On Senator John McCain

The senior Senator from my home state of Arizona wasn’t actually born and raised in the state.  But then, neither were a significant number of the other six million people who live there.  But then, most of the people who have moved there over the years have done so because they love the place, and it has provided them an opportunity to start a new life.  So Senator McCain was the perfect person to represent the state in Congress.

Whether you agree with his political perspective or not, the fact that he served in the military, and endured a term as a prisoner of war is enough to command the respect of any American citizen.  He knew the risks he was taking when he signed up for military service, and his service helped pay the price for my freedom.  Thank you, Senator, for the sacrifice you made for this country.

Politics being what they are these days, Senator McCain was a statesman, and an honorable one.  He was a Republican because, in this day and age, identification with a partisan perspective is almost mandatory for getting elected, but he was also a “maverick,” and while his personal views did line up with the Republican party on many occasions, he was one of the few members of Congress who was willing to part ways with a partisan agenda when he thought a different view was best for those whom he represented.  He had integrity.  And he let it show.  I don’t think anything demonstrates that more than the night he gave a thumbs down to the repeal of the ACA.  He was the people’s representative, and a clear majority of the people in the state he represented were not in favor of its repeal.  So he voted as their representative.  He got berated and criticized for it, but that’s what integrity in politics looks like.

He has passed on, and so the time for stating disagreements with his position has also passed.  He can’t hear them, and they are no longer relevant.  He has earned the respect of people on both sides of the political aisle.  To say that he wasn’t a war hero because he was captured is as disgraceful an act as failing to lower the White House flag to half staff in his honor, and are despicable acts and words that reveal the true character of the one who used them.  They stand in contrast to the honor and character of Senator John McCain.

 

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Late Night Thinking on Random Topics

Football has returned, the NFL pre-season is going strong, and the college season started.  There are a lot of things going on there.

There’s the high profile suspension of Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer for not reporting an awareness of spouse abuse by one of his staff members.  I’m not sure what to think of that.  Is this an incident where a person’s value to the coaching staff meant more than what he was doing to his wife?  Was it an oversight?  Is this a case of a football coach who is clearly the highest paid, and most visible person on a university campus, and in a community and state where the sport is revered getting away with something that others wouldn’t get away with?  Or is it an awkward situation related to a personal matter that should be handled in another way?

I like Urban Meyer, and what he’s done at Ohio State.  But I really don’t like the fact that this appears to be more than just an oversight.  I can’t imagine how the wife of the assistant coach who was abusive felt, not only because of the abuse, but because she must have also felt like the whole world was against her, and that because her husband worked for a high profile, popular coach in a revered football program, he was going to get away with it.  Meyer did apologize, though it was after the fact, and got suspended for three games, which amounts to a slap on the wrist. How much responsibility Meyer had here is up to his supervisors to decide, but I don’t think this was handled with the kind of seriousness it should have been.  There are a lot of people to be considered, including the players who committed to come to the school, and the fans and alumni who support the program, but those are considerations that the guy who runs the program should have taken when this action first became known to him.  The life of a coach’s wife is far more valuable than the whole football program combined.

Then there’s the ongoing issue of what to do with NFL players who continue to take a knee during the national anthem as a means of protesting what they perceive as unfair treatment by law enforcement.  They have a right to their perception which is based on accurate statistical information.  The question is whether taking a knee is disrespectful to the veterans who fought for the country, and the anthem that represents it.  Those who are doing this as a protest say, rather vehemently, that it is not intended to be disrespectful, that it is a protest against injustice that would otherwise be ignored.

The injustice they are protesting is real, and can be backed up with statistical information.  As a Caucasian male of a mature age, I can’t claim any authority to know how those who face this kind of injustice feel, nor can I understand the background behind it.  I know the history of racial discrimination and prejudice in this country, and I know that in spite of our best efforts to overcome it, it’s still there.  The NFL players who are doing this have moved into a position of wealth and influence as a result of their talent and the venue in which they use it.  The constitution guarantees their right to free speech.  They’re the ones who get to decide the meaning and purpose of their actions, and accept the consequences of their choices.

Do the club owners have a right to regulate their behavior?  On the field, absolutely.  They are employees, being paid to do a job by an employer.  The employer has the right to be represented as he or she decides, and they also have the right to decide to be respectful of their employee’s rights.  There is a line in there somewhere.  But free speech is as much of a constitutional guarantee as the right to bear arms and religious liberty, which many of their critics claim.  And those veterans, who are invoked as being victims of an act of disrespect of the flag and the anthem, fought for the right to protest.  The players taking the knee have made it clear that their actions are not intended to be disrespectful to anyone.  Maybe the focus does need to be directed toward their obviously deep feelings and convictions.

Here’s a video that might change your mind about the whole thing.

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/video/2018/aug/22/beto-orourke-nfl-protests-texas-video

The NFL is not suffering, as some have claimed, and no professional sport in this country ever will.  Player salaries will set an all time record in the 2018-19 season, television revenue and viewership during the pre-season is up over the previous year, and winning or losing had a much greater effect on NFL franchises last season than this did.  No winning team will ever have trouble filling its stadium, and the Super Bowl will remain the top sporting event annually.  Whether you agree or disagree with their actions, the fact of the matter is that the atmosphere that surrounds professional sports in the United States gives the players the upper hand on this issue, and that’s just the way it is.  No “boycott” will bring about a change, and no owner action will be more than just a scolding.  The morality of idolizing sports figures is a whole other discussion, but it is clear that on this issue the players hold the power.

The injustice they are protesting is also another discussion, one that requires honesty, and cannot take place in the emotional turmoil that currently exists surrounding it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering Aretha Franklin

I discovered Aretha Franklin listening to the radio I got for my 12th birthday.  That was a time when the best music was on the AM side of the dial, and my radio got switched back and forth between the two pop rock stations from Tucson, Arizona that we could pick up in my hometown, at least during the day, KTKT and KIKX.  Of course, you switched back and forth to listen for your favorites, and those stations mainly played just the top 40 current hits, so you could hear your favorites several times a day on each one.

