If you take the time to read all three of these links, then you’re really interested in the subject of the SBC’s future. The convention met in Orlando in June, elected a third president in a row without direct connections to the group that has controlled it since 1979, selected a new CEO, Frank Page, who was the first in this recent succession and also not connected to the control group, and approved a report from the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force aimed at “doing something” about the decline in baptisms and total membership that has shaken the leadership of the SBC.
The link to Wade Burleson’s blog has to do with another controversy that is swirling around among some elements of the convention, namely whether or not Dr. Ergun Caner, former president of Liberty Seminary, was “exhonerated” or determined to be guilty of fabricating portions of his testimony as an “ex-Muslim” by being demoted to professor. Honestly, I don’t think that action, or the statement made by Liberty University, is as unclear or as hard to interpret as some people are making it. The university stated that he made “factual statements that are self-contradictory.” Not knowing what steps toward repentance and restoration were asked of him, I can only guess that his demotion, rather than being fired, was an act of grace on the part of the school, but it was clearly not an exhonoration. Wade’s argument in response to some vitriolic comments on the SBC Today blog is that the kind of fundamentalist attitude exhibited by this small group of Dr. Caner’s apologists will have a negative effect on the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Robert Parham, of Ethics Daily, one of the SBC’s long time moderate critics, seems to think that there are some signs that “fundamentalism” is slacking off at the convention meetings, and that is evidenced by the individuals who have been elected president the past five meetings, and the choice of Frank Page as executive committee president by a clear majority of its members. The link from The Big Daddy Weave is a moderate perspective that disagrees with Parham. All three of them make some valid points and some interesting observations, coming to different conclusions about the SBC’s future.
In a recent conversation I had with a friend who is a pastor of an independent, fundamental Baptist church in another state, we were discussing the drop in baptisms and membership in the SBC. He noted that a similar trend has been occurring among IFB congregations, though some of the older ministers don’t like to talk about it. He pointed out that thirty years ago, the majority of the top twenty largest churches in America were IFB and that today, among the top twenty, not one is IFB. His assertion was that many IFB churches “majored on the minors” and spent a lot of time and effort making rules for people to follow regarding their dress, hair styles, music choices, entertainment options and other personal matters, rather than investing in real discipleship that teaches people how to be Christlike and follow Jesus. Two things resulted from that posture. One was that they became increasingly ineffective in evangelism, because they were distracted doing other things. The other was that the younger people in their churches got tired of being told that discipleship was the same thing as following arbitrary rules, and they went elsewhere looking for real Christian discipleship.
Wade Burleson’s blog argues that the continued effects of fundamentalism, which lacks grace and exhibits the kind of “my way or the highway” position that he notes in the SBC Today authors regarding Dr. Caner, will be a factor in the continued decline of the SBC. A lot of time, energy and effort has been devoted to protecting personalities and promoting an image of sinless perfectionism among those who are revered by adoring admirers. A lot of time, energy and effort is devoted to converting people, though it seems that the object of the “conversion” is not always Christ, but rather, a particular philosophical perspective or worldview, or even a political position. More effort is put into purifying the “Baptist identity” of a church than is put into helping people build a kingdom identity and learn how to think with the mind of Christ.
Though they offer differing perspectives, both Parham and Weaver point out that the SBC’s business centers on how the Cooperative Program money is spent, what public statements the convention makes on social issues, and determining the who’s who of prominent, important leaders. There is a lot of talk about the Great Commission, but the actions that are taken don’t have much to do with actually doing the Great Commission. The convention meeting is a two day paper shuffling exercise. In the field, the churches are shuffling members around, gathering into larger congregations offering more consumer goods to members with inwardly focused resources, but with the total membership shrinking as those in need of deep discipleship look elsewhere to find it, or drop out because they can’t get it where they’re going.
Outside of the hothouse of the two day convention meeting, there are few people who know, or care about who the important people are in the SBC. Southern Baptists like to bill themselves as “the nation’s largest Protestant denomination,” and lay claim to a membership of 16 million, though on any given Sunday, only about 6 million are actually in church, and that’s a small percentage even of church-goers, much less the whole country. If you’re into evaluating success by the numbers, those 6 million Southern Baptists are able to assist in the actual conversion to Christ of about 250,000 people each year, though most of those are either children of Christian families, people whose first baptism wasn’t authentic, or Christians who are joining from another denomination. The impact on the kingdom, of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, is far below the resources it consumes, or the self-importance claimed by its leadership.
It is not pivoting toward a new future.