Obstacles and Opportunities
It is one thing for pastors to recognize the need for new leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Mobilization of enough votes to get the job done at this year’s convention in Indianapolis is quite another.
SBC pastors who want to help in this cause face significant obstacles. A non-denominational tenor has grown within denominationally affiliated congregations reaching back decades. The seeker movement that penetrated SBC churches favored attention to contemporary felt needs over the cultivation of denominational esprit de corps or much else among its members. As knowledge of denominational roots and connections have declined, so has any sense of denominational ownership, responsibility, solidarity, and pride. A once widely shared recognition of the happy duty of Baptists to serve their denomination as an integral dimension of Christian obedience has virtually disappeared.
Local church autonomy, surely one of the most precious inheritances of Baptists, is not naturally conducive to concern for denominational goings on. The SBC, as an entity, exercises precisely zero authority over particular Southern Baptist churches. Consequently, the SBC lacks the mechanisms to inspire fear or induce conformity among rank-and-file Baptists. This is, in part, by design.
In contrast to members of so many other protestant denominations, Southern Baptists own their property, adopt sometimes tailor-made confessional statements voluntarily, and they contribute money to denominational coffers at their discretion. Unbeknownst to most people, Baptist or otherwise, denominational affiliation has always been a voluntary and non-essential option within the historic Baptist movement. Baptistness, to coin a term, depends upon it not one whit. These are largely good Southern Baptist realities we can celebrate. But as with any group distinctive or strength, they can become a weakness. In this case, Baptist congregationalism, localism, and particularity can also facilitate neglect of the denomination Southern Baptists collectively own. Indeed, the SBC as such does not actually exist independent of the autonomous congregations that give it life and provisions.
Now consider the sacrifices of time and expense needed to land enough Baptist messengers in Indianapolis—not quite inside of historic SBC territory—to install new leaders into key positions of service and the enormity of the task we face looms large indeed. At this moment, what seems to lacking, but sorely needed, in our nation and our convention alike—not just among Southern Baptists, but among conservatives generally—is that spirit that seems to thrive so naturally among progressives, namely, the activist spirit. It is a stereotype that conservatives mainly want to be left alone and rarely expend much energy in the attempt to run the lives of others. And, as with most stereotypes, there’s a lot of truth to it. Accordingly, conservatives, whether in the SBC or elsewhere, want to trust their leaders to do their jobs. The average pew-sitter is too busy with his own local church life to busy himself with scrutiny of denominational leadership just for kicks and giggles. They like to trust. To verify? Not so much.
Does the picture of default non-activism of conservatives just painted truly apply to Southern Baptists? The answer is—it depends.
We should recall just now David Bebbington’s famous attempt to define the notoriously elusive-of-definition, evangelical movement according to four characteristics— (1) biblicism, (2) crucicentrism, (3) conversionism, and there it is, surprise, surprise, as bold as Dallas, number four (4) activism! Arguably, Baptists of many types, and Southern Baptists in particular, have exhibited, in volume and fervor, as much or more of the sort of activism Bebbington notes than have other believers including other evangelicals. Many a Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, Episcopalian, and Lutheran pastor, evangelical or otherwise, has longed for such activism among their own congregants.
What sort of activism have Southern Baptists exhibited? It comes in two varieties—witness to Jesus and love of neighbor. Baptists, repeatedly over many decades, and at great cost in time and treasure, have and still do mobilize to bear witness to Jesus Christ, disciple believers, and perform myriad acts of charitable works of love to neighbors close to home and around the globe. Not so long ago, presidents of the United States, in the aftermath of natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires, and tornadoes included among the first calls for rescue and clean-up efforts not just FEMA and the Red Cross but also the president of the SBC. Why? Because of the SBC’s demonstrated power to unleash hordes of happy helpers upon people in need at a moment’s notice. Perhaps the most oft-articulated self-characterization by Baptists about their churches is that they are a mission-minded congregation. Never in the history of the SBC has so large a percentage of Baptist congregants made time year after year to participate in mission trips focused on a bewildering variety of efforts to advance the gospel and offer help to people in need.
Southern Baptists are certainly among the world’s largest, most willing, and most sacrificial activists. In other words, the sort of activism Southern Baptists are most inclined to attend is that of charitable service and missional fundraising, not denominational politics.
This fact does not bode well for the convention in Indianapolis this summer. Or at least not without careful pastoral education, guidance, and proper framing.
What both the spiritual and material streams of historic Baptist activism share is this—both are recognized by participants as Biblical and thus spiritual acts of obedience to Jesus Christ through gospel witness and love to neighbors. Again, it is service, not self-service, that motivates Baptists.
That same motive, to serve others, is precisely why Southern Baptists should make the trek to Indianapolis this June to vote at the Southern Baptist Convention, not for themselves, but for others.
Who are these others? They are the thousands of graduates of SBC seminaries who will pastor the thousands of churches that will call them in the years and decades ahead. Those same seminaries will educate and train thousands of international and North American missionaries as well. The millions of believers and non-believers these graduates will influence are “the others” the votes at the convention will serve.
Our SBC seminary presidents have demonstrated neither sufficient knowledge of nor the zeal required to protect theological education from the pernicious influence of critical race theory, egalitarianism, the LBGTQ+ agenda, and other anti-Christian ideologies. Recent history has impressed upon Southern Baptists an inescapable reality: only new leadership can enact the changes necessary to protect the denomination’s gospel witness and biblical fidelity.
Here’s an idea: pastors should announce a mission trip to Indianapolis one Sunday morning, begin the process of recruiting a full slate of messengers to make the trip and cast votes, and educate congregations on the issues at stake. It’s true, as conservatives, Southern Baptists are instinctual non-activists in the typical sense. But when they see an opportunity to serve others—the denomination, future pastors and missionaries, and by extension, the world—in the name of Jesus Christ, they gladly block off time in their calendars and plunk down their dollars to join in. But they need their pastors to help them see this opportunity for what it is. This is not manipulative; it reflects the in many ways precarious condition of SBC institutions under current leadership. At this time, what we might call selfless activism is required of Southern Baptists.
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