Fifteen Factors That Have Changed the SBC since 1979, Part 2

This is the second article in a (now) four-part series on fifteen factors that have changed the SBC since 1979. As I noted in my previous article, this list is not exhaustive, overlap exists between some factors, and I list them in no particular order of importance. You can read the first article in this series here.

6. Changing Paradigms in Education Ministry

Whatever happened to the old-fashioned education minister? There was a time when virtually every SBC church with at least 300 regular Sunday School attenders employed an education minister, even if that staff member also (often!) led the youth or music ministry as well.

Now some of you may be thinking, “We still have an education minister, and Bro. Joe does a great job on our staff.” Frankly, a couple of the strongest churches in my home association back in Southeast Georgia have education ministers who do a fine job, so I’m with you on that. But once I went off to college and then two different seminaries, I was struck with how many churches are dispensing with the education minister model-and much of what that paradigm entails. Fewer and fewer churches (especially outside the Deep South) are following the “evangelism through the Sunday School” strategy that dominated SBC life for three quarters of the 20th century. Fewer and fewer churches are using a strictly graded Sunday School model, at least at the adult level. And when was the last time you attended a Sunday School assembly? How many of you don’t even have a clue what I’m even talking about? (And I’m just focusing on Sunday School-we could discuss the myriad of other programs that education ministers help administer in medium-sized and large churches.)

The paradigm shift happening in education ministry is fascinating to me for a number of reasons. First, Southern Baptists pioneered “Christian education” in the local church. Southwestern and Southern seminaries in particular developed very specialized programs that were cutting edge for the better part of the last century. Second, the Christian education paradigm was at the heart of most of our churches’ evangelism and enlistment, and some of our most prominent denominational programs (particularly “A Million More in ’54”) were directly tied to this approach. Third, a great deal of the “Southern Baptist ethnicity” I discussed in my first article was cultivated through the church’s cradle-to-grave education program. Finally, most churches of which I am aware continue to prioritize Christian education, but they often call it something different (like “discipleship” or “spiritual formation”) and many have “tweaked” (and sometimes rejected) the earlier paradigm.

I could spend all my time on this one, but I have to move on.

7. The Decline of Revival Meetings

During the period between 1820 and 1840, one of the key differences between the “Missionary Baptists” who became the SBC and the Primitive Baptists was that the former generally approved of what was then called “protracted meetings.” (You may be interested to know that most Primitive Baptists did not embrace hyper-Calvinism until their movement’s second generation. But that’s another story for another day.) Today we call protracted meetings “revivals,” and when I was growing up, most churches had at least one-and sometimes two-a year. But things are gradually changing.

I see fewer and fewer churches, particularly non-rural churches, holding old-fashioned revival services. Many churches still have multi-day “preaching meetings,” but the emphasis is no longer on mass evangelism. A growing number of churches have Bible Conferences, Family Conferences, and special niche conferences. The vocational evangelists among us understand this trend, and it makes them very nervous. The last five years has seen a well-orchestrated campaign on the part of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists (and related state chapters) to try and convince Southern Baptists that old-fashioned revivals are still relevant and effective. The heroes of many conservative Southern Baptists of a previous generation were evangelists like Jess Hendley, Freddie Gage, Hyman Appleman, and Junior Hill (among many others). Today, a growing number of Southern Baptists have never heard a sermon from an evangelist-not once.

8. The Decline of Classical Dispensationalism and Keswick Holiness

Perhaps one reason that revival meetings are less popular than they once were is because the theology that is behind the revival culture is less dominant. During the 1950s and 1960s, most conservative Southern Baptists embraced dispensational theology, largely through the influence of W. A. Criswell, who was the first well-known and widely respected dispensational pastor in the SBC (J. Frank Norris was well-known, but not widely respected!). While I think it would be fair to say that a majority of our churches still hold to dispensational theology (at least it seems that way), a growing number of churches reject that schema. Furthermore, many younger dispensationalists have modified the system in some considerable ways, often dispensing with almost all of the older dispensationalism save a commitment to a pretribulational (or occasionally “mid-trib”) rapture. Dispensationalism, with its emphasis on the immanence of the rapture, lent a certain amount of urgency to evangelism-an urgency that fit neatly with regular revival meetings.

Closely tied to the older dispensationalism, at least among Southern Baptists, was a Keswick or “higher life” view of holiness. This understanding of holiness was popularized within the Convention by figures like Bertha Smith and Ron Dunn (among many others), was promulgated at regional conferences, and was embraced, to varying degrees, by many vocational evangelists and older megachurch pastors. Higher life theology, with its emphasis on the “Spirit-filled life,” radically affected how many conservative Southern Baptists understood sanctification and personal holiness. Yet it seems that this view of holiness is waning in favor of the older view of progressive sanctification as the fruit of justification. Concomitant with this trend is a return to a classic view of the perseverance or endurance of the saints (which is affirmed in the BF&M) versus the 20th century, Keswick-influenced doctrine of “once saved, always saved,” which too often opens the door to problems like antinomianism and cheap grace. I could also spend much more time here, but need to wrap this post up.

