During the second half of the 20th Century, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was divided between its agencies and seminaries and various local churches. Most denominational leaders during these years led the SBC infrastructure to either ignore more conservative congregations or became defensive and antagonistic to the very churches that funded their work. The result was a fragmentation that provided one of the most visible causes for the conservative resurgence during the 1980s. It was as if the rising federalism of the denomination during the years 1952-1979 was checked by a more decentralized populism that effectively replaced most denominational personnel without remaking the entire superstructure into a more direct servant of local congregations. In a now famous sentence, theologian Timothy George captured the essence of much of the process: “The exchange of one set of bureaucrats for another doth not a reformation make.”
Once again, it seems that divisions are surfacing in the SBC—only this time it is among conservatives who seem to be polarized between the national SBC entities and the denomination’s state conventions. Disagreements are real and run deep. The funding formula for the Cooperative Program is now an issue. The future of the Cooperative Program is at stake, prompting David Dockery (a member of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force) to warn of an increased “balkanization” of SBC life.
Some blame the current economic crisis as the catalyst for the unrest in Southern Baptist life. Some have said it is generational—a mere matter of needed education for generations unfamiliar with the genius of the Southern Baptist system. Yet, as David Nelson, senior vice-president of academic affairs at Southeastern Seminary, has stated, it is not so much a matter of age, but of vision. According to Nelson, there are competing visions for the SBC. What unites all visions of the SBC is that the status quo is unacceptable. Members of Southern Baptist churches, as well as their ministers, are demanding an authenticity in church life. With the rise of technology and supposed convenience, true spiritual power seems to have gone the way of the family farm even as the organizational management of millions of dollars continues to dominate most denominational discussions.
Many pastors are now pushing back against a virtual outsourcing of ministry. Christians want to feel their local church is the center of their spiritual universe—a refuge in the world—not a tool of some spiritual guru who is the latest in a long line of voices of spiritual profit. Ministry is being brought closer to home and SBC agencies, commissions and boards—which can all too eerily resemble governmental bureaus—are being examined in ways not seen since their inception. It is not just their performance which is under strict scrutiny; their very existence is being questioned.
For some, there seems to be a mismatch between church form and theological content combined with a growing sense that the “official” story told about SBC life is somehow false. At the recent Louisville convention, Southern Baptists stated that the time is now to address this vast sense of unease rather than dismiss it outright as nonsense. The SBC is experiencing a genuine crisis of confidence. For many, denominational life has lost its luster.
The particular difficulties encountered by the modern church require biblical pastoral care in the context of the local church. It seems that the economic uncertainty, injustices and complexity of today’s world have washed over the hearts of many, causing church leaders to shun all forms of programmatic public relations by denominational officials. Reassurances that all is well with the organizational apparatus of the SBC have become too difficult to believe.
This quandary could provide an opportunity for local churches to reconsider some of their basic assumptions about the Southern Baptist Convention. Out of the current confusion a rediscovered recognition might emerge, renewing the resources of the Southern Baptist network for the future. Back to basics seems to be the call. The door has been cracked through the establishment of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force. It is now time to enter the room and observe directly the inner workings of the SBC with a prayerful hope that the usefulness and organizational benefit for local churches might be reenergized for ministry in a post-Christian culture.