In a handwritten note dated May 1897, Mark Twain once said, “… this report of my death was an exaggeration.” Today, the reports of the death of the traditional church dominance of the SBC are being greatly exaggerated by some in SBC life.
I recently heard that traditional Southern Baptists are being marginalized and cast aside by the new and contemporary. And, to be honest, I’m fascinated that a few people really seem to believe this-and that I am even writing an article about it!
Part of the concern is the 2011 SBC Pastors’ Conference. The idea here, it appears, is that the contemporary, Reformed, and methodologically progressive wings have now taken over and forced out the traditional voices. That would be a fascinating argument if it were not for the facts.
I have attended both SBC and state convention Pastors’ Conferences for over a decade. I have gratefully listened to a wonderful “who’s who” of voices that predominantly swim in the traditional stream of our convention. And, regrettably, it has not been unusual that I have heard contemporary church pastors besmirched in these events (i.e., critical references to “Hawaiian shirt-wearing pastors.” and “sitting on stools instead of standing behind pulpits” come to mind).
For me, one of the most illuminating moments was a conversation I had with Hayes Wicker (2008 SBC Pastors’ Conference president). He shared that he had gone to each speaker for that year’s Pastors’ Conference to ask that there be no “drive-bys” on young, fellow Southern Baptists. It was an encouraging thing from a good man. However, at the same time I wondered, Are we really at the point where we have to ask people to not make “drive bys”? Traditional SBC churches were hardly marginalized then (or now).
Now, if you’re keeping score (as it appears some are) and you see yourself as one of those “marginalized traditional Southern Baptists,” I think you are O.K. Over the last, let’s just say, hundred years, that is 99 out of 100 (or 98.75, depending on how you count Louisville). Since the Conservative Resurgence, the annual meeting and SBCPC have been overwhelmingly led by more traditional pastors (often the same SBC pastors, several of whom have told me they are encouraged by some new faces). Now, let me add, I am thankful for those traditional voices. After all, our denomination is primarily comprised of churches that are more traditional in their make-up.
There have been exceptions to the traditional hegemony along the way. On two occasions I was asked to suggest the “safe” contemporary pastor the current president could invite. Other times, an occasional contemporary church pastor was included.
Yet, over the last twelve months, I have personally spoken at one SBC Pastors’ Conference, one Southern Baptist Convention, many state conventions meetings, one SBC entity presidential inauguration, and a few of our seminaries. I can tell you with a high level of certainty, “traditional Southern Baptists” are not being pushed aside. By simply attending these events, it is easy to see that those who label themselves as “traditional” are still well respected voices (and the majority) in our convention, the accompanying conferences, and our entities. And, the state execs that I talk to are asking how they can get more non-traditional churches and pastors involved, not the other way around. Thus, I hardly think a pastors’ conference that has some contemporary speakers is representative of the end of the hegemony of traditional Southern Baptists over the denominational structure, its conferences, and its platforms.
So why the outcry from a few dissonant voices? My thinking on this is simple. It is more likely that some who were once singing a methodological solo are struggling with being a part of the chorus. And, the future looks like a more diverse chorus.
We should all also be cognizant of the current reality that the Southern Baptist Convention looks increasingly different. It is a gathering and an expression now of old and young, of Anglo and ethnic and African-American, of traditional and contemporary. To some, those new faces are outsiders and not worthy of a hearing. To me they are cooperating Southern Baptists that are partnering together for gospel advance.
Because we are a diverse convention, there will be times when the Pastors’ Conference will look more contemporary than others. Or, I hope, it will look more ethnically diverse than in past years. Yet, at the end of the day, I think most of us really do want to hear from the diversity that the SBC has become, within our confessional consensus. Suits, ties, sandals, goatees, English, Spanish, Korean, and all the rest should be welcomed and represented as we press into the future. And, I think “one out of a hundred” conferences that “lean contemporary” is not the end of the traditional hegemony of Southern Baptist life.
My hope is that Baptist Faith & Message (2000) affirming Southern Baptists who are traditional, contemporary, or whatever, can partner together in our pastors’ conferences, our Southern Baptist Convention platforms, our Cooperative Program, and entities (and we are not there yet). But our convention platforms and entities can be reflective of the diversity that we have, centered on the gospel, expressed in a common confession, but lived out in different methodologies and different settings.
We need to talk about the different methodologies of SBC churches. But, let’s not pretend that the traditional are marginalized. That’s the wrong place to start what is the right conversation.