I have been attending a Southern Baptist church since nine months before I was born. I have never been a member of a church that was not Southern Baptist, nor attended a non-SBC church on a regular basis. I am a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid, and my parents served as SBC missionaries for one term while I was growing up. I was educated at an SBC-affiliated college and graduated from Southwestern Seminary.
I am pretty much Baptist born and Baptist bred. And I have always assumed that I would serve out my years as a pastor of a Southern Baptist church.
That is still my hope and goal. I love my denomination (though I often find it maddening and frustrating) and I want it to prosper and grow and be an agent of Great Commission ministry for generations to come.
I am beginning to fear that this may not be the case.
I see it happening in my body – the process of decay. We had a yard sale to raise money for an upcoming trip to Taiwan last week, and I helped to haul a rectangle trampoline from my house to the church – about 200 yards or so. Once, I was a strong guy who could hold my own in that kind of physical labor. The old grey preacher just ain’t what he used to be. I had to stop several times for breaks and my arms felt like they were on fire. I’m still sore!
I am slowly but surely going the way of all things. This mortal flesh will decay.
Is the SBC headed in that same trajectory? Do churches and denominations have the same kind of life-span that people do? Do we have youth where we spring up and grow rapidly, a middle age in which we struggle to maintain and hold up, then an old age in which the process of decay inevitably drags us toward our mortality?
I think there is some evidence that all human things, not only our bodies but also our nations, our societies, our institutions and even our religious organizations have a certain life-cycle, a trajectory of birth, growth, decay and death.
Maybe the SBC is reaching that stage where the joints ache a little and our strength is failing. Maybe we are just growing old and we need to come to terms with our mortality.
Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe there is yet a hope for the SBC to be revitalized and re-energized, to once again be a vibrant, Great Commission-fulfilling institution!
But, I believe that if this is to be, we need to forge a new SBC Majority.
There has been a lot of argument in recent years about who constitutes the SBC grassroots, the majority. To be frank, I don’t know who the majority is. Is the majority still traditional SBC or has the more culturally relevant iteration of SBC life become the new majority? Does the majority support the changes that have come recently or not?
Of course, these are questions that will be answered over time. But I am not trying to argue today who is and who is not the SBC grassroots majority. My point is that we need to forge a new SBC majority that unites over that which matters most and partner together for missions and ministry.
A Fractured Convention
We have been in a process of splintering now, slowly but surely, since 1979. We banded together to stand against the advance of liberal theology in our midst – Calvinists and other soteriological stripes alike, traditional Baptists and those who were more hip and coo;, we all united to face a common foe we saw as a threat.
Then, we won the war and the SBC was established firmly as a Bible-believing, inerrantist convention.
Once the war was won our unity began to slowly unravel. There was no threat to bring us together and our differences on secondary and tertiary theological issues, our stylistic and cultural preferences came to the fore. We became Baptist Identity adherents or Big-Tent Baptists. We became Calvinists and non-Calvinists, traditionalists and cultural progressives, cessationists and continuationalists. We became megachurches and smaller churches. “Conservatives” splintered into several significant camps.
As would be expected, these SBC splinter groups began to think that maybe they could do missions and ministries better their own way than in cooperation. In my youth, Southern Baptist churches did missions through the Cooperative Program. Period. That was just our way. Now, many of our leading churches have essentially abandoned CP missions for their own programs or at best include CP giving as a part of their missions program – often a small part.
So, is there a solution? I don’t know, but I think one great step in the right direction would be for us to seek a new SBC majority, based on principles that can unite us. Perhaps this is just a pipe dream divorced completely from reality. But I believe it is both biblical and possible, if we will make the right choices in how we relate to each other.
The Solution? Advocating a New SBC Majority
I would hope and pray that a majority of Baptists will unite around a few basic principles. There are always going to be some hard-core zealots who are unwilling to work with those who disagree even on tertiary issues.
1) The New SBC Majority would unite around the Great Commision.
I’ve met a few Calvinists who seem more interested in spreading the Calvinist agenda than in the Great Commission. I’ve run into a few anti-Calvinists who care more about confronting and controlling Calvinism than they do about the Great Commission. But I think most Calvinists and most non-Calvinists care more about making disciples than they do about their differences on these issues.
With the world hurtling toward hell, with sin abounding and destroying, with the darkness encroaching more and more, can we really snipe at other God-glorifying, Word-loving, Christ-proclaiming Baptists?
We have a job to do. It is more important than whether we wear suits or blue jeans to preach, or whether we sing hymns or rock out to a praise band.
We have to put our differences in perspective. I honestly believe most of us are willing to do that.
2) The New SBC Majority would accept the BF&M as our sole doctrinal standard.
The BF&M is not meant to be an exhaustive Baptist systematic theology. It is a document that defines our doctrinal standards. It is, in a sense, a lowest common denominator document. It is not Calvinist, but neither is it anti-Calvinist. Whatever the specifics of our soteriological system, we can subscribe to the BF&M as the ground of our fellowship and partnership.
We can continue to argue and debate our theological differences, but we need to recognize those who ascribe to the BF&M as fully Baptist and doctrinally qualified for SBC participation.
3) The New SBC Majority would promote and encourage Cooperative Missions
I do not see how the SBC can thrive unless we buy into the fundamental idea that we can do more together than we can do separately. Too many churches believe that they can do missions better their own way than in cooperation. That will kill our convention slowly but surely.
There was a time in my younger years when, frustrated by the warring that dominated convention life, I considered other denominations. But the CP is one of the main reasons I stayed. I think the CP is a great way to fund missions and I wouldn’t want to do missions any other way. We are part of the largest and one of the most effective world missions programs in church history. Hopefully, NAMB can get its act together and give us a home missions program as effective as our international work.
But fundamental to any hope for the future is an SBC missions program, at home and abroad, that is so effective that we all want to be part of it, regardless of our divergent viewpoints.
4) The New SBC Majority would embrace conviction but eschew schism.
We will always have differences – different styles, different preferences, different ministry philosophies and different theological perspectives. And we must honor those differences and embrace the idea that each of us, within the parameters of the BF&M and cooperative missions, should follow our convictions as we seek to obey Christ’s Great Commission. Calvinists would do things as their convictions dictate. Megachurches would pursue their megaministries. Traditionalists would dress in suits, sing hymns, hold spring and fall revivals – exactly as they believe. Non-Calvinists would follow their convictions and more contemporary churches would do things as they wish.
The New SBC Majority would recognize that we are better off having a wide variety of churches reaching in different ways to different people. And we would honor one another. Jack Sprat churches would minister in non-fat ways and Mrs. Sprat churches would minister in non-lean ways and betwixt them both you see, they would reach all the community.
It is natural that Calvinists would hang with Calvinists and traditionalists with traditionalists. But the New SBC Majority would be intentional in seeking fellowship outside their narrow groups.
I am not under any misconception that this majority exists today. Frankly, I am afraid that we are too schismatic, too parochial, too absorbed in our differences to embrace this healthy unity.
But I can hope. And I can pray. And I can use this forum and the small voice I have to promote this spiritual pipe dream of a New SBC Majority.
You may think its silly, but I am afraid that unless we embrace our differences, uniting around the BF&M and Cooperative missions in spite of them and recommit ourselves to the Great Commission, this great convention may continue its slow demise until we find ourselves residents of the Shady Acres Denominational Graveyard.
I don’t want that to happen.