Baptist Press released a story today documenting the decline of state Baptist papers. The story confirms what many have suspected for the last several years. Southern Baptists are not relying on “official news sources” for their information about denominational issues as much as they did in years past. The reality is that many subscription-based print media are facing a declining readership in the wake of the ubiquity of the internet. That, coupled with the fact that we are living a post-denominational world does not bode well for the future of state Baptist papers whose editors view their main purpose in terms of promoting a denominational agenda.
Bob Terry, editor of The Alabama Baptist and executive director of the Association of State Baptist Papers made this astute observation:
State Baptist papers are still searching for the reason they exist.
Why do state Baptist papers exist? What purpose do they serve and what will be their purpose five years from now?
One hundred years ago Baptist papers did not have this kind of identity crisis. J. B. Gambrell, the great early 2oth century Texas Baptist statesman, served as editor of the Baptist Standard in the latter years of his life. He was never uncertain about the responsibilities of his paper. When Crozier Seminary started succumbing to modernism Gambrell wrote that it had become a “hotbed of radical destructive heresy.” After he received criticism for expressing himself so plainly on this question, Gambrell defended his actions by explaining his perspective on the “duty of the Baptist press” in a 1913 editorial. He wrote:
Of course, the press should be duly cautious, but it should be duly loyal and courageous, too. If the press will speak out our schools can be and will be saved from the influences which have blighted religion in some parts of the world as the boll weevil have blasted the cotton fields of the South where they have gone. The denominational press can save our churches from what drove Spurgeon from the larger Baptist fellowship of England. The Baptist press can save unity of the Baptists of America by faithfulness. That the attacks on the integrity of the scriptures and on the belief of Baptists will result in divisions is as certain as predestination. It is not a pleasant work Baptist papers are called to, but it is unspeakably important.
Caution, loyalty and courage. Combining these qualities in the right proportion is a challenge that any denominational news organization faces. That is true not only for the “official” sources of Baptist news, but also for the increasingly popular blogs that offer commentary on Baptist life. When the Scriptures or Baptist principles are under attack–either wittingly or unwittingly–then those who are genuinely loyal to the Baptist cause must cautiously yet courageously expose and resist those attacks.
As Gambrell noted, that is not a pleasant task, but it is vitally important.