Steve Lemke, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
“Young, Southern Baptist, and . . . Irrelevant?”
In the first part of this article, I reflected on Brad Whitt’s article “Young, Southern Baptist, . . . and Irrelevant?,” which was published in the South Carolina state Baptist Courier, on his own blog, and in six additional Baptist state papers. Responses to Whitt’s article, pro and con, have weighed in all over the country in Baptist papers, various blogs, and Facebook discussions. Whitt’s response to these many comments has now been posted on his blog, which he entitled, “The Challenge for Contributing, Committed Southern Baptists.”
I observed, for those who might have missed it, that the title of Whitt’s article appeared to be an allusion to an oft-referenced article in the 2006 issue of Christianity Today, entitled “Young, Restless, and Reformed: Calvinism is Making a Comeback and Shaking Up the Church,” by Collin Hansen, which he later expanded into a book by a similar title, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists. I also noted that many of the “new Calvinists” or “neoCalvinists” about whom Hansen wrote seem to fit the description of what Mark Driscoll and Ed Stetzer call “Reformed Relevants.” Whitt retained “young,” since he is a younger pastor, and substituted “Southern Baptist . . . Irrelevant?” instead of “Restless and Reformed” or “Reformed Relevants.” Obviously, Whitt thinks that his purported irrelevance has been greatly exaggerated.
The “Baptist Identity” Fault Line and Other Converging Fault Lines
What do we make of the furor (pro and con) created by Whitt’s article? Obviously, Brad has touched a nerve in Southern Baptist life. My observation was that Whitt’s article and the response to it reveals one of the deepest fault lines in the SBC – between what I thought Whitt might describe as those who have a “high Baptist identity” and those who have a “low to moderate Baptist identity.” I expressed that though this fault line is real, it is difficult to define clearly. It does involve a cluster of theological/ecclesiological/ methodological issues, especially about how to “do church,” but I noted that the primary difference between them may be more of an ethos than clearly defined theological issues. I then tried to suggest a few examples about how these two perspectives might differ on a few issues, though these examples were merely suggestive or illustrative examples. I might point out that all any neutral observer would need to do in order to recognize such a fault line is to read the many responses to my post and to Whitt’s article. The two sides of the chasm reflect a strong and sometimes emotional reaction against each other, and an obvious difference of perspective.
I then suggested that the “Baptist identify” fault line is just one fault line in Southern Baptist life. In fact, there is a series of other interconnected, partially overlapping, and partially converging fault lines in the SBC – smaller churches vs. megachurches, anti-GCR vs. pro-GCR, majority Baptist theology vs. Reformed theology, advocates of associations and state convention vs. detractors of associations and state convention, Cooperative Program as a high value vs. Cooperative Program as a tertiary value, etc. These fault lines are not identical, though they may parallel and converge at times. But an eruption in one of the fault lines sets off shockwaves in each of these other fault lines, and hence a great deal of disagreement within the larger Southern Baptist fellowship.
I’ll not “unpack” all of these fault lines – perhaps they are largely self-explanatory. Among these tensions, I’ve probably participated personally more in the “majority Baptist theology” vs. “Reformed Baptist theology” discussions (from the perspective of majority Baptist theology) in both the book co-edited by David Allen and me, Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, and in other presentations and publications such as “What Is a Baptist: Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians,” so I’ll not comment further on that issue, other than to reference two recent blog posts at SBC Tomorrow (by Peter Lumpkins) and From Law to Grace (by Howell Scott) who reference this precise fault line in their comments.
However, I believe that one of the most overlooked fissures in Southern Baptist life is the opening chasm between smaller traditional churches and the larger megachurches. By far, the majority of churches in the SBC are smaller churches. According to figures from church annual reports gathered by the Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, about 60 percent of our churches (roughly 26,000 of them) have 100 or less in worship attendance each week. Another 18 percent of the churches (roughly 7,700 churches) have 200 or fewer in worship attendance. So, a total of about 33,000 churches, or 78 percent of all our SBC churches are smaller churches. In contrast, just 580 churches in the SBC have 1,000 or more in worship attendance each week (just over 1 percent of SBC churches). Not all the smaller churches are traditionalist; indeed, many of the smaller churches are church plants with a contemporary style. But the overwhelming majority of these 26,000 smaller churches are traditionalist in style, whether located in rural, suburban, or urban settings. At the same time, not all larger churches have a contemporary style; some have blended services or multiple services with several various worship styles. But most do tend to be more contemporary in style and more open to innovation in methodology.
