Fifteen Factors That Have Changed the SBC since 1979, Part 1

The contemporary SBC is in many ways quite different from the 1979 version of the denomination. I think most readers would agree. I believe there are at least 15 factors that have influenced this change. These factors are not equal in influence, and some of them overlap. Furthermore, there are probably several other factors I have not considered (I welcome your thoughts on that). Over the next few days I will briefly discuss the factors that have helped to shape the contemporary SBC into the denomination that it is today. These thoughts are very preliminary, and I offer them in no particular order of importance.

1. The Conservative Resurgence

There is no doubt that the Conservative Resurgence has helped change the SBC. But I’m not sure it is the most influential factor, at least among local churches. Remember that a major goal of the CR was to remake our denominational ministries so that they better conformed to the convictions of the churches. For this reason, I would argue that the CR has shaped our agencies and boards more than our churches, though there are many, many churches that have been positively changed as a result of the CR. As our seminaries (and a growing number of state Baptist colleges and universities) continue to offer a thoroughly conservative education and as LifeWay continues to produce sound curricula and other resources, a greater number of churches will be affected, at least indirectly, by the CR.

2. The Decline of SBC Ethnicity

Greg Wills, David Dockery, and others have written quite a bit about SBC ethnicity or tribalism, those habits and tendencies that characterized Southern Baptists at a grassroots level. For a democratic denomination that prizes local church autonomy, there was a remarkable amount of consensus among mid-20th century Southern Baptist churches. Virtually all of our churches sang from the same hymnals, used the same Sunday School and Training Union literature, pursued evangelism through the Sunday School, cultivated active Brotherhood and WMU ministries, and nurtured their young through RA’s, GA’s, and Acteens. Virtually everyone had annual or biannual revival meetings.

SBC churches cooperated through a common denominational budget, the Cooperative Program, and participated in common offerings like Lottie Moon, Annie Armstrong, and various state convention offerings. Collegians often attended Baptist colleges or signed on with the Baptist Student Union at a state school. Almost all ministerial candidates attended SBC seminaries. All of these habits resulted in a “brand loyalty” that ran deeply among Southern Baptists. Although vestiges of SBC ethnicity clearly remain, I think most would agree that there have been substantial changes over the last generation. Some of them will be further addressed below.

3. The Transformation of the Megachurch Culture

The CR was led by a particular megachurch culture that emphasized strong pulpit ministries, innovative and aggressive evangelism, a “baptized” version of Kewsick revivalism, a commitment to dispensational theology, and a discomfort with the progressive establishment within the Baptist bureaucracy. Some megachurches shared more affinity with (some) Independent Baptists than the SBC establishment. Many smaller churches often looked to one or more megachurches as their ecclesiastical role model, if you will. There were FBC Dallas-style churches, Bellevue-style churches, FBC Jacksonville-style churches, etc. I grew up in a medium-sized church in Southeast Georgia that self-consciously patterned much of our ministry after what we saw modeled under Homer Lindsay Jr. and Jerry Vines at FBC Jacksonville.

But the megachurch culture has been transformed. While the above-mentioned paradigm is alive and well, it is now but one model among many. The seeker-sensitive movement influenced many megachurches during the 1980s and 1990s. The emerging church movement(s) influenced some in the last decade. Megachurch pastors with SBC roots like Andy Stanley and Ed Young Jr. have helped shape the ministries of many megachurches. Many SBC megachurches, especially those found in the newer models, are only nominally Southern Baptist. And fewer churches look to the megachurch culture(s) as their role models than was the case a generation ago.

4. The Revival of Calvinism

Southern Baptists were a Calvinist-led denomination during the mid-19th century: almost all of the leading pastors, educators, and editors, with a handful of notable exceptions, were consistent (“five point”) Calvinists. If associational records and state paper articles are any clue, almost all of our churches seemed to be at least broadly Calvinistic, though there was clearly some debate about the extent of the atonement. By the late 1800s consistent Calvinism was on the wane among Southern Baptist leaders, and by about World War I it was relegated to a handful of small churches here and there.

