Re-Framing the Debate About the Future of SBC

“He didn’t say it, but I think that traditionalists feel as if we are committing denominational suicide by promoting to prominence those who do not have much denominational loyalty or commitment.  We are hiring entity heads who showed little commitment to the denomination in their pastorates.  The podium at our conferences and conventions are largely filled with people whose Cooperative Program giving and denominational commitment are either minimal or non-existent.  Are we turning our denomination over to people who don’t care about the future of our denomination?”  (From “It’s Deja Vu All Over Again — The Contemporary/Traditional Battle Flares Again!)

Give that man a gold star!  In one succinct paragraph, Dave Miller, commenting at SBCVoices on a recent article by Brad Whitt, “Young, Southern Baptist . . . and Irrelevant,” has summed up the root of the problem that we face as Southern Baptists.  Unfortunately, most folks will probably miss the point of what Dave was intentionally or unintentionally saying.  Oh well.   And, even though Dr. Ed Stetzer (here), Dr. Nathan Finn (here), and others have understandably tried to re-frame the intensifying debate that has resulted in the aftermath of the GCR, just throwing out terms like “traditional” and “contemporary” does not get to the heart of the matter.

Dr. Stetzer, in particular, has coined the phrase “marginalized traditional Southern Baptists.”  If one did not know any better, one might conclude that Dr. Stetzer and leaders like him are using this phrase as a new pejorative, one that could easily take the place of “moderate.”  After all, we know how it feels to be tagged with that dreaded label.  But, with no real “moderates” left in the Convention, there must be some way to differentiate between those in power and those “few” disconsonant voices who read and write manifestos.  For those in positions of power within the Convention — who are supposed to be “denominational servants” — to convey such condescension and disdain for “traditional” Southern Baptist pastors is simply amazing!  And dumbfounding.

The debate over the future of the Southern Baptist Convention is not about traditional vs. contemporary in the sense that Dr. Stetzer tries to give it.  This is not about those who wear a coat and tie on Sunday mornings vs. the jeans and untucked shirt crowd.  The debate that will determine our future does not come down to those who stand behind a pulpit to preach a message vs. those who sit on a stool to give a talk.  And while there maybe some churches still struggling to find the right blend, the debate within the SBC is not about old folks who only want to sing hymns from a hymn book vs. the twenty-somethings who only want to sing the latest praise and worship song projected onto a screen.  If this is what people think the debate is all about, then they have missed the point entirely!  Some, I think, intentionally so.

This debate, which began in earnest after after the GCR was passed last June, comes down to what it means to be a Southern Baptist.  In one of his comments in the above quoted post, Dave Miller makes this astute observation:

 “I think the issue in the SBC is that we have an identity crisis, or more to the point, multiple personality disorder.”

We do indeed have an identity crisis.  Southern Baptists’ split personalities were largely unified into a single, dominant personality throughout the history of what has come to be known as the Conservative Resurgence.  From the beginning of the CR in 1979 until the Greensboro Convention in 2006, the dominant personality within the conservative movement expressed itself through cooperating together to bring the SBC back to its Biblical foundations.  From the unheard of grassroots pastors and laymen and laywomen to the well-known movers and shakers in the Convention, there was a common identity that unified us as Southern Baptists.  Of course, secondary personalities have always been present at various times within our recent history — Revivalist and Reformed, Traditional and Contemporary — but, these personalities have always allowed the dominant personality to speak with essentially one voice.

What was (and is) that single voice that the Convention spoke with from 1979 to 2006?  It was (and is) the voice of cooperation.  Cooperation in returning the Convention and her entities to Biblical inerrancy and Scriptural fidelity.  Cooperation in establishing a confession of faith for a new millenium.  Cooperation in missions and ministry in and through the best vehicle to reach North America and the World with the Gospel of Christ — the Cooperative Program.