That was also back in the day when you collected records of your favorite songs.  The local drug store sold 45’s for 99 cents and I had a pretty good collection of Aretha Franklin’s songs.  The flip sides were pretty good, too.  She had a remarkable voice, and the combination of that with the songs she sang was just something special.  Listening to her now brings back memories from that time of life.

She had a rough life.  Her music reflected that in many ways, though it was “g” rated compared to much of the music of the day, and especially compared to much pop music now.  It was approved to be played at our school dances, and in those days, not all songs passed that standard.  She was a genuine celebrity who used her celebrity status, and gave a good portion of what she earned to make life better for people.  If you knew anything about her, you thought about that when you listened to her music.

She will not be replaced.

Grieving…

So what do you do when someone who knows better decides they’re going to go ahead and do something to make themselves look more important, or better, in someone else’s eyes?  When they decide they are going to open their mouth, and say something that really has no purpose other than to put someone else down?

One of the strictest rules in the house in which I grew up was that you always told the truth, and there were times when even the truth didn’t need to be told by you because it wasn’t any of your business, it was someone else’s.  Both of my parents had some pithy, Southern colloquialisms, or more specifically, West Virginia hillbilly colloquialisms, to make their point.  “None of your business” was put in pretty succinct language, one of their favorites being, “So when did you become God?”  I got the point.

So why is it that some of the most damaging gossip, and some of the most vicious treatment of another human being that I’ve seen in my lifetime has come from people claiming to be Christians, and has taken place not only among Christians, but in some of the places within the context of the Christian community where there’s an expectation of the existence of a more mature faith?  The grief?  That’s come because what I’ve seen and heard came from someone who made an effort to build a trusting relationship with the person that they ultimately betrayed with their gossip.

What really hurts, in this case, is that the victim is someone I really care about.  And the gossip that was hurled to intentionally do harm and damage took place following the worship service in a church.  

Some people have simply said that the best resolution to this is to simply move on, and let those who said the damaging words face accountability to God for their words.  The Bible says that the kind of person who would engage in such conversation is not exhibiting any characteristic of Christlikeness, and they are “empty tombs”.  I’m not in a position to judge, but I have a hard time understanding how a person whose life has been transformed by Christ can so quickly and easily return to the flesh.  There’s a selfish motive there that we can’t see, I’m sure.  And selfishness is the ultimate evidence of a heart full of sin.  It’s not hard for Christians to fall in this particular regard.  But how can you build a relationship with someone, trust them with helping you to provide an education to your children, invite them to your house to spend holidays, and then so easily believe something that someone else told you without question, and withour any real reason or evidence and then condemn that person by telling someone else what you think they did.

Yep, pretty specific.  It is a real situation.  And it’s personal.

Forgive them.  Seventy times seven.  I hear those words.  Faintly, reluctantly, wanting to find a way not to have to hear them, or act on them.  Looking for an exception, but realizing that the only way to put this in God’s hands is to be obedient to them.

 

 

Declining Membership in the “Nation’s Largest Non-Catholic Denomination”

Or the Nation’s largest Protestant denomination if your view of the reformation includes influences that led to the beginnings of the Baptist family of denominations.

Southern Baptists are intoxicated…with numbers.  The pause there works better when that statement is made verbally, rather than in writing.  It’s probably not as prevalent now as it was when I was growing up, and every church had the same register board up front with Sunday school enrollment, attendance, offering this week, last week, and worship attendance.  The Sunday school enrollment figure in the church where I grew up was always somewhere around 140.  It would fluctuate a bit, usually going up at the beginning of the new church year in October, and would drift back down by the end of the year.  It was located in a community where a lot of people came in to spend the winter months, so while summer attendance averaged around 50, from January to April it was not unusual to have a month with an average attendance of 70.  Church membership was always around 225 and the worship service would average about 80 in attendance.

As a kid, I always wondered who the other members were, if they didn’t come every Sunday.  If the whole membership ever showed up, we’d have to set up extra chairs in the auditorium, since it could only seat about 150.  And every week, the “outreach” director of our Sunday school class would report that he’d called the members of the class who had a card on the roll, but always got marked absent.  On occasion, someone would respond, but not often.

But through all of those growing up years, and through the time I spent at an SBC state convention related college, and an SBC seminary, the SBC was always touted as the “Nation’s largest Protestant denomination,” and the membership growth was always pointed to as a sign of the theological correctness and the “health” of the denomination, compared to those “liberals,” who were declining.  Of course, the Catholic church was booming, explained away by “immigration,” and in the community where I grew up, the two Mormon wards were, by far, the largest churches in town, and were also growing fairly rapidly.

But time has passed, and there’s been a lot of change.

Membership growth peaked in the SBC in the mid-1970’s.  The increases each year following that are numerically smaller than the previous year, and the percentage increase also drops each year.  It is interesting to note that while the “Conservative Resurgence” came along in 1979, with an aim of turning the denomination back to its conservative “roots”, and to avoid declining membership that mainline churches were experiencing because of their “liberalism,” and abandonment of evangelism, the percentage of membership increase in the SBC continued to decline, the decline in baptisms began to steepen, and the numerical increase in membership grew smaller every year following 1979.  During the 90’s, the “growth” was actually statistically insignificant.  But over the past decade, the number is no longer a membership increase each year, it is a decrease, and it is getting larger each year.  The number of members is now more than a million less than it was a decade ago, and there have been years when more than 200,000 members have been subtracted from the membership.  That this is not just some reporting or statistical anomaly is evidence in the fact that attendance has gone down by a similar percentage, and other statistical categories, including church income factored for inflation, are declining by similar percentages.

So what’s going on?

Generational Decline

The Baby Boomer generation is still the largest among the current American population. With half of this group now past 60, and Baby Boomers making up approximately 50% of the current church membership in conservative Evangelical churches, including Southern Baptists, we are seeing a statistical “aging” of churches (the median among Evangelicals, according to church researchers, is past 65) and the number of member deaths exceeds the number of new converts baptized.  The Southern Baptist Convention is seeing its churches baptize approximately 250,000 new converts each year, though 80% of that number are the children of church members, and are, for the most part, already included in attendance figures.  The only estimate I could find on the number of member deaths was somewhere just south of 300,000.

Evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, have been losing their young people since the 80’s.  I remember Lifeway sounding the alarm bells when a study came out that showed 70% of the youth who were raised in church and active in their youth group during high school were leaving the church during or after college.  That was a staggering figure then, representing mostly the beginning of Generation X.  But as time has passed, awareness of the situation has brought about a whole series of changes in church programming and ministry that has failed to stop that departure.  In fact, among the latter half of Generation X, and into the Millennial Generation, the figure has increased to 85% leaving.  Unlike their Baby Boomer parents and grandparents, many of whom returned to church in adulthood, these kids aren’t coming back.

The influence of the humanism that now dominates the public education system is one of the main reasons for this exodus.  Students who attended Christian schools in either grade school, high school, or college seem to be far less inclined to leave than their counterparts who did not have that instructional opportunity added to their experience.  Those are not guarantees of fidelity to church membership, but the percentages are much higher.  And it is in these younger generations where the church membership is missing, and where the membership decline is being felt.

Evangelism, Outreach and Ministry

Since people seem to be attracted to megachurches, that might not be a place where you’d look to explain declining membership.  But while many megachurches appear to be growing in number (though the decline among Evangelicals has hit even some of the largest and most venerable churches) they are growing by attracting members out of smaller congregations which is where the ground work of evangelism is being done.  The SBC is a good example of this.

Megachurches grow by attracting members from smaller congregations.  Other than children, most of these folks are already baptized.  But as smaller churches empty out, disband, and close, the groundwork of evangelism ceases.  People that might be reached by a smaller congregation are overlooked or ignored by larger ones.  The personal touch is gone.  From a generational perspective, Baby Boomers are the ones attracted to these large, impersonal congregations because they are interested in the theatrical style worship and the celebrity pastor.  Younger people aren’t brought in by those things.  Millennials in particular appear to be much more attracted to non-traditional congregations that are small and personal, and where their own expression of faith can be seen, discussed, helped and encouraged.

Politics

The overwhelming support of Evangelicals for Trump has become a leading cause of the drop in church membership and attendance among Evangelicals.  Accelerating declines in attendance have steepened since 2016.  Oh, yeah, I know that for many evangelicals, abortion is still the bottom line, and for those who are white, fear of immigration and refugees, and fear that the rest of the world is after their money is pushed along by the conservative media sources they watch.  But when you narrow your issues down, you get lip service to grab your vote, and you wind up electing terrible leadership.  And a lot of Evangelicals are deeper thinkers than they are given credit for, and they see that support for an immoral playboy like Trump, who hasn’t held back on either his unrighteousness in the form of lying, or his crude attitudes and words.  Churches where leaders have been particularly active in right wing politics are seeing members drain out like water through a sieve.  And it is no coincidence that the declines in Evangelical church membership among whites parallels the 2016 election.  People are leaving because churches are too political.

I have to say that I’d walk out the door of any church where a pastor brought any political content into the service.

 

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses Yearning to be Free…

But if you come here illegally, we will take your children from you as a punishment, and will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.  And we’ll trot out some scripture to justify what we are doing…

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities .  For there is no authority except from God and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  Romans 13:1-2 ESV

So you’re citing this verse in support of the enforcement of immigration law under Trump.  Were you citing it during the eight years of the Obama Presidency?  Did you accept the Affordable Care Act when it was passed?  How about in regard to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal and a constitutionally protected right?  How about the recognition of same-gender marriage, do you accept that under this same Biblical principle?

Rhetorical questions, I know.

Obviously, some laws are unjust, and some are based on practices and principles that go against our Christian beliefs and principles.  From a personal perspective, I believe that after a woman becomes pregnant, it’s not just “her” body anymore, and there is another life of equal value that needs to be considered in any decisions that are made regarding health.  I don’t believe that God’s plan for the family is for two people of the same gender to enter into a marriage relationship.  I also happen to think that health care is a basic human right, and that it is as much of a sanctity of human life issue as abortion rights are.  I think the for-profit insurance and medical care system that has developed in the US, which causes us to pay twice as much per capita for medical care, and which takes profit out of out pockets twice, once for the insurance premiums, and again for the cost of care and medication, is a moral injustice.  No system is perfect, but I’d favor a model based on what the Europeans or Canadians have, since they seem to be meeting needs and providing higher quality care to their population, in spite of what the critics say.

So let’s talk immigration reform and let’s get past all the trumpian rhetoric at the outset of the conversation.  The current immigration laws are not “their laws” in reference to Democrats.  Laws in this country, regardless of who passed them, apply to everyone.  The one that Trump errantly refers to when referencing the practice of separating children from their parents was passed by a majority Republican House and Senate.  Both Presidents Clinton and Obama were fairly strict in their enforcement of immigration law, and of working to stop illegal immigration, and were fairly successful at it as the record shows.  They did it within the limits of the law, made allowances for granting political asylum under the law when the cases warranted doing so, and in contrast to the Bush administration, which simply cut staffing at INS and the Border Patrol to give tax breaks to the wealthy, and ruined the enforcement of immigration law, allowing millions to come in to the country illegally, were relatively successful at stopping the abuses and being humane.  Those claims that they “did the same thing” are what you suspect they are, lies.

The decision to separate children from their parents as a means of enforcing the law, and of making illegal border crossings a felony as practiced by the Trump administration is a much different approach to enforcing the law than Clinton, Obama or Bush took during their terms.  This is an injustice, just as much as an abortion is one.  And there is absolutely nothing wrong with protesting, and putting pressure on politicians to change the law.  That’s how this country works.  Political pressure eventually expresses the will of the people, whether it is through protest, or the potential threat of an uprising at the ballot box.  With the thin-skinned Trump, the polling numbers he and his supporters like to deny forced his decision in less than a month, after it appeared that an electoral disaster for the GOP would accompany the continuation of the policy.  Whatever the reason, when the voices crying out against this particular injustice reached a crescendo, and the needle of public opinion was tilting rapidly away from Trump, he stopped the practice, though not before considerable political damage was done to Republican chances to hold Congress in November.

