At its formation in 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention was consecrated to the cause of “the propagation of the gospel.” The convention existed to enable local churches to expand their common reach in the tasks of calling sinners to repentance and organizing new congregations of disciples. “We can do more together than we can do separately” is not just a Southern Baptist slogan; it is the Southern Baptist raison d’être.
Dare I suggest that the health and value of the Southern Baptist Convention must be calculated along these same lines? Dare I opine further that the Southern Baptist Convention—with its history of scandals and schisms not hidden from view but laid bare to the world’s eyes and amply considered, with the lugubrious pre-obituaries some have published near and far for it notwithstanding, with the changing fads and fashions of ministry given their full accounting—nevertheless remains a healthy and effective part of a Great Commission strategy for local churches? Should I enumerate the specifics, not only why our convention’s strengths empower it but also why its weaknesses do not successfully overcome its strengths? I think so.
The Southern Baptist Convention is in the top tier of unifying forces within Christianity. I can hear the guffaws from here, but I’m entirely serious: The level of Christian unity in the Southern Baptist Convention is remarkable and encouraging. Southern Baptists exemplify Christian unity:
Soteriologically: Yes, we probably argue more about soteriology than most other denominations, but have you ever considered that this might be an indication of the degree to which we bring together people of diverse soteriologies? There’s not nearly so much room in a Presbyterian denominational meeting to contend with one another about the nature of election, nor in an Assemblies of God conference to debate the extent of the atonement. How many other denominations of Christianity could count within their ranks as members in good standing both Tom Ascol and Eric Hankins? The Southern Baptist Convention is a place where both Calvinists and non-Calvinists (except for those Arminians who reject eternal security) can cooperate with one another for the propagation of the gospel.
Because of the unity that many Southern Baptists feel with one another across various soteriological lines, the Southern Baptist Convention has better discussions about soteriology than nearly any other forum. By “better” I mean to appraise both the intellectual quality of our conversations and the Christian spirit in which they are conducted. Like whatever you will about T4G; it is not the place to go to hear the biblical arguments against Calvinism presented in their strongest way by their ablest proponents. Likewise if you’re hoping to hear about the weaknesses of Arminian Pragmatism at the Creative Church Conference. But within the family of the Southern Baptist Convention, each of us has an opportunity both to witness and to participate in the best and fullest discussions about soteriology ongoing anywhere in the world today.
Even if Dave Miller keeps shutting down the comments.
Racially: The history of the Southern Baptist Convention on the subject matter of race is an embarrassment and a sin. The progress within the Southern Baptist Convention toward racial unity is not nearly enough. Nevertheless, I am excited about the project of racial unity that lies before the Southern Baptist Convention. We are attempting to do something that is rare indeed: Southern Baptists are attempting to create a racially diverse fellowship of Christians who are unswervingly committed to biblical inerrancy and gospel fidelity. There may be denominations that are more racially diverse than the SBC, but the preponderance of them are significantly—dare I say terminally?—infected by theological liberalism. There are denominations that feature a greater percentage than the SBC does with regard to black leadership, hispanic leadership, asian leadership, or other ethnic leadership, but the preponderance of them are actually LESS, not more, racially diverse than is the SBC (i.e., they feature EXCLUSIVELY black leadership, hispanic leadership, etc.)
I’m not alleging that there are no other denominations that have successfully combined racial diversity with theological integrity, nor am I denying that there may be denominations who do a better job at both of them than we do. Rather, I’m simply pointing out the fact that, considering the broad swath of Christianity, the Southern Baptist Convention is in the top tier of these efforts.
What’s more, through the careful attention and deliberate efforts of our leaders, the SBC is continually improving in our racial diversity without diminishing our commitment to God’s truth revealed to us in scripture. We’ve all lived to see the first black president of the SBC. Most of us reading this will live to see the second, will live to see the first entity head who is not white, will live to see greater participation by other ethnicities as well. I’m thankful for the leadership of Terry Turner, president of the SBTC, who has called for our state convention not to live as though black and white were the only ethnicities within our fellowship, but to engage in multilateral efforts to unite the panoply of races, tribes, and tongues in the worship of the God who created us in such complementary beauty. The future of the Southern Baptist Convention is one of improving racial unity anchored in the truth. A full 20% of SBC congregations are ethnically other than white.
