By Rhett Burns
Back in June, I attended my first ever Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. This means that, despite being a lifelong Southern Baptist, Chocolate Knox, a Presbyterian, has taken part—and voted?—in more SBC annual meetings than I have. I’m unsure if this makes him a worse Presbyterian or me a worse baptist. Regardless, I showed up this year.
I was one of over 15,000 messengers, the largest attendance at an annual meeting since the mid-1990s. There are two general reasons for well-attended conventions. One, they hold the meeting in Orlando and pastors can get a family vacation to Disney World paid for by their church. Or two, there’s controversy. This year’s meeting was not in Orlando.
Controversy Among the Baptists—Whodathunkit?
Intense controversy has hovered over Southern Baptists for the last several years. Race and sex have been the lightning rod topics, though I would argue the white-hot center of the controversy is the sufficiency and authority of Scripture. While no one in the SBC formally denies the sufficiency and authority of Scripture, factions have developed and organized over what sufficiency and authority demand of us in practice in relation to hot-button current events and ideologies.
While unity was much talked about at the annual meeting, we accomplished little to forge such unity. From my seat, the condescension, rants, emotional manipulation, and stonewalling from the platform did little to kindle the fires of cooperation and nothing to inspire trust, which has been in shorter supply than toilet paper in the early days of Covid. And, to be fair, I don’t think the platform folks were feeling warm fuzzies from the grassroots either.
In the weeks since the annual meeting, the factional divide has only widened with the sermon plagiarism scandal surrounding newly elected convention president Ed Litton, and the silence or spurious arguments of so many of his supporters.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
The divide seems intractable and raises questions of whether the nation’s largest protestant denomination can remain intact. Conservatives have an aversion to funding their moderate and liberal opponents, and therefore, many churches are contemplating whether to stop giving to SBC entities or drop out of the convention altogether.
There are good reasons to remain in the SBC. The top reason is that at its heart the SBC is a financial partnership for missions and ministry. We join together to fund church planting, theological education, and various other ministries at levels we could never do separately. This is no small thing.
Related to this point is the fact that our churches have invested a lot of resources—time, money, and people—into SBC entities over many years. One could make a fifth commandment argument that we honor our fathers and mothers in the faith by remaining wise and faithful stewards, at whatever level we can, of the legacy and resources they left to us.
On a more practical level, Aaron Renn recently pointed out that conservatives do not play for keeps. The typical M.O. for conservatives is to build something, fail to defend it, and then bow out when their ideological opponents play to win. They go start something new and rinse, wash, repeat. So, maybe one more good reason not to leave the SBC yet is to not hand over hundreds of millions of dollars and 175 years worth of institutional cache to the same people you don’t trust.
Other reasons exist, too: loyalty, friendship, and a history of fidelity to the Gospel.
The End of BIG
Even so, I am not confident in the convention’s long-term viability, at least not in its present form. My pessimism is not because of specific current controversies—they may be the occasion, but not the cause. Rather, larger cultural and historical trends are at play. Namely, decentralization.
We are witnessing a great shift toward decentralization. The rise of cryptocurrencies shows a massive move toward decentralizing the finance sector. People are waking up to the dangers of fiat currency and are acquiring alternate currencies that are beyond the control of central planner bureaucrats in capital cities.
But it’s not just cryptocurrency. Over the past decade media has decentralized. The traditional gatekeepers are gone and anyone can produce or publish content. The Game Stop stock short squeeze in January demonstrated a decentralized investor class. With apps like Robin Hood and So-Fi, anyone can easily be an investor—and even disrupt billion-dollar hedge funds. Renewed interest in localism along with pandemic-accelerated developments like work-from-home jobs and the small exodus from large cities are other indicators of a decentralizing culture.
The era of BIG is ending. We are entering an age where small, local, and agile will win.
Crisis and the Christian Future
In 1994, James Jordan wrote Crisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future, in which he argued that history moves in cycles. The basic movement is from tribes to nations to empires, and he traced this movement throughout the history of Israel and the Church. Jordan saw that the bonds of Western civilization are disintegrating, and that we are at the end of the empire cycle.
If Jordan is correct, we are entering once again into the age of tribes. I don’t know if Jordan is correct, but I suspect he is on to something. This hypothesis correlates with the balkanization of American society, and even in what we are seeing in other parts of the world, such as Brexit or the recent events in South Africa, where we are witnessing the rupture of the rainbow nation along tribal lines.