But I believe that American immigration law and policy, as it now exists, is unjust, and as such, needs to be changed.  Most of those coming from Latin America, and hence across the border from Mexico, are fleeing criminal violence and oppression, and absolute poverty in the countries from which they are coming.  Those conditions exist there mainly due to American interference in the internal affairs of their countries “to protect American interests in the region.”  Through most of our history, the United States has considered it necessary to control the politics of Latin America, particularly since a communist dictatorship was able to take hold in Cuba.  Our government, going back to at least the Eisenhower Administration, has supported oppressive dictators, financed revolutionaries and precipitated civil wars that have taken hundreds of thousands of lives, put millions of people into poverty, made them homeless, and created a power vacuum of anarchy into which drug lords and criminal elements who make their money off of American addictions, continue to rob the population blind, and murder them and their children when they get in the way.  Ironically, these people flee oppression by heading to the one place on their continent where they believe they will have the opportunity to work hard and have a better life.  Our response is to take their children from them, arrest them, brand them as a felon, and detain them indefinitely without granting them the same rights that they’re coming here to receive.

Our immigration laws and quotas are tilted toward the cash.  Quotas are set so that wealthy immigrants can come at their leisure, and so that they bring their fortune with them in order to enhance our economy when they come.  There is plenty of room in the quota for Norwegians who want to come to the US, but even though the quota always goes unfilled, it stays the same.  On the other hand, if you want to come from El Salvador, good luck.  The quota is much smaller than the demand, and you’ll have to wait in line literally for years to get to the top of the list.  If, that is, you survive that long.  The problem is that the crises around the world that prompt people to think of America as a refuge from oppression (gee, where did we ever get that reputation?) don’t happen in countries where the quota for immigration to America is large enough to meet the need.  In spite of our reputation as a haven from oppression, which is part of our historic, philosophical and religious foundation,  our immigration laws are to benefit the rich, not the oppressed.

Attempts at reform, such as those introduced by President Johnson in the late 1960’s, get turned back by subsequent administrations because those who come here seeking opportunity to better themselves don’t have political clout.  And because we have done such a terrible job of teaching the historical foundations of American principles to our students in the public education system, we have generations of Americans who have no idea why that big green statue sits on an island in New York harbor, or the principles and foundations for which it stands.

So yes, Romans 13 does have something to say about the governing authorities.  But if you think abortion is wrong, immoral and unjust, then you need to start thinking that other laws passed by our government can be just as wrong, immoral and unjust.  Given the principles that were articulated by our founding fathers when the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written, and where this country got the people who made it into what it is now, our current immigration law and policy is also wrong, immoral and unjust, measured against American ideals.  They can, and should, be changed.

 

Observations About SBC 18.

The Southern Baptist church in which I grew up was in a small town in Arizona, not in the Baptist heartland, but it was made up of members mostly from the South who had migrated west for work.  Most members were civilian employees of the military base at Ft. Huachuca, with a few military personnel.  The next largest contingent were people who worked at a natural gas compression plant owned by a Texas-based company, and most of them were from Texas.  The First Baptist Church in town belonged to another denomination, but the Southern Baptists always managed to find their way into our church, either by recognition of the missions programs and the Sunday School literature, or by the accents of the other church members.

This congregation of about 80 people on a good Sunday (up to 150 on Easter) was very well educated from a denominational perspective.  We always had a lot of participation in missions groups, and we always had at least one church member serving on one of the state convention trustee boards or committees.  At one point, we had a member on what was then the trustee board of the Home Mission Board, and we had a member who served two terms as a trustee of what was then Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.  All of that influence combined to create a personal interest in the work of the denomination on my part, and that included earning an undergraduate degree from the state convention’s college, and a graduate degree from Southwestern Seminary.

I’m an “outsider” now.  After almost a lifetime career in Christian education in institutions owned and operated by Southern Baptists, I accepted a head administrator position in a Christian school that belonged to another denomination, and moved to a part of the country where there’s not an SBC church down the road or around the corner.  The opportunity, which was a lifetime career goal, was the deciding factor, but I have to say that I had reached a point where I was much less stuck on denominational pedigree and identity, and much more attracted to what develops when you cross those man-made ideological boundaries.  And contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t put you on any slippery slope.

I watched a good portion of the SBC via the webcam.  Actually, you get a much better view that way than you do sitting in the convention hall.  I was quite curious to see how denominational leadership, and this particular group of messengers, would react to recent events, and how they would go about dealing with what is most definitely a paradigm shift for Southern Baptists.  After a decade of a decline in membership and attendance that puts the SBC in the same category in that regard as the more rapidly declining mainline denominations, and some disastrous numbers about baptisms, followed by a year of reports of scandal involving both “architects” of the Conservative Resurgence, and the Executive Director, the outcome of the convention meeting generated a lot of interest, including my own.  Depending on your perspective, the results might be considered surprising, or predictable.  I’m thinking a little of both.

The “Conservative Resurgence” as a movement is clearly over.  Oh, there’s no danger that the SBC will head toward the edge of “liberalism” again, if indeed it ever really did.  But the movement itself, and the individuals who operated it, have finally had their hands pried off the steering wheel.

Part of the evidence for that claim is that the messengers elected a president with no endorsement from, or connection to, the resurgence leadership.  In fact, he defeated, rather overwhelmingly, the candidate who was endorsed by the resurgence leadership.  J.D. Greear is yet another in a long lineage of mega church pastors who always seem to get elected to the denomination’s presidency, but in some regards, his congregation is different.  While most SBC mega churches grow almost exclusively by attracting members from smaller churches, and most of their baptisms, which happen at a much slower pace than the smaller churches, are children under 12 whose parents already attend church, Greear’s church differs somewhat in that regard, and actually shows attendance growth related to evangelistic activity.  He’s a  supporter of the SBC’s Cooperative Program at a far greater percentage than most churches of its size.  And Greear is a “Calvinist,” which places him outside the doctrinal parameters of all of the SBC presidents who’ve served since before Adrian Rogers started the resurgence movement in 1979.  SBC Calvinists have been tolerated since most are “inerrantists,” but they’ve not been included in the good-ole-boy circle of influence or leadership.  And Greear still isn’t, but that is apparently no longer relevant.

