I have been a regular attender at a Southern Baptist church since nine months before I was born. I’ve been a member of 10 different Southern Baptist churches over the last nearly five decades – and what a turbulent 50 years they have been. I was saved and baptized in February of 1964 at Immanuel Baptist Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was a different denominational world that I was baptized into than the one I serve in today.
I heard the frustration in my dad’s voice a few years ago as he talked about his church search in the new community into which he and mom had moved. “I can’t find a church I understand. The music is strange. The preaching is strange. I’ve devoted my life to the church and it has abandoned me.” He has been an SBC pastor since the 50s and he feels like a stranger in a strange land in SBC churches today.
The last fifty years has been a time of radical change for the Southern Baptist Convention and its churches and it has left us with an identity crisis. Who are we? What defines a Southern Baptist? What is it that binds us together as a denomination?
We like to think that it was our theological commitment to God’s Word and the gospel it proclaims that brought us together, and there may have been a time when that was true. But it was not so in the SBC I grew up in. We were fraying at our theological edges in the 60s and 70s. Ralph Elliott’s 1961 commentary “The Message of Genesis” became exhibit A among SBC’s conservatives that there was a fracture in the theological makeup of the convention.
It was not theology that united the SBC of my youth.
Southern Baptists were united by something simpler – a common culture and practice. You could go from church to church and find a very similar form of worship and familiar programs. There would be Sunday School at 10, Worship at 11, Training Union at 6 and evening worship at 7. All the Sunday School classes used quarterlies from the Baptist Sunday School Board. You came to SS and filled out your envelope (were you a 100% Christian this week?). Wednesday night was for prayer meeting, with and RAs and GAs for the kids. The WMU was active and often powerful. You could count on the fact that somewhere around 10% of your offerings would go to the Cooperative Program. In December, we gave to Lottie and in the spring we gave to Annie. At the worship services we sang hymns with a piano and organ, led by a man in a suit who waved his right arm to the beat. When we sang the hymn, he did his duty and announced, “You cannot sing ‘Standing on the Promises’ while you are sitting on the premises.” There was a prayer at the offertory that blessed the gift and the giver. The preacher delivered a loud and forceful three-point gospel message that ended with a passionate invitation at the end, while “I Surrender All” or “Just As I Am” was sung. You could walk into any city in the South (the SBC had barely left the Deep South in those days, and many SBC churches in “pioneer” areas were designed mostly for displaced Southerners) and feel at home at the local SBC church.
That was the church I grew up in. It was the only way I knew and I assumed that it was spelled out somewhere in 2 Hezekiah. Oh, there were a few renegades around – a pastor wearing robes and doing liturgies or one flirting with the charismatic movement – but the SBC had a common culture that was comforting and stabilizing. If you were SBC in the 50s, 60s or early 70s, I’m guessing you can identify with the previous paragraph.
There were some key elements of the unity of the SBC at the time.
- We were united by our denominational identity and cooperation in missions through the CP.
- We were united by our isolation from the rest of the Christian world.
- We were united by our traditions, programs and denominational culture.
People who are more recent entrants into the SBC world might not understand the isolationism of the SBC in the days of my childhood. We were a world unto ourselves. I was a student at Dallas Seminary in the late 70s. At the time, if you did not get your degree from a Southern Baptist seminary, you were something of a leper. Because I sensed the call of God to stay within the SBC fold, I transferred to Southwestern for my final year and got the imprimatur of acceptability on my degree.
In 1979, two significant things happened. We elected Adrian Rogers as president of the SBC (I was there and cast my vote!), beginning the war we now know as the Conservative Resurgence. At that same time, leading evangelicals met in Chicago to develop the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, defining the doctrine that would become so controversial in our circle.
In a theology class, I asked Dr. Edwin Blum a question. Would the Chicago Statement have any impact on the battle that had started in the SBC? All these years later I can still remember Dr. Blum’s bemused answer. “Southern Baptists live in their own little world. Nothing that happens in the Christian world affects them.”
It is hard to argue that he was wrong.
