“I left the convention disheartened by the liberalism and pragmatism of our leaders. I am praying about how to shepherd the local flock that I serve. I’m having a hard time exhorting them to give to NAMB or the CP knowing what I know now.”
“I am done.”
“SBC21 was massively disheartening.”
“I may not be able to stop my church leaving the SBC.”
“Why should we stay in the SBC?”
Those are just a few of the messages that I have received from Southern Baptist pastors in the wake of the 2021 annual meeting in Nashville. To say that many messengers left the convention discouraged would be an understatement. As I was leaving the hall for the final time late Wednesday afternoon I engaged in several conversations, primarily with pastors, where the questions being asked were, “What should we do?” and “What can we do?” Many of those men were at their first annual meeting, although a few were also veterans who had experienced at least part of the Conservative Resurgence in the 1980s & 1990s.
In the wake of those conversations and multiple others in the days since, here are a few suggestions that I submit for the consideration of pastors and members of Southern Baptist churches who are concerned about the direction of the SBC. These are offered in light of my previous assessment of what happened in Nashville, which I would suggest that you read for context.
- Recognize that the church is the only institution to whom Jesus has given the keys of the kingdom and calls to be the pillar and buttress of the truth(Matthew 16:16-19, 18:15-20; 1 Timothy 3:15).
That is where our focus and most of our energies must be spent. I spoke with dozens of pastors who left Nashville with a resolve to go back to their churches to preach, counsel, evangelize, and disciple with a renewed commitment to shepherd the flock of God in which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers (Acts 20:28). That has been my own resolve, as well.
- Recognize that every SBC church is independent and autonomous.
There is no top-down authority structure in the convention. This means that, despite what some convention leaders might like for you to believe, no one can dictate what things your church does. Every SBC church can determine how much or how little to be financially and practically involved in the life of the convention, within certain parameters. A church is considered in friendly cooperation if it
1) “Has faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith.”
2) “Has formally approved its intention to cooperate with the Southern Baptist Convention.”
3) “Has made undesignated, financial contribution(s) through the Cooperative Program, and/or through the Convention’s Executive Committee for Convention causes, and/or to any Convention entity during the fiscal year preceding.” [Note: that is a convoluted sentence that merits being diagrammed and exegeted carefully. I will take it up in another article about how concerned churches can exercise financially discretion in supporting convention causes]
- Recognize both the significance and insignificance of the SBC.
The SBC is not that important, but it does matter. Many don’t appreciate it when I put it that way, but doing so helps me to think clearly about the place of the SBC in my priorities. As a pastor God has called me to shepherd a particular flock. That is my chief vocational calling and demands the chief part of my time and energies. What happens in or to the SBC will not significantly affect the life of Grace Baptist Church or my day-to-day pastoral work. Neither the church’s identity nor mine is bound up in the SBC. It is in this sense that the SBC is not vitally important.
But the SBC does matter. It matters because it provides incredible opportunities for vast cooperative efforts among approximately 47,000 churches. Those churches can together support evangelism and church planting around the world, theological education for one-third of all ministerial students in the United States, and provides outstanding disaster relief (to mention a few positive, cooperative SBC efforts). Further, the SBC has great influence on the broader evangelical world not only in the United States but in many countries around the world. So every Christian should want a healthy SBC. Every Christian in a church identified with the SBC should work on promoting the doctrinal and spiritual health of the convention.
The best way to do that, I am convinced, is to see the SBC as not vitally important, while acknowledging that it does, nevertheless, matter. The folks who think it is vitally important as well as those who think it doesn’t matter at all are not in a position to help the SBC in the ways that it needs to be helped. The former have a “protect it at all costs” mentality which tends to whitewash or completely coverup serious issues out of fear of what may happen to the institution. This mentality is also what fuels the “11th Commandment”—that prohibits any agency head from publicly criticizing any other agency or denominational worker no matter how egregious their fault or error might be.
But those who think the SBC doesn’t matter at all are just as ineffective at working for its renewal and health. There are two temptations that go with this way of thinking. First, it justifies desires (and in some cases, attempts) to blow it up or burn it down because of all the bad things they see within the convention. Second, it allows pastors and churches to stay unengaged or to walk away altogether. As I have often said, whether to stay in or separate from the SBC is a conscience matter between a church and God, but if a church that is in is going to leave, I would hope that it would do so with a clear sense of what the convention is and is not.
- Educate your congregation on the history, nature, and current status of the SBC.
Don’t let them get their primary information in this area from MSNBC, CNN, or FOXNEWS. Find trusted sources to help you think through not only what happened in Nashville but also what the SBC and its leadership has been doing the last several years. Evaluate all of this in light of biblical principles of righteousness and teachings on ecclesiology, including our Baptist distinctives regarding church polity. Remember that there is no “Southern Baptist Church.” There are only Southern Baptist churches or, to put a finer point on it, churches that affiliate with the SBC.
I saved this for last because it is of ultimate importance. Pray for Ed Litton, the new SBC President. Pray for many institutions and agencies that the 47,000 SBC churches support. Many messengers left Nashville not only disillusioned but feeling disrespected by several SBC leaders. There is, without a doubt, a large disconnect between many whose salaries are paid by SBC churches and the churches who provide the funds to pay them. That is unfortunate but need not be a permanent problem. Pastors need to lead the churches to pray for those who serve us in the convention. Then they need to lead their churches to show up, stand up, and speak up, so that all who work in any convention institution or agency remember that those institutions and agencies are owned by the churches.
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Photo by Randy Starkey Photography