You are probably aware that a new controversy has broken out about the future of the SBC. Actually, no. A very long-standing conflagration has burst forth from the depths again. For many years, the SBC has been a traditionalist haven. The Pastor’s conference was one white man in a blue suit followed by another white man in a blue suit followed by another white man in a blue. They preached typical traditional Southern Baptist sermons – always alliterated as God intended!
There is a new breeze blowing in the SBC. This year at the SBC Pastor’s Conference, you will probably see more speakers wearing blue jeans than wearing ties. The rostrum is definitely weighted toward a younger demographic. The “Young, Restless and Reformed” generation will definitely be on display in Phoenix this year.
Here’s what has happened, as best I can tell. I may not have everything exactly in order, but this is how it seems to have gone down.
Deja Vu: The Battle Rages Again
Here is the play-by-play. Actually, I have used colorful language here, but for the most part the debate has been good-spirited and lively – at least among the key players – Brad Whitt, Ed Stetzer, Bart Barber and Nathan Finn. They have carried on this debate, to this point, in a way that brings credit to the blogging community. It may not stay this way, but so far, so good.
Brad Whitt, the senior pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Simpsonville, SC, wrote an article entitled, “Young, Southern Baptist, and Irrelevant,” in which he argued that the traditional wing of the SBC is being marginalized and excluded by the younger, hipper pastors. He points out two significant things. First, prominent conferences are now often filled by younger pastors who seem to have a disdain for traditional things. Second, and perhaps to me most disturbing, the younger generation of preachers which is now being elevated to prominence give little or no support to our denomination through the Cooperative Program.
He didn’t say it, but I think that traditionalists feel as if we are committing denominational suicide by promoting to prominence those who do not have much denominational loyalty or commitment. We are hiring entity heads who showed little commitment to the denomination in their pastorates. The podium at our conferences and conventions are largely filled with people whose Cooperative Program giving and denominational commitment are either minimal or non-existent. Are we turning our denomination over to people who don’t care about the future of our denomination?
Brad’s article is a good read and makes good points, whether you agree with it or not. It would be a good place to start to engage this discussion.
Ed Stetzer Responds
Ed Stetzer wrote an article which seems to respond to the one that Whitt wrote, though it does not mention him specifically. His article, “Traditional, Contemporary and the Future of the SBC” makes a strong argument against the idea that traditionalists are being excluded. He makes (as always) some very strong points. He recalls the words of ridicule that were often spoken by the traditionalists in dismissing and dissing the contemporarians (is that a word?) as Hawaiian shirt-wearing preachers sitting on stools instead of standing behind pulpits. He also argues that the traditionalist is not nearly as excluded as they claim. He posits that the fact that the 2011 SBC Pastor’s Conference is nearly completely populated by the younger, hipper voices should be seen more as equal time than as exclusion.
Bart Barber Responds to the Response
Bart Barber chimed in this morning, with his normal incisive reasoning. In, “Not Yet Aging (Much) Speakers” he engages Ed Stetzer’s article and tries to explain why traditionalists feel as Whitt described. He also recounts a chilling “speech” given by one of the young pastors which demonstrates what traditionalists find problematic in the contemporary movement. I became aware of this whole discussion through reading Bart’s article.
Managing this site doesn’t give me much time to peruse blogs elsewhere, but there are certain authors I read automatically. Bart is one. He’s the E.F. Hutton of Baptist bloggers. When he speaks, I listen – even if i disagree.
Nathan Finn’s Perspective
Nathan Finn, at his personal blog “One Baptist Perspective” has also weighed in on the debate, with an article entitled, “Some Thoughts on Theological and Methodological Diversity in the SBC.” He argues more of a middle position and says that we need to stick closely to theological and doctrinal standards while having a family debate about our methodology. He has some wise suggestions about forming a path for the future.
Nathan Finn for SBC President!
Others, of course, have weighed in and will continue to do so. But these are the main players in the current debate.
Some Perspectives on the Brouhaha
1) Both sides have a tendency to confused methodology with theology.
- Traditionalists (with whom I have a lot of experience – my background sounds a lot like Brad Whitt’s) have a tendency to view being contemporary as theologically suspect. Shedding a suit and tie is seen as symbolic of shedding sound doctrine. I am not saying that either Brad Whitt or Bart Barber is doing this – they have tried to stay away from that. But, at least in my experience, it can hardly be argued that traditionalists have not confused traditionalist trappings of Baptist life with our biblical moorings.
- The younger and hipper contemporary pastors have complained about that, but have engaged in their own caricatures of traditionalists. The implication seems to be that one cannot be both traditional and missional. If you love your tie and coat, you probably don’t really care about the lost generation!
Traditionalists tend to be defensive at times and the contemporarians (I’ve used it twice, its an official word now) can tend to throw out the theological baby with the traditional bathwater.
2) I think much of the debate is an exercise in majoring on minors!
