The Southern Baptist Convention has much within it to commend, much to lament and somethings that are just plain confusing. The recent meeting in San Antonio confirmed this assessment in various ways.
The spirit at the convention was less rancorous than some expected and was helpfully free from much of the bravado that has marked recent years. This is due, in large part, to the spirit exhibited by the President. I was very grateful for that.
Who cannot rejoice at the work of faithful gospel laborers around the world? Those who spoke from the platform as well as those with whom I spoke privately left me very encouraged that many within the family of Southern Baptists are vitally concerned about getting the Gospel to every people group in the world. The International Mission Board has its problems–many of which have been aired openly over the last 18 months–but it is still a tremendously useful agent in helping local churches send missionaries around the world.
Southern Baptists have some of the greatest seminaries in the world within our ranks. When I compare what and how and by whom today’s students are being taught in seminaries like Southern and Southeastern I am filled with thanksgiving for the upgrade in theological education that we have witnessed since I attended seminary. Some of the books that I had to read on my own time and to the chagrin of some of my professors are required reading for modern students. In addition, the cost of seminary training in our SBC institutions is amazingly low when compared to other schools. We should rejoice over that.
Bureaucracy still rules the day too often and in too many places in SBC life. Timothy George’s prophetic warning more than 2 decades ago is being proven before our eyes: “The exchange of one set of bureaucrats for another does not a reformation make.” The mentality that we should all just go along in order to get along will not pass muster any longer. Nor will current leaders be effective simply by saying to Southern Baptists, “Trust us. Just trust us.” Those interested enough in the SBC to attend the annual meetings do trust the leadership, but they also expect accountability and humility from our leaders. Defensiveness, intimidation, demagoguery, paternalism and condescending attitudes do not play as well today as they did a generation ago (and they didn’t play all that well even then).
It is evident both by the schedule and by some of those who spoke from the platform that there really is not a genuine desire for substantive debate and dialogue even on important issues that come before the convention. President Frank Page did a great job moderating the meeting. His spirit was contagiously sweet and more than once he went the extra mile to assure that messengers were treated with respect. But there simply is not enough time allocated for messengers to debate the issues that are brought before the convention. More than once the committee on the order of business recommended that we move the schedule forward because we did not need the full time that had been allotted for certain reports. However, debate was also cut short on more than one occasion when the issues before us warranted more time.
Southern Baptists need the kind of leadership that will take a hard look at what we are doing and how we are doing it, and be willing to make some radical proposals to counteract the bureaucratic mindset that too often sets in when organizations grow large. I know that we experienced some reorganization in 1995 but we are past due for fresh look at our denominational structure, agencies and institutions.
I don’t know how to answer those who ask me why the convention passed a resolution on global warming while refusing to consider on on integrity in church membership. Some of the suggestions offered by readers of this blog in a previous post have real merit. But, I do not have a definitive answer. (Tony Kummer has extracted the video recording of the effort to get my resolution to the floor of the convention.)
Here is the way that I see it and how I have tried to explain my perspective on this matter to several people and in a variety of forums. If it is accurate to say that the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists give little or no indication of ever having been born of God’s Spirit then we are in real trouble. Serious trouble. Life-threatening trouble. If well over half of those we welcome into our churches through evangelism and other means are unconverted then we are obviously not doing church in accordance with the New Testament. If the majority of our members are unconverted, then there is no other problem that we face that is more important than addressing this situation. There is no other item on our agenda that deserves more attention and concern than this. If we fail to address this, it does not matter what else we may attempt, we are allowing a cancer to grow that will destroy local churches. In fact, it has already done so, and is continuing its deadly rampage as you read this. I regularly talk to pastors and members who bear the brunt of such spiritual devastation. They have watched their churches repeatedly deny Christ in attitude and action all-the-while being regarded as good churches by SBC standards.
I have spoken with more than a few SBC leaders and pastors who have admitted to me privately that my assessment of this situation is accurate. They have agreed that we have no issue larger than this confronting us at this time. Some disagree with my approach to addressing the problem straight on and calling attention to it as I have tried to do by way of introducting a resolution to the convention. I have no problem with that kind of thinking. What does bewilder me, however, is how someone can agree with that assessment and be willing to do nothing or to promote other agendas in ways that suggest that those items are of extreme–even grave–importance.
I fear that if we do not win the battle for our churches becoming healthy then every gain we experienced in the battle for the Bible will be lost in a generation. What kind of churches spawned and allowed liberalism to take root in our agencies and institutions? Poorly ordered ones whose memberships were largely (by all indications) unconverted. What kind of churches predominate the landscape of the SBC today? Poorly ordered ones whose memberships remain largely unconverted.
The great 19th century Southern Baptist Theologian, John Dagg, made this observation in his Manual of Church Order: when disciplines leaves a church, Christ goes with it. If that is true, what does it say about the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptist Churches? Even many so-called “flagship churches?”
While we have much for which to be thankful in the corner of Zion known as the SBC, we have much to lament and fear. And we have many reasons to feel desperate–desperate for reformation and revival. May our Lord be pleased to grant it to us.