The last of these — cooperation in and through the Cooperative Program — really gets to the heart of the matter about what it means to be a Southern Baptist.  There are at least two types of Southern Baptists who will read that last sentence and have radically different reactions.  The first type — who I would dub “nominal Southern Baptists” — bristle at any questioning of their “denominational loyalty” based on their CP giving.  Oh, these types talk about the CP being the “primary means for giving to missions,” but their actions say quite the opposite.  This type gives little or nothing through the SBC’s annual missions’ offerings.   They like to talk the talk when in front of the grassroots, but few will walk the walk like Bobby Welch, who actually believes that the Cooperative Program and cooperative missions gives Baptists “the best bang for the Baptist buck.”  This type would rather give their bucks to non-SBC networks.  Instead of giving to missions through CP, they would prefer to receive recognition for their “Great Commission Giving” that flows through non-CP conduits.  As someone commented earlier today on another blog:

“If your definitions (about “nominal Southern Baptists”) are correct, then I’d conjecture that the Convention would probably adopt some sort of action de-emphasizing de facto the Cooperative Program, while promoting de jure the same, and then recognizing everything a church does, monetarily, as a new form of missional giving.  I guess, were that to happen, it’d sort of confirm your premise, right?”

The second type of Southern Baptist who will read the above sentence regarding CP is what I refer to as “cooperating Southern Baptists.”  This type is proud of the history and heritage of the Southern Baptist Convention, even as they acknowledge weaknesses and areas for improvement.  This type cooperates with other Southern Baptists through the Cooperative Program in a unified effort to fulfill the Great Commission in our own backyard and to the uttermost parts of the world.  This type prefers to support Southern Baptist missionaries through the CP and through our two missions’ offerings — Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong.  And this type is not monolithic.  It consists of Reformed and non-Reformed, Traditional-minded and Contemporary-leaning, young and old.

What brings this group, who I would agree with Brad Whitt is a silent majority — together is our love for the Southern Baptist Convention and for Cooperative missions and ministry through the Cooperative Program.  CP has proven to be the greatest resource for reaching North America and the World and has allowed the SBC to have the single-greatest Kingdom impact in the last 100 years.  Folks can try to re-frame the debate anyway they would like — and I look forward to the spirited attempts that will be made in response to this post — but the issues are clear, whether people in power or people in the pews want to acknowledge it or not.  And I’m afraid that finding a cure for multiple/split personalities will end up killing our single, unified personality.  I hope I am wrong, but the intensifying debate that follows will certainly be instructive.

8 comments for “Re-Framing the Debate About the Future of SBC

  1. March 11, 2011 at 8:01 AM

    You write, “What was (and is) that single voice that the Convention spoke with from 1979 to 2006? It was (and is) the voice of cooperation. Cooperation in…missions and ministry in and through the best vehicle to reach North America and the World with the Gospel of Christ — the Cooperative Program.”

    No. It wasn’t. Any honest assessment of those elected during the contested years will lead to this conclusion.

    Since the SBC continues to elect presidents whose CP percentages are critized, one is hard pressed not to conclude that the CP is still not held up as the Grand Cooperative Metric.

    The matter of our current levels of cooperation is somewhat of a separate question. I agree that to trot out at our most visible gatherings folks who disdain the CP is not wise.

    • March 11, 2011 at 8:24 AM

      William,

      Someone made a comment on Dave Miller’s “Deja Vu” post at SBCVoices about like yours in regards to past Presidents of the SBC and their CP giving. I did not have space to include it, but pretty well knew that someone would raise that issue. If you look at the vote on CP at the Orlando Convention last year, coupled with Frank Page’s election in 2006 — a first-ballot win in a three-way race with two candidates that had enemic CP giving and a strong CP focused nomination speech by Forrest Pollock — one could make the argument that CP is rather important overall in the life of the Convention. I would submit that some, perhaps most, of the SBC Presidents from 1979 — 2005, with rare exceptions (Morris Chapman, Jim Henry and Bobby Welch come to mind), did not have what some would consider strong CP giving. However, all the Presidents were perceived as being strong CP supporters throughout the Conservative Resurgence. What has happened in the last few years is a perception and a reality that many within leadership positions not only do not have a strong record of CP giving, but are not strong proponents of CP either. That is the difference. I submit that I may be all wet on this, but I do not expect that young, restless, and reformed pastors are going to start magically channeling their missions giving through CP when they could get recognized for “Great Commission Giving” through Acts29 or some other missions conduit. Your last statement is spot on as well. Thanks and have a great day! God bless,