Southern Baptists of the 60 and 70s were theologically divided, but united (even isolated from the rest of the Christian world) by a commitment to cooperative missions and a traditional Southern Baptist culture. Today, all of that has changed. We are engaged much more in the greater evangelical world, we are quickly moving away from cooperative to more independent missions and we have left many of our traditions behind.
Where Did My Father’s SBC Go?
I believe that there were several significant influences that have produced this radical change in the SBC over the last 50 years. This list is certainly not exhaustive.
1) The CR scrambled the SBC’s eggs.
The conservative resurgence, whether you loved it or hated it, hastened the end of the SBC of the 60s. During the 20 years or so before the CR began the SBC was maintaining programmatical unity while becoming increasingly theologically diverse. The CR reversed that. The proponents of the CR maintained that there is, in fact, a doctrinal basis for our unity. It’s not enough to just say “I love Jesus” and give to the CP. We need to have a theological core.
I agreed with that, but I think we need to recognize that it was a shock to the cultural and programmatical unity that had marked our recent existence.
There is something else that I think happened at the time. Conservative pastors and churches were growing increasingly frustrated with what we perceived as theological drift within the structures of the convention. So, we started going outside the convention for fellowship, for education for ministry, and for materials. When I was at Dallas, the largest denomination represented among students there was Southern Baptist. Mid-America flourished during this time. Southern Baptists began to turn to other publishers for SS literature and to parachurch ministries for discipleship materials. The hegemony of SBC culture over local churches began to unravel.
So, as conservative (and often large) churches grew increasingly frustrated with the entities of the SBC, they began to do more independent ministries and to give less to the Cooperative Program. It would be hard to argue that the CR was good for the CP. Those who did not want to contribute to the salaries of professors who they believed were undermining the faith began to look for alternate and independent missions options. The statesman of the CR, Adrian Rogers, warned that the Cooperative Program had become a sacred cow to many. It was a useful tool, he said, but not a sacred mandate.
Then, suddenly, these men who had been on the outside were in the positions of power. They had caught the virus of evangelical cooperation and brought it with them into the halls of power. The isolationist tendency of our convention received its first blow from the Conservative Resurgence.
2) The Promisekeepers movement broke down the walls.
I can still remember the chills that ran down my spine as Steve Green sang at the Pastor’s Promisekeeper’s meeting in Atlanta in 1996, “Break Down the Walls.” We were called to a greater unity and brotherhood to reach our cities for Christ.
Promisekeepers (for good or ill) was a grassroots movement that changed our churches from the bottom up. Men went to meetings and worshiped with a freedom and vigor they did not experience in their local churches. They came back to their staid, traditional and isolationist Baptist churches and demanded something more.
It was not just PK, but that organization was the tip of the spear of evangelical ecumenism (EE), a force that was both positive and negative. It brought Christians together, but also caused people to ignore doctrine and biblical truth. People felt an increasing loyalty to the Universal Body that had an impact on local bodies. But my point is not to analyse PK, but to simply observe that it, and the attendant evangelical ecumenism, forever changed SBC Culture.
The PK/EE movement had two notable impacts. First, it dealt another serious blow to SBC isolationism. It may have been the death blow. There are very few SBC churches today that give any indication on their websites of their involvement with the SBC. Denominational identity and loyalty have waned severely.
The other effect was on the traditional worship that marked SBC churches in my childhood. People went to PK and enjoyed a different (more charismatic) style of worship. They went back to their churches and asked why they couldn’t worship like that at their own churches? Contemporary worship services sprung up everywhere which eventually led to churches that abandoned SBC culture and tradition altogether. (As I edit this, I think that I must also credit Promisekeepers as one of the most significant forces in racial reconciliation in the church – it was a major theme. Some of the progress we have made in the SBC must surely be credited to the constant emphasis on it by McCartney and his compatriots.)
3) Megachurches turned everything upside down.
In the 50s and 60s it was almost unthinkable for an SBC church to fund missions independently. We did not do it. Missions was a percentage of undesignated offerings through the CP together with Lottie and Annie.
