On the Future of the Southern Baptist Convention: A Graduation Meditation

This morning, we’ll celebrate our December graduation at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This is our smaller of two annual commencements, but we’ll still graduate around 130 students today. The vast majority of them are Southern Baptists who are currently serving in paid vocational ministry, are presently looking for paid church staff positions, or are preparing to be domestic church planters or foreign missionaries. I hope you’ll pray for those who are transitioning to their next ministry assignment in the coming weeks and months.

There is quite a bit of talk these days about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention (or whatever it is we’ll be called by the time we get there). Much of it is negative. Some are worried about the number of SBC congregations that evidence declining membership and baptism statistics. Others are worried about the ongoing viability of the Cooperative Program. Some are uncomfortable with certain individuals in either real or perceived positions of denominational leadership and/or influence. Others are worried that a particular theological or cultural agenda will overwhelm and ultimately destroy the SBC. Some are nervous about younger leaders, while others are dissatisfied with more seasoned leaders. And some just pronounce a pox on all the houses within Southern Baptist suburbia.

I admit that I struggle with negativity from time to time. To be totally candid, it’s hard to study Southern Baptists for a living and not get discouraged on occasion. But I study American Christianity in general enough to know that every denomination has its peculiar strengths and weaknesses. Our denominational neuroses are particularly irksome because, well, they’re ours, but the grass isn’t that much greener in other groups-it’s just a different breed of grass. So rather than despairing over the cranky and delusional among us, I prefer to focus on the good. And there is a lot of good.

Back to graduation. One reason I refuse to despair about the SBC is because, as a seminary professor, I have a unique vantage point on the future of the Convention. Simply put, I’m personally acquainted with hundreds of (mostly) younger Southern Baptist pastors, missionaries, and other younger leaders. Their zeal is contagious. Their orthodoxy is robust. Their burden for evangelism and missions is inspiring. Their commitment to the local church is deep-rooted. They are a constant encouragement to me.

Some are worried because they perceive that these younger ministers lack commitment to the SBC. I confess that I’ve met a few for whom this is the case. But by far most of the seminarians and recent graduates I know are strongly committed to the SBC. They believe what we believe. They appreciate our approach to cooperative ministry and missions. They want to be Southern Baptists. Even those students who are “on the edge” are frequently those who were raised Southern Baptist and deeply love the SBC-so much so that the cranky and delusional voices gnaw at them and push them away. They are tempted to give in to the despair.

You need to know that I’m on a personal mission to do my part to prevent that from happening. We can’t afford to lose the next generation. And make no mistake about it-these aren’t denominational apostates who “went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.” No, these are folks who want to remain part of us, but (understandably) bristle at some of the frankly outrageous things that some Southern Baptists say and do-occasionally even those who are, or have been denominational leaders. I try my best to convince students and others that the SBC is bigger than any single personality and better than the conspiracy theorists and frankly mean-spirited among us. Many on the ledge come to agree with me, and I’m thankful for every one.

Graduation is a biannual reminder that God is always at work setting apart a rising generation of pastors and other leaders. Among the people called Southern Baptist, he’s doing some exciting things, no matter what you might have heard from a misinformed denominational servant, a malcontent pastor, or a malevolent blogger. God isn’t finished with us yet, and I remain convinced that the course correction that began in the latter third of the twentieth century will continue to bear good fruit long into the future.

I’m thankful for our graduates and for their peers in our sister institutions. I’m thankful that almost all of them are convictional and committed Southern Baptists. I remain hopeful that most of the few who are convictional, but not committed will change their mind as they see the many good things that God is doing in and through Southern Baptists. And I remain very hopeful that our best days lie ahead, should God continue to desire to work through our Convention of local Baptist churches for his glory.

(This post was cross-published at Christian Thought & Tradition)

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.

Looking Back to Louisville, Part 1

As I’ve indicated over at my blog, I am moving my SBC-related blogging here to Between the Times. For better or worse, it will be all Baptist, all the time, when I am at Between the Times.

Though it’s hardly any secret that I’m a Southern Baptist, my blog has become a place where people discuss research, mission, and culture. It seems some Southern Baptists just love a good blog fight, but it seems strange to my non-SBC friends when the debate goes something like: “The IMB and NAMB need to consider the BI agenda while listening to the GCR people, not to mention the ERLC and the WMU.”

That’s not easy to translate for our Presbyterian and Wesleyan friends. Even if you know what it all means-we could all use fewer acronyms in our lives. ;-) So, you’ll be hard-pressed to find me talking SBC on my other blog. Like Al Mohler’s “Conventional Speaking” blog, this is now your one-stop-shop for “Ed on the SBC” (in addition to much better information from the other contributors).

I wanted to write about the Louisville convention, but I decided to wait until the Between the Times guys would actually let me blog. It took a lot of negotiating with our lawyers, but we nailed down a signing bonus and a five-year contract.

So, here are my belated reactions to the SBC meeting. They are not in any particular order, but here are my observations.

1. There was a definite consistent theme at the convention.

That theme was stated in the pastors conference and continued to the last session. With exceedingly few exceptions, the theme was “gospel unity expressed in mission.” You wouldn’t know that listening to some reports. According to some, we focused more on someone who was not even there than on Jesus and His mission. Those conversations were just a blip on the radar screen. An overwhelming majority of those in attendance would tell you that Southern Baptists want to unite and see a Great Commission Resurgence.

2. The convention is changing.

It appears to me that Southern Baptists are not just talking about methodological diversity, but are actually practicing what they preach. The pastors conference evidenced such as did the convention messages. (I am glad to call both David Platt and John Marshall friends, but they pastor very different churches.)

