GM and the SBC

Between the Times welcomes guest contributor Don Dunavant. Dr. Dunavant serves as Professor of Christian Studies and Director of the Bachelor of Applied Theology Program at California Baptist University at Riverside, CA.

Monday morning, June 1, 2009, General Motors filed for bankruptcy. The once number one car maker in the world came to an ignoble demise. Started in 1908, for most of its one hundred and one year history GM was synonymous with the America idea of success, an industrial icon that was as American as apple pie. That has all changed now. Speaking of GM’s bankruptcy President Obama optimistically asserted that the trauma of bankruptcy will help GM be a more viable company in the future. Yet he pointed to dark days ahead saying that more plants will close, more dealerships will shut their doors and more people will lose their jobs. GM as it has been up until June 1, 2009, will never be again.

What happened to cause the downfall of the car-making giant? Some will point to the economic downturn as the culprit. But, GM had survived all other economic downturns and even the Great Depression. No, there was something more systemic behind its failure. GM had developed a management culture so entrenched in the way it had always done business that it lost touch with the rapid changes taking place in the car-buying public and a union culture so preoccupied with self preservation that it entrenched itself against any change in the business model. Together both made GM too inflexible in a world of rapid change.

No one did anything on purpose to undermine GM. In fact, up until a few weeks before June 1, both management and labor argued passionately that what they were doing was the best for GM. But now their words sound hollow and their arguments mute in the wake of the ruins of GM. Inflexibility trumped the best of intentions.

Are there lessons the Southern Baptist Convention needs to learn from what has happened to GM? The SBC touts itself as the largest Protestant denomination in America, boasting sixteen million plus members. Together Southern Baptist have stood in the forefront of other denominations in sending missionaries around the world and across the nations, supporting theological education and so much more noble work. But does success in the past guarantee continued success in the midst of the seismic cultural shifts taking place in American culture and in the emerging generation of pastors?

While there are many areas that question demands we must explore, there is one that the GM demise has made much more urgent for Southern Baptists. It is the question posed in article IX of Toward a Great Commission Resurgence. The article, subtitled “A Commitment to a More Effective Convention Structure,” and the implication that substantive changes must be made in the bureaucratic structures that have entrenched themselves in SBC identity and life, brings us as a denomination to a critical point in looking to the future.

I have read the responses of both those who have signed Toward a Great Commission Resurgence with enthusiasm and those who refuse to sign the document because of Article IX. On both sides of the issue are good people who are voicing their best intentions for the future of the SBC. However, the best of intentions are not enough. This is one that we cannot afford to get wrong. The future of the SBC as a force in cooperative missions depends on it.

I come down on the side of those who believe that we must reexamine our structures, not just for some reorganization attempt, but for a substantive overhaul. I do so because I believe with all my heart that the duplication of work and the allocation of CP monies are issues that must be seen in the context of the rising young pastors who in the next ten years will determine the future course of the SBC.

I see three major movements that distinguish these young pastors and some commonalities they share. The first are those who identify themselves as Reformed. They are serious about theology, about the church, and about missions. They measure everything through the lens of their theological commitments. The second are those who I call fearless innovators. They plant or go to pastor churches with big, bold vision. They are serious about the church, the Scriptures and missions. Even when they grow big, they struggle with the tension of staying small. They want their people directly involved in missions and ministries. The third are those who are emerging (as opposed to emergent) in approach. They are serious about the church and culture. While they make mistakes they are passionate about contextualization and communicating with their generation.

These are three very different groups of young pastors, but they do share some things in common. Consider just three:

  1. They are more loosely tied to the SBC in their identity. They are Southern Baptist and are appreciative of their theological education provided by the SBC. However, their identity is broader. Have you wondered why it is that when you attend the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention or state convention that it looks a lot grayer? The reason is these young pastors are not interested in meeting just to meet and conduct business. They are looking for something much more in identity. You’ll find the Reformed guys at Together for the Gospel or Piper’s pastor conferences. You find the innovator networking with others who share their priorities in ministry.
  2. They are more loosely tied to the SBC in their giving. They will not give just to give. They are not concerned with what is counted as CP giving or with where they stand in CP giving in comparison with others. What they are concerned with is giving their money to make a difference in the world. If they perceive they can do that better by giving directly instead of to and through the CP, they will. They will not giving money to support bureaucracies. They will give to those things that get the money to the field.
  3. They are more loosely tied to the SBC in accomplishing their sense of missions. If they cannot get their people to the mission field by denominational mission agencies, then they will by pass the agencies and directly support those whom they send out.

Those of us who are in the 50 and up crowd can’t afford to miss what is going on and entrench ourselves in the way we have always done things. If we do then tragically the SBC could travel the same road as GM.