I grew up attending a small, rural Southern Baptist Church in northeast GA in the 1970’s. The pastor faithfully presented the Gospel week after week, calling for a response. It was at a Baptist summer camp that the local Baptist association sponsored that I first placed my trust in Jesus Christ. I later joined a Baptist church plant in the same county, and my passion for discipleship and spiritual growth was wonderfully fueled during my teen years.
I attended a Bailey Smith (a Southern Baptist evangelist and former SBC president) Real Evangelism Conference at age 19. There, after hearing from pastors like Adrian Rogers and Junior Hill, I sensed the Lord confirming my calling to the Gospel Ministry. After graduating from Emmanuel College, a Pentecostal Holiness school, I attended Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. in pursuit of my M. Div. as the school was finally feeling the impact of the conservative resurgence in the SBC.
I have served in student/associate ministry in three SBC churches. For the past twenty-one years I have served as lead pastor of the aforementioned church that fueled my passion for discipleship. So, I have been immersed, but not untested, in Southern Baptist life for half a century.
What is the SBC and How Does It Work?
If you are not familiar with Southern Baptist life, you might not be aware of a few things. For instance, Southern Baptists are a group of autonomous churches that share certain core beliefs and cooperate in missions, evangelism, church planting, and Christian education for ministry leadership and a growing number of other fields. This autonomy means that resolutions from the annual meeting of messengers are nonbinding. It also means there is no organizational hierarchy that can tell a local church what they can or cannot do.
You might wonder why you hear about churches being disfellowshipped or “kicked out” of the denomination if the denomination has no authority. This happens when a cooperating church does something pretty egregious, by majority consensus, like approving the ordination of homosexuals, approving gay marriage, tolerating blatant racism, or allowing a sexual predator to serve in ministry leadership. While the denomination has no legal authority in the life of the local church, the messengers at the annual convention can call them to repentance and ultimately cut ties. Basically, they send back the check that makes them a cooperating church thus removing the rights and privileges that come with such cooperation along with the ability to send messengers to the convention.
Since cooperating Southern Baptists put a significant amount of their dollars in the same pot, known as the Cooperative Program, to fund national and state entities like our Baptist colleges and seminaries, the International Mission Board, the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, the North American Mission Board, our publishing interests like Lifeway, and the administrative machinery to keep it all connected, we have an annual meeting to report and affirm decisions on how it will all operate. Leaders are elected, agencies report, budgets are approved, strategies are affirmed, and trustees are put in place.
The Conservative Resurgence
By the 1960’s the influence of the Enlightenment Period was greatly impacting Christian institutions of higher learning. Schools all across America that had been established to train pastors and missionaries and propagate the Gospel of Jesus Christ were suddenly destroying the very Word of God they were established to defend. Every mainline denomination was on a slippery slope of theological liberalism, promoting religious existentialism, and denying verbal-plenary inspiration of the Bible – that it is God’s Word from cover to cover. This drift would begin to impact the local church as pastors trained in these institutions began to fill pulpits across America.
Southern Baptists were not exempt, but their autonomy led to a couple different reactions in the 1970’s. One group, having nothing to lose, simply pulled out and became known as Independent Baptists. While they feared that the cooperative program ties made a church less autonomous, independent Baptist mission agencies sprang up everywhere. Many independent and Southern Baptists still “cooperate” to keep these agencies running. Our church supports both SBC causes, independent missionaries, and parachurch missions like Cru.
Another group decided to stay in and fight for the denomination and its institutions and entities. This became know as “The Battle for the Bible”, “The Conservative Resurgence”, or “The Fundamentalist Takeover” (as described by the more moderate and liberal crowd). The nature and authority of Scripture was the central issue of this struggle.
How did the world’s largest non-Catholic denomination turn the ship around? It was through the annual meeting. Well, through many annual meetings. I won’t go into all the juicy details, arguments, and highlights, but there was a process that allowed for a grass roots movement to change everything.
