Can Southern Baptists Make the Transition?

Can Southern Baptists Make the Transition? June 7, 2018

Next week I will be at the Southern Baptist National Convention. I am on a panel dealing with racial reconciliation. I know I have been spending a lot of time writing on the Southern Baptist lately. But the nation’s largest Protestant denomination is at an important tipping point right now that needs attention. So I am going to add my two cents in at this time. I am not going to turn this blog into a weekly discussion on Southern Baptist politics. So next week’s blog will be on a different subject even though I will be immersed in Southern Baptist culture. Perhaps after I digest my time at the convention, I may write a bit more the following week, but I think the reader deserves a week away from the SBC next week.

The SBC needs to make a transition from an older approach built for an earlier time to a modern perspective. The older generation has to release control to a younger group of leaders. Let’s call the two groups old school and young guns. Making this transition is important. Indeed it is vital. Because while we can be grateful for what the old school did back in the day, they are not equipped to serve us in the next generation. On the other hand, the young guns still can benefit from the wisdom offered from the old school if we can have a gracious transfer of power.

But when the transfer of power is not gracious, then disaster can happen. To illustrate this I look back at my life at a time when a church had to make such a transfer. I had joined an exciting Southern Baptist church in graduate school. Although overwhelmed with academic responsibilities, I still found the time to get involved and eventually to lead the church’s college ministry. I had little money but was faithful to give my tithe to the church. There was no doubt that I was loyal to this church and the Southern Baptists. But the church, which had been set up by older members, was entering a new era of younger leaders. It was a time where the transition needed to take place.

Due to my responsibilities with the college ministry, I was an unpaid staff member, which gave me inside knowledge. I soon learned that many older members of the church, or the old school, were withholding their financial support. They did not like the more contemporary worship style. They did not like the fact that the church sponsored a Christian school. And, although I only heard this from one person, I suspect many did not like the emerging multiracial population being reached by the youth ministry. Therefore, they put the entire church in danger because there were scared of the coming changes.

The lack of financial support led to budget cuts. We had four paid staff – head pastor, education minister, music minister and youth minister. The budget cuts forced us to get rid of either our education or music minister (we did not pay the youth minister, who was a college student, enough money to be worth cutting). I deeply disagreed since I knew the source of this decision was the desire of many of the old school who wanted to fight the new changes the young guns knew the church needed. My objections notwithstanding, the church decided to get rid of the education minister.

However, the music minister saw the writing on the wall. He found another job elsewhere. I found this out during our staff meeting but was told to keep it a secret. We planned a special service to honor the education minister. I knew that the music minister was also going to announce that it was his last service as well. The members of the church did not know that they were not only losing a single staff member, they were losing two staff members. I told my roommate, who was also a member of the church, that he would learn at that service just how wrong the decision was to fire the education minister, but I could not tell him why.

So we honored the education minister. Then, as I expected, the music minister announced his resignation. However, the head pastor also went up and informed the congregation that he had found another position and would be leaving the congregation in a few months. We were not losing two staff members. We were losing three staff members, and I had not expected that. At that moment, I knew that God had pronounced judgment on that congregation. The atmosphere created by those upset at the changes in the church who wanted to hold on to the way the church had been in the past was going to kill the great work they had established.

I think the only time I ever consistently attended business meetings was for this church. I was deeply invested in the church’s success. However, I was disappointed during those meetings to hear people talk about how long they had been at the church. They would start their complaint with something like, “I have been at the church for 23 years and I…” Well I had only been at the church for a couple of years, but it was my church too. If somehow, unlikely I know, I had stayed in Austin after getting my doctorate I had every intention of eventually finding a woman, settling down, and raising our family in that church.

What I, and I think most of the younger crowd, wanted was not to cut the old school out. We wanted a place for us. We wanted to help the church move to a new place where it could better minister to future generations. But, we did not begrudge church resources going to programs that helped the older group nor did we want those individuals to be silenced. We greatly respected their experiences and the wisdom many of them had. However, we wanted it to be our church as well. We needed a seat at the table and to share with them the construction of that church’s social culture. For us it seemed that they only wanted us to be quiet and do what we were told.

Many of the younger individuals left the church soon after the head pastor did. I stayed on for a while since I did have duties in the college ministry. Eventually, I was too discontent to stay where I felt I was not wanted. Until I joined that church, I had begun church searches by eliminating all non-Southern Baptist churches and then looking for the best Southern Baptist church for me. Afterwards when I looked for a church I did not care about denomination. And until recently it was never a Southern Baptist church. I had left that denomination. And the only reason why I have found my way back into the Southern Baptist denomination is through a church that is truly looking forward.