With the election of Kevin Ezell as pastors conference president, we will see more of that next year. (Having just talked to Kevin about upcoming speakers, I can say that next year will be exciting and interesting at the same time.)

3. There are still some people who want to create division.

As I said at the Baptist 21 panel, the voices of division get louder before unity appears. But we saw that those creating division are becoming increasingly seen as what they are. It was as if they were shouting, “pay attention to us!” However, the convention seemed to want to pay attention to the future-engaging in God’s global mission while uniting around that effort.

Let me encourage you that the tide is turning. And, that means we need to unite and not exclude those who would have preferred a different future. There are people to the “right” of the BFM2000, and I am glad they are a part of the family–I just want them to stop pulling to the right and instead push toward the mission. But, for those of us interested in unity under our common confession, let’s remember that they still need a place at the table.

4. Anyone can make a motion.

As you could see, anyone can make a motion. For some people, this is a bad thing. For me, it is not. I want a convention where people can speak truth in power.

Now, I do think it’s unfortunate that 10 people with an agenda can make some people think there’s a groundswell of support. In reality though, to quote Johnny Hunt, those motions get “thrown under the Southern Baptist bus.” Indeed.

However, it is this system that makes us Baptist. There would have been no Conservative Resurgence if the mics were closed. Having those mics open keeps the system accountable to the churches. And it keeps all of us honest.

Al Mohler cautioned that people should not overreact to “these motions.” I couldn’t agree more. Remember, motions are not actions. I imagine there will be more people making more motions of all kinds next year.

5. Social Networking is changing all the rules.

Blogging changed everything–until this year. From day one, all eyes were on Twitter.

When some leaders tweeted about motions, it was national news. People were even directed to the floor for the times votes would take place, again using Twitter. If you weren’t at the convention, the Twitterverse provided a front row seat.

Twitter also provided an instant barometer of how people felt about what was happening. If Tweeters didn’t like a motion from the floor, it was heard loud and clear online. And when they liked something, they raised their “voices.”

It was not too long ago when one state convention passed a motion critical of blogging and some referred to it as “Internet Pornography.” Today, the social networking revolution is gaining momentum instead of going away. The convention is “flat,” and those who are unaware or are simply kicking against the cyber-goads will soon lose their influence.

6. Extra meetings are helpful.

Over the last few years, additional meetings have been added to the “convention schedule.” From the Young Leader Initiative of 2005 to the Baptist 21 Panel this year, more meetings are being held around the convention. And though none of us want to have an extra meeting, more conversation about critical issues are good for all of us.

Each year, meetings are held at the SBC Annual Meeting by groups like the WMU and Crossover to encourage our participation. I’m glad for these meetings, because they serve as a reminder of why we meet–God’s big mission for the world.

7. We still don’t trust each other.

I have been surprised at how quickly people saw a Machiavellian plot to take over the SBC. Perhaps some are too accustomed to taking a defensive stance against all perceived change or loss to their preferred direction. I consider Danny Akin, Johnny Hunt, and Ronnie Floyd all friends. I talk with them regularly about the SBC and the future. And, I’m telling you: they are just not that devious. They are good men, but terrible connivers. But, it is interesting to hear all the conspiracy theories out there. I can tell you that they are not true-but of course, I might be part of the New World Order as well. ;-)

The men who have been elected and appointed to lead our convention are asking the right question: what are we doing and how can we do it better?

I wonder when we will trust more and gossip less.

8. Everyone wants to talk about young leaders now.

Well, I say, “Welcome to the party, but where were you five years ago?”

It is interesting to me that when Jimmy Draper started this young leader initiative a few years back, he was actually opposed by some of those same people now alarmed about the lack of young leaders. Back then, there was a “debate” if we were really losing young leaders. But then there was the next convention. And the next. And the truth became harder to deny. Now, when young leaders show up, it’s big news.

There were two main criticisms of Jimmy Draper. The first was that he was the wrong person to do this; the seminaries should. But, Jimmy pressed on and pointed out that most young SBC pastors were not in seminary. But, still some complained that LifeWay was the wrong agency doing it the wrong way.

Second, it was that Jimmy connected with some of the wrong young leaders. I’ll leave it to your collective wisdom exactly who are the special, perfect, right young leaders. Chances are that we will all come up with different lists. Jimmy took some risks, involving some people I would not, but he is a good man and it was still a worthwhile agenda. As one of our statesmen, he said what only he could: we are losing the next generation. He was right then. And, now it appears that everyone agrees. Thanks, Jimmy, for telling us when it was not popular. I believe that will be a key part of your legacy.

9. The word “missional” sure gets used a lot.

I still remember when I used “missional” in a sermon at Southern Seminary. Someone asked me if I was mispronouncing the work “missions.” People just did not use the word. Although Baptist Press quotes me as the first SBC user of the term, it was actually Francis Dubose, but he did so before the days of searchable hypertext.

Now, people throw around the word “missional” like opinions at a Baptist business meeting. Sometimes I wish they would not use it, but mainly I am just glad we are thinking more about joining God on His mission and living on mission in our settings.

10. I am hopeful about the future.

People ask me, “Does it bother you that they criticize research/missiological thinking/church planting/etc. regularly in certain publications?” And, the answer is, “No.” I say this, because things are changing.

I have attended the SBC every year since 1998. (I should get an attendance pin or something.) I was encouraged by the election of Frank Page and honored that he would ask me to speak at his first convention, but still unsure where things were headed.

This year, I was more hopeful than ever. The convention is turning. In tomorrow’s post I will share what I think needs to happen next.