What Does This Have To Do With the SBC?
The SBC is gargantuan. It is the largest protestant denomination in America with over 15 million members on its rolls (though only roughly 5 million in attendance any given Sunday) and hundreds of millions of dollars in assets. Southern Baptist seminaries train over a third of the pastors on the continent. If the era of BIG is ending, the SBC certainly qualifies as big.
I am not at present arguing that the SBC should divide into something different and smaller. I only observe that, if larger trends hold, then it will. And that it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but could be an opportunity for more effective ministry in our historical moment.
The Seminaries, For Example
Suppose the conservatives win the current controversies. They will inherit the massive seminary system we’ve built. Granted, there are some impressive advantages here—for example, the assets and institutional weight—but I’m not convinced the system is viable or even desirable as currently constituted.
For example, the coming Sansdemic is going to squeeze educational institutions into a student recruitment war. For seminaries, whose primary aim historically has been to train pastors, this will escalate the mission drift into a broader educational offering—not bad in itself, but different from the primary mission to train pastors—in order to recruit more students, especially women, which will lead to further complementarian compromise in the churches because the M.Divas are going to need a “key leadership position” in the church to make their graduate degree worth it.
Even prior to the current controversies, I’ve questioned our seminary model. We take our best pastoral candidates and uproot them from their local congregations and communities, professionalize them, and turn them out somewhere else in the country, creating a ministerial carousel of church-hopping pastors. In our explicit missionary zeal (a good thing) we have glorified the “other” place and implicitly endorsed a rootless globalism (a bad thing).
A return to church-based pastoral training, with some help from some doctors of the church to provide specialized training in subjects such as biblical languages and church history, will lead to a more rooted, congregationally connected, and less ivory-towered pastorate.
The Coming Ecclesiastical Realignment
As with many shifts in society, we are witnessing a realignment of churches and Christians. All the old alliances are broken. God is shuffling the deck.
Steven Wedgeworth recently tweeted* on this subject, noting that the coming realignment will be “based on ethos rather than doctrine” and will “likely fall out along class and geographical lines.” He goes on to say:
“You already see this with ‘church planting networks.’ Commitment to very basic doctrinal standards is high but not to more specific denominational confessions.”
Isn’t this basically what the SBC already has been? We are not a denomination in the traditional sense, and, as a partnership for missions, we are more or less a church planting network (though we’ve added on a lot over the years to that basic task). Our confessional document, The Baptist Faith and Message 2000, is a purposefully big tent statement written to accommodate the largest swath of baptists possible. But, seeing as we no longer share a common ethos within the SBC, it makes sense that our ethos-driven alignment would shift.
Add to this the complicating factor that some among us verbally affirm, but deny in practice, some of our basic doctrinal commitments. Add to this an ascendent secularism hostile to Christians. Add to this Conquest’s second law that any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing. It makes sense that conservative Christians would align with those who see the threats and opportunities the same way they do, even if all their doctrinal ducks don’t line up.
I don’t pretend that this arrangement is ideal, only that it makes sense in our embattled age.
Opportunity and the Christian Future
Jordan not only saw the collapse of the era of empire and the coming tribal** age, he also saw the opportunity. According to Jordan, we are in the position of founders, charting the course for the next civilization.
And if that seems over-dramatic, then we can at least see the opportunity to do good to our neighbors, honor Christ, and take dominion close to home. We don’t need a behemoth national denomination to do that.
If we are entering an age of decentralization, Christians are in a strong position. For God has given us optimal organizations for tribal times in the household and the church. We can go small, agile, and local. And from there, rebuild civilization.
*Between writing this article and publishing it, Wedgeworth deleted these tweets. I’m unsure why; perhaps he developed those thoughts in a different direction. But I think he was on to something here and wanted to credit where the thought came from originally.
**It’s worth pointing out that tribe, in the nontechnical sense I am using the term, need not—and indeed ought not—fall out along ethnic lines. Rather, tribes are bound by religious belief, geography, culture, worldview, and practice.
Rhett Burns (@rhett_burns) is an associate pastor and small business entrepreneur living in Greenville, SC with his wife and four kids. He publishes Get Your House In Order, a newsletter about building a household that lasts.
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