Governance of the Southern Baptist Convention’s infrastructure takes place on many levels in many ways. To an outsider unfamiliar with the SBC, the maze of agencies, commissions, entities and conventions run together to form a massive American religious phenomenon. Levels of autonomous churches willingly cooperate to create autonomous organizations that, in turn, create more autonomous organizations, resulting in the disbursement of millions of dollars toward the advancement of the Gospel of Christ.
The first cooperative agreement among local congregations was the local (or perhaps regional) Baptist association where, in the beginning, theology was the passion behind missions and doctrine the rudder for missionary deployment. Associations grew to form state conventions. In 1845, 293 delegates came together in Augusta, Ga. to establish the Southern Baptist Convention. Since those days of the antebellum South, the Convention now resembles more of a formal denomination in which churches denominate together in ways that eerily resemble a franchise.
Southern Seminary president R. Albert Mohler, Jr., compared the Southern Baptist Convention to the General Motors Corporation in his presidential forum on the topic of the Great Commission Resurgence last August.
“Though American culture, particularly in the Bible belt, has changed profoundly, the SBC has continued to operate out of a 1950s programmatic mentality,” Mohler said to a standing room only crowd.
Few in the SBC want to admit one of its most observable historical realities: Southern Baptists grew large through organizational genius combined with a spiritual passion that mushroomed in an era of cultural uniformity.
Though Alabama Baptists might consider themselves quite different from Oklahoma Baptists, the same general characteristics defined each Southern Baptist congregation for three decades (1950-1980). This facilitated the ability of “the Convention” to resemble a formal denomination in ways that some of the SBC founders would scarcely recognize were they to see what the Southern Baptist Convention has become.
The idea of a Great Commission Resurgence now marks the SBC landscape, prompting many to wonder what exactly will happen to America’s largest Protestant group of churches. Judging from the group which gathered in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho last week, the future could look quite different from the past.
Each year, two groups who manage a large share of the money and the message of Southern Baptists gather together to hear from each other. The modern state convention Executive Director-Treasurers and the state paper editors (both once considered the gatekeepers for Southern Baptist life) meet for what has become a large denominational meeting complete with times of interaction with those from other state conventions, information briefings and various sessions regarding the facts and trends of modern evangelical life.
The topic du jour: The Great Commission Resurgence—a formal movement seeking to order all actions and funding of the SBC toward fulfilling the Great Commission. The undercurrent of concern among many of those present in Idaho is the future of state conventions as they relate to the national mission boards, and even local churches. For the EDTs, the very idea of a “GCR” (Southern Baptists abbreviate initiatives just like governmental agencies) is questionable. The leaders of the state conventions want to know exactly what they are doing that is not extending the Great Commission just as much as the International Mission Board.
Herein lies the tension. How can mission partnerships remain if distrust and disagreement exists among “conservative” leaders who seem divided on funding formulas and cooperative agreements? Much to the glee of some moderates who formerly attended these meetings, doctrinal unity (a notable triumph of the SBC conservative resurgence in the 20th Century) has not changed the organization of the Southern Baptist Convention much at all. The cooperating levels (church, association, state convention, national agencies/entities) have basically remained untouched by Southern Baptists for almost 100 years. The Cooperative Program (the SBC’s funding mechanism for missions) looks much as it did when it was established in 1925.
J. Robert White, executive director-treasurer of the Georgia Baptist Convention and member of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force, addressed the editors about GCR matters at a press briefing in Idaho. Confessing that his participation on the task force at the behest of current SBC President, Johnny Hunt, has been a “time of growth,” White offered the first glimpse of the report that will be the focus of a Feb. 22 meeting with the SBC Executive Committee by Ronnie Floyd, the chairman of the GCR Task Force.
The state convention Executive Directors comprise a formidable fraternity in Southern Baptist life. Hearing White, as the leader of one of the largest state conventions in the SBC, reveal that each recommendation from the task force would come as a unanimous act from a unified body shocked many of the editors. Some remain skeptical that the group could actually bring forward each recommendation unanimously.
“In essence, we are quibbling about six cents,” White said.
By this he meant that according to research, only six cents out of every dollar leaves the treasury of local SBC congregations. Of that amount, it is further divided between state conventions and the national agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention. How those percentages are allocated remains a source of great interest—especially by the members of the GCR Task Force.
The task force itself has been notable if for no other reason that no leaks have come from the group—a strange and unlikely occurrence since the SBC grapevine is a powerful tool. White seemed to honestly desire to bridge the generation gap as well as the gap between the mega-church and smaller congregations. Careful not to steal Floyd’s thunder, he confessed that parts of the coming report would be “challenging.”
What was clear from White’s presentation was that seismic shifts could be coming to the SBC. Should the task force’s recommendations be defeated at the annual meeting in Orlando, the SBC still will never be the same as a result of this group’s report. White intimated that the report would appeal to the vast majority of Southern Baptists, and that the report would enhance the strengths of the SBC and work to support her weaknesses.
At this point all eyes are on Nashville where the task force will present their report to the SBC Executive Committee. What transpires after that will forever change how Southern Baptists, as a formal convention of churches, fulfill the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.
Douglas E. Baker serves as the Executive Editor of The Baptist Messenger.