November 19, 2017

The Baptist Way: The Dire Situation of the Southern Baptist Convention as I See It

sbclogo.jpgOne of the reasons I am doing this series of posts on “The Baptist Way” is to face what is going on in Baptist life today: We’re losing our soul and our identity. We’re becoming the very definition of generic evangelicalism. We need to face what’s happening to us and we need to stop it.

Many of our churches are going to vanish in 20+ years, and they won’t be replaced. As much as we are stressing new churches we are not going to stop the collapse of thousands of our own churches that contained two or three generations of people that defined Southern Baptist life for 50+ years. The megachurches are there, but we can’t be a denomination of mega-churches and do what we do. That’s a pipe dream that’s killing us.

The desperate cry of some leaders for more baptisms is looking completely past the problems of this convention. Our problem isn’t primarily evangelism, but the health of our churches, the state of our leadership and our strange attempts at confessional integrity. (I would call the SBC leadership’s use of the BFM a kind of psuedo-confessionalism. Useful for political purposes and generally ignored otherwise.)

Many of our younger leaders and creative contributors are going out the door. Many who aren’t going out the door are going to ignore their denomination at every opportunity and network with someone like the Founders or Rich Warren. When your young pastors are already tired of what you’re doing to them, something is very wrong.

Thousands and thousands of our people are going to vanish into generic evangelical churches and thousands and thousands of our churches are going to become generic evangelical churches. Among those who remain in our churches, the level of specifically Baptist doctrinal knowledge and practice is minute and decreasing by the day. Anyone with a distinctive point of view, be they Calvinist or evangelical Catholic, can have a field day among Southern Baptists.

Our pastors are overwhelming becoming practitioners of an atheological, pragmatic, entrepreneurial model of ministry that’s entirely about church growth and church imitation, which in generic evangelicalism is primarily about fluff, fizz and putting on a good show. Preaching, once the showcase of the SBC’s commitment to its distinctives, now wallows in the quicksand of generic moralism, imitative devotional pabulum and stale fundamentalist carping.

Worship leadership has suffered twenty years of worship wars, and left every church looking for a twenty-five year old CCM artist-in-training willing to sing choruses and put together a band. Music schools in our seminaries have become dinosaurs and traditional worship is increasingly the domain of left-of-center SBC churches.

Our denominational leadership speaks of revival endlessly, yet the direction of our churches has never been less spiritual, more pragmatic, more imitative of secular marketing methods or less God-centered. Any denominational meeting is an adventure into the dreaded unknown. Will the fundamentalists denounce the Calvinists or the emerging? Will we hear about the culture war or Rick Warren? Will we fight over where someone was baptized or if they ever spoke in tongues? What new slogan will we be required to be enthusiastic about this year? Will we endorse GOP candidates openly or just have them speak to us via television?

It is safe to say that at no time in Southern Baptist history has there been less confidence in leadership, and the infighting among leadership shows no sign of abatement. In the era following the so-called conservative resurgence, conservatives are now sub-dividing over theology, style, labels, speaking in tongues, discount landmarkism and, of course, Calvinism.

Almost every Calvinist pastor I know is under attack in his association or convention for no reason other than a despising of our own heritage and the rejection of real diversity. Every one of these men has a fine church. Most of them have growing churches. All preach the Gospel and want to be SBC. This isn’t right, and we’re going to rue the day we started persecuting Charles Spurgeon and James P. Boyce out of the denomination.

As thousands of SBC churches remove Baptist from their names, drop the offerings and programs, drop out of most local and state denominational activities, network with Warren/Hybels/Acts 29/etc, put the Cooperative program to bed and embrace generic evangelicalism or angry fundamentalism, America’s largest protestant denomination becomes less and less relevant. With our seminaries full and our missionary force strong, we still have a future, but tectonic plates are shifting, and we have yet to see where they will settle.

One of the things about being SBC is that you can always find room for hope. A lot of good is happening, but and some of it is happening in places that can make a difference. I pray those good things grow and are blessed. I intend to be part of the solution, and not the problem. The Baptist church that I belong to and the Baptist ministry where I serve give me many opportunities to be part of God’s mission and God’s blessing of his people. Both also give me the opportunity to pray and work for rescue from what is happening among Southern Baptists today.

If the SBC wants no future as a cooperative denomination, uniquely Baptist, rooted in Baptist theology and practice, promoting a missional faith through a missional church in post-modern times, then just keep going the direction we’re going. Despise our polity. Waste money. Redefine cooperation into tyranny. Ignore our confessional heritage. Destroy our diversity. Fight with our brothers. Add more meaningless bureaucracy. Major on minors. Reject servant leadership. Dance to the generic evangelical tune and become assimilated into the rest of this embarrassing mess called American evangelicalism.

Or go back, go forward guided by principle, go deep into integrity, go into the scriptures, go to God and go to one another in servant-love shaped humility and fix this thing while we can.

And we can.

Can I get an Amen?