There were big churches back in those days, of course, but the phenomenon of megachurches had not really taken hold. The last 20 years or so has been described as the Walmartization of the church. Bigger churches grow by assimilating smaller churches. Again, it is not the point of this post to argue the value of megachurches. They are what they are.
But one thing is pretty clear about megachurches. They tend to be more independent and less cooperative than smaller churches. When you have budgets measured in the millions, you suddenly have the option to do certain missions activities on your own (and maintain control over them) that previously might have been done in cooperation with the denomination.
4) Moral and spiritual changes in the world around us.
Obviously, these had an effect. The culture we live in has changed dramatically. There has been a wholesale casting off of moral standards as people have embraced immorality as moral and perversion as normal. The church has had a lot of trouble adjusting to that. This has affected the church as a whole, but has also affected the SBC.
Where Are We Now?
Everything has changed since 1960. There are very few churches that still follow the old program. Even churches that consider themselves traditional today would be viewed as radicals by the churches of my childhood. The cultural and programmatical unity of those years is gone now – the ties that bound us have been broken!
The traditionalism of the SBC still exists, but it is slip-sliding away. We’ve been through the worship wars and the cultural relevance battles. They still rage. But the traditional SBC church I described above is now a rare bird.
SBC isolationism is largely gone as well.
But perhaps the most troubling reality for the SBC is that the cooperative spirit that bound the SBC together in the pre-CR days is now on the endangered species list. We said that it was not enough to just “do missions” together, if we did not share a certain theological core. I said amen to that. But once we un-tethered ourselves from the sacred cow of the CP, we tended to find more and more reasons to “do it our way.”
The theological component that we see as a blessing in the SBC has also become a bit of a problem. Just how far must our theological unity go before we can cooperate. Inerrancy? Yes. Salvation by grace through faith alone? No doubt. Baptism by Immersion? Affirmative. But other issues have come up as well that are not so easily answered.
- What about those with charismatic leanings or private prayer languages?
- Is complementarianism essential to our unity?
- What about election and predestination?
Once we opened the door to a theological bases or fellowship, figuring out where to stop has become an issue.
Where are we now?
Having seen our cultural and programmatical unity shattered in the last several decades, the SBC is facing an identity crisis that threatens our health and even, perhaps, our existence.
Where Do We Go from Here?
There are, of course, no easy answers. I would make several suggestions.
1) We must define the basis of our cooperation.
We have an identity crisis, so we have to define who we are. We no longer have a united culture, so we must define who we are without all those things that bound us together years ago.
Can people as disparate as Southern Baptists have become today find a theological and missional basis for cooperation? If we do not, we will splinter into many smaller and less effective pieces.
2) We must learn to be comfortable with with diversity.
I have chosen to leave the whole racial component out of this, for the sake of time. Southern Baptists are learning to be more racially diverse. But we are also going to have to learn to be culturally diverse as well. Can “coat and tie” Baptists coexist with the “sandals and jeans” set? Can we partner with those who share inerrancy and Baptist theology with us, but disagree on other key theological issues?
We are no longer unified by a monolithic SBC culture. We must learn to partner with those who are different or we will fracture until the SBC becomes insignificant.
3) We must embrace the future
The rear view mirror on my Durango fell off a while back. Its a pain in the neck not being able to look behind you. We always need to keep an eye to the past. But you cannot drive forward if you will only look in your rearview mirror. I think that is an apt description of too many Baptists – trying to drive to the future looking only in the rear view mirror. We have to move forward, bringing the best of our heritage forward but changing and growing to meet the future’s challenges.
- Sunday School was once a new program.
- Someone thought up the Cooperative program as a new strategy.
- Every tradition was once an innovation.
We cannot assume that the old is better than the new, nor that the new is better than the old.
4) We must remember that Christ is the ground of our unity.
As the cultural and programmatic unity of Southern Baptists is stripped away, we need to remember the true ground of our unity – Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord. We have been bought by the blood, baptized in one Spirit into one Body and given the same Spirit to drink. We are one in him!
That is actually a greater unity than the cultural unity we once shared.