Of course, my old church never recovered. For a time the older Christians did whatever they wanted with worship and ministries the church would support. However, those who withheld their financial support soon found out that they needed the support of the people they drove off. The church eventually had to sell its building to another congregation. A few years later, I learned that a small group of them met at some public facility on Sundays to carry on the name of the church. That was the last I have heard about the church. As far as I know, it no longer exists.

I do not want this for the SBC today. Yes the young guns need to incorporate the wisdom accumulated by those in the old school. We have to fight off the temptation to arrogantly think that we have all of the answers. We don’t. But we are more in touch with this emerging generation. We are more ready for a post-Christian society because many of us grew up with it, unlike those in the old school. If we do not eventually take control of the leadership of this denomination, then it will go the way of my old church as it becomes more out of step with the world around us. The SBC will waste away and die if we do what we have done for the past 40 to 50 years and do not account for how our society is changing. It cannot thrive without what the young guns can bring to it.

The recent Patterson scandal is just the latest manifestation of this need to make the transition. As much as we can be grateful for the good done by the old school, there were also serious problems with their approaches on certain issues. Those problems will not serve the denomination well in a post-Christian world where cultural elites are looking to remove Christians from the public square. An obvious problem is the inability of the old school to deal with the very real problems of women who minister in Southern Baptist circles. I know that the solutions of the young guns are not going to have all of the answers. But they do have a chance to change gender relationships within the framework of the Southern Baptist culture that gives women much more of a voice while helping both men and women to work together in ministry. We have to have new direction in the way we approach women ministers.

And there are other controversial areas that need an infusion of new thinking. The area I have done a lot of work in Christian circles has been on race. The old school approach of colorblindness will not work. Neither will it work for us to continue to fail to show compassion to the minority immigrant coming to our shores. I know that the new guns are willing to challenge those old paradigms and to experiment with new ways to addressing racial issues. I personally hope that I can play a role in shaping innovative ways the Southern Baptists can help us move towards a racial conversation that is constructive, rather than destructive. Perhaps that starts next week with the panel at the convention.

There is also a propensity of the old school to have a loyalty to the Republican Party that is simply not healthy. I am not saying that Christians should avoid politics, but I do fear a loyalty to one party that is so strong that many automatically back it even when it nominates someone who represents the opposite of our values (Yes, I am looking at you, President Trump). I anticipate that the young guns will play in the political game, but I hope with more care and sensitivity in this polarized society. My hope is that near blind loyalty to Republicans will be replaced with a bipartisan approach that works on all moral issues (not just abortion, but also poverty and human trafficking) as they arise.

Theologically, I do not see much difference between the old school and the young guns. But, there are exciting ideas among the young guns as it concerns important societal issues that differentiate them from the old school. While still looking to the old school for their wisdom, we need those ideas to make changes in the denomination that preserve many of the values given to us by the old school. But we can express those values in ways that will reach more individuals in this changing society.

I hope the story of what happened to my church might help some of the old school to reconsider resistance to the changes that need to be made. The forces that did not want the church to move forward got their way by withholding support. By getting their way, they killed their church. The Southern Baptists have so much to give to the rest of the church and to our larger society. But if they think they will be able to reach out to younger Americans and Americans of color after signaling that not only do most of the denomination’s members support Trump, but to be part of the denomination you are expected to do so as well, then they have a big surprise coming. And if they think that they can operate in a post-Christian society with the dysfunctional gender relations we currently have, then they are in for a rude awakening.

At this time in our history, it is important for all Christians to pull together. My new membership with the Southern Baptists does not dampen my desire for interdenominational cooperation. I will continue to explore opportunities to serve with Christians across the denominational spectrum. But even as I seek to work with those in other denominations, my chosen denomination has to position itself to move forward into the next generation. Those challenges can best be met by turning the reins of power, in an orderly manner, to the young guns and to offer them the wisdom needed to move forward.

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One response to “Can Southern Baptists Make the Transition?”

  1. The SBC, like most all denominational entities, is the proverbial “rope of sand” with respect to it past and it’s future.

    The average age of a Southern Baptist (just a couple lower than Methodists, Presby’s and the like) is appx. 62. There are more pastors over 60 than under 40.

    It’s gonna take more than Flakes formulas to fix the Snow-flake crowd we are trying to convince to love Jesus and follow Him as a Southern Baptist. (that taking up your cross thing is a real hold-back) The majority just do not care and overcoming this paradigm is bigger than us all.

    The child called SBC was birthed in a time conducive to corporate stigma and a large volunteer base. (stay at home moms) She is old now and the retirement center is in view if we go by statistics. She is as uncertain of her future as ever.

    George, I will follow your writings with curiosity. We shall see if JD Greears’ leadership finds sufficient followers to do the labor for fields still white unto harvest.

    The God of Christians who choose to associate and congregate as “Southern Baptists” (on the church sign or not) is the same “yesterday, today and forever.” His capabilities have not diminished, nor have his desires and commandments.

    We shall see.