I don’t know how many of you know this, but I actually knew John Broadus and Basil Manly (Jr, not Sr – I’m not THAT old) growing up. I’ve been a Southern Baptist a long time. And I think it is safe to say that the SBC that I grew up in is vastly different than the one that exists now, in very many ways. The SBC of 1960s and 1970s would not recognize the SBC of today.
1. The SBC of my youth was homogeneous.
With very few exceptions, you could visit an SBC church and feel like you were home. The church might be bigger or smaller, the preaching and music might be better or worse, but the service would be the same. There would be a piano on one side and an organ on the other. Some of the bigger churches might have a small orchestra, but guitars, drums and such were pretty much absent. We sang out of the same hymnbook. We used BSSB literature (pre-LifeWay). Preachers wore white shirts, dark suits and narrow ties (until the garish 70s hit). On Wednesday night there was prayer meeting with RAs and GAs for the kids. On Sundays, the music director waved his arms and said things like “You can’t sing Standing on the Promises while you are sitting on the premises.” Every single time. The third stanza of a hymn might as well have not been in the book. There was always special music, but nobody clapped – we said, “Amen,” the divinely approved form of clapping.
We have argued whether it is our mission or our theology that held us together as Baptists. I’ve claimed for a long time that while both had some bonding effect, it was really this cultural uniformity. We were united as Southern Baptists most of all by the uniqueness of being Southern Baptists.
2. The SBC of my youth was culturally relevant.
While we preached against sins, we were very much part of the zeitgeist of the culture around us – right up until the 60s cultural revolution changed everything. It is somewhat amusing to hear some of the folks in my generation rail against seeking to be culturally relevant. The fact is, we were so culturally relevant back in the 50s and 60s that we were unwilling to confront some of the sins of America that badly needed to be confronted. We fit in a little too well, but we did fit in. In the Deep South, Southern Baptists were woven inseparably into the fabric of the culture.
We have never, since the cultural upheaval of the 60s and the changes that took place since, found a cultural identity and unifying principle to bring us together as a denomination.
3. The SBC of my youth was isolated from the rest of evangelicalism.
We were a world unto ourselves.
I attended Dallas Seminary for a couple of years and in the fall of 1979, I asked a question of one of my professors, Dr. Edwin Blum. I wondered if the Chicago Council on Biblical Inerrancy that had just released its findings would have any effect on the Conservative Resurgence (didn’t call it that back then) in the SBC. No, he said. Southern Baptists live in their own world and nothing that happens in the rest of the Christian world has much of an effect on anything that goes on in our world.
Honestly, to many Southern Baptists, our world WAS the Christian world. We were isolated. We often viewed non-Southern Baptists with disdain.
4. The SBC of my youth was institutionally focused.
You would never have heard things like, “Don’t go to church, be the church,” back in my day! Church was a place you went to worship and serve. We weren’t stupid. We knew that the church was more than just a building, but for us the institution mattered, the structure was important. We didn’t debate whether church membership mattered; we joined the church. We plugged in.
5. The SBC of my youth was denominationally loyal.
It mattered back then. You were a Southern Baptist. When you went to a new town, you didn’t just look for a church, you looked for a Southern Baptist church. And Southern Baptist churches used the Baptist Hymnal, BSSB literature, had RAs and GAs, and did things the Southern Baptist way. You can’t imagine the scandal the first time we discussed switching our children’s program from RAs and GAs to AWANA. You’d have thought we were considering becoming Buddhist.
6. The SBC of my youth trusted its leaders.
We assumed our denominational leaders had an expertise on things that we did not have. I’m not sure when this changed or why. But back in the days of my youth, there was a sense that denominational leaders knew something we didn’t know. They knew how to do “foreign missions” and “home missions.” They knew what was best for Sunday School and VBS. They were denominational officials, for crying out loud! It was just a simple assumption that we made – that these men knew what they needed to know to lead us.
The Point – Leadership Distrust and the Pontification Reaction
The reaction to the IMB decision to draw down its missionary force has been varied and instructive. It has shown us exactly how much we have changed. We are not who we once were. There was a time, not so long ago, when we would have scratched our heads and said, “Wow, that’s bad.” But the rancor, the distrust, the aspersions cast on Dr. Platt and his administration’s motives would not have taken place as it has today.
I don’t know that the men who led our denomination in the 60s were possessed of wisdom so much greater than those who lead us today that it would explain the difference. The change is better explained by the general change in our culture and in our attitudes. I suppose it is a product of the internet and the explosion of information all around us. We have knowledge at our fingertips that in previous generations were locked in books and so today we tend to view ourselves as experts on almost everything.
Think about this. In the recent discussions on the IMB challenges, how many comments have you seen where someone made an absolute statement asserting that Platt should have done this or shouldn’t have done that. This way would be preferable or that way would have been better. The blatant arrogance of such statements never crossed our minds did it? None of us in the discussion have been a part of a single discussion with the IMB trustees, we’ve not seen any of their documentation, statistics, strategies, information, or ideas. Nothing. And yet, armed with nothing but the public information the board has released, we feel not the least compunction about pontificating on what Platt has done wrong and what he could have done better. It never occurs to us that the judgment of someone who knows ALL the facts could possibly be better than our own even though we only have a fraction of the information.
We are now a nation (a denomination?) of know-it-alls, experts on everything, who regularly substitute our own judgment for the judgment of those who know the facts and reviewed them. In one sense, that is healthy. Many in my dad’s generation were unwilling to question denominational leaders even when they were wrong. But today, the idea of trusting that someone in leadership might make a decision without ulterior motives or hidden agendas seems beyond our ken.
Where did this come from?
Social analysis is not my field, but I would hazard a few guesses. I already mentioned the internet and information explosion which has made unbelievable amounts of knowledge accessible to us. I think blogging has a role in that as well. Consider the author of this post. I am the pastor of a medium-sized church in Iowa. In 1960 I would be able to share my opinions with my fellow pastors at our Tuesday lunch gathering. Last week I wrote a post about David Platt that has been widely circulated. I don’t know what the parameters of “viral” are, but that post is probably the closest I’ve ever come to viral. So, here’s a nobody pastor from Sioux City whose opinions are suddenly being circulated widely. The internet gives a voice to all of us. It also gives us the sense that somehow our opinions matter, that they have worth and value. Sometimes, that may be a self-deceit!
I think the core of the problem may well be the ever-present heresy of self-esteem. The Bible tells us to humble ourselves and warns us against regarding ourselves too highly, but the world tells us to assert ourselves and says that self-esteem is the basis of a healthy person. Will we believe God or man? That pride leads me to believe that my view must be more right than the view of the man in Richmond who sits behind the desk and has studied all the information. My perspective is better than his. My wisdom is wiser. My insight is clearer. Self-esteem has created a monster!
What do we do?
I am not advocating a return to the unquestioning loyalty and obedience of 60s. I don’t think that was any healthier than the hubris and arrogance of today. We need to find that happy balance. I need to trust my leaders and follow them, understanding that they may have information I don’t have and giving them grace even when I disagree – we bear with one another, we forgive, we love and accept even those with whom we disagree. On the other hand, with love and kindness we can also continue to advocate for our viewpoints. We should not be afraid to disagree with leaders (and they should not be afraid to be disagreed with). We need to find that balance of healthy accountability and trust. I’m not sure it will be an easy line, but we must constantly seek it.