Grading A Decade of Reform School | Part One

August 11, 2015

Dr. Rick Patrick | Senior Pastor
First Baptist Church, Sylacauga, AL

Over the past decade, Southern Baptists have witnessed major efforts to reform our denomination in at least the ten specific areas addressed in this essay. One might ask why 2006 was chosen as the starting point in dating these reforms. This was the year, at the SBC in Greensboro, when Southern Baptists decided that anemic Cooperative Program giving by some leading churches was an issue that absolutely needed to be addressed. This was the year when Paige Patterson and Al Mohler engaged in the most cordial debate in the history of theology over the issue of Calvinism. This was the year when Southern Baptists held a twenty-minute conversation on the convention floor in which some messengers actually spoke in favor of the moderate use of beverage alcohol. This was the year when the name Mark Driscoll, virtually unknown to most Southern Baptists at the time, came up frequently in the form of warnings against the danger of his growing influence.

Since this time, Southern Baptist reforms have taken place, mostly at the national level, occurring with such subtlety that they have been largely undetected by the people in the pews. These failing reforms offer motion without progress—like a car stuck in the mud and spinning its wheels. These reforms simply have not gained much traction at the hometown church on the corner of First and Main. They have proven to be popular only among denominational leadership elites.

Southern Baptist leaders have promoted a new culture during this reform decade. We have been like a workplace under new management with employees standing around the water cooler trying to figure things out. It is as if an outside consulting firm has been hired—Driscoll, Mahaney and MacDonald—and we have been told to follow their strategies, implement their practices, read their memos and listen to their lectures. We have been told that we have a lot to learn from these experts. Mounting evidence now exists to irrefutably dispute such a claim.

Southern Baptists looked around ten years ago and said, “Everybody else is doing better than we are. Let’s copy them.” Ten years later, we have the perspective to say, “They did not have all the answers at all. We had a few of them ourselves.” Like insecure junior high students, we should never have made all the adjustments in our identity merely to fit in with the cool kids. It always turns out that the cool kids aren’t so cool after all. We should get back to doing what we were doing all along. We do not need to be reformed. We need to be restored. This is the voice of reason, experience and maturity. The reform decade has been a miserable failure. Listed below are ten reform measures from 2006-2015 that have missed the mark.

 1. Salvation Doctrine
To its credit, Calvinistic theology has sharpened our focus on doctrine, delivered us from feel good sermons and challenged a lack of meaningful church discipline. But Southern Baptists are never going to embrace Calvinism as our majority view. We are the people of Billy Graham and not John Piper. Our pulpits are not open to the preaching of Calvinism in sufficient numbers to accommodate the growing rate of Calvinistic seminary graduates being produced at Southern and Southeastern.

I rarely meet anyone who wishes to drive all Calvinism from the Southern Baptist Convention. Many people, however, join me in my desire to see Calvinism taught and promoted in a measure equal to its general embrace in the SBC as a whole. It boils down to this: our entities should only be as Calvinistic as our churches.

 2. Name
In 2012 there was initial euphoria when the possibility of an optional descriptor for the Southern Baptist Convention was narrowly approved by a 53% to 46% vote. Earlier, the tweet from Dr. Albert Mohler had been: “Let the word go forth: THE Southern Baptist Theological Seminary proudly is a Great Commission Baptists institution.”[1] Since Southern Baptists support six seminaries, hitting the word “THE” in all caps, reminiscent of college football player introductions, seemed less than humble at the time. But if this is pride, I would hate to see shame, for since the name was approved, no major entity or church in the entire convention, including Southern Seminary, has opted to use the alternate descriptor.

When last I checked, one could count on a single hand the number of churches using the new term, although I am told that one Southern Baptist did update her religious affiliation status on Facebook to Great Commission Baptists—a victory which pretty much says it all. The truth of the matter is that most Southern Baptists were not begging for a name change in the first place. It was never really popular.

Why does this matter? It shows how easily our denominational decision making process can advance a certain agenda, regardless of whether or not it enjoys any real popular support. If leaders can accomplish a name change that nobody really wants, then what else can they accomplish that nobody really wants either? Exactly how does one put the brakes on unpopular leadership ideas in the Southern Baptist Convention? Are our decisions being made behind the scenes with rubber stamp trustees? Are our various levels of accountability nothing more than a mirage?

3. Budgeting
Although it was packaged with a great deal of rhetoric and flourish concerning the Great Commission, the gist of the GCR proposals passed at the convention in 2010 (by a committee that sealed its records for fifteen years) was an effort to reshuffle our financial priorities away from the so-called “bloated bureaucracies”[2] of state conventions and in favor of the work being done through our North American and International Mission Boards. While most states have made some modifications in a genuine effort to be team players in this initiative, one is hard pressed to declare that Southern Baptists are experiencing a genuine Great Commission Resurgence.

Many of our churches truly do appreciate the work of Southern Baptists at all three of our historic levels of cooperation—association, state and national. While the tactic of squeezing a little more money from our state conventions can boast of a few mild successes, it has generally failed to produce a dramatic increase in funds, since the source of these funds, the local church, has not changed its giving habits. Slicing the same amount of pie in slightly different proportions is hardly worthy of the lofty title “resurgence,” which may explain why few speak of a GCR anymore.

 4. Missionary Targets
For generations, Southern Baptists have sought to establish a presence in every nation on earth willing to accept missionaries—and even a few that are unwilling.

But today there are some nations being categorized as essentially “reached” with the gospel once they have crossed the two percent threshold. Then, as missionaries on these fields retire, they are not replaced in a manner that would continue our efforts in fulfilling the harvest mandate. Instead, the new missionaries are being assigned to unreached people groups whose level of being reached with the gospel is below the two percent threshold, in an effort to fulfill the frontier mandate.

It is fair to say many seasoned missiologists have questioned the legitimacy of this two percent threshold for establishing that a people group has become essentially reached. Notably, Dr. Robin Dale Hadaway of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has proposed a far more reasonable budget allocation approach: 40% Unreached, 40% Harvest, 15% Education and 5% Administration.[3] When it comes to reaching individual souls, and not merely notching additional people groups, one wonders if Southern Baptists are not leaving a little meat on the bones as we pull our missionaries out of areas only just beginning to flourish in the Lord.

 

[1] Mohler, Albert. “Let the word go forth: THE Southern Baptist Theological Seminary proudly is a Great Commission Baptists institution.” 20 February 2012, 6:38 p.m. Tweet
[2] Akin, Danny. “Axioms of a Great Commission Resurgence.” Chapel Address at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, April 16, 2009.
[3] Hadaway, Robin Dale. “A Course Correction in Missions: Rethinking the Two Percent Threshold.” Southwestern Journal of Theology, Volume 57, Number 1, Fall 2014, p. 28.