Comments

  1. Patrick Kyle says:

    Michael,

    A good portion of what you are saying could be applied to my denomination, the Lutheran Church MO Synod. We have hundreds of churches that will die and close their doors in the next 10 or 15 years, mostly because they are too small to call a pastor. We are divided over worship,and although we have a clear and strong confession(Book of Concord) many are abandoning it as irrelevant. I wonder if this isn’t indicative of the fate of many denominations. I grieve that a way of life and witness may be passing away.
    That being said, I still do not despair because I know that God will not leave Himself without witness to the Gospel. I just fear the adjustment we all have to go through will be tough.

  2. Amen.

    I sometimes think a lot of good would be done if we took the perks out of the hands of denominational leadership. If we stopped giving them impressive salaries, nice offices, large parsonages, and a budget for attending any and every conference that caught their fancy, maybe we’d get some servant-leaders in there who were more interested in being servants than leaders.

    As it is, I see a lot of people who spend their whole lives seeking a “promotion” to the district office, and once they get it they spend the next decade securing their position and developing a legacy. Maybe that’s just my denomination… but I betcha it isn’t.

    The time they spend doing that junk would be better spent on being a resource for local churches, and for being so useful that the churches want to work with the denomination, rather than grumble every time another real-world-disconnect rear-echelon mandate comes down the pike. The reason I see a lot of individuals and churches (including the last church I went to) detach themselves from their denominational headship and go it alone is primarily for this reason. There’s plenty of greed, pride, and apostasy as well; but there are many real and valid concerns that headship has become an emotional, financial, and spiritual drain, and that Jesus wants us to seek and disciple the lost, not create and bolster corporations.

  3. steve y says:

    um…how about an “iMonk in ’08”?

  4. Just a quick thought: When I was in South Africa I found that the South African Church (particularly the Dutch reformed branch) was really wasting away. A pastor I spoke to about it referred to the idea that these churches were reaping the harvest of the apartied era. His contention was that they had for so long embraced ungodly values that their churches were now social clubs, and relics at that. Do you think some of that is going on in the SBC?

  5. Despite what this article says about the congregation overwhelmingly voting this pastor in,(Every member of our church, 3,500+, got a letter inviting all to attend the Sunday service and vote. Not surprisingly, a large population of the non-attending members came out of the woodwork and did just that.)many of us are concerned that our church is being groomed to become another mega-church.

    http://www.redorbit.com/news/technology/954430/leader_ready_to_serve_as_senior_pastor/index.html?source=r_technology

    Will the SBC ever listen to reason? What will it take to turn this tide, or are we destined to just sit and watch the SB Church disintegrate?

    I have been told that God will purify his church. Maybe that is what we are seeing here?

  6. Bill Dodrill says:

    Evangelism and SBC both seemed to have become so busy we all have forgot the key to Christian living – obedience. We are so busy with are worship style or defending our voting record that we have little time to obey God. All the issues you raised would fall away/or into place if our churches became gathering of obedient believers/worshipers.

    If SBC wants to survive it must begin to plead with the churches it represents to teach what it means to be a Baptist. Very few SBC members have a clue as to why the SBC is such a diverse bunch. The Bapist polity of the autonomy of the local church requires each body of believers to set its own path; however, we are still obedient servants of Christ first and that will be reflected in everything we do as individuals, as churches and as a convention. The attitude of obedience must replace the attitude of one-up-manship. We’ll never be in total agreement on lots of issues but if we let our obedience to Christ and His Word come first. Then the convention will remain a useful instrument for Christ.

    Your brother,
    bd

  7. Insofar as the DRC in South Africa is concerned yes, but also more: They have been pandering to theological liberal ideas for a long, long time, even when they were under Apartheid. Currently, they are forming a study committee to determine if the devil exists or not.

    Also, they are divifing into 2 basic directions, the Willow Creek stream, and the irrelevant, modernistic everything-goes-and-lets-hold-hands-and-sing-kumbaya-once-more-as-long-as-it-is-inclusive stream.

    Then there is also a smaller, pietistic group, but they generally fall under the Willow Creek stream.

  8. Lack of pluralism is a natural result of a narrowing of belief through the use of a creed (in the SBC’s case, the Baptist Faith and Message, as re-created by the leadership since 1989).

    I was musing about the SBC just a few months ago. Though in my heart I will always be a Baptist, I no longer am a member of a Baptist church. I have joined the Methodists.

    My observation of the current leadership of the SBC is that they are fundamentalists. Though they deny the very term itself, I thought about what separates them from classical fundamentalism and discovered…nothing.

    My musings about that can be found here: http://onlymusing.blogspot.com/2007/01/first-musings.html

  9. AMEN! I pray daily (well, almost!) for the SBC to find itself some unity without requiring unanimity! As a young leader who doesn’t want to leave, I hope this will all be sorted out soon….

  10. As the Pastor of a small-town Baptist church, I have an almost non-existant budget (I drive a school bus to help make ends meet), a broken down parsonage with 3 of the 5 rooms blocked off because they are unlivable and a church van that veers hard to the right when the brakes are applied.
    No conferences, no luxury and very few perks. Any extra money that I do ever get usually goes to the people from town who knock on my door asking for help.
    I am nobody special from the middle of nowhere, and I am right where I am called to be by my God.
    We don’t need anymore Christian celebs.
    We need Godly men who live by the Bible and not a strategy guide written by a megachurch Pastor.

