to the younger generation. Which leads to my second point.
2. I seriously think the Executive Committee of the SBC and Convention leaders should reconsider how they structure and schedule the annual meeting. Take some time to learn how other denominations are doing their national meetings. Listen to Southern Baptists and what they would like for the meeting to look like. Make Robert’s Rules less prominent and gospel stories more prominent. Make it more about celebration and less about deliberation. Let’s do business, but let’s do it in the context of a family reunion. Incentivize Southern Baptists to come by presenting a three-day meeting they could not go without. What we are doing isn’t working. If anything this annual meeting tells us, it should be that. As Stetzer says, facts are our friends. Let’s own the reality and create a new reality with a refresh of the annual meeting. Pretty please?
3. What will it take to have more multi-ethnic expressions of Southern Baptist life? Baltimore would be a great annual meeting to make it look and feel less “southern” and “white” and more global and multi-ethnic.
4. Will we as Southern Baptist step up and fully fund our missionaries and our mission entity budgets? I’m especially taking about the IMB. This should be our top financial priority. Right now, state conventions control the CP coffer. Here’s an idea. State conventions should not be allowed to determine how much money they keep in state until we have sufficient money to keep all our missionaries on the field. Let’s make bureaucracy work for us, not against us.
5. What will shape or define the identity of Southern Baptists in the 21st century? If you look at the resolutions, they are overwhelming cultural and political. I realize that this venue provides Southern Baptists to address contemporary issues in the culture, but it is precisely those things that seem to define us from the outside (e.g., boycotts on Disney). Could God so work in our lives and churches that we are known for being the hands and feet of Jesus? Could we so represent God to our community that the world sees a people who treasure Jesus more than winning inconsequential battles? When people ask who the Southern Baptists are, I want them to say we are the people serious about following Jesus and gladly inviting others to His reign and rule.
Lastly, one thing that is the same in 2008 as it is in 2013. It is my concern for the gospel. As Danny Akin said yesterday, we have no excuse for not being clear on the gospel of Jesus Christ. I want to join with other Southern Baptists in knowing who Jesus is and what He has done, enjoying it, sharing it, defending it, living in light of it, and daily experiencing renewal because of it. The best Southern Baptists I know are consumed with Jesus, not Southern Baptists. My hope and prayer is that our conversations, churches, and conventions will indicate that there is nothing in this world worth talking about more than God’s own Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.