Around World War II Calvinism began to undergo a revival among English-speaking evangelicals in general, and by the 1950s some heretofore non-Calvinistic Southern Baptist churches had embraced Calvinism. Fast forward to the 1980s and Calvinism began to become popular among some conservative collegians and seminarians. This trend picked up during the 1990s and 2000s. Now Calvinists make up a significant minority within the SBC, and the number continues to grow, especially among younger Southern Baptists. Several well-respected pastors, including some megachurch pastors, are Calvinists. One seminary president is a Calvinist. A number of Calvinist networks and fraternals, both formal and informal, exist within the Convention. And none of this is counting those who are broadly Calvinistic but reject particular atonement. This factor will continue to be a point of debate with the SBC for at least another generation.

5. Changing Relationships between Southern Baptists and Independent Baptists

During the 1940s and 1950s virtually the only difference between conservative SBC churches and Independent Baptist churches were that the former still gave money to the Cooperative Program. Both groups held to biblical inerrancy. Both groups focused on strong pulpit ministries and emphasized personal evangelism. Both groups abhorred progressive theology, especially in the SBC. Both groups were mostly dispensational. Both groups cultivated a generation of vocational evangelists who were among the most influential men within the respective movements. Independent Baptists even pioneered some ministries adopted in large numbers by SBC conservatives, most notably AWANAS and bus ministries. But all of that began to change in the 1960s and 1970s.

A growing number of Independent Baptists adopted a more strident view of “biblical separation” than most Southern Baptist conservatives could countenance. Many Independent Baptists made dispensationalism a test of fellowship, adopted King James-Only theology, and continued to promote racial segregation long after it had come to an end in the South. Southern Baptist conservatives rejected the “fundamentalist” moniker for these (and other) reasons. But some Independent Baptists, particularly those associated with men like John R. Rice, Jack Hyles, Lee Roberson, and Jerry Falwell, continued to cultivate relationships with individual Southern Baptist pastors and some (most notably Falwell) actually joined, or in some cases re-joined, the SBC. So the contemporary SBC is decidedly different than the strictest type of Independent Baptists, but close enough to “moderate” fundamentalists that some have even found a home among us. Many Southern Baptists are “fundamentalish” (if I can coin a term), but not necessarily fundamentalists.

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  1. Andrew   •  

    Concerning factors #3 and #4, I think those have more to do with the rise of a generation more interested in reading independent (i.e. non-SBC) writers on biblical matters…this tends to be the small-church and Calvinist authors of the PCA and other successful evangelical denominations/movements. So perhaps these two can be sub-points under #2…I do agree that they are important

  2. scott parkison   •  

    Thanks for this short post Nathan. I can definitly see how all of these factors have changed the SBC in the past 30 years. I have become especially intrigued over the past few years with point 4. When I was in seminary in the late 90’s I met very few people who would call themselves Calvinists. Now, it seems that every other person I meet claims some form of Calvinism. This has been an interesting trend, indeed. I look forward to reading the other 10 factors.

  3. Bill Nettles   •  

    I look forward to seeing the rest of the list.

    In #2, would you include (as the flip side) the discovery of acceptable evangelical theology from sources outside the SBC, starting with Packer,MacArthur and Swindoll and moving to Piper and Carson. There are many in SB life who, 20 years ago, didn’t know who these guys were. When I was a teenager, about the only non-SBC authors in the Baptist Bookstore were Hal Lindsey (Late Great Planet Earth), and Francis Schaeffer.

  4. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    I would, but I will discuss it as a separate category. Remember I said there is some overlap with my 15 factors. I think you are definitely on to something.


  5. Roger Simpson   •  

    Dr. Finn:

    I don’t want to steal your thunder because the issue I bring up here as an extension to number 5 might be one of your remaining points.

    That issue is that while in the “old days” the SBC was more “flat” programmatically there was a period (now somewhat run its course?) where some SBC congregations followed particular church models [not necessarily SBC]. To wit: Saddleback, Willow Creek, Brooklyn Tabernacle. I don’t know what to make of the fact that these models “moved into” a particular “space” in SBC life.

    An extension of this is that certain SBC churches publish literature that is used — to a greater or lesser extent — by other SBC churches. For example, I’d say half of the choir music books that we have used recently here at First Southern Del City OK are Prestonwood books.

    Roger Simpson

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