  11. I say Amen! I pastor a small struggling SBC church in a dying town in rural Louisiana. All the SBC churches with the exception of a handfull are struggling or dying in my area while the United Pentecostal Mega Church draws large numbers of people. That Modalist Pentecostals can take away members away from our SBC churches says much about SBC evangelism and discipleship. Interesting also is that witnin 2 hours drive from here there are Eastern Orthodox churches in South La. and Mississipi that are exploding in growth in former SBC areas with former Southern Baptists.

    The leadership in both State and National Convention is run by pastors of large churches or guys that seem to have never left the Seminary campus. They seem to not have a clue what it is like to pastor small churches with limited resources. We are in trouble. God help us.

  12. I think that many of these questions will be answered by a a younger generation that is trying to get a handle on what it means to be baptist. Because of the SBC’s unique approach to doctrine (that there has never been a convention wide statement made regarding Calvinism, Eschatology, role of tradition etc..etc..) besides the baptist faith and message, the grey area is an attractive place to be. There is also a large gap between very traditional churches and the “mega-church” style of ecclesiology in the SBC.

    I left the SBC for years and have now come back to it. For me the autonomy factor was what brought me back. I keep up with the usual national level chicken fights, but for the most part really don’t see how it has that much of a bearing on the local church.

    The re-interpretation that is being done right now will decide if the convention can continue to be relevant in the 21st century or just die out and maintain itself in a slow downward cycle.

  13. Bob Sacamento says:

    Michael,

    As a fellow SBCer, let me say the current condition of the convention rends my heart as well. It rally is sad what politics and narrow mindedness and the refusal of a few well-placed individuals to stop majoring in the minors have done to it.

    Will disagree with you on a couple of things, though. One, I think that most of the convention is so far gone that for it to reach the level of generic evangelicalism would be a step up. (I hope that wasn’t mean.)

    Second, sorry but, Calvinism aside, I think the SBC Calvinists have brought alot of their grief on themselves. In the state where I live, the number of true 5-pointers in the SBC is in the low double digits, and every one of these guys is in the process of splitting his church. (I have this on the authority of a trustworthy friend of mine who worked in the state association for many years.) Then look at the political shenanigans that have gone on at Southern Seminary since the SBC “resurgence”, and there’s no wonder these guys have made enemies.

    You’ve probably guessed that I’m no Calvinist. But Calvinism per se isn’t the issue. Even if Calvinism is correct, I will say the same thing to alot of these folks that I wish I could have said to the fundamentalists when they were “resurging”: Having the right theological opinions on all the right topics is no excuse for atrocious behavior.

  14. How would you differentiate between Baptist and “generic evangelical?”

    I find little in the Baptist Faith and Message statement that evangelicals would have trouble with. In fact, Baptists seem the closest to “generic evangelical” than any denomination with the possible exception of Evangelical Free.

    Other than an emphasis on good exegetical preaching and an near-mandatory salvation altar call at the end of any service, even if the sermon wasn’t evangelistic in nature, what else differentiates Baptists from generic evangelicals? Outside of potlucks, that it :-).

  15. as a “young, creavtive contributor” who “went out the door”, i can really relate to these sentiments.

    REVOLUTION

  16. Adam Strahan says:

    Quite frankly, I’m glad that I found your article. I was just surfing the web when I came across it. I’m seventeen years old and I recently surrendered to the ministry and preached my first sermon. It sickens me to think of what our church, the SBC, has become. Churches have become focused on social activities and impressing others that they forget what they’re there for in the first place. In my sermon I pooled Ephesians 1 and 2, and Romans 7. I’m no seminarian, but I do that Christ has called me into service. It’s simply come to a point where it has too stop, because Christianity, not just the Baptist faith, has become a joke. It suprised me the other day when I was reading Scripture at our church, which only has about 120 members, when my mother told me that I didn’t need to read such long readings, because people get unsettled when they have to sit through someone reading the Bible long periods of time…WHAT?!?!? It’s pitiful that my own mother, who is a die hard fundamentalist told me that, but in all reality she spoke the truth. I ONLY READ A CHAPTER!!! Have churches become so uncommitted to God’s Word that they get unruly after only hearing a chapter of the Bible? I’m fed up with it, but maybe people that are not wanting this to happen to our churches, like you and I, will make a difference and will make people put the focus bake on God…WE NEED THE SPIRIT!!!

  17. Gary Foster says:

    My other name could be X Pastor. All of what your saying was just as true in the 70’s and 80’s. I was a SBC pastor in the 70’s for a couple years at two differant churches. Enough of that nonsense I thought and left for Seminary and became UPUSA and went liberal/Neo Orthodox. Just as awful really. After Seminary I divorced my wife and left the faith for many years. Have been crawling back slowly, bit by bit for a few years now. I think the SBC deserves to fail. I think the UPUSA deserves to fail. For me, it has to come down to your own inner, personal, simple relationship with The Father. I am glad to find a thoughtful place like this to find “rest”.
    BTW, there are lots of “me” out there. Lots. Hundreds and thousands of us walked away over many years.