If you need more evidence that there’s been a major shift in attitude, take a look at the vote totals on the motion by Tom Hatley to dismiss the executive committee of the Southwestern Seminary trustees.  It was a motion in support of Paige Patterson, more than anything else.  Apparently, the messengers at this convention represent a group of Southern Baptists who are tired of the tactics used by Patterson to gain influence and do as he pleases, as outlined by trustee Bart Barber prior to the vote being taken.  That, along with the realization that the convention needed to support, and not undermine, trustees, and the motion failed by a massive margin.  I’m still reading blogs and comments where there is a reluctance to admit that Patterson overstayed his welcome, and his day is over, but that doesn’t appear to be the majority view anymore.

The messengers at this convention also made some indirect statements when it comes to right wing politics.  Resistance to allowing the Vice President to speak in person was much higher than you might expect among conservative Evangelicals, slightly over 40% opposed a motion to change the order of business to allow him to speak.  I think that is a sign that Trump’s immorality and lack of values and character is having an effect on his support among conservative Christians, but it is also a sign that the SBC is not made up wholly of white Evangelicals.  Observers of this convention noted a higher than usual percentage of Latino and African American messengers, and opposition to Trump among those groups is as high as the support level among whites.  Pence treated the messengers as a political action committee, not a Christian denomination, causing further consternation about his live appearance.

Messengers also expressed their displeasure for agenda-driven selection of trustee board members by giving a second term to an ERLC trustee from the Kansas-Nebraska convention who has been a supporter of the executive director Russell Moore.  Though Dan Anderson had only served one term, and expressed an interest in serving a second, the committee on boards attempted to replace him with someone who was opposed to Moore’s position on Trump.  There had been threats from disgruntled Southern Baptists to overturn this board in order to get at Moore, but this particular effort failed to get enough support to do so, and Anderson was re-elected to his second term by a rather overwhelming floor vote.

I don’t think this means that a majority of Southern Baptists have finally realized that being “conservative” theologically and doctrinally is not directly tied to right-wing politics.  There are some obvious contradictions between right wing political positions and Biblical Christianity, and conversely, obvious consistency between some left wing political positions and Biblical Christianity, but I’m not going to get into that here.  What this does represent, however, is an acceptance on the part of those who attended this convention as messengers of the fact that one’s political opinions and perspectives are not a factor in a denominational executive’s ability to do their job, and that there is no consistency with Biblical Christianity in using someone’s job as a way to enforce conformity.  That is a shift from the way the SBC has been doing business for a long, long time.

There is not a mechanism within the SBC to resolve the problems that have created the statistical declines.  It is not a top-down denomination.  There are 50,000 independent, autonomous churches affiliated through a cooperative missions support program, and the churches are at the top of the organizational chart, not the bottom.  What happens to the SBC is that what happens to the churches affects the denominational institutions and agencies that they support.  NAMB cannot underwrite or organize the kind of church planting effort that local churches could do themselves.  The seminaries train leadership that is licensed and ordained at the church level.  The IMB sends out missionaries based on the support provided by the churches.  Churches decline because of internal issues, not because of something the denomination has done.

The median age of the average church member in the SBC is somewhere around 60 years of age, and like most denominations, its churches are made up of those generations of people who understand denominational branding and believe in “distinctives” that are mainly semantics centered on leftover reformation theology.  If there was a “typical” SBC church you could walk into these days, what you’d see is a large, well decorated, traditional auditorium with the pews half full of mostly gray heads, and a small scattering of children and youth.  You’d also see a way of doing things that has been well adjusted to a small, inner circle of the active, older members.  And that would explain what you’re seeing.  When you see a fair number of those kinds of churches either get to the point where they are forced to change, or they disband, and a new congregation still affiliate with the SBC gets to take over the building, you’ll see the numbers do a reverse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Southern Baptists, a Lesson Learned

This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit.  Isaiah 66:2b, NIV

By now, most people are aware that Dr. Paige Patterson, one of the media-described “architects” of the “Conservative Resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention, has been terminated from all connections with Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.  The decision, made yesterday by the executive committee of the board of trustees, was a stunning reversal of a previous decision making him President Emeritus, and providing him with continued salary and on-campus housing.  The issue had expanded from his previous remarks and handling of situations related to spousal abuse, to a specific incident which occurred at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary while he was still serving as President there.  Any Baptist news media outlet will provide the details.

This isn’t a discussion of Patterson, or what he did.  It is a discussion of how the Southern Baptist Convention, and by extension Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, got to this point, and where it goes from here.  I’m a graduate of Southwestern.  I have an M.A. in what they called “religious education” in the past, received in 1989 after two and a half years and 68 hours of graduate level courses in theological studies, educational pedagogy and behavioral science.  I was one of more than 5,000 students at Southwestern when I enrolled, more than 4,000 on the same campus in Ft. Worth.

The “Conservative Resurgence” that began in 1979 was eight years into its announced task of replacing trustee board members with those who believed in Biblical inerrancy when I came to Ft. Worth.  Though there was always talk about how that was affecting the SBC, at Southwestern, I never encountered a professor in a classroom who taught anything that resembled the “liberalism” I’d heard about as being prevalent in the SBC schools.  Southwestern was a cradle of Baptist orthodoxy in its conservative form.  It was not “fundamentalist” in that it insisted on prescribing specific details of specific interpretations of scripture, but I think you’d have been hard pressed to find any professor, or even staff member, who wouldn’t agree to the BFM’s statement that the Bible had, for its matter, “Truth, without any mixture of error.” [see the Baptist Faith and Message, 1963 version].

No Biblical Model for Exalting Leadership

There is not a model in scripture for a church or denomination to follow that allows for the exalting of leadership.  Jesus was a servant leader, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  [Philippians 2:6-9, ESV]  His church has no hierarchy, and no power structure.  Its offices require one who is called to serve to submit to God’s authority, and to exercise spiritual gifts given by God, above any human reason, education or experience.

One of the most distinctive marks of Baptist identity is the nature of the Christian church.  As it is described in the New Testament, Baptists believe that there is no hierarchy or power structure in the church, but that each congregation is independent and autonomous, accountable before God for fulfilling what it senses as its own ministry calling.  Though highly critical of Catholics and some of the mainline Protestant denominations with a hierarchical structure, the Southern Baptist Convention has built a power structure into its own denominational apparatus that has created a hierarchy, based on prominence and influence, and on positions which have control over institutions and agencies, that is every bit as hierarchical as the Catholic priesthood.  Getting there takes an investment of time, influence and visibility, especially in the Baptist-operated media.  It takes either having friends who have managed to get themselves onto boards and committees, or making friends with those already there.