Here is the short version: Conservative pastors and leaders rallied to communicate the theological drift and its dangers and encourage churches to send messengers to the annual meeting. This was quite a challenge before the invention of the internet. Thanks to a grassroots movement, in 1979 a strong conservative, Adrian Rogers, was elected president of the convention. Per SBC bylaws the president appoints the committee on committees. This committee appoints various committee members including the committee on nominations. The committee on nominations recommends the next slate of trustees for mission boards and seminaries. Trustees hire presidents. Presidents hire faculty and staff. Faculty teaches the next slate of pastors and missionaries who influence the church and mission field. After about 12 years of conservative presidents and the rotating in and out of trustees, the denomination was overwhelmingly conservative, the only mainline denomination to reverse course from the slippery slope of liberalism.
Forgive the oversimplification of that process. It also happened simultaneously, or a few years behind, on a state convention level for many Baptist State Conventions. The battle was ugly at times, but members felt that the Bible was a hill on which to die. And the wise realize eternal vigilance is not only the price of victory, it is the price of defending sound doctrine.
The Past 30 Years
I attended my first Southern Baptist Convention thirty years ago in Atlanta. There was finally a feeling at that time that those who would support a more liberal theological agenda were giving up and stepping aside. I would continue to attend the annual meeting through seminary, where I would have the opportunity to serve as a page and monitor a microphone. I’ve been in a hotel room prayer meeting with a nominee who became president, and I’ve been in a preconvention meeting with a nominee who surprisingly did not win. I was there for the adoption of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. I was there when the architects of the conservative resurgence saw their nominees defeated by other conservatives who did not emerge from the chief influencers of the resurgence. I was there with my family when Fred Luter became the first African-American president of the convention by acclamation.
You see, the annual meeting is quite a remarkable feat. It is the largest open business meeting in the world allowing every messenger access to be heard from the floor, an exciting test of parliamentary procedure. Any messenger from a cooperating church can bring a motion, offer a resolution, move to amend the annual budget, recommend a substitution for a trusteeship, or ask that the thermostat be lowered for the AC in the convention hall. Seriously, that last one happened this year. The fact that so much gets accomplished is nothing short of a miracle! Every denominational family has their crazy uncles, but we just have an easier way for them to be heard. That’s why you can’t pay much attention to media reports on the annual meeting. Anyone can bring up anything. Statesmanship and a gracious tone by the one presiding plus a host of the world’s best parliamentarians are absolutely essential to keep things moving orderly.
On the downside, some people (both locally and nationally) are always looking for controversy or a fight. So, when the more moderate and liberal Baptists quit attending the convention, especially after the passing of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, we found other things to argue about and disagree over.
Over the past couple of decades we have seen rifts over contemporary versus traditional worship styles, reformed versus nonreformed soteriology, politics (most recently the Trump supporters versus the Never-Trumpers), boundaries for cultural engagement, and changing the name of the denomination to Great Commission Baptists. But you can’t simply classify Baptists in one of two camps. It is much more complicated than that. For example, a south Georgia Calvinist who supported Trump might align politically with the southwest nonreformed crowd that he was previously arguing with over soteriology before the most recent election issues came to the forefront, because the east coast reformed crowd seem to be opposed to Trump, at least the first time he ran. Its all fluid. And reformed churches might argue among themselves over traditional versus contemporary worship styles while the nonreformed churches have the same arguments. With 50,000 churches there aren’t two sides to issues, there are dozens of sometimes overlapping subcultures. See the miracle of our cooperation?
Then why do I remain in the SBC and lead my church to stay connected if our polity lends itself to controversy? First, I do agree with our theological statement known as the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. While we are not necessarily known as a “creedal people”, I believe it is the best and most biblical summary of the primary beliefs that we should rally around to fulfill the Great Commission as a team.
Second, I believe the cooperative program, our system for giving and supporting these causes, is a God thing. Other denominations try to emulate it because of its success. The Cooperative Program allows us to offer first class training at some of the world’s largest seminaries, train and send one of the largest missionary forces and keep them on the field, and support strategic church plants in cities across North America.
Third, I believe our missions agencies and mission strategy are second to none. Not perfect. Always in need of accountability and local support. But the potential is unparalleled, and I want to be a part of influencing that potential for the glory of God.