The majority of churches in the SBC being smaller is also reflected in the employment status of their pastors. About 10,000 pastors of Southern Baptist churches are bivocational or part-time, which is about 23 percent of all SBC pastors. Given the size of their numbers, this group appears to be consistently overlooked and underrepresented in Convention life. Overlooking the needs of smaller churches has produced a “disconnect” from the SBC with many smaller churches, and the underrepresentation in Convention forums has produced resentment on the part of some smaller church pastors. In the early days of the Conservative Resurgence, there seemed to be a much closer connection between megachurch pastors and small church pastors, but for whatever reason, that relationship seems to have cooled. Although most pastors admire and respect the preaching and leadership of megachurch pastors as individuals in light of their obvious success, I have heard more difficult-to-define negative perceptions than I have in the previous years.
I first became aware of this fault line while pastoring my first church in Texas. Frank Page and I were doctoral students at Southwestern Seminary, and we served as pastors of smaller churches in the same (Palo Pinto) association – he at First Baptist Church of Possum Kingdom Lake, and me at First Baptist Church in Santo. When I took my people to training events such as Sunday School training conferences, they were angered that they were presented a “one size fits all” presentation from a large Dallas church which had virtually nothing in common with how our churches functioned or the people to whom we ministered. At the same time, though the church in which I served was a small town church, it was not unusual for us to have a third of the population of the entire community attending our church on any given Sunday. Although a large church like First Baptist Church of Dallas (the largest church in the SBC at that time) would always get the denominational awards for having the most baptisms and members, some of us small town pastors mused that these statistics might not be the best evaluation of effectiveness. If FBC Dallas reached the same proportion of their community that we did each Sunday, they would have about 800,000 people in church each week!
However, although this big church/smaller church tension has been present in convention life a long time, it seems to be coming to a head now in a more pointed way. I was struck in 2004 when Bobby Welch, a popular pastor of a large church in Florida and designer of the FAITH evangelism program, was the consensus nominee for President of the SBC. However, a pastor from a small rural church in North Carolina was unexpectedly nominated against him, and he amazingly garnered about a third of the vote. I can’t imagine anyone not liking someone as winsome, evangelistic, and positive as Bobby Welch, so I don’t think these votes were against Welch. Some people told me that they were voting against a process in which they perceived that a small group of key pastors to be presenting one agreed upon nominee each year—and that nominee always seemed to be a megachurch pastor. Perceiving the choice to be made by “power brokers” in a “smoke-filled room” (not literally, of course!), some of those voting for the rural church pastor were apparently making a protest vote against this process. Of course, almost all the Presidents of the SBC in its history have been large church pastors or entity heads, and they have been nominated by key denominational leaders. However, there seems to be more distrust of the process now than in previous years.
This dynamic also seemed evident in some of the question and answer times in public meetings sponsored by the GCR Committee, with some small church pastors pointedly challenging large church pastors on various issues. This tension found organizational expression more recently with the creation of the SBC Majority Initiative, which sought to increase the number of pastors and members of smaller churches in SBC agency board appointments, and to increase their profile in other SBC settings.
There is much misunderstanding and mistrust here – and hurt and frustration on each side as well. Megachurch pastors were angered when their perception was that SBC officials were establishing a given percentage of giving through the Cooperative Program as litmus test for serving in SBC office, when some of them had been approached personally by IMB and NAMB leaders beseeching them to functionally redirect funds from CP to give directly to support special mission projects. (There is only so much money in the pot, so to give significantly to one usually requires cutting the other). They gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to direct missions efforts, and thus less through the Cooperative Program. But then they were criticized or discounted for candidacy to SBC offices because their CP contribution was smaller. Also, megachurches must usually build new facilities to accommodate their worshippers, and thus face the challenge of paying off significant building and interest costs, as well as personnel and program costs to support their great ministries.
On the other hand, smaller church pastors were suspicious that larger church pastors were downplaying the Cooperative Program percentage giving just so they could be candidates for elective office in the SBC, and understood some aspects of the GCR to allow for such non-CP giving to “count” for their “credit” when evaluating their church’s commitments and contributions to missions. And the smaller church pastors feel proportionally underrepresented on SBC platforms and entity board appointments. There are probably some differences between the two groups in areas such as worship styles and openness to innovation as well. Let me be very clear—my point is not to side with smaller churches or larger churches here; my point is just to be descriptive in illustrating that this has become a considerable fault line in SBC life.
So, what impact does all this have on the SBC? Given all these microdivisions within the SBC, when we get together for our annual meeting, we are (in a way) like the Democratic party – not so much a single unified party, but a combination of special interest groups. You could say that we have become such a “big tent” filled with so many diverse perspectives that we are particularly vulnerable to significant disagreements within the fellowship. Diversity is good, but division is not. We have more fragmentation than integration, and the center of Southern Baptist life is getting smaller and smaller. We seem to be moving away from the center, not toward the center. Each of the interest groups talks with people in their own group (and we all agree that the other side is wrong). We may talk to or at other groups, but we do not talk with other groups.
Something must change if we are to have a future. In fact, it appears to me that there are just two possible futures or “solutions” for the fault lines that fracture the SBC. That will be the subject of my last post in this article, as I suggest two possible paths as we move toward the future.