(Editor’s Note: David S. Dockery serves as the president of Union University, and is also a member of the Great Commission Task Force appointed June 24 by SBC President Johnny Hunt during the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Lousiville, Ky. He is the author of Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Proposal and Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future. This article originally appeared in the Baptist and Reflector, and appears here by permission.)
At this year’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, the messengers overwhelmingly approved a proposal by a 95 percent vote to establish a Great Commission Resurgence committee. This group has been charged with finding ways to help the SBC strengthen the work of global missions and church planting across North America, while looking for ways to enhance the faithfulness and effectiveness of Convention structures and entities.
Some have raised questions about the purpose of this initiative. Lonnie Wilkey, editor of the Baptist and Reflector, newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, asked me to try to briefly explain why this call has been issued for a Great Commission Resurgence. Here are some of the issues and questions that must be addressed.
1. Understanding the SBC at This Time in History
Southern Baptists are at a critical juncture in our history. For the past 165 years, the history of the Southern Baptist Convention has been dotted with tension, concerns and at times outright heresy. In recent years, those tensions have seemed magnified. For the third straight year, we have seen a statistical decline in our work, which is symptomatic of deeper spiritual problems and ecclesiological challenges.
The past 30 years have been characterized by a very public controversy. While many good things have developed over the past three decades, including the recovery of the Gospel and a renewed commitment to the truthfulness of Scripture, the programmatic uniformity and cultural homogeneity that held us together for so many years has almost entirely evaporated. The controversy over first order doctrinal issues has seemingly degenerated into ongoing infighting over secondary and tertiary matters, resulting in a fragmented and even balkanized convention. As one person so astutely put it, the problems facing the SBC of 2009 seem much more “Corinthian” than “Chalcedonian.”
The intactness in many aspects of Southern Baptist life has started to unravel because of years of ongoing controversy, the rapid changes in our culture, the challenges to our theological commitments, the growth of multiple Bible translations, the impact of parachurch groups, the expanding diversity of music and varied worship patterns. We recognize that in many ways we all live in a post-denominational day when denominational loyalty is on the decline.
We pray that somehow our shared work in our churches, in associations, in benevolence agencies, in educational entities and in our missions organizations can be strengthened by the proposals that will come forth from this committee. We can only hope that God’s Spirit might bring about a new enablement for the work of ministry in our churches, as well as all of the various entities throughout the various aspects of our convention life.
2. Charting a Future in Light of Our Heritage as Southern Baptists
We have been blessed as Southern Baptists by a wonderful heritage that has been characterized by faithfulness to Holy Scripture. For years, Southern Baptists have been called “A People of the Book.” We have also inherited a commitment to missions and evangelism and a spirit of cooperation in our shared work that has been duplicated in few other Christian movements over the past century. Thus, we are beneficiaries who receive nurturing truth and wisdom from God’s faithfulness that has been passed on to us from previous generations.
We have, however, made the mistake of assuming that certain programs and strategies are the only way these commitments to missions and evangelism can be carried out. We have substituted a cultural homogeneity for genuine biblical fellowship, and a programmatic uniformity for intentional and strategic engagement of the culture and world around us. We now take for granted things that possibly or probably need to be questioned or reexamined.
Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 seem helpful to me in that regard as a guide for us at this important moment in SBC life: “Test everything. Hold on to the good.” It would be naive for us to think that the answers to the current challenges we face in the SBC are simple, or that we are the only ones facing such challenges. We can thus learn from others, even as we hope others can learn from us, and ultimately I trust that we will all test our various traditions and approaches by the authority of Holy Scripture.
3. The Need for Collaborative Cooperation
We need a convention characterized not only by a confessional and convictional faith, but also by a collaborative and compassionate sense of cooperation. The recovery of a convictional confessionalism has kept Southern Baptists from going the way of so many mainline denominations who have become untethered to Scripture and have lost their way. Yet, in so many ways, the call of this hour for Southern Baptists is the need to regain a spirit of collaborative cooperation.