Frankly, I don’t know where a biblical inerrantist would go to find a brighter future of racial unity.
Methodologically: Occasionally someone will complain that the Southern Baptist Convention is too methodologically monolithic. And yet my personal observation is that some of the people who complain are happy to participate in organizations that are far less methodologically diverse than the SBC is. Try wearing a suit and tie to Catalyst. Try to post a how-to guide on the multi-site movement on fundamental.org. Whatever you’re wearing, whatever you’re singing, whatever you’re doing in your church (within relatively broad boundaries), you can probably go to the SBC Annual Meeting and (pretty easily) find a way to sit next to somebody who is a whole lot like you. There may be somebody there who is different enough to make you uncomfortable, but monolithic we are not.
Now, keep this in mind, please: Unity per se is not the mission of the SBC nor is unity in the SBC the way that we ought to measure the SBC’s effectiveness. There have been, in the history of mankind, groups harmoniously united in the accomplishment of nothing—or of nothing worthwhile. The objective of the SBC is the propagation of the gospel, not fellowship. And yet, the more people we can find who affirm our core principles and will unite with us in the propagation of the gospel, the more propagation of the gospel we will accomplish. Unity, therefore, is one factor enabling our effectiveness.
The Southern Baptist Convention is among the denominations most open to your ideas. The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest open democratic meeting of its kind in the world. The only thing keeping you from walking up to a microphone and sharing your opinion is you. But not only can you articulate your viewpoint within the Southern Baptist Convention, you can also have influence here.
Not that I’m saying it is always easy to influence the SBC or that the way to do so is always intuitive. I first got involved in the mechanisms of the SBC back in 2006. Whatever can be done wrong, I’ve done it. I’ve been voted down on the floor of the SBC. Twice. In the same year. On the same question. I’ve had the entire institutional apparatus of entire SBC entities and of state conventions along with hungry hoards of bloggers ravenously looking for me while I was vacationing in the Ozarks because of something foolish and offensive that I wrote. I’ve prognosticated and vituperated and confabulated and masticated for hours on end with fellow Southern Baptists. Just maybe, I’ve made more mistakes than you have. And along the way, I think maybe I finally made enough mistakes to have learned a thing or two—at least, there are ideas I once had about the SBC that I have no longer. And so, I give you a few of my own thoughts about how the SBC works.
The SBC works chaotically. It is easy for people to think that the SBC is some sort of marionette dance, with a highly organized cabal of puppeteers pulling the strings. Friends, that’s just not the case. Since 2006 I’ve had the opportunity to meet most of the so-called “power brokers” of the SBC, and I’ve lost count of the number of them who have expressed frustration at least to some minor degree about what they are NOT able to get done in our convention. We are a convention of many different (sometimes competing) interests, all of which have some influence in the operations of the convention’s ministries. The way it all eventually works out is often a matter of surprise and happenstance. Perhaps it is nostalgia rather than good history, but I’ve got to think that there was a time when Southern Baptists were better organized, in an informal sense. My experience has been that there is a good bit of chaos.
And so, if you want to influence the Southern Baptist Convention, you’ve got to be patient enough to take two steps forward and then one step back. You’ve got to be flexible enough to work through partnerships and coalitions with people who may not share every last one of your interests. You’ve got to be someone who doesn’t turn in his jersey the first time he strikes out at the plate.
The SBC works person-to-person. Even in this day of blogs and email and Twitter, people get persuaded in our convention mostly face-to-face (or, at the very least, voice-to-voice). If you want to change the SBC, you have to get people to vote in support of your proposals. If you want to get people to vote in support of your proposals, there is no better way than for you to talk to people about your ideas. Make friends. Be winsome. Invest in other people. This is, by the way, the reason why denominational employees have a tremendous advantage over people working in local churches when it comes to these matters. Denominational employees are, very many of them, getting paid to do the very thing that builds influence in the SBC: spending time with the Southern Baptists who cast the votes.
