Aspect 7(a): A Mission Based on Local Church Initiative and Supplemented by Entities and Associations (national convention, seminaries, IMB)

(By: Danny Akin & Bruce Ashford)

Through four centuries of history, Baptists have displayed a remarkable continuity in doctrine and practice. With historic Christianity, we have confessed that God is Triune, that his Son is fully God and fully man, that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone, and that the Scriptures are the very words of God.[1] In addition, we have held that the church is regenerate in its membership, autonomous under the headship of Christ, and free from state control. These last three distinctives relate to the doctrine of the church. Baptists have always been serious about church and specifically about the local church. It is through his churches that Christ disciples his children, directs his mission to the lost, demonstrates his glory to a watching world, and extends his kingdom.

What does this mean for the Southern Baptist Convention? The SBC was formed as a network of local churches who partnered together for the sake of mission. In the last 50 years, however, she has become more and more of a denominational bureaucracy. We must help our denomination return to her roots. The SBC of the twenty-first century must be a missional network, just as the churches of Acts were a missional network. Our focus must be the gospel, and our means of cooperation must be primarily “churches partnering for the sake of mission.” Thom Rainer has urged our churches to simplify and streamline so as to maximize their effectiveness, and we think that this applies to our convention as well.[2] The roadmap for revisioning the SBC, as well as any institution or entity within the SBC, will always involve two ideas: local church and missional cooperation.

What then will the Southern Baptist Convention look like if we re-vision it for the 21st century? That is, of course, a very difficult question to answer, a question that exceeds our abilities of and the scope of this post. However, we can point out the broad contours of what it might look like, and raise some pertinent questions along the way. One issue that we might examine is our name. We are the Southern Baptist Convention, but “Southern” neither describes who we are or who we want to be. Perhaps we should modify our nomenclature to better describe our nature as a transregional network of churches. A second issue that our churches might agree upon is that the Cooperative Program needs to be continually re-examined to make sure that it is serving the churches in the best way possible. One of the great motivators during the Conservative Resurgence was the fact that 60 cents of every dollar went to a moderate/liberal bureaucracy. One of the great motivators for a Great Commission Resurgence is the fact that often 60 cents or more of every dollar never leaves the state and often goes to bureaucracies that spend not nearly enough of it on missions and church planting (regardless of whether it is North American or international missions).[3]

What are some challenges ahead for the seminaries? One challenge the seminaries face is how to locate as much of our education as possible in the local church. Is there a reason not to return certain courses of study, such as pastoral ministries, to their native environment in the local church? Another challenge we might face is how to provide the most affordable seminary education. Are there ways we can streamline our institutions? A third challenge is for the seminaries to reject the temptation to be divisively competitive and instead commit to being a network of truly cooperative campuses. Such a network could, for example, provide a combination of on-campus and distance education to international missionaries in a way more beneficial that what is offered presently. A final challenge is for the seminaries to remain vigilant to ensure that our professors are doing theology primarily for the church and secondarily for the academy.

What are some challenges ahead for the International Mission Board? The International Mission Board has taken major steps to re-organize for its 21st century mission. One challenge for the IMB is how to continue to restore mission initiative to the local church, just as our churches must repent for ceding all mission responsibility to the IMB.[4] Local churches must become Great Commission churches who recruit, disciple, and support their members as they go on mission. They must stop recommending candidates who are unfit (morally, spiritually, or otherwise) for the field, and must stop sending candidates to the field while never really intending to support them. Further, our churches must realize that the IMB is not the true “sender” of missionaries. The local church is. Churches send missionaries. Some churches will be able to call from their midst a team of church planters and handle all of the discipleship and team dynamics as they go to the field. The IMB provides oversight, further training, and strategy. Other churches may send only one member to the field, in which case they may partner with other churches in putting together a team to reach a particular people group, and to hold that team accountable. Regardless, we must work hard to help our churches blossom into Great Commission churches.

[1] Dockery, Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal, 58-98. Dockery cites Francis Wayland who, in 1861, wrote: “I do not believe that any denomination of Christians exists, which, for so long a period as the Baptist, has maintained so invariably the truth of their early confessions…The theological tenets of the Baptists, both in England and America, may be briefly stated as follows: they are emphatically the doctrines of the Reformation, and they have been held with singular unanimity and consistency.” Francis Wayland, The Principles and Practices of Baptist Churches (London: J. Heaton and Son, 1861), 15-16.

[2] Thom Rainer, Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples (Nashville: B&H, 2006).

[3] I (Danny Akin) spoke to this issue in “Axioms,” 16-18. Paige Patterson addressed this issue in Patterson, “My Vision of the Twenty-First Century SBC,” in Review and Expositor 88 (1991), 37-55. He argued that Baptists emphasize cooperation and resist connectionalism, and yet ironically the state conventions’ control of money is a form of connectionalism. He suggested that the local church itself should decide which percentage goes to the state and which to the national. Ed Stetzer’s research demonstrates that SBC pastors overwhelmingly want their CP dollars to go to North American and international church planting. Ed Stetzer, “Cooperative Program Research and Your Opinion,”, (December 22, 2008).

[4] Jerry Rankin writes, “It is not the responsibility of the International Mission Board to do missions on behalf of Southern Baptists; the Great Commission was given to every church, every believer and every denominational entity. The IMB is to serve, facilitate, and enable God’s people to be obedient to our Great Commission task.” Rankin, To the Ends of the Earth, 105. 179-204.