I know that some wonder if we can find a way to cooperate together—after all, our differences often appear to be great. For as we have already mentioned, no longer can a cultural homogeneity or a programmatic pragmatism be the foundation of our cooperation. One of the things, however, that will get the attention of the world and authenticate our confession will be the way we love one another, the way we celebrate our ethnic and geographical diversity and the way we serve and worship together in harmony.
4. Changes Across the SBC Landscape
We must also sadly acknowledge that over the course of the past six decades or so, Southern Baptists have allowed our priorities to gradually shift from Christian faithfulness and spiritual maturity to numerical growth and programmatic efficiency. Not that a concern for numerical growth or efficiency is wrong in any way at all. The shift in priorities was probably quite unintentional at first, but slowly, almost unconsciously, a greater disparity has developed between our reported total membership and the actual number of active and participating members in our churches.
Churches are not plateaued in membership and declining in baptisms only because of people who no longer attend. We need to think afresh about what it means to be a covenant member of a Baptist congregation. We need to think about the importance of faithfulness and maturation of church members. Helping people understand the Gospel, helping guide them to faith in Christ and leading them to become church members is paramount, but helping them understand the biblical expectations of faithful Christ-followers in covenant with one another is also extremely important.
I hope that in the days to come that Southern Baptists will ask:
• What does the New Testament say about regeneration, baptism, Christian commitment and church membership?
• What does our Baptist heritage say about church membership?
• Have we allowed numerical growth and efficiency concerns, perhaps unknowingly and unconsciously, to become higher priorities for us than questions of faithfulness to the New Testament and to our Baptist heritage?
5. The Need for a Great Commission Resurgence
The Convention messengers at the 2009 annual meeting voiced the need for a Great Commission Resurgence with a renewed emphasis on North American church planting and global missions. Such a call involves not just committing ourselves to missions and evangelism, as important as that is. We will need to commit ourselves foremost to the Gospel, to the message of missions and evangelism, the message that is found only in Jesus Christ and His atoning death for sinners.
We must address the matter of unity and collaboration in the midst of our growing fragmentation. We need to recover the biblical emphasis from John 17 and Ephesians 4, as well as the historic confessions about the church as one, holy, universal and apostolic.
We must address matters of cooperation and partnership. The Cooperative Program has been an important funding process for Southern Baptists since 1925. The call to cooperate in 2009 differs from the Southern Baptist world of 1925, but we must reclaim that spirit for our day.
Moving into the second decade of the 21st Century, Southern Baptists also need a new spirit of mutual respect and humility to serve together with those with whom we have differences of conviction/opinion/preference. It is possible to hold hands with brothers and sisters who disagree on secondary and tertiary matters of theology and practice, and still work together toward a common good to extend the work of Southern Baptists around the world and advance the kingdom of God.
We need God’s Spirit to bring about a new spirit among us, one that calls for humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance with one another in love, and a diligence to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:2-3). We need to expand our horizons with a renewed dedication to ethnic diversity and racial reconciliation, looking forward to a day in which a great multitude from every nation and all tribes, people groups and tongues shall stand before the Lamb (Revelation 7:9).
Southern Baptists must work to build and establish a much-needed consensus around the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is time for us to move from controversy and confusion toward a renewed commitment to cooperation. In such a spirit of consensus and partnership, we will need to ask questions about structure and programs:
• How do associations, state convention entities, and national convention entities relate to one another?
• How do churches relate to these various entities?
• How can these entities be funded effectively with the least amount of duplication possible?
Finally, 21st Century Southern Baptists need not only to affirm the Bible’s truthfulness and the saving power of the Gospel, but we also need to evidence our concern for these matters by careful biblical interpretation, serious theological reflection, faithful churchmanship, proclamation, worship, repentance and prayer. We must trust God to bring a fresh wind of renewal to Southern Baptist theology, evangelism, missions, worship, education and service. We can then relate to one another in love and humility, bringing about true fellowship and biblical community not only in our orthodoxy, but also in our orthopraxy before a watching world. To those ends, we will pray that God will allow us to see a new generation of Great Commandment and Great Commission churches who will both exemplify and proclaim the good news of the Gospel to a needy world.