The Future of the Southern Baptist Convention (An Introduction)

On October 8 I had the honor of speaking at Union University at the “Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and Future of Denominationalism Conference.” The meeting was held in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the Baptist movement. Several blogs and media outlets have reported both on the conference and the paper I delivered. The full manuscript may be accessed at http://apps.sebts.edu/president/?p=1471 . However, to fit the paper into the “blog world” I will post 10 entries that break up the paper in more edible bites. The blogs will differ only slightly, if at all, from the paper delivered at Union. It is my hope and prayer this series will promote healthy and helpful conversation as Southern Baptists look to the future.

As we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Southern Baptist are clearly at a crossroads. We find ourselves in the midst of seismic changes all across our Convention of churches. This particular moment in history is unprecedented. Consider the following 4 events that have unfolded in just the past few months:

  • 1) The Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Louisville, KY in June 2009, by a 95% vote, empowered the president of the SBC, Dr. Johnny Hunt, to appoint a Great Commission Resurgence Task Force to study our Convention and bring back a report with recommendations as to how we can more efficiently fulfill the Great Commission. This occurred in spite of serious opposition in a number of places, especially from those who work for the denomination.
  • 2) In August Dr. Geof Hammond under pressure resigned as president of the North American Mission Board.
  • 3) In September Dr. Jerry Rankin announced his retirement as president of the International Mission Board (effective June 2010).
  • 4) In September Dr. Morris Chapman announced his retirement as president of the Executive Committee (effective September 2010).

The import of these four events alone is enough to get anyone’s attention. Add to this the decline in baptisms, churches and membership of the Southern Baptist Convention in recent years, bizarre attempts to justify and paper over these declines, false rumors about and sustained opposition to the whole idea of a Great Commission Resurgence, distrust and a passion for the status quo on the part of some leaders, and it would not be difficult for one to be less than optimistic about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The fact is I am not optimistic. However, I am hopeful. And, I am hopeful not because of my confidence in Southern Baptists, sinners saved by grace be we all, but because of my confidence in our God, His Word and His promises. He has promised in Revelation 7:9-10 that there is coming a day in heaven when there will be “a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” God has promised this will happen and praise His Name it will. Now, the question that stares Southern Baptists in the face is this: will we join hands with our great God in seeing this awesome day come to pass or will we find ourselves sitting on the sidelines watching? Will we, as Pastor Al Jackson of Lakeview Baptist Church in Auburn (AL) has well warned us, make the wrong investment (treasures on earth rather than treasures in heaven), have the wrong perspective (the temporal rather than the eternal), and love the wrong master (money rather that God)? The spiritual stakes are high. Of that no one should be in doubt.

Interestingly, this is the 4th time I have addressed some aspect of the future of the Southern Baptist Convention in the past five years. I have some embarrassment at this point because I am not a prophet nor am I all that smart. There is no false humility here, just an honest self-evaluation and admission. Still, I will do my best to share my perspective on where we are and what we must do to have a “viable future” that will allow us to be a part of God’s great and glorious plan of redemption. I will intentionally draw on these previous addresses, particularly “Axioms for a Great Commission Resurgence.” I do so because 1) I believe they chart a hopeful and positive agenda for the future and 2) nothing has transpired since I delivered these addresses that would cause me to change my perspective. I will also draw on conversations and experiences over there past several months that have only highlighted and made even more clear where the dangers to our future lie.