LifeWay’s Midlife Identity Crisis

by Dr. Rick Patrick, pastor
FBC Sylacauga, Ala.

The traits of a midlife crisis are easy to identify. Chasing the years, men of a certain age begin acting in an erratic manner. Almost overnight, they dress differently. To feel even younger, they purchase a new motorcycle or a hot red sports car. They grow bored with their faithful spouse and spend all their energies attracting the attention of new and much younger friends. They embrace an independent attitude, throwing off conventional ways. Their behavior is erratic, unfaithful and obsessed with a younger generation. They stop acting their age. Lifelong friends barely even recognize them anymore.

The Baptist Sunday School Board no longer exists. When it was replaced by LifeWay, Southern Baptist messengers were promised that nothing would change but the name. Messengers had in mind the exporting of Southern Baptist values into the broader evangelical world. We anticipated opening a door so that Southern Baptists could influence evangelicalism. Unfortunately, when we opened the door we found that the evangelical world was already at our doorstep trying to get in and influence us.

Is LifeWay still a Southern Baptist institution that just happens to provide resources to evangelicals? Or is it now an evangelical institution that just happens to provide resources to Southern Baptists? In which direction is the influence running? Is LifeWay making the evangelical world more Southern Baptist? Or is it making the Southern Baptist world more evangelical? Since most Southern Baptists in the pews have no idea about all of these inner workings, let me share a few examples of the identity crisis.

Non-Southern Baptist Media Strategist

In recent years, I have observed that Calvinists appear to be systematically pursuing a reform agenda within the Southern Baptist Convention. While this should come as a surprise to no one, since their refrain is semper reformanda, or “always reforming,” nonetheless my remarks were usually met with charges of wild conspiracy theories. Such charges by my critics often hurt my feelings, forcing me to put on my big boy pants. But when LifeWay hired Barnabas Piper, a Presbyterian* with a weak view of immersion baptism, my suspicions were vindicated. Friends, a line has been crossed.

No longer do I need to apologize for using the term Presbybaptist. No longer is it a wild accusation for me to speculate that Southern Baptists are engaged in a theological clash with reformed writers and thinkers whose positions are foreign to most Southern Baptists. They are being invited into our denomination not to serve at entry level posts,  but to fill major leadership positions that will influence the entire convention.

Why in the world would LifeWay give the reigns to its Ministry Grid project to the son of a non-Southern Baptist who is perhaps the leading Calvinist author in America? Such a move was bound to signal High Noon in the “time of tension” for Southern Baptists. Southern Baptists are now standing at a crossroads and must decide if we are going to insist that LifeWay remain Southern Baptist or if we are going to allow it to abandon its long standing identity in favor of this Young, Restless and Reformed Evangelicalism.

Non-Southern Baptist Creative Team

Much has been written about the creative team that put together The Gospel Project. Putting aside for now the issue of whether or not The Gospel Project possesses Calvinist overtones, its leadership team clearly includes many outside of Southern Baptist life. The list of those involved in The Gospel Project who are not Southern Baptists includes D. A. Carson, James MacDonald, Collin Hansen and Jared Wilson. It would be naive for us to think that outside influences on literature will not affect our denomination.

Most Southern Baptists in the pews assume that everything published by LifeWay is written by Southern Baptists. Since this is clearly not the case, it raises a few questions. How many non-Southern Baptists write, edit or serve on creative teams at LifeWay? What is the criteria for deciding who oversees LifeWay materials? If LifeWay is not completely Southern Baptist, how can we trust that the theological content will remain true to our Southern Baptist convictions over time? What safeguards exist to prevent the gradual promotion of this young, restless, reformed evangelical theology over time?

Non-Southern Baptist Small Groups Specialist

Mark Howell, LifeWay’s Small Groups Specialist, is on the pastoral staff of a non-Southern Baptist Church in Las Vegas, Nevada. The now infamous training event originally scheduled to be held at prosperity gospel preacher Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church has thankfully been moved elsewhere. But the change in venue leaves a major issue unaddressed. With no slight intended at all toward Rev. Howell, why is it that LifeWay feels the need to move outside of the Southern Baptist Convention in making so many of its new hiring decisions? Are there no qualified Southern Baptists to lead in such training? What will be the practical result, over time, of hiring so many non-Southern Baptist leaders?

If one briefly glances at a LifeWay job description these days, one finds that the only church affiliation requirement for hiring is that a person be an active member at “an evangelical church.” While such a broad approach does not exactly forbid Southern Baptist hires, neither does it provide Southern Baptists any preference in hiring. One wonders why the millions of dollars Southern Baptists have invested in LifeWay historically and continue to invest today have not earned us such a privileged position.

Conclusion

LifeWay Christian Resources does not serve Southern Baptists exclusively, nor should it. We are the largest Protestant denomination in America and have every right to export our Southern Baptist influence throughout the entire Christian world. Unfortunately, our current strategy appears to be the reverse–importing the entire Christian world into our hiring, our literature, our training and our theology.

The Southern Baptists in the pews who pay the bills at LifeWay expect our publishing house to be uncompromisingly Southern Baptist. We will not allow our children to be led away by any pied piper. We must seal our borders and protect our house. Southern Baptist Churches may be old and traditional, but we have been faithful for many years. Mr. LifeWay must stop his flirting, act his age and reconnect with the love of his life.

*CORRECTION: Under the first of three sections detailing the current Non-Southern Baptist influence at Lifeway, Barbabas Piper was identified as a Presbyterian. Although Piper has publicly admitted to ATTENDING a Presbyterian Church as recently as two years ago, it is unclear whether he ever JOINED, raising additional concerns, of course, regarding the requirement for all employees to be active evangelical church members. Also, the phrase “give the reigns to its Ministry Grid project” may be less than accurate, due to the incredibly euphemistic title “Content Media Strategist,” which may or may not actually involve strategic decision making regarding media content.