Finally, and more subjectively, I feel indebted. I am a product of many of the things we do right and well. So, I want to see those things grow and continue. I want to see the world’s largest non-Catholic denomination survive and thrive and continue to grow into a people doing greater things than ever for the glory of God. And I believe that a certain amount of the friction, though not all, is iron sharpening iron.
The 2021 Meeting in Nashville and the SBC Today
Here is what most of you clicked to see. Let me share my reactions and concerns based on my experience at the annual meeting this year:
- I am hopeful because of the number of church plants taking place, 8000 new church starts in North America in the past decade! More than ever new church starts are surviving their first decade and becoming vibrant and self-supporting. By 2030 one-third of SBC churches will have started after 2010. Obviously this speaks of the need for revitalization work in established churches, but I pray that the new churches in new places will be fruitful.
- I am hopeful because of the number of young people I saw at the convention. This did not look like an irrelevant crowd. I may not agree with them all. I may get tickled at the Spurgeon beards, llama haircuts, and skinny jeans, but I was glad to see the convention hall full of people younger than me with a passion for the Great Commission. And while I am not one to pursue political correctness, my missional heart was grateful to see the ethnic diversity among the young!
- I am grateful for the spirit and tone of the majority of 17,000 messengers. We all got on our knees and prayed together. We laughed together. We cried together. I realize that the pursuit of unity should never replace the commitment to doctrinal integrity. But dry orthodoxy without a genuine love and contagious fellowship isn’t winning anyone either.
- I have a love and appreciation for those who fall into various subgroups with differing priorities and agendas. I am not hesitant to share my opinion, but I refuse to be divided by strategy and policy opinions. I also refuse to fall into what Dr. Johnny Hunt once referenced as the fear of “guilt by association” trap. I can partner with the various subgroups with whom I disagree on some issues to pursue those things that are primary. In fact, I even believe in doing this across denominational lines when opportunities arise to biblically stand together on common passions and missions. Just think how many you join forces with when you stand for the sanctity of human life. The body of Christ is much bigger than the SBC, and certainly much bigger than any subgroup of the SBC.
- I am discouraged by how some of these subgroups caricature one another. Hyperbole is not helpful in serious and warranted debate. For instance, in the current debate on Critical Race Theory, there are significant differences in passionately held convictions. Those who want to call CRT what it is, name it specifically in a resolution, go on record and argue for the sufficiency of the Gospel in fighting racism ARE NOT LEGALISTS! They see a threat to the Gospel and want to go on record for calling it what it is. And contrary to the statements of some, many of those who discuss their concerns over the rising influence of CRT DO get much more fired up about sharing the Gospel that they are defending. This is not legalism. It’s not adding to or distorting the Gospel. On the other hand, those who verbally denounced CRT but refused to put the words “Critical Race Theory” in a resolution that denounced all such theories in general terms ARE NOT NECESSARILY LIBERAL. The theological liberalism we battled 40 years ago denied the authority of Scripture placing question marks on things like the creation account, the miracles of the Bible, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, and the exclusivity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s not happening among leaders in the SBC today. Personally, I believe the unwillingness to use specific language is a sincere attempt to hopefully win and influence more minorities. I also believe this is a mistake that can lead member churches to assume it’s okay to place a cultural lens over the Word of God, thus skewing the meaning. So, while I don’t think some of these leaders who refused to be so specific are liberal, I do feel that they fail to realize that this could lead to a pragmatic liberalism in some SBC churches that consider themselves conservative. I pray that we find an Acts 17 Paul at Mars Hill type balance of carefully navigated, but uncompromisingly clear, communication of the Gospel and confrontation of dangers of bluntly named false ideologies. Note: Leaders on both sides of this repeatedly, verbally acknowledged their rejection of CRT, even JD Greear and Danny Akin. But the resolutions committee, led by a persuasive and very respected Georgia Baptist pastor, convinced the majority that the general language of the resolution condemning all such theories was better than specifically naming CRT. I disagree. But my disagreement with someone for what I believe is a weak or even spiritually compromising strategy does not make them a theological liberal.
