The first, and only, time I ever met Ben Cole was at the Baptist Conference on the Holy Spirit at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas a little over a year ago. At that time, I had only recently started attending denominational gatherings after a 14 year hiatus from church staff ministry, so my awareness of his position and influence among Southern Baptists and Texas Baptists of the SBTC stripe was somewhat vague. I had discovered his Baptist Blogger about six months prior to that, and read with interest, along with what I would also call amusement.
I’ve been around long enough to observe many individuals who are labelled “young, up and coming, future stars” in Baptist life. Most of them are, from my perspective, arrogant, full of themselves, and pushed by the professors and mentor pastors who have crowned them with the title. Many of them, perhaps most of them, never achieved the celebrity status pronounced upon them during their early years. That was pretty much my perception of Ben Cole as well, until I met him, heard him preach, and saw him at work at that three day conference. Some of those things are there, to be sure, but there is a balance of humility and passion as well, and no observable selfish ambition. He doesn’t really deny his own faults, in fact, it is almost as if he finds ways to use them in a positive way. He makes big mistakes, admits them, and moves on. He is undeniably brilliant and passionately motivated. Depending on how he uses those qualities, he can be a positive, inspiring leader or a formidable opponent.
So why is it that the Southern Baptist Convention cannot capture and hold the interest of Ben Cole?
There are those who are breathing a sigh of relief that he is exiting the denominational political scene, and others who are hoping he doesn’t let the door hit him in the backside on his way out. I think his exit tells us something about the SBC that we probably need to know, and broadly hints at some problems that may very well be the root cause of decline as well as the solution to reversing it if solved. There are few young ministers Ben’s age who have had the patience and fortitude to endure the convention meetings, study the intricate twists and turns of the bylaws, and observe the activity as long as Ben has, especially for the purpose of attempting to bring about some kind of reform or change. He was once in a position to be given a place among the leadership elite, something that any one of a hundred older wannabees are pushing and shoving in line to get.
Those of us past 50, who were raised in a traditional Southern Baptist church are steeped in denominational loyalty. The small congregation of 70 people in the small Arizona town where I grew up had all of the official programs in place, so I was in Sunday School and Church Training with Baptist Sunday School Board literature, in Sunbeams, R.A.’s and Pioneers on Wednesday nights, and then went to a Baptist college and a Baptist seminary. I can’t remember how many times I spent a week in the summer at a youth celebration at Glorieta. I spent two summers as a student missionary under what was then the Home Mission Board, now NAMB. Each step of the way, the objective of “undergirding the work of the church and the denomination” was part of the program. And while I don’t actually believe that our programs and strategies are superior to those of other Christians, I am used to them. Because I had such a strong respect and admiration for the individuals in my home church who led these programs, and felt such love and acceptance from them, I still have good feelings when I am involved in these programs.
Those elements of almost built-in denominational loyalty are no longer there, at least, not in the way they used to be. No matter how controversial, Ben Cole’s exit from things Southern Baptist is disturbing. Something didn’t connect, and I think it goes beyond the fact that the reform he advocated, while supported by a large segment of individuals in the SBC, could not be brought about. Part of that may be that he, and others who agreed with him, did not have the patience to wait out the long, cumbersome process that would have been required to effect change in the SBC. Perhaps, in the youthful habit of moving quickly from one interest to another, the priority of reform in the SBC slipped below the threshold of tolerance.
Exit strategies can often give us hints as to how to solve the root problems.