Does it really matter much?
With all of the items appearing on blogs and discussion boards in recent weeks, my guess to answer my rhetorical question would be “no”. That is certainly the way it seems to those of us whose daily work involves service “in the field” so to speak, away from where the spotlight is shining. I don’t think that those who are in a position to “make news” among the leadership of Southern Baptists really give much thought to how their words or their actions will affect the rest of us. We may be partly to blame for this, since the number of messengers coming from the churches to participate in convention business has been steeply and steadily declining for a couple of decades, now.
Change is not easily brought about. It took the conservative resurgence more than a decade of gathering a majority vote of messengers at annual meetings to finally gain complete control of the trustee boards of the seminaries, mission boards and the executive committee. Changes made in the rules once that control was achieved make it even more difficult for any future similar movement to do the same thing. The constituency that is more focused on denominational branding and denominational business is obviously shrinking, as the messenger pool is obviously getting older and smaller. The younger generation of leaders are building different kinds of churches, are much less denominationally “brand name” loyal, and have little patience for the cumbersome process of denominational business. Many of the churches they’ve started in recent years are full of members who are only dimly aware of the church’s affiliation with the SBC, and don’t have a clue, or show a glimmer of interest, in how that works.
So let’s focus on what the grass roots is thinking. I can’t speak for all Baptists, obviously, but from where I sit, I think I can certainly put my finger on the pulse of some genuine “grass roots” church members, and I think I can give you a pretty good idea of what they are thinking when it comes to Southern Baptist Convention issues. I’d guess that the church I serve would fall into a category with thousands of other Southern Baptist churches with regard to its demographics, though being in the inner city probably makes us more socially and culturally diverse than a rural or small town church our size.
Most of our church members, and when I say most, I’m speaking of 90% of them, have little to no awareness of issues at the convention level. They trust their church leadership to keep up with all of that, and advise the congregation accordingly when something requires church action. During our recent switch from the BGCT to the SBTC, we formed a committee of 15 church leaders and working with that group gave me a pretty good idea of their level of “convention awareness.” Even among this group, only about half read any kind of Baptist media source with regularity, a few are keen on bloggers and websites, but most would probably not be able to tell you who Paul Pressler is, even though he lives less than five miles from our church campus, and they wouldn’t be able to name more than one or two of the past twelve SBC presidents.
So, in some individual discussions about SBC happenings, I’ve mentioned some bloggers and some news articles that I’ve clipped and kept, to help people have a frame of reference. We’re talking about people who, for the most part have a fairly clear understanding of the direction the SBC moved with the conservative resurgence in 1979, and would be generally supportive of that movement.
With regard to the “Great Commission Resurgence Task Force,” the publicity and awareness of this particular movement among the grass roots is very dim. Among church leaders who have the responsibility of keeping track of this stuff for their churches it’s not very clear, either, something I’ve noticed at various associational gatherings and other Baptist meetings. The task force has done a really good job of keeping information about their work from the church leadership. Of course, it is still early in the process, and the report won’t be rolled out on the convention floor until June, but even then, I would be surprised if there are very many people who will figure out what it is all about and feel like it is something they can get on board and support.
If the general reaction of church members I’ve engaged in conversation about it is typical of what might happen elsewhere, it is an initiative that will be carried out without a whole lot of support beyond those few individuals who show up for convention meetings. But then, we are in a different period of time in “Southern Baptist Life” than we were three decades back, when denominational initiatives were broadly publicized to guarantee their support. As long as the small group of messengers, and the even smaller, select group of entity executives and trustees, are supportive of something, it will be implemented regardless of what the people in the pews think about it.
The end result will be predictable. A denominational initiative designed around some kind of program approach to increase baptisms and get attendance in church back up, handed down to 45,000 independent, autonomous churches with the very typical “This is what we think you should do because we’re the experts and we should know” approach will be about as successful as Bobby Welch’s recent cross country bus tour (One of our church members remarked, “Who is Bobby Welch?”). In the long run, whether the numbers actually show anything or not, the leaders will pronounce the initiative a “success,” much like the BGCT leadership has done with their Texas Hope 2010 initiative, citing a mix of figures from regular events and specific supportive churches as evidence that “it worked.” Whatever power base it was that wanted to see a reorganization and restructuring of NAMB to its advantage will have what they were after. Other changes that were part of someone’s political agenda will be implemented in the name of progress.
Most Southern Baptist church leaders and members will still be wondering what’s wrong with their own church, and why the median age of their membership is getting past 60, why their baptisms are limited to those under 12 who are children or grandchildren of members, and why they can’t seem to attract people to “come to church” by implementing new, denominational-based programs. They will wonder why the core of their working membership gives up the three or four voluntary leadership positions they have in order to bail out and join the megachurch down the road which offers a smorgasbord of internally focused ministry programs “to meet people’s felt needs.”
So, what’s the next denominational initiative going to be?