- I am brokenhearted over issues and accusations of sex abuse in SBC life, but greatly encouraged by our response to it… calling it what it is and making it clear that there is no place for sex offenders in ministry leadership. While there were certain situations still being looked into, everyone seemed to try and outdo each other on the importance of fighting sex abuse. Much of this discussion was launched by an investigative article by the Houston Chronicle a couple of years ago that pointed out Baptists had been relatively unheard from concerning some 700 plus allegations of sex abuse by some 380 perpetrators over the previous 20 years. These perpetrators were pastors, deacons, church staff, church volunteers, SBC entity employees, and others. While just one case merits a response and clear statement from the convention, you might be interested to know that that is 380 of a potential 3.8 million (or 1 in 10,000) that fill those various roles in our SBC churches and entities when volunteers are included (and they were). That is still way too many, but by comparison the scandal that rocked the Catholic church was reported to find that 5,000 of 500,000 (or 1 in 100) priests were guilty of sexual misconduct. Again, there must be zero tolerance here. Measures must be put in place to stop such abuse and hold abusers accountable. But, considering the fact that 1 in 4 females and 1 in 6 males in America have been abused, the 380 alleged perpetrators out of the millions who serve in our local churches means some of our churches have failed. But it also means that many are doing a great job of putting safe ministry measures in place. May we increase in vigilance here.
- You had to be there! Praying, worshipping, and even listening together, face to face, brings a different tone than armchair quarterbacking through social media and backroom political strategizing. Even if you disagree with someone passionately, getting together with them is more fruitful than tweeting about them. While some messengers spend the majority of their time hanging with old friends in the exhibit hall or local restaurants (a little of that is healthy), and some are so engrossed in committee meetings or gatherings of the various subgroups (9 Marks, Conservative Baptist Network, etc.) that they miss much of the positive reporting, this year the convention hall stayed relatively full of people disagreeing on some strategy, some language, and some personnel, but united in spirit around a common mission. Everyone there believed the world needs Jesus and that we must step up our efforts to reach them.
Where do we go from here?
The cool thing about autonomy and cooperation, trademarks of the SBC, is that you can be a part of something bigger while making your world smaller and simpler. Trinity will give our record amount to the Cooperative Program this year. Additionally, we will likely give more designated to the International Mission Board and North American Mission Board through the Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong offerings than any year since I’ve been at Trinity. And we are praying and believing that with God’s help and your faithfulness that we will reach and baptize a record number of new believers. Trinity is unique, and we don’t have to worry about being forced into a box by any of the subgroups of the SBC. I have no aspirations that would lead me to play denominational politics, and that is liberating.
So we will continue to be who God has called us to be. We will continue to stand on the authority of His Word with total dependence on His Holy Spirit to do the work he’s called us to do. We will also continue to keep an eye on our investments. Now that the “cards are on the table” we will keep an eye on entities and agencies that we support and join forces to fight theological heresy, sexual misconduct, institutional adaptations of ideologies that contradict or pervert the Gospel, and evangelistic lethargy.
There are no guarantees that the SBC will last forever. I will avoid hyperbole like referencing the “implosion of the denomination.” Numbers are down for a number of reasons. The world is getting more difficult to reach as people grow up without religious background. Many have lost evangelistic fervor in many places. Its not just megachurches baptizing 300 each year instead of 500, its thousands of small churches baptizing 0 instead of 2 or 3 or 5. Denominational loyalty, across all denominations, is simply not a value to most millennials creating a new type of independent church. So, all Baptist fruit isn’t Baptist. And technology has allowed many churches to get honest about their numbers, cleansing the rolls a bit. Other SBC churches are failing to do their annual church profiles, reporting absolutely nothing to the denomination. If various conservative subgroups branch out and start new denominations, our sovereign God can use that for His glory.
Meanwhile, I commit myself to be an expository preacher of the Word of God, to lead as one led by the Spirit and the Word, to cooperate wherever possible with whomever possible (inside and outside the SBC) without compromising the Scriptures to reach as many as possible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ!