We are a few days away from another SBC Annual Meeting. Usually, I await this annual pilgrimage with eager anticipation. I love the fellowship, networking, reunion with old friends, meeting of new people, learning about the work of our entities and auxiliaries, politicking, tweeting, free books, preaching, prayer, testimonies and general camaraderie of gathering with messengers from across the nation. This year, however, I have a healthy dose of dread to go along with it. These past few weeks and months have been draining and disheartening to say the least. There are still major questions up in the air about what will happen when we gather in Dallas and there is a dark cloud of recent scandals, political battles, and the continuing decline in numbers that have me discouraged – and I’m the resident optimist here. Still, I hold on to hope. I hope that in the midst of this mess that we are in, that God will do something in us and bring about change to our denomination and its churches. I remain hopeful that God will work all these things together for our good and His glory. Here are a few things I’m hoping for and praying God will bring about.
I hope we can be freed from our denominational egotism. Having only been a Southern Baptist for about 30 years and living in the Midwest (i.e. the North) I have always been kind of an outsider in Southern Baptist life. I don’t know what it’s like to live in the Bible Belt and have no memories of the good ol’ days of traditional Southern Baptist church culture. I became a Southern Baptist in college at mega-church that became my home church. Since that time, I have been delighted to be a part of the Southern Baptist family and the cooperative ministry that does much good in the world and allows our church to partner with other like-minded Baptists in Kingdom work.
Having grown up in the non-Baptist evangelical world, though, the one thing that I never got used to in SBC-life was the overarching attitude that if it wasn’t Baptist then it didn’t exist or at least was not significant. I’ve never liked the triumphalism that supposed that the Southern Baptist Convention was the last, best, only hope for the world. My experiences outside the Convention made such thinking untenable and a bit ridiculous. To be honest, I’ve seen that attitude among many in the SBC and more than a few in denominational leadership for as long as I’ve been a Baptist and it’s always annoyed me. I’ve largely let it go with a few apologetic comments concerning what God is doing outside the SBC, but it probably should be rebuked as arrogance. Combine that with the number of otherwise intelligent pastor theologians that treat the theology of those outside the Baptist world with straw-man representations and just plain ignorance – the old joke rings true that the Baptists will have their own walled community in heaven thinking they’re the only ones up there.
I hope that one of the outcomes of this period – where the hypocrisy of many of our leaders is exposed, where the numbers have been in a long enough steady decline to no longer be explainable by changes in reporting and sociological factors, where every Convention we do something stupid in front of a watching world – is that we come out of this more humble and replace our collective superiority-complex and go-it-alone-us-against-the-world missiology with an earnest desire to be partners in the harvest with other gospel-believing networks and denominations. At least an acknowledgement that God is at work outside the SBC would be a welcome change.
I hope we have a new passion to minister to the hurting. In the wake of the #metoo, #churchtoo, #SBCtoo judgment that is sweeping our nation, I hope that we are awakened to the tragedy of abuse within our churches. I hope that churches will be diligent to advocate for the victims of assault and violence, and to take a hard, deep look at our policies and practice in responding to allegations of abuse. But I hope for more. Not only do we need a reckoning of the abuse that takes place in and by some churches, I hope that ALL churches would be awakened to the hurting people around us and of the long-term effects of trauma on many of our members. As God is exposing the hidden abuse that has long been covered-up in some places, I hope that ALL of our churches will awaken to the need to effectively minister to those in our congregations and communities who have suffered the effects of child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, rape, incest, sexual assault, and the many other evils of this world.
While I am an advocate of church growth, one of the casualties of the desire to grow in numbers and even plant self-sustaining churches is to focus on those people among whom ministry is relatively easy and the problems are routine. The road to healing from trauma and grief is a long one and effective ministry requires walking with someone through deep valleys over the long haul. Additionally, such ministry is inherently messy and take tremendous emotional energy. Yet, we see Jesus’ focus on the very people that churches tend, if recent reports are endemic to our churches, to ignore or silence or give callous “biblical” instruction or refer to specialized ministries so we can focus on our “mission.” I hope all this wakes us up to the call of the gospel to heal the brokenhearted, preach peace to the captives, and for us to spend and be spent for the souls of others.
I hope we have a revival of hearts to put our differences aside and work together for the cause of the gospel. Every now and then I ask my SBCVoices friends if it’s really worth it to be Southern Baptist. Is it worth the fight to see our denomination truly be unified across soteriological and racial/ethnic lines; to continue to support SBC causes even as we make horrific and embarrassing mistakes in front of a watching world; as we move at a snail’s pace in sharing leadership with minority groups; even as some seem to be itching for a fight on a daily basis about things that just don’t matter, engage in smear-politics, and defend the indefensible acts of our leaders; when every time a loud-mouthed divisive prognosticator falls there is a new one to take his place; when it would be easy to lead my young church out of the SBC to another network or just be non-denominational. And I keep concluding, YES, it’s worth it. I’m fiercely loyal. My friends are here. My entire ministry has been here. The SBC has made an investment in me for 30 years at the church, association, state and national level. I feel compelled to stick it out. Besides, the SBC still has a tremendous potential to be used of God to make Christ known in our communities and among the nations. I remain committed to the SBC and to working to make it better. My prayer is for a day when we can put all the petty bickering aside and just rejoice in the gospel together and take that gospel to the world around us. I hope for that, but I have severe moments of doubt.
I’m weary as many of you probably are as well. But I’m praying for better days and I’m praying that the present turmoil won’t just die down but will cause us collectively to take a long hard look at ourselves and ask God to change us. Maybe God is done with Southern Baptists and there is no hope. Then again, the Bible offers hope again and again with the promise that if judgment leads to repentance that God will restore and once again use us to bring glory to his name. I pray we do and He does.