9. Changing Trends in Worship Music

Who hasn’t noticed this trend? Who doesn’t know a church that split because of this trend? Here’s the 30 second version of the back story. For the first three quarters of the 20th century Southern Baptist worship music was a mixture of pre-1800 Protestant hymnody (think Watts and Wesley), 19th and 20th century revivalistic gospel music (think Crosby and Gaither), and regional trends like the Sacred Harp and Southern Harmony traditions (think “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks” and “Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy”). Of course all of these are still present among us, but with some notable additions.

Between the 1970s and 1990s, a growing number of Southern Baptist churches embraced at least elements of the older “praise and worship” movement, a movement that was largely birthed by Charismatics and nurtured by Third Wave believers (think Maranatha and Vineyard). From the 1990s to the present, a growing number of Southern Baptist churches have embraced elements of the “modern worship” movement, a movement that is rock-driven and somewhat more theological than the older praise and worship music (think Chris Tomlin and David Crowder). In the last decade, a growing number of Southern Baptist churches have embraced the “modern hymnody” movement, a movement that is largely Reformed in its soteriology (think the Getty’s and Sovereign Grace). And of course there is some overlap between these movements. You can bet that these movements have influenced (and will continue to influence) our popular theology even as they’ve influenced (and will continue to influence) our worship services!

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  1. Charlie Wallace   •  

    Great article, once again. Can you give us your prediction of what the decibel level of modern worship music will be 20 years from now? As of now, I believe it’s somewhere between loud enough to register as an earthquake and loud enough to make my eardrums bleed.

    I sound old.

  2. David R. Brumbelow   •  

    My dad preached many revivals. At the beginning of a revival he used to ask those in the congregation to stand if they had been saved during a revival meeting. Back in those days, usually the large majority of folks would stand. He would then emphasize the importance of that week’s revival.

    I think there are more revivals than some realize; most churches just do not publicize them in the state papers like they used to. But still, I have to agree with you that we don’t have near the number of revivals we used to. And I’m one of those who prays that will change in the days ahead.
    David R. Brumbelow

  3. Pingback: Dr. Nathan Finn on Changes in the SBC since 1979 | Northwestern Baptist Association

  4. Daniel   •  

    Great article. My personal, subjective, and completely non-scientific theory about the decline of revivals is that most lost people simply do not want to attend revival meetings any more. Then when there are no lost people at the revival, the revival becomes more about the spiritual walks of the saved people. Then the saved people notice that the revivals are not much different than regular church services and start to ask why they need revival meetings. After all, why should they give “love offerings” to evangelists and fill up their weeknights with meetings if they don’t see any fruit from it?

    I think it might also have something to do with the rise of a generation that doesn’t trust anyone who’s called an “evangelist.” We’ve seen too many TV-preacher scandals and guys in expensive suits that try to sell Jesus like a used car.

  5. iMonk   •  

    I was the last revival scheduled by my home church. Was canceled with less than 2 weeks to go. They’ve never had another.

  6. Alvin Reid   •  

    Nice work. I have to beg to differ on the rise of more recent worship music. I would argue the Jesus Movement provided the fertile ground for fundamental changes. The charismatic/3rd wave movement capitalized on it more quickly than others. But regardless, the move to drums and guitars and such has not ceased. I must confess having been a minister of music in the 80s, the era of the track music for “specials,” I much prefer a live band :-).

    On the decline of evangelistic (revival) meetings, no doubt there are less. But these things tend to have a cycle to them. I would not be surprised to see a renewal of such meetings before terribly wrong. There is already a growing renewal of passionate, biblical preaching among young adults in urban areas. Perhaps protracted meetings will follow. We will see.

  7. Alvin Reid   •  

    One other thing. Protracted meetings a couple centuries ago began more like they are today–weekend meetings. They extended to longer seasons, leading to the two week long meetings of a generation ago. I think if we allowed mass meetings in general to be included we would find more than we may think.

    That being said, I believe there is far too little emphasis on the preaching of the gospel to the masses in our time. We can be both missional and attractional and reach more people and different people!

  8. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Alvin, I would quibble with your differ begging, but I think it might bring consensus. I would argue that the early Jesus Movement was a manifestation of the miraculous gifts movement, albeit one that started among the youth counter-culture and then spread to local churches. As it did spread to churches, that included many non-charismatic (or Pentecostal) churches, like Baptist and Methodist churches. In fact, I would argue that in some cases the Jesus Movement played a key role in leading many mainline churches to embrace charismatic tendencies.

    So regarding music, I think it is both/and–Those who affirmed the continuation of miraculous gifts, including the bulk of the Jesus Movement folks, opened the door for more “contemporary” forms of worship music in our churches.

  9. Bob Mayfield   •  

    Just found this post, thanks for sharing it Nathan. It’s interesting after reading the comments and the amount of time this post has been up, that no one has commented on #6!

    One of the hallmarks of the current movement in evangelical churches, including SBC, is this one: “Life change happens best in small groups (small communities as Stetzer calls them).” I’m sure we’ve all heard it.

    I’m not sure if this quote is just a mantra leaders say but don’t really mean, or if we really believe that it is true. Small communities (small groups or Sunday School) are incredible opportunities to involve people in evangelism. They offer a lost person an opportunity found almost no where else… a place where they can “test drive” Jesus. They can ask questions, study His word, and be involved in Christian community.

    I think it is time to redirect our energies in our churches’ education ministries so that we are focused on life transformation.

    Just saying…

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