Then it was 1979, and there was the Conservative Resurgence.

Many Southern Baptists were already disenchanted with denominational leadership that appeared to be exclusive and entrenched, with a very narrow group of individuals, from a very small group of churches, rotating from board to board, committee to committee, appointing their friends to trustee boards and hiring their friends for top salaried denominational jobs.  By using the theological issue of “creeping liberalism”, the rallying cry of fidelity to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, and the general “bust up the good-ole-boys club” attitude, the resurgence leadership succeeded in turning all of the trustee boards and committees over to members committed to inerrancy.  They also succeeded in developing a network of loyal followers willing to violate all of the rules and protocols, and safeguards against nepotism to reward leaders with the positions they wanted.

I’ve heard the Conservative Resurgence described as a movement, of which Pressler and Patterson were considered “architects,” that “restored the Southern Baptist Convention to its conservative roots.”  I don’t think it had to really go very far to do that.  The vast majority of Southern Baptists were already conservative, and already believed in inerrancy.  The movement could not have sustained itself, and gathered the messenger support that it needed over the course of more than a decade to turn over the boards and committees if that had not been the case.  But when change happens, especially in a Christian denomination, great care must be exercised to keep ambition from getting in the way of principle.  The goal of the Conservative Resurgence was to restore a great denomination to its Biblical foundations, not to use the power that would be gained in the process to secure denominational jobs and influence for those who were leading the movement.

So there is a tendency to want to show appreciation to those who have accomplished something that appears to be necessary by rewarding them in some way.  Noting that the servant leadership model set by Jesus himself led him to crucifixion at the hands of pagans, there should not be any expectation of reward as a result of the accomplishment of some specific goal.  And the fact of the matter is that not all Southern Baptists, by a long shot, and not all Southern Baptist theological conservatives, were necessarily on board with the methods used by the “architects” of the Conservative Resurgence.  Nor have a majority of Southern Baptists been on board with handing over a good portion of the denominational “spoils” of the battle to them, ether.

What has happened to the denomination since the resurgence put its own people on the boards and committees has not been something to celebrate.  Baptism numbers, which resurgence leaders claimed were tanking because of the “liberal” leadership of the SBC, continued to decline under their leadership, and are now well below half of what they were in 1978, prior to the first resurgence candidate being elected SBC president.  Membership increases became smaller with each succeeding year, and the SBC has now lost a million members over the course of the last decade.  Weekly worship attendance has declined by more than half a million, to a number below the 5 million mark for the first time since the 60’s.  Sunday School enrollment and attendance are down 10% over the course of a decade.  Seminary enrollment is half what it was at its peak in the 1980’s.  NAMB has endured a financial and logistical disaster.  The IMB is struggling.  The venerable Cooperative Program is fluctuating, though the overall trend is showing a decrease, but there has been sustained pressure on state conventions to cut their own receipts to “give more.”  Giving through the state conventions is down 10% over the course of a decade, though some states have experienced much more severe drops.  By any measure of success, that’s not what it looks like.

Ambition Should Not Get in the Way of Principle

The goal of the conservative resurgence was to restore a Christian denomination to its Biblical roots.  It would not have been possible for either Patterson or Pressler to accomplish this goal as an officer, denominational employee or trustee board member.  Patterson didn’t make a run for the SBC presidency until long after control of the boards was secure.  It is my belief that he first went to Southeastern before making the move to Ft. Worth to make sure that the move would not be seen as motivated by ambition and carried out by influence, because under any other circumstance, a move from a tiny, struggling Bible college to the SBC’s largest and most influential seminary wouldn’t have been considered likely.  His supporters would insist that he was qualified for both seminary posts, though he was a major influence in trustee selection at both schools long before he went to either one.  Prestige and influence aside, this ended very badly for Dr. Patterson.  It also ended badly for Southwestern Seminary.

The Southern Baptist Convention itself has not been unified around a conservative banner.  There was always a group opposed to the tactics being used by Patterson and Pressler to control the SBC, “a subversive and militaristic solution” as one friend describes it.  Ironically, though both Patterson and Pressler were Texans, and belonged to some of the largest and most influential Baptist congregations in the state, Texas Baptists as a whole never really warmed up to either one of them.  The result of their efforts in that state was a nasty quarrel that split the state convention, along with a lot of churches and associations.  The majority, including a clear majority of conservatives, went to the side opposite Pressler and Patterson.  Over a period of several years, the majority of the Texas contingent at Southwestern departed, and that has been a major factor in its enrollment and financial decline.

The divisions within the SBC during almost all of the period of time that it has been under the control of the conservative resurgence are sharpening and widening.  The 2018 convention is shaping up to be one of the most contentious in a decade, and one of the noisiest factions is the group that still rallies around the old guard of the conservative resurgence.  With the SBC experiencing declines across the board of the same proportion as some of the mainline Protestant denominations its leaders once scorned for the same reason, and with one of its seminaries in need of a major rebuilding and renewal, there is still a group spoiling for a fight.

The View from Seminary Hill

I’m still quite partial to Southwestern Seminary.  It was a place where I experienced one of the most significant spiritual revivals in my life.  In two and a half years, almost a lifetime’s worth of spiritual formation was poured in, resulting from the instruction of professors, fellowship with students and staff, and serving in practicums and internships in a variety of local churches.  The campus was called Seminary Hill, but unless you were approaching it from another direction, you couldn’t really see it as a high point.  From a spiritual perspective, though, it certainly was.

I believe that Southwestern Seminary is a bellwether of SBC institutional life, and that what happens there will have an effect on how things turn across the rest of the convention.  It is worth the effort to restore it, and provide it with leadership that can make it a viable institution capable of training generations of future Christian leaders.  This isn’t about one leader in its life, it is about the worth of the school as a place where pastors, missionaries and humble servants of God encounter the Holy Spirit, and experience personal revival.  The SBC needs it to be what it once was.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Your Friends, the Southern Baptists

The title of this article was taken from the tag line of a public service announcement that the SBC’s Radio and Television Commission once distributed to television stations.  A little character called “Jot” would deliver a short, Biblically focused message and invite people to make their way to a church, preferably a nearby Southern Baptist congregation.  I’m not sure if the effectiveness of it was ever measured, but it was catchy.

