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.