Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism

In October 2009, Union University hosted a conference titled Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism. The conference was held in conjunction with the four hundredth anniversary of the Baptists. It also revisited an oft-asked question: what is the relationship between Southern Baptists and American evangelicals? You can listen to the conference audio at Union’s website.

For those who are interested, the proceedings of that conference are also now in print. Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism (B&H Academic, 2011) is a collection of essays edited by David Dockery, Ray Van Neste, and Jerry Tidwell. Between the Times contributors Danny Akin, Ed Stetzer, and yours truly spoke at the conference and contributed essays. You can see the full list of chapters and contributors below.

  1. So Many Denominations: The Rise, Decline, and Future of Denominationalism – David S. Dockery
  2. Denominationalism: Is There a Future? – Ed Stetzer
  3. Denominationalism and the Changing Religious Landscape – D. Michael Lindsay
  4. The Faith, My Faith, and the Church’s Faith – Timothy George
  5. The Future of Evangelicalism (and Southern Baptists) – Duane Litfin
  6. The Care for Souls: Reconsidering Pastoral Ministry in Southern Baptist and Evangelical Contexts – Ray Van Neste
  7. Awakenings and Their Impact on Baptists and Evangelicals: Sorting Out the Myths in the History of Missions and Evangelism – Jerry Tidwell
  8. Recovering the Gospel for the Twenty-first Century – Harry L. Poe
  9. Emergent or Emerging? Questions for Southern Baptists and American Evangelicals – Mark DeVine
  10. Reflections on 400 Years of the Baptist Movement: Who We Are, What We Believe – James A. Patterson
  11. Southern Baptists and Evangelicals: Passing on the Faith to the Next Generation – Nathan A. Finn
  12. The Future of the Southern Baptist Convention – Daniel Akin
  13. Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism – R. Albert Mohler Jr.

If you are interested in the storied history and future prospects of Southern Baptists, American evangelicalism, and/or denominationalism in general, I’d highly encourage you to pick up a copy of this important new book.

Confessional Consensus, Part 1

I believe it is no longer possible to “guilt” the next generation into the SBC. That worked in past years when the SBC was a tribal culture and there were few legitimate options for partnering, but guilt will not play now. The tribal culture has also dissipated; it is necessary to find another means by which we work together. Previous generations were part of the SBC because that was how they identified themselves–it was an “identity” that was cultural, sociological, and religious. Today, many younger leaders see it as an “affiliation” rather than an “identification.”

The tribal culture of the past was due largely to a methodological consensus. That is, we looked and behaved the same due to the singular way in which we tended to do ministry. As a result, a Southern Baptist church in Alabama functioned almost identically to one in Georgia and a Southern Baptist church in Georgia functioned almost identically to one in Kentucky. Almost anywhere in the country, if you walked through the doors of a Southern Baptist church you would recognize the terminology, the order of service, the songs and, if all the pastors had access to W. A. Criswell’s tapes, the message.

This is how it was phrased in my paper presented to the Baptist Identity II Conference at Union University in October 2009:

Cooperatively fixing this problem will not be easy. We have no historical precedent in denominational life for cooperating with such incredibly diverse expressions of church and ministry. On the contrary, it is telling that the discipleship arm of the Southern Baptist Convention was called the “Baptist Sunday School Board” until just a few years ago. For decades, Baptists had Sunday School (with attendance pins), 9 verse invitation hymns, suits, and King James Bibles and everyone knew what a Southern Baptist looked like. Judson Allen explains it well in the 1958 Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists:

A Southern Baptist tends to remain a Southern Baptist, whether he lives in Virginia, Georgia, California, Ohio, or Montana. He needs not easily adjust to a church fellowship in which methods and practices are different from those to which he has been conditioned. Churches which are methodologically different are automatically suspect.

In our convention, new “churches which are methodologically different are [still] automatically suspect” in many quarters of the convention. Those methodologically different churches know that– and have become less involved with each passing year.

And this was not only the case in Baptist churches. Methodist churches were alike pretty much across the board, as were the Presbyterians and so on.

What we have seen in recent times is the collapse of tribalism formed around methodology, that is, the methodological consensus has ceased to exist. In today’s SBC, we have a denomination where churches look and practice some very different expressions. This is to the great joy of some and the unending consternation of others. Regardless, we must look for something else to be the gravitational pull of our cooperation since methodology no longer has that ability.

I am convinced we need to find a way to cooperate around a common confession and cooperative mission, all the while recognizing that there are new paradigms of ministry.

For example, most Purpose Driven contemporary Baptist churches look more like Purpose Driven contemporary Methodist churches methodologically than they do like traditional Baptist churches. So, the big question is, can we cooperate around our confession and a common mission, or must we all look alike from carpet color to choir robes or function the same from bulletins to the Doxology?

The Baptist Faith and Message is our confessional consensus. Formulated and approved by the convention, it should fix the boundary for churches and entities that call themselves Southern Baptist. Those who would want to impose their own more narrow parameters of cooperation place others in the unenviable position, to use a football metaphor, of having the goalposts moved while the field goal attempt is in flight. If indeed we have a consensus, and we do, let that be the center point of our working together.

The Southern Baptist Convention in 1960

In 1960, Time Magazine ran a fascinating profile of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is available online. A number of prominent Convention personalities of the era were profiled as the popular periodical tried to interpert Southern Baptists for a general readership. The article is an interesting glance into our past.

I’ve written quite a bit about the mid-twentieth-century SBC over the past three or four years. Though our churches were of course diverse, in terms of our corporate denominational identity we were at the height of our influence in and capitivity to southern culture (including Jim Crow). We were characterized more by programmatic initiatives than theological conviction, save a commitment to evangelism and missions and a couple of Baptist distinctives (understood in various ways by various Southern Baptists). We were led by an odd combination of atheological pragmatists, doctrinal progressives, and revivalistic pulpiteers. And we were on the verge of a non-stop barrage of theological controversies from 1961 (the Elliott Controversy) through the remainder of the century (BF&M 2000). In many ways, we are the Convention we are today because of who we were fifty years ago and how we responded to that identity in the generation or two since then.

If you are even remotely interested in the SBC, take the time to read the article.

(HT: Bruce Gourley via