When I first came to Christ in 1997, I joined a larger Southern Baptist church in the Memphis area. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is America’s largest evangelical denomination. This Baptist church in Memphis is where I cut my teeth on the things of Christ and our faith, developing a great love for Scripture and evangelism.
In 1999, I joined with a newer charismatic church plant and have been working with that group (Global Horizons) ever since.
Be that as it may, over the years, I’ve slowly become more and more saddened at some of the events and situations I have read about within the SBC. It has to do mainly with what could be termed as ‘bullying’ by some of its leaders, ostracising themselves from the outside world in large part due to the ever-growing nature of the ‘culture wars’. These culture wars get extremely ‘political’ at times, which leads to efforts of ungracious rhetoric, getting strongly caught up in less-important issues, leading to mark out who is really ‘in’ and who is really ‘out’ in regards to true Christian faith. (By the way, I believe the gospel is political – announcing Jesus is King – but not in the sense that comes through some American evangelical expressions.)
Enter in Jonathan Merritt. Jonathan is a faith and culture writer and also part of the SBC, with his father serving as president of the denomination from 2000-2002. I’ve read his book Green Like God and have recently been reading some of his articles online. He is definitely a fresh voice within the SBC context.
This past week, the SBC held its annual meeting, with about 5000 messenger delegates attending, mainly pastors of SBC churches. Merritt was present and shared about the recent decline within the denomination. But his main focus was offering some thoughts on what he believes will help in slowing this decline. I thought the 3 points were very healthy and might even be worth a read for all types of American evangelicals in an effort to move forward in be faithful salt and light in 21st century America.
Here they are below:
1. Put first things first. “You can’t get second things by putting them first,” C.S. Lewis oncewrote. “You get second things only by putting first things first.” Lewis knew what the Southern Baptist Convention has often forgotten: priorities often determine effectiveness.
If you review the resolutions, reports, and microphone grandstands of the SBC’s annual meeting during recent years, you’ll find a lot of energy expended on secondary things. TheAssociated Press reported this week on how debates over Calvinism is dividing the Convention. Add to this recent squabbles over the “sinner’s prayer” and other lesser issues, and you have a denomination that spends major energy over minor issues.
The SBC’s resolution history also seems to bear this out. There was the ineffective 1997 boycott on Disney, a resolution to retain the traditional method of calendar dating (B.C. / A.D.) in 2000, and a 2011 resolution disapproving of the revision to the world’s most popular Bible translation (NIV), which requested that LifeWay Christian Stores stop carrying it. (One year later, LifeWay still sells the translation.)
If the Southern Baptist Convention wants to regain the credibility, interest, and relevance it has lost, the denomination must learn to put first things first. Namely, sharing the gospel through missions and showing the gospel through acts of service, compassion, and justice.
2. Eschew partisan politics. Tony Campolo once said that mixing the church with government is “like mixing ice cream with horse manure: You will not ruin the horse manure, but it will ruin the ice cream.” I’ll let you determine which one is the ice cream in his analogy.
During the last 25 years, the Southern Baptist Convention has rushed headlong into conservative politics, often parroting Republican talking points and baptizing the GOP’s agenda. Just last year, Richard Land, former head of the SBC’s political arm, broke tradition and publicly endorsed Mitt Romney for President.
Of the 117 resolutions passed by the denomination at their annual meeting since 2000, a breathtaking 70 of them have been political. This includes a 2003 resolution endorsing President Bush’s war in Iraq, a 2008 resolution taking a position in the so-called “War on Christmas,” and a 2009 resolution titled “On President Barack Hussein Obama.” I keep waiting for a resolution naming Sean Hannity as an honorary fourth member of the Trinity.
American evangelicalism is becoming more politically diverse and nuanced than it once was, particularly among young people. If the denomination continues to operate like a Republican lapdog, it can expect to be seen as a polarizing political institution. If they can learn to speak truth to power on both sides of the aisle, the SBC stands a chance of restoring its image. Americans want a Church that is prophetic, not partisan.
3. Learn to listen. The late Henri Nouwen once remarked, “without listening, speaking no longer heals.” He’s right. When all we do is talk, our words become a monotone melody heard only by ourselves. Therefore, any organization or leader must maintain an ongoing commitment to listen to others.
One demographic that Southern Baptists need to listen to more often is the next generation. LifeWay reported in 2008 that the percentage of messengers in the 18-39 age group attending the annual meeting has declined steadily since 1980 while the percentage of messengers in the 60-plus group has increased dramatically.
I’ve seen many young leaders over the years that were all but required to run a leadership gauntlet—paying heavy homage to the Southern Baptist aristocracy along the way—before being offered a seat at the table. Again and again, the Southern Baptist Convention has gone the way of the wolf spider, cannibalizing their young. Meanwhile, other Christian communities and gatherings—Catalyst, Exponential, Thrive, Justice Conference—welcome young people and their fresh ideas. The next generation flocks to events put on by these organizations by the thousands while saturating the SBC with their absence.
If the Southern Baptist Convention has any hope for regaining their place of prominence, it must raise up a capable and passionate crop of young and diverse leaders. This means learning to listen to the sometimes uncomfortable and seemingly iconoclastic ideas of next generation thinkers.
“If we are just a bunch of bitter old church people, grumpy at the world, yelling at non-believers to get off our proverbial moral lawn,” Ed Stetzer told SBC leaders on Monday, “that does not show forth light and preserve as salt.”
The denomination must now decide whether to chart a new path for the sake of its future or maintain its current course. But one thing is certain. When the convention gathers for its annual meeting in another decade, people will still be talking. The question is now, “Will anyone be listening?”
What do you think of these points?