A Personal “Pedigree” 

I’m not big on having to establish a denominational “pedigree” in order to write about a denominational issue.  But I understand that there are those who need that in order to read what you write.  My attendance at a Southern Baptist church began when I was in the nursery.  I was baptized at six, can remember when the Sunday School classes were called Beginners, Primary and Intermediate, and when the missions group was called Sunbeams.  I went to a Southern Baptist college, graduated with a degree in secondary education, and finished a graduate degree in Christian education at the venerable Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.  In all of that, I came under the conviction of the Spirit, and was redeemed by Jesus, who is my Lord and Savior.  I’m a theological conservative, not a fundamentalist by definition, but easily in agreement with the Baptist Faith and Message.

In 2010, I accepted a position with an institution that belongs to another denomination, and moved to a county in the northeast where there isn’t an SBC congregation.  I remained connected to a ministry of one of the SBC agencies until last summer, when job requirements, and the physical slowdown that comes with getting older, caused me to give it up.  I still have an opinion, and maybe one that includes a sliver of objectivity that isn’t colored by a denominational pedigree.

On the Patterson Issue

I’m not going to argue, one way or another, whether Patterson’s view of women in abusive relationships is correct, or whether the advice and counsel he gave to a wife in an abusive relationship was right or wrong.  He’s explained his view, clarified his position, re-clarified it in concert with the trustees at Southwestern Seminary, and even apologized for the misunderstanding.  That’s not the issue surrounding Paige Patterson.

The problem is the deference, and continued extension of exception and privilege he receives from a segment of Southern Baptists that continue to express their admiration and adoration for him because of his role in leadership of the Conservative Resurgence.  This has included the use of his personal influence to gain posts as president of two of the denomination’s seminaries, Southeastern, which was known as one of the most liberal of the six schools prior to the resurgence, and Southwestern, which was the prize that he wanted from the outset.  But in his role as a self-appointed leader of the Conservative Resurgence, Patterson’s influence extended to boards and committees he wasn’t elected or invited to serve.  That was part of his role in pushing the conservative influence in the SBC forward, something he and his supporters considered necessary to reclaim the SBC.  But not all Southern Baptist conservatives were on board with doing it his way, and not all have accepted the unlimited perks card he carries.

Patterson has continued to use his methodology long after the conservative leadership of the SBC has been established, and continues to expect perks and privileges on the cooperative program’s dime.  The problem is now compounded by the fact that many of those in the conservative resurgence who ascended to leadership positions in the denomination no longer approve of continuing to push forward by the kind of influence peddling that is Patterson’s trademark and modus operandi.  And there are serious questions about his leadership at Southwestern, once the most influential of all Southern Baptist theological schools, and the largest one in the world.  A serious decline in the school’s enrollment, which produced a financial crisis and questions about specific unilateral actions Patterson has taken as President, has caused some Southern Baptists to question his ability to continue to lead the school, as well as the deference among some SBC leaders which allows him to call his own shots.  And so a conflict has erupted between Patterson’s staunchest supporters, those in the “he can do no wrong” camp, and other conservatives who feel that there is a level of accountability and responsibility required of all leaders, regardless of what they’ve done.

This has created a new reason to divide Southern Baptists on lines of religious/political support at a time when the crisis of an accelerating decline in membership and attendance is looming.

 

The New Theological Controversy

There’s a lot of caustic rhetoric going on between Reformed Baptists, and the “we’re not Calvinist in any way” group, the later of which is the largest and most influential group in the Southern Baptist Convention, represented by some of the “old guard” of the conservative resurgence.  Many of the moderate Baptists who were displaced by the resurgence leadership predicted that there would be ongoing disputes and fights in the denomination, once the threshold of controversy over doctrine was crossed, and this is apparent fulfillment of their prophecy.  From where I sit, this doesn’t look like a fully involved conflagration, at least not yet, but it is a brush fire that is destroying some sheds and outbuildings.

The very nature of a Baptist denomination, with the degree of church independence and autonomy that is present, and the loose confederation of the denominational apparatus, which applies perfectly to the SBC, means that there will always be the presence of various Reformation strains of theology and practice within the groups of voluntarily affiliated congregations.  Though most Southern Baptists are extremely comfortable with the blend of Anglican principle and Anabaptist theology that is at the core of Baptist formation, there are strains of almost all other Reformation-era influences in Baptist denominations, including a good dose of Lutheranism and Calvinism, and a sprinkling (no pun intended) of Wesleyan and New England Puritan/Congregational thought.

One of the specific elements that kept me linked to my own Baptist roots, which were only one generation deep in my family, was the fact that the Baptist church in which I grew up was more concerned with Christian fellowship than it was with some nebulous concept of theological and doctrinal purity with a Baptist label on it.  Not being located in an area where Southerners were particularly numerous, the church membership consisted of a fellowship of about 80 people whose ties to the congregation were relational, who were willing to set aside secondary and tertiary practices from their own backgrounds in order to be unified, and who made the church a spiritual home.  Since that time, I have been in several Southern Baptist churches that were so concerned with a distinctive, Southern Baptist identity that they were incapable of reaching into a population that wasn’t already steeped in that tradition.  I think that may explain why the SBC is seeing the decline in attendance and membership become so sharp and steep.  The low hanging fruit and fertile ground of culture in which the denomination was rooted no longer exists, and the “Southern-ness” and “Baptist-ness” of the churches is repulsive to people who aren’t familiar with it.  Those things are not, by the way, inherently Christian.

It’s clear that the denominational structure of the SBC has little appeal for what is now its youngest generation, mostly now in its 40’s and 50’s.  David Platt may be the best example of this.  Offered a position that most Southern Baptists would consider to be a lifetime career, he went back to what he was doing before in just four short years.  The interest in something that must be preserved by animosity and convention floor fights won’t appeal to the middle aged group that is the “younger” generation in the SBC.  Younger than that, well, they’re already gone.  Rather than seeking the prestige and prominence, and perks that go along with sugarplum denominational jobs, there’s more of an interest in effective ministry, a good thing of course, but not for interest in denominational institutions.

