There are probably more than a few messengers from the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting left in Orlando, and I’d guess that many of them are standing in lines today in the heat at Disneyworld or Epcot Center. Remember a few years back, the boycott of Disney? Yeah, it didn’t work too well. It’s hard to get people to take something like that seriously when you plan your convention in Orlando, and I think that’s happened twice now since the boycott. I’ve avoided going both times. It’s a personal perspective, but I think Orlando is one of the worst places in the United States to attend a convention. The parking is expensive and hard to find, the hotels are shabby, dirty and overpriced, the traffic is terrible and the signals seem designed to keep it clogged, the food is nothing to brag about, the mosquitos and other assorted insects find their way into your room, your bed, your luggage and your shower, and the summer heat and humidity are unbearable. It was so much more pleasant to stay at home and watch selected portions of the convention on my computer.
As a blogger, and a Southern Baptist, there were a few things that captured my attention related to what happened around this annual meeting, and how that will shake out in the future.
The SBC Majority Initiative
Kudos to Les Puryear, the North Carolina pastor who started the SBC Majority Initiative. Les did the research and put together a website, pointing out that, while megachurches get all the attention, and hold down all the leadership positions, the vast majority of Southern Baptists still worship in small churches, and it is long past time for those churches, who are also holding up far more than their fair share of financial support, to be included proportionately in the leadership.
Part of the problem that small churches encounter in having any level of influence at all is that they lack the kind of resources necessary to get their full allocation of messengers to the convention. Most of them struggle to send even their pastor and his wife, and I personally have paid my own way to SBC meetings in the past when serving as a staff member at a small church that couldn’t afford to send me. I hope Les continues this emphasis, and I would strongly encourage them to find people in the west, where small churches are the rule, to get to the convention in Phoenix next year. Les made a motion to allocate the leadership positions of the trustee boards along lines of percentages based on their weekly attendance. It was referred to the executive committee, which is an effective means of killing it, but they need to press on, and be a presence in Phoenix next summer.
Resolutions and Motions Proposed by Dr Dwight McKissic
Dwight’s resolutions didn’t make it out of the committee. The motion he made to amend the constitution to consider churches which endorse, approve or affirm racism as not being in friendly cooperation with the convention was referred to the executive committee. It’s anyone’s guess as to how that will be handled, though referral of motions is usually a means of making sure they do not see the light of day again.
I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed. I think the SBC thinks it has “done enough” in this regard. There’s not a depth of understanding among caucasian Christians when it comes to the perception of racist attitudes and actions, and of course, there are secular political issues which get in the way as well, not to mention denominational politics. Whites can’t, or don’t want to, see the “glass ceilings” that exist in denominations and churches that catch and hold down not only African Americans, but people of other racial backgrounds as well. But I think that denominational politics may have played a role in these resolutions and motion not gaining much traction in the convention. The SBC leadership can be very rigid and unforgiving when they think their unquestioned authority is challenged, and Dwight’s disagreement with the powers that be over private prayer language is probably a factor here. That’s my guess, anyway.
The Great Commission Resurgence
I can’t argue with the need, among the churches of the SBC, for a “Great Commission resurgence.” The statistics bear that out as well as anything can. But a drop in church attendance, declining baptism numbers and declining membership figures will not be resolved by this denominational initiative. I must admit, it is hard to tell, simply by reading the document produced by the task force, whether the initiative is designed to protect certain denominational institutions or whether it is to allow for a genuine restructuring and change that will make the Cooperative Program more efficient and effective as a resource for kingdom work. There’s probably a little bit of both in there. But having a few of the more prominent denominational “insiders” come up with a statement and a plan to “do something” isn’t going to get the desired results. There are more than 45,000 churches in the SBC, and each one of them has their own unique place, set of problems and difficulties, and human resources. A “one size fits all” denominational program, centered around the old, traditional rallying points of “do more evangelism” and “give more money” will no longer work.
Though in recent years, our members have collected themselves in larger and larger groups, the total membership is getting smaller. The megachurches largely gather their congregations from members of smaller churches enticed away by the smorgasbord of ministries and programs that are offered. Genuine kingdom work, the basic evangelism of people who are lost, isn’t happening there. The absence of younger adults, particularly those between 18-35, is very noticeable.
What is working, in a manner that is both theologically sound and patterned after biblical models of the church, are approaches which center around the use of the terms “missional” and “organic.” Small groups, in which believers are discipled, minister to each other, and worship using their spiritual gifts in community, are reaching into the lost population unlike any denominational emphasis or program ever has. These churches and individuals are not familiar with denominational organizations or strategies, and the operation of “cell churches” or small home fellowship groups does not lend itself to the kind of control over theology and the church in general that Southern Baptist leaders have come to depend on as theologically essential. The Acts 29 movement, and what I will call “emergent type” congregations are rejected by established, traditional denominational leadership, but they are clearly blessed by the presence of the Holy Spirit in that people are drawn to Jesus as a result of their existence and approach. Most of the objections to their doctrine and “theology”, when carefully examined, are more about the way they go about doing things than they are about their actual beliefs. Their organization and the way they are structured is based on the descriptions of the early church in the New Testament. Those few congregations who utilize this approach that are affiliated with the SBC are, in most cases, among the leaders in per-capita baptisms and in establishing new church plants. There are a few bright spots in the leadership who seem to realize what is happening, like Danny Akin, who actually invited Mark Driscoll from Mars Hill Church in Seattle to speak to and dialogue with the students at Southeastern Seminary, and then weathered a storm of criticism as a result, but that’s what will have to happen if the churches are to see a practical, biblical model of the church that works.
What does the future hold for Southern Baptists?
I have often stated that the Southern Baptist Convention, especially the leadership core and the messengers who make up the annual meeting each year, appear to be backward and provincial in everything they do. This year’s convention didn’t change my impression of it. The convention gives the appearance of openness and inclusiveness, but in reality, depends on the fact that only the most interested and aware, and personally prosperous, church leaders, pastors and members will put out the money required to attend an annual meeting. So 10,000 messengers from fewer than 10% of the churches conduct all the business, name the trustees, set the budget and listen to the preaching. A high percentage of those messengers, though elected by their local churches, earn their salary from a convention-related institution, giving their executive bosses a lot of influence and leverage on the convention floor. Most officer elections are popularity contests. Every committee figures in to some kind of control or power, right down to the one that determines time, place and preacher, because the geographic location of the convention creates larger participation from the surrounding states and has an effect on the way the ballots fall in officer elections.
It has become painfully obvious that few people under 35 years of age, even those who are leaders of churches, have an interest in perpetuating this cumbersome structure as a means of conducting denominational business. They stay away in droves. Cajoling and browbeating people into feeling obligated to attend the convention doesn’t work, but the ideas that have been put forth which would clearly raise the number of messengers, such as registration and voting on line as you watch live streaming of the events, are rejected as being either too costly or too impractical. It seems that the more messengers who could be involved, the better the convention would be, but it seems that the thinking is that too many messengers participating in the convention would make it harder for one group to run the show.
Frank Page, the newly elected president of the Executive Committee, made a statement a few years ago while he was president of the convention, that as many as 15,000 SBC churches could be facing the closing of their doors in the next decade. I agree with that assessment. There is probably not a whole lot that can be done to prevent that now. And a favorite author of mine, Neil Cole, in his book “Organic Church,” says, “The huge megachurches of this past century will be looked upon as an anomaly, not the norm, of our time in history.” I agree with that assessment as well.
It’s time for some change.