If you don’t like the way an entity does something, going to microphone 4 in Houston is not a good first step. It may be just the right LAST step, but the best first step probably involves sitting down calmly with an entity head, and perhaps later a trustee chairman, and winsomely articulating your point of view. After you air your grievance on the floor of the convention (or all over the Internet on a blog post), the cordial discussion with trustees suddenly becomes much more difficult to accomplish.
There’s nothing sinister about speaking with people face-to-face before taking up your cause in front of 9,000 of your closest friends. I’m not talking about smoke-filled rooms or “illegal caucuses.” I’m also not saying that a private conversation will always solve everything—you might indeed have to go to the floor of the convention, and even that measure might not work in the end. Rather, I’m simply saying that even in this electronic age a winsome personality and a corporeal encounter remain the most powerful way to influence people in the Southern Baptist Convention.
The great news about the Southern Baptist Convention is that these encounters are relatively easy to accomplish. I’ve never had a one-on-one conversation with Fred Luter, Frank Page, or Tom Eliff, but I bet that I could have one inside of a week, not because of who I am but because of who they are. Our leaders are, to the last one of them, humble and accessible people who will gladly speak with you. Yes, they’re busy. No, you shouldn’t waste their time. But if you have something important on your heart (and by that, I simply mean something important to you), they will hear you out.
Go ask your local priest what it would take for him to get an audience with the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury. In smaller denominations this level of access is probably customary, but for an organization as large as it is, the level of access that we have to Southern Baptist leaders is something that ought to delight us and in which we ought to take some measure of satisfaction.
Of course, I suspect that if you make an incorrigible pest of yourself, it is possible that your appointments may become more difficult to schedule. Don’t do that. Be respectful of our leaders and be considerate of their time. But don’t be afraid, if you have something positive to contribute to our work, to take your ideas before those who can make them happen.
The SBC works convictionally. If you’re trying to push something contrary to the core convictions of the convention’s churches, then you’ll have to work in the shadows and be resigned to the fact that eventually, someday, the churches will overturn what you’ve done. Real change in the SBC cannot consist of something you can merely move, second, or aye—if you can’t preach it, and preach it with conviction, then you probably cannot harness the convictional passion of the convention behind it.
If you’re the guy who wants the SBC to approve of gay marriage, then you’re going to fail. If you want the SBC to endorse women as pastors, then unless you are a masochist you probably ought to move on. There are things that are already in our statement of faith, questions that have already been addressed within our polity, matters that arise out of the plain reading of scripture for which you will not be able to turn the tide of Southern Baptist opinion.
The SBC works slowly. Not that I haven’t seen people ramrod things through in a hurry. That does happen sometimes. It’s just that, in my experience, those high-pressure initiatives, even when they pass, rarely actually achieve their objectives—rarely actually change the SBC. Instead, they become flash-in-the-pan initiatives. Everyone is talking about them this year; everyone has forgotten about them next year.
Movements like the Conservative Resurgence make a lasting impact. They create and sustain enduring themes that change not just the organizational accoutrements of the convention but reach deeper and alter the culture of the convention. Lots of people could accomplish that; few will want to. It requires years of hard work. But you’re fooling yourself if you don’t believe that the same is true of any organization that you would seek to influence.
In more hierarchical denominations (which would include both the more episcopal denominations and the more entrepreneurial ones), having real influence upon the denomination usually involves having to come into the employ of the denomination, and at a high level of administration at that. The Southern Baptist Convention, on the other hand, gives amazing opportunities to pastors and laypeople alike to make a difference in the convention’s work.
Of course, other people are trying to influence the convention at the same time as you are. Having influence over the work of the convention is both a privilege and a responsibility. Be sure, if you try to exert influence over the convention, that you are doing so not for self-aggrandizement nor for baser motivations. Our convention operates as it does for the sake of the propagation of the gospel. Seek the aggrandizement of Christ (the real Christ, as found in the New Testament) and the magnification of our common gospel ministry and your ideas will do good service for the Master in the SBC.
Something tells me that perhaps I’ve written enough for a first installment. More to come in a subsequent post…