Denominations can kill ministries.  Even stepping outside the SBC for a while, to work for an educational institution in another denomination, I have discovered all of the baggage that comes with ownership by a denomination that has a large constituency of churches and self-appointed prominent individuals to please.  The nuances and habits may be different, but the obstacles are the same, reducing ministry effectiveness, and tagging the institution with labels and baggage that almost seem deliberately aimed at turning people off and excluding them.   We always say “everyone welcome” until they come with ideas, and want to help.

I think another theological controversy in the SBC will be a strong signal to any potential leadership that is still capable of helping bring growth that they are not welcome, and that the established way of doing things will not change to accommodate the times.  I’m not talking about any kind of compromise of the SBC’s conservative theological stance, I’m just saying that unless the SBC structure is open to change that is fed by the ideas of new leadership, it will never reverse the membership and attendance decline it is now experiencing, and it will continue to experience decline, and controversy that will shut down progress.

Update:  Since this post was made, Dr. Patterson was made “President Emeritus” of Southwestern Seminary, effective immediately, with salary and benefits, and will be moved into an apartment in the school’s new Baptist Heritage Center.  Since Southwestern is supported by Cooperative Program dollars, Southern Baptists will be paying for his retirement and housing out of their collection plates.  

 

 

 

Silence is Not the Right Thing to do

You adulterous people!  Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?  James 4:4-5 ESV

This is a real mess, it’s complicated, and it will get worse.

We have a President who has hired an attorney to be his “fixer.”  That’s because he is corrupt, immoral, has a lot of money, wants to do whatever he pleases, and his public image needs protection, and cleaning up from time to time.  So his fixer, attorney Michael Cohen, whose morals and integrity are also up for serious debate, pays off a porn star just a few days prior to the election to keep her from spilling the beans about an affair she’d had with the President around the time his youngest child was born.

I expect the secular world to shrug this off indifferently.  Though that kind of attitude contributes to this sort of behavior continuing, and to the powerful and wealthy like Trump thinking they can live above the law, and above community standards, but, hey, it is a secular society after all, isn’t it.

What has been spectacularly shocking is the silence that is coming from the Evangelical Christian community.  Yep, chirping crickets and all of those illusory terms, those in our society who have been the most insistent about the character and behavior of politicians, and accountability, are silent.  And beyond the silence, they are excusing their inaction, and what can be rightly interpreted as an attitude that values politics far above faith, by catchy little phrases such as, “We’re electing a commander in chief, not a pastor in chief.”  As if there’s any theological correctness in holding pastors to higher standards than anyone else, or to avoiding holding the leader of the country to any standard, depending, of course, on his political affiliation.

You don’t need much imagination to figure out how loud the shrieking voices, pounding pulpits and caustic criticism would be if the behavior that the current President regularly indulges in, much of it since his convenience conversion prior to the 2016 election, had been done by a Democrat.  Most people can easily remember the high pitched shrieking and hollering during the Clinton administration, the nasty remarks, the complete dismissal of his regular church attendance, and the mockery made of the counsel he sought, privately and without a lot of fanfare, during a process of repentance.  All of that came from self-proclaimed, conservative, Evangelical, “religious right” leaders, and it was relentless.

There’s really not any way to compare bad behavior to bad behavior.  Immorality is immorality, and most of the Christian leaders who smacked Clinton over the head with a leather bound Bible would say so.  Trump is different in that he has openly admitted his affairs, including a ham-fisted, evolving and changing story with plenty of lies thrown in about the Daniels affair.  He’s bragged about it, and about sexually assaulting women, which is why those details are so well known.  You can’t claim ignorance, or blame what is known about Trump on the “liberal media.”  You can be as ignorant and blind about his politics as you want, but this stuff isn’t “fake news.”

And so this silence from the group of Evangelicals who are among Trump’s most loyal supporters is an indictment of their hypocrisy.  Within the scope of conservative, Evangelical teaching, there is no allowance at all for not taking a stand against the adultery and the lying, the demeaning disrespect shown for women, and toward anyone who calls him out, and the obvious lack of any kind of moral compass or respect for principles and teachings that Evangelicals claim have been revealed by God himself.  Such behavior, as the Bible says, demonstrates “enmity” toward God.  But most of the self-proclaimed Evangelicals who have traded their faith for politics have set their Bibles down in order to continue to support Trump.  What most of his more vocal, and high profile Evangelical supporters have in common with him is wealth, and the same attitude about the law not applying to them because of it.  Apparently, they don’t think the Bible applies to them, either.

Many of these same self-proclaimed leaders were some of Bill Clinton’s most caustic and vocal critics.  I can’t recall anyone distinguishing between a “commander in chief” and a “pastor in chief” when it came to Monica Lewinsky.  It wasn’t the conservative media that broke the story, and none of these leaders had any problem citing the mainstream media that did, nor did they shy away from appearing on it to voice their opinion and perspective, and call for his impeachment.

There is a segment of the Evangelical community in this country that hasn’t soiled its garments with secular politics.  Maybe they are contributing to the sense of silence on this issue, but I respect their desire to keep politics and politicians out of their pulpits and churches.  And there are a few who see this for exactly what it is, and who have spoken against the immorality, dishonesty, and total lack of character exhibited by this President.  Among their Christian brethren, some of them have paid a high price for it, because respect for a different political opinion doesn’t seem to be a core value exhibited by many Evangelicals, either.  What does it say about the spiritual condition of a soul that ignores the core principles of Christian faith to openly approve of immorality, and then breaks off fellowship with fellow Christians who have the moral courage and conviction to speak out?

I haven’t seen a lot of research, but I have little doubt that the downturn in the number of new converts won to Christ in Evangelical churches, and the sharp drop in attendance and membership that a vast majority of their churches are now experiencing is the result of disgusted Christians getting mixed messages about the worship of wealth and power over God.  Perhaps the blessing in this will be to separate the goats from the sheep among the Evangelical movement, and those who are in it for the ministry, not the money, will not be affected by the downturn in membership and attendance that is growing worse by the day.  God does have a way of protecting those who genuinely serve Him.

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.  Psalm 146:3