As I have processed the proceedings of our most recent Convention, I believe one of the most exciting and promising aspects of those days were some terrific opportunities to converse about and clarify our views on some crucial matters.
First, the historic election of Rev. Fred Luter gave our Convention the opportunity to bring ever-increasing clarity to the issue of racial prejudice, an issue for which the SBC has had both a shameful history and slowness to correct. Now, I want to state firmly that Rev. Luter’s election is not, to me, primarily about race. Rev. Luter is deserving of this position for reasons entirely unrelated to the fact that he is African-American. His life of commitment to the Gospel, to the lost and hurting in the great but challenging city of New Orleans, to his twice-built work at Franklin Avenue, and to his precious family are more than enough to qualify him for the office. With respect to the SBC, his election is as much about grace as it is about race. Rev. Luter loved the Convention even when it must have been very difficult to love. He saw the SBC not for what it was but for what it could be and that is the mark of visionary leadership. His grace and faithfulness, thankfully, has afforded us the opportunity, even at this late hour, to affirm that we are worthy of that vision. In Alan Paton’s classic, Cry, the Beloved Country, which is set in South Africa in the 1940s, Pastor Msimangu’s greatest fear is that “one day when they are turned to loving, they will find that we are turned to hating.” Rev. Luter kept on loving and wrought for the Convention the opportunity to say clearly to our culture that we are turning to loving as well.
Bill Harrell has served as Pastor of Abilene Baptist Church in Martinez, Georgia, for over 30 years. He also is active in the Augusta Baptist Association, Georgia Baptist Convention, and SBC, including having serving as the Vice-President of the Georgia Baptist Convention and as Chairman of the SBC Executive Committee.
In the short span of time of about five years, those of us who are observers of activities within the Southern Baptist Convention have witnessed not only changes but mega-shifts in our convention. It would take a large volume for someone to treat all the various subjects at hand but I want to address just a few that are very subtle in some ways but very overt in others.
Most of our Southern Baptist people are just tending to the business of the Kingdom in their part of the world unaware of the forces that are in play and what those forces are trying to achieve and indeed are achieving with much success.
Two things have come to our attention in recent days that bear watching. First, our agency for missions within the US, NAMB, has been using some of the Cooperative Program funds to help establish “Acts 29” churches. These churches must, by their own charter, be organized as five-point-Calvinist churches. There are those who have it as their goal to change the SBC into a Reformed convention more akin to a Presbyterian church that a Baptist church. I cannot, in these few words, get into a broad examination of what is going on, but any informed member of the SBC understands that this is happening.
The driving force behind the Acts 29 churches has been Mark Driscoll; and I do not need to elucidate how controversial he is. He has become, to the younger people, somewhat of a folk hero who they are willing to follow no matter what he says or does. Chapter 10 of his recent book, Real Marriage, is nothing but pornography. It encourages people to think that it normal to do sexually what the Bible condemns. Yet, it is Southern Baptist people who suddenly seem willing to accept the things that the people of our convention rejected outright as sinful until recently. In recent days the leadership of Acts 29 has shifted to someone else, at least in the public eye. Driscoll is the founder of this emergent church, Calvinistic organization; and many believe he will still be the “behind the scenes” leader. Being the founder, he is not going to “ride off into the sunset” too easily or too far.
Dr. William H. Day, Jr. serves as the Gurney Professor of Evangelism and Church Health, and as Associate Director of the Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health, at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as Pastor of Parkview Baptist Church in Metairie, Louisiana.
Last year the number of baptisms in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was 331,008. Except for a minor increase in 2009, our baptisms have been declining since 1999. In just ten years our baptisms have declined over 87,000 (a 21% decrease). The number of baptisms in the SBC is now at the lowest since 1948 when we had 310,226. We wait each year to see a turn-around. After all, we’ve had declines before now. We console ourselves by remembering that periods of decline have eventually been followed by periods of increase. We think surely the end of our decline in baptisms will occur this year, only to be disappointed again and again.
While many know this decline in baptisms is bad, it is worse than people realize. Actually, baptisms in the SBC have been on a plateau since 1950. From 1936 to 1950 we had the greatest period of increasing baptisms in the history of the SBC, growing from 191,933 to 416,867. Since 1950 our overall situation has seen brief periods when baptisms increased followed by a similar period of decline. When you look at the total picture, our baptisms have been on a plateau for 60 years!
