January 19, 2021

The Baptist Way: A Hopeful Look Forward to Reformation/Renewal in the Southern Baptist Convention

logob.gifSBC Outpost has long been the leader of SBC blogs. I read with sadness today that SBC Outpost is leaving the blogosphere. This post is in honor of Marty and what he modeled and accomplished with that blog. God bless him and his family, and God speed a reformation and true renewal in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Reading over some of the sermons at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting this week, I was struck by something.

I don’t know if anyone has ever done a scholarly study of this, but I’d wager it is safe to say that in every SBC meeting since 1955, you would hear the same kinds of diagnosis and exhortation. Generally, the message takes two forms.

1. SBC churches need to go all out for evangelism, using whatever pragmatic methods work to reach lost people and build large, growing churches.

2. SBC churches need to seek spiritual awakening and revival.

Of course, these messages are nuanced and referenced in different ways, but as a lifelong Southern Baptist, I’ve been consistently impressed that our leadership never falls too far away from these two predictable directions in what they have to say to us at any annual meeting.

I’ve long thought that what we were hearing with these messages was generally sincere and often correct, but that it falls far short of dealing with what is actually going on in our churches and convention.

I particularly think we’ve exhausted solutions that amount to preaching to (and often blaming) the average pastor for the fact that he hasn’t tried hard enough to start new ministries, move his people toward evangelism or bring the power of the Holy Spirit into his church. Mega-church pastors have the pulpits, spotlights and publishing venues to lecture the convention on what needs to happen in every church, but I do not believe our churches will be changed by imitating mega-churches that almost always have some unique advantages.

Similarly, denominational experts are sure that the solution to the problems of every church can be found in the programs and resources provided by the denomination. Every year I have been a Southern Baptist, the denomination leadership has had more and more to say about what local churches should be doing, and churches have paid less and less attention. Today, thousands upon thousands of SBC churches are using non-SBC resources and are networking with non-SBC church networks. We’re tired of the sloganeering, bumper-stickers and expectations of brand loyalty to inferior resources. It’s not hard to skip the meeting or not buy the program anymore.

Add into this mix the “revivalists” in the SBC (whom I once dubbed the “Texas Evangelists”) who are convinced that “old fashioned preaching,” evangelistic crusades and revival meetings are the path to spiritual awakening in the SBC. This segment of our denomination longs for a return to the day when emotional preaching and crisis-oriented meetings were indicators that the Holy Spirit was at work. Today, however, most Southern Baptists do not relate to the revivalism and confrontational evangelism of previous generations. Music, creative ministries, technology and conversational “talks” on “principles” are the spiritual menu in most SBC churches. Models of evangelism have changed in a post-Christian, post-modern culture.

In other words, the denominational rhetoric gets louder, while the likelihood that the average church or pastor actually buys into that rhetoric is waning. Younger leaders are staying away from denominational meetings in droves. Attendance at the annual meeting is now well below 10,000, in a denomination with more than 30,000 churches. When you account for the people that almost have to come to these meetings (denominational types, elected officers, employees, pastors who are paid to come), I would wager less than 6,000 messengers chose to attend the 2007 SBC.

You can talk all you want, but it appears fewer and fewer Southern Baptist people are listening to those rerunning sermons.

In the midst of this, there are signs that something good is happening in the SBC. It is not happening in the usual corridors of power and influence, but the dissolution of the power bases is part of the new SBC reality that many are just starting to grasp.

The Founders movement in the SBC has emerged as a major player in denominational reformation and rethinking. Despite attempts to blame reformed minded Southern Baptists for problems in evangelism (and that will get worse in the future), the Founders movement has remained pro-SBC, pro-denomination, pro-Cooperative program and pro-missions and evangelism. Good for them and their wise leaders.

The Founders movement shows remarkable flexibility in affirming the SBC as most of us know it, including cooperation with agencies and institutions, while developing options in education, curriculum, publishing, conferences and church planting resources that take the “real” situation in SBC churches seriously.

One of the Founders’ concerns is church health, so they have continued to talk about leadership, church discipline, the use of older Baptist confessions, theological training for laypersons and (especially) integrity in church membership. These reformed brothers in the SBC are talking about things that concerned Southern Baptists have talked about for many years, but almost always in isolation from the latest promotional focus of the denomination.

(The Founders have many challenges in front of them, and their future is not without hazards. For example, allying themselves with other nopn-SBC Reformed Baptists will be problematic. The SBC Founders movement is unique and needs to avoid the mistakes of most other Reformed Baptist groups.)

In fact, the concern for a theological renewal in the SBC is finding a surprising audience. Among those who have heard the calls for pragmatic evangelism and increased revivalism, the issues of “What does it mean to be a Christian?” and “What does it mean to be a New Testament Church?” are gaining the attention of pastors, people and leaders who have seen everything fail and are watching their denomination decline.

Pastor Zinn calls for Southern Baptists to get out of their pews, and that is a good call. But once we are out, what do we say? What do we do and how does what we do relate to the New Testament? What is our message? What kind of meanings go with the words we communicate? If the Bible’s message is “Go. G-O, go!”, how do we go in a God glorifying, God displaying way? How much more is there to real Christianity than evangelism that produces evangelism?

Motivation. Pragamatism. “Keep the young people.” Do what Rick Warren does. This doesn’t sound like the answer for the SBC that I see. It is the very definition of curing the church’s wounds lightly.