      Howell

  2. March 11, 2011 at 11:42 AM

    You say, “…all the Presidents were perceived as being strong CP supporters throughout the Conservative Resurgence.”

    Factually untrue. In fact, most were notably against the CP in word and deed, so long as moderates controlled the spending. Once the CR was solidified, we suddenly liked the CP.

    Kevin Ezell has had to explain his lack of support for the CP and NAMB and there’s not much of an explanation available to him. Bryant Wright’s giving is stellar sofar as I’m concerned, even though his church cut their CP percentages drastically.

    The CP has been declining for two generations now and not solely because of leadership.

    • March 11, 2011 at 1:51 PM

      William,

      As to the timeframe, I would still submit that the conservative Presidents of the SBC (other than perhaps the earliest years of the CR) were perceived to be supporters of the CP. Maybe not in deed (apart from the exceptions already mentioned), but were there SBC Presidents in the last 20 years who spoke negatively about CP? If there were, I missed it. And, while we agree on Ezell, I would disagree with you on Wright. “Stellar” would not be even close to the word I would use to describe his CP support. Thanks and God bless,

      Howell

  3. March 11, 2011 at 2:25 PM

    And God bless you Howell…

    You are changing the time frame here. You started with 1979 to 2006 and have now moved to 1991 to 2011. I think you lose on both time frames. I’ll check the stats when I get a chance.

    It is an unassailable fact that the SBC has seldom failed in the last 25 years to elect a president whose CP giving is below average, sometimes substantially so.
    I press this point because your statements are so far from reality on this. We may be seeing something different in SBC life the last few years with respect to the CP.
    I’d be happy to get my stuff together and have a point/counterpoint on this with you. We share the same goals, I think.

    • March 11, 2011 at 5:23 PM

      William,

      As I was only in 8th grade in 1979, you may have a better perspective than me on the earlier years of the CR. 🙂 Maybe my perception has been wrong all along. I fully acknowledge that most SBC Presidents were not strong CP givers in their actions (Jimmy Draper was the other exception whose church gave more than 10% to CP). As I understand it, the CR was a grassroots movement that was led by certain personalities, many from megachurches. Was there a time from 1979 onward that these leaders spoke negatively to the grassroots about CP and the missions’ offerings? After conservatives gained firm control, did the leaders continue to bash CP with their words? As I became more involved in Convention life when we went to Southern Seminary in 1994, I had not perceived or heard leaders casting CP in a negative light. I may have missed it to be sure. But, since Greensboro, there has been a struggle for what it means to be a cooperaing Southern Baptist. For many/most, CP giving and Lottie and Annie giving will be used as an indicator if someone is more nominal or traditional in their cooperative approach. Look forward to more dialogue. God bless,

      Howell

  4. March 14, 2011 at 5:54 PM

    The SBC does not have a forthright answer to the questions raised in the Smyth and Helwys pamphlet Stand With Christ.

    They refuse to answer Russell Dilday’s question in there about inerrancy.

    Inerrancy was a rubric in search of a cause, and a mess built on such as that is bound to have an identity crisis.

    I don’t know how what once was the SBC is going to reconfigure, but I do know that churches like FBC Guntersville, Dawson Memorial, even FBC Nashville, Snyder Memorial; none of them are Happy Campers but their staff grew weary of these endless semantic quagmire folks like David Miller are making a career of.

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