Nothing we have done seems to have changed this picture. We have hit what I call THE WALL. Evangelism campaigns, programs for Sunday School growth, emphases on revival, and the planting of new churches have not been able to knock down The Wall.
What is the solution to our baptism decline? How can we knock down The Wall? We could point to our denomination and say, “Fix it!” Let’s plant more churches. Let’s have a renewed commitment to evangelism. Let’s pray for revival. We could look to our churches and say, “Get on the ball!” Deacons, Sunday School teachers, and members stop being so involved in meetings and focus on our most important task – evangelism. We could say our baptism decline is a denominational or church problem. The downside of this approach is that it would take extensive planning, time, money, and work. While this approach may work over time, there is a quicker way to knock down The Wall.
In 2009 we had 122,285 clergy in the convention. Consider these startling ideas: If in 2010 each member of the clergy in the SBC had led one more person to Christ and baptized them, the number of baptisms in the SBC would have been 454,606 not 332,321. This number almost equals our best year in baptisms. Moreover, if each member of the clergy had reached one more person for Christ each quarter of last year and baptized them, we would have baptized 821,461.
Expanding this idea, if our clergy would set a goal this next year to reach one more person per quarter and in addition our deacons, teachers, and members followed this example, we would see millions saved and baptized. We must realize it’s not just my brother or my sister but it’s me Oh Lord standing in the need of sharing the gospel. Then, The Wall will come tumbling down.
The first report of the committee appointed by SBC President Bryant Wright to consider a new name for the SBC indicates that they know their job is a hot potato. Chairman Jimmy Draper assured us that they are approaching the task prayerfully and deliberately. He also made clear that the committee does not favor changing the word “Baptist” in our convention’s name. As expected, “Southern,” seen as some to be an inappropriately regional identification, and “Convention,” with its institutional flavor, are up for grabs.
I’m not surprised by anything Dr. Draper has said up to this point and it is good that he has nailed down that we will continue to be called something Baptist for the foreseeable future. But with that communication from the ad hoc committee, I’m comfortable to sit back and wait for their final report.
I can’t help but wonder if those most dissatisfied with the convention’s current name will be eased by any response that retains the word “Baptist,” though. Some have actually found the term “Baptist” problematic for their ministries. Maybe it’s for embarrassments like Westboro Baptist “Church” (not Southern Baptist but many don’t know) or things we have done like the Disney boycott. Some churches may find a broader base of attenders by not leading with “Baptist.”
Thoughts on the Daviess-McLean Baptist Association Decision
about Pleasant Valley Community Church
Part 2: Reflections on the Significance of What Happened
By Dr. Lemke, Provost, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, occupying the McFarland Chair of Theology, Director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry, and Editor of the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Reflections on the Daviess-McLean Decision
In Part 1, I shared my perceptions (from admittedly incomplete knowledge) about the decision of Daviess-McLean Baptist Association (DMBA) to deny the membership request from Pleasant Valley Community Church (PVCC). The main point was that although theological issues were involved in the decision because of the strongly Calvinistic doctrine of PVCC, the decision appears to have been based more on attitudinal issues by PVCC that the member churches of DMBC felt could be divisive. Here are some brief reflections on my understanding of the significance of the association’s decision to deny membership to PVCC, and the implications of this action for other churches and associations as we move forward.
(1) The local church is the center of (earthly) authority in Baptist polity. Local church autonomy is a distinctive Baptist belief (as I have discussed). The local churches in Daviess-McLean Baptist Association were perfectly within their rights to deny membership to Pleasant Valley Community Church. This determination was made not by associational officials, but by duly authorized messengers from the member churches of DMBA. They were voting as representatives of their own local church, not as representatives of the association as a whole. At the same time, DMBA has no authority to force PVCC to change their doctrine or practice. PVCC can worship as they choose, believe as they choose, and do church as they choose. The biblical foundation of church autonomy, of course, is the priority given to local churches in the New Testament. However, theologically it reflects that through the priesthood of believers (another Baptist distinctive), each member seeks the will of God, the headship of Jesus Christ, and the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and represents that divine leadership in voting on decisions in the church. This collective reflection of the will of God is much more reliable than putting this decision solely in the hands of a few fallible authoritarian leaders. This is a wonderful and marvelous thing that inflexible top-down hierarchical denominations like Catholics and Presbyterians “desire to look into” (1 Pet. 1:12, KJV).