What frustrates many in the Southern Baptist fold is the inability of those who bring this annual dose of rhetoric to admit that we are recycling solutions and largely refusing to deal with possibility that the SBC may not have the solution to its problems in its own denominational programs, more revivals or the imitation of large church success stories.

The Founders movement has the audacity to suggest that the way forward for the SBC entails a serious look backward at the Baptist past: confessionalism, church discipline, theologically driven preaching, pastoral theologians and Biblical wisdom over pragmatism. As a post-evangelical, I too believe that any evangelical pointing forward in the direction of the megachurches and generic evangelicalism is pointing us over a cliff.

Another voice of hope in the SBC comes from those in its missionary agencies who are striving to understand and learn from missionary practices and missional church strategies. These voices have an uphill struggle, but they are making progress. As they combine with the more theologically driven renewal in the SBC, there is real hope that new churches and new leaders will be able to be both innovative and deeply Biblical. There is hope for an SBC that can be itself and yet not be narrowly, idolatrously, stubbornly parochial and self-centered.

Kingdom talk in the SBC is starting to be heard in positive ways. God is at work, as Experiencing God says, and not just in the usual mouthpieces, offices and publications. There will be contentious and difficult days ahead, but a new SBC is emerging, and a large segment of that SBC is no longer resorting to the usual rhetoric or blaming the usual suspects in trying to energize churches.

There are good reasons to pray for this old ship. Though I am not a Calvinist and will never be in an innovative church, I can support, encourage and pray for the Founders, the younger leaders, the missionals and those seeking for the SBC to become a movement for the Kingdom. Count on these pages to reflect that positive and hopeful prayer for my denominational home.


  1. SBC Outpost isn’t the only one.
    12 Witnesses is also.

  2. Marty Duren says

    Thank you for your gracious “honoring.” It’s like getting a handwritten note from Billy Graham.

    One small correction: SBC Outpost is leaving the blogosphere, but I am not. I’ll be introducing a new blog on Monday.

    Thanks, man!

  3. Michael,

    A newsletter from the Mission America Coalition included a survey from Vision New England. I apologize for not being able to provide the hyperlink.

    These folk used a professional agency to discover what other suveys have shown. 71% of people attend a church service because a friend invited them. 86% came to faith in Christ over a period of time.

    Surely leaders will then ask the question, why do people not invite their friends to our church? Perhaps that is a place to begin. I suggest that when the people are being energized by the Holy Spirit as growing followers of Christ, they will invite their friends. When they are being bored, manipulated, etc. and there is in their mind an absence of the sense of the presence of the Lord, they will not invite their friends.

    What goes on in substance in a congregation is far more important than the programs on the tool bar.

    People often struggle with how to describe or where to isolate their disappointment, but they almost always stop inviting friends when those issues are present.

  4. You keep hitting it, Michael. Remarkable sense for what has happened, what is happening, and what is likely to occur in the years ahead. The sociologist in me wants to see more data, but your “sense” for things in the SBC resonates with my own.

    One observation you make makes me wonder about the future of the SBC– the informal and sometimes formal networking with leaders, churches and resources outside the SBC. The evangelical world is awash in materials, but a good portion of that material seems to be from pastors and churches that have been blessed by God with some degree of “figuring it out” in their local context. While there may be too much pragmatism driving things, young and not-so-young SBC pastors can find in these networks much of what they need. They don’t need the SBC for resources. Thom Rainer and Ed Stetzer are exceptions.

    I agree that any turn towards the mega-church model is not the best way forward. Especially as urban cores repopulate and densify, the suburban mega-model will not be a dire need like a urban churches will be. As commercial real estate prices continue to increase in urban cores, the re-populating and densifying cores will need churches not based on mammoth facilities.

    So much more to think about and discuss, but I appreciate your insight into the SBC. Keep it up!

  5. The PCA this week decided to call the New Perspective on Paul and the Federal Vision, for all intents and purposes, heresy (it isn’t the finding but the process and demeanor that is troubling). The SBC decided, essentially, to do nothing at all. I’m not sure which is worse.

    One thing seems clear: both denominations, which are equipped and capable of doing great things, are in deep kimchee.

    I am extremely optimistic about God’s purposes in the world. I am deeply pessimistic about the SBC and the PCA figuring prominantly in said purposes.

    I’m still Southern Baptist, but the thinking part of me is wondering why.

  6. As one who is a part of the “missionary agencies” I too am optimistic, in a largely jaded kind of way.

  7. One way we can revitalize our Baptist churches is simply to obey Scripture! We need to start teaching people the truth and instructing them to teach it to still others (II Timothy 2:2). Not to get too programmatic, but it has been shown that ONE PERSON could evangelize the whole world by teaching each convert for SIX MONTHS the essentials of the faith and how to evangelize: He would disciple directly no more than 30 people at a time and it could be accomplished in 20 years! I have no problem with the SBC’s fight for doctrine, but perhpas we could have accomplished the same goal in the same time with less drama!

  8. More bloggers who have been politically involved with the SBC the past couple of years and got media attention are walking away from the politics and acknowledging reigning SBC power brokers can keep their power.
    This stepping back appears to be pre-planned and shows some spiritual discipline. These guys haven’t appeared to be as mean-spirited and hard-headed as the long standing and groomed leadership.

    Alan at DownshoreDrift
    Ben Cole, Baptist Blogger
    Wade Burleson, Grace and Truth to You

    Robert Parham’s article makes the most sense to this outsider – old guard fundamentalists/new guard fundamentalists.


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