What matters? The fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith matters. We cannot compromise the doctrines related to the gospel. And we must stand for what we have defined as Baptist doctrine. Of course, we can’t even agree on that sometimes. But there are distinctives about who we are as Baptists that we need to hold on to. Someone can be a good Christian and not be Southern Baptist, but there are certain things that Southern Baptists need to believe to be Southern Baptists.
Unfortunately, in my view, both sides have majored on minors.
Traditionalists have sometimes made things like clothing, musical style, offering an invitation or abstaining from alcohol into biblical fundamentals. Contemporarians are sometimes guilty of letting their desire to be culturally relevant lead them to compromise even key doctrines. I challenge you to go t0 the website of these hip megachurches and find any evidence that they are affiliated with the SBC. That is often kept like a state secret.
3) We need to focus on what really matters.
NT churches evangelized the lost, proclaimed God’s Word, shared deep fellowship together and worshiped God in Spirit and in truth. I am not expert on early Church history, but I think it is safe to say that the way they worshiped in Jerusalem would seem very strange to traditional Southern Baptists. And the light-show, big-screen, driving-beat, megachurch style of the contemporary churches would seem like it is from another planet.
There is a lost world that needs to hear the message we proclaim. I am eternally grateful that the SBC stood strong on the fundamental doctrines of the faith. If we ever waiver from that, I will be out the door immediately. I am Baptist because I am baptist – because I believe in immersion of believers and agree with the basic doctrinal stances of the SBC. I think there are some errors in the BF&M, but I am content to hold that as my doctrinal statement.
We have to redefine ourselves. We are Bible-believers. We are Baptists. And beyond that, who cares? If you preach the gospel and maintain sound doctrine, we shouldn’t care whether you have a piano, organ and robed choir behind you or drums and guitars. Please folks, let’s let the main thing be the main thing.
The pettiness of stylistic superiority is killing us! From both sides!
4) Both sides have a role to play.
My church is very traditional, though we do have a contemporary service, it still feels pretty traditional. The simple fact is that an unchurched 24-year-old who wandered into our services on Sunday morning might feel like he had gone back in time. It would feel strange to him.
The hipster churches, if they hold tight to the fundamentals and distinctives, can reach people our church won’t reach. And vice-versa. Why not bless one another instead of demanding methodological conformity?
5) Both sides have a point
The recent Rob Bell discussion has brought to the forefront the dangers of “relevant” church. There are barriers in many of our churches to reaching the lost, and we should remove those. I have no problem with contemporary churches. If I were starting a church, it would be contemporary, beyond doubt. But when we start removing the barriers that keep people out of church and away from Christ, the tendency is to turn down the gospel volume. The gospel is an offense to sinners! It tells them that they are lost, under God’s wrath and deserving of hell. Not exactly positive and affirming. The tendency has been in some contemporary churches to downplay the hard truths of scriptures.
On the other hand, the tendency in traditionalist churches has been, at times, to refuse to tear down barriers that do not matter. Some have become the methodological equivalents of the King James Only movement. They are used to the wording of the 1611 classic, and so they identify any changes from the KJV wording as ungodly. It is, perhaps, the most ridiculous and unbiblical movement within modern fundamentalism. But are we doing the same thing with style?
I’ve seen it all my life. The standard for a lot of people is not the Early Church, but the Baptist church of the 50’s. If we would only go back to the way we used to do things in the 50s all would be well. Spring and fall revivals. Hymns. 12-stanza invitations. Stomping and snorting preachers. None of these things is wrong, but none of them are biblically mandated nor were they present in the Early Church. I can speak with some authority here. A lot of traditionalists elevate stylistic and methodological preferences to the status of biblical fundamentals.
A traditional Baptist church can be a solid, godly, missional church. A contemporary church can be a solid, godly, missional church.
6) Are there other agendas here?
I suspect that some of this angst is driven by two key debates going on in the SBC – Calvinism and Alcohol. I don’t think that is what is driving Ed Stetzer, Bart Barber, or Nathan Finn (who is Calvinist and mostly traditional). They seem to have genuine ecclesiological and theological concerns in the debate. But I think that the emotion and force of argument in this general debate may be driven by other issues than just worship style.
Many of these young and hip contemporary pastors are, in fact, reformed. And they often believe that the Bible prohibits drunkenness but does not demand abstention. Many of the traditionalists are non-Calvinist and abstentionists. I am suspicious that some of the stylistic debate may be driven by these issues. Of course, these categories are anything but universal. But I think that there may be something to it.
We are a Great Commission convention. Let’s be about the Great Commission.
1) Let’s hold unswervingly, unapologetically and boldly to the fundamental doctrines of the gospel (absolute truthfulness of Scripture, Trinity, Deity of Christ, blood atonement, salvation by grace through faith alone, etc). Let us maintain our distinctive Baptist doctrines. Let us hold these without compromise.
2) Let’s get as many methodological ships in the sea as we can. I’ll fish with a cane pole. You can use your high-tech fishing gear. Someone else can cast a net. But let’s all get fishing!