Fifteen Factors That Have Changed the SBC since 1979, Part 1

The contemporary SBC is in many ways quite different from the 1979 version of the denomination. I think most readers would agree. I believe there are at least 15 factors that have influenced this change. These factors are not equal in influence, and some of them overlap. Furthermore, there are probably several other factors I have not considered (I welcome your thoughts on that). Over the next few days I will briefly discuss the factors that have helped to shape the contemporary SBC into the denomination that it is today. These thoughts are very preliminary, and I offer them in no particular order of importance.

1. The Conservative Resurgence

There is no doubt that the Conservative Resurgence has helped change the SBC. But I’m not sure it is the most influential factor, at least among local churches. Remember that a major goal of the CR was to remake our denominational ministries so that they better conformed to the convictions of the churches. For this reason, I would argue that the CR has shaped our agencies and boards more than our churches, though there are many, many churches that have been positively changed as a result of the CR. As our seminaries (and a growing number of state Baptist colleges and universities) continue to offer a thoroughly conservative education and as LifeWay continues to produce sound curricula and other resources, a greater number of churches will be affected, at least indirectly, by the CR.

2. The Decline of SBC Ethnicity

Greg Wills, David Dockery, and others have written quite a bit about SBC ethnicity or tribalism, those habits and tendencies that characterized Southern Baptists at a grassroots level. For a democratic denomination that prizes local church autonomy, there was a remarkable amount of consensus among mid-20th century Southern Baptist churches. Virtually all of our churches sang from the same hymnals, used the same Sunday School and Training Union literature, pursued evangelism through the Sunday School, cultivated active Brotherhood and WMU ministries, and nurtured their young through RA’s, GA’s, and Acteens. Virtually everyone had annual or biannual revival meetings.

SBC churches cooperated through a common denominational budget, the Cooperative Program, and participated in common offerings like Lottie Moon, Annie Armstrong, and various state convention offerings. Collegians often attended Baptist colleges or signed on with the Baptist Student Union at a state school. Almost all ministerial candidates attended SBC seminaries. All of these habits resulted in a “brand loyalty” that ran deeply among Southern Baptists. Although vestiges of SBC ethnicity clearly remain, I think most would agree that there have been substantial changes over the last generation. Some of them will be further addressed below.

3. The Transformation of the Megachurch Culture

The CR was led by a particular megachurch culture that emphasized strong pulpit ministries, innovative and aggressive evangelism, a “baptized” version of Kewsick revivalism, a commitment to dispensational theology, and a discomfort with the progressive establishment within the Baptist bureaucracy. Some megachurches shared more affinity with (some) Independent Baptists than the SBC establishment. Many smaller churches often looked to one or more megachurches as their ecclesiastical role model, if you will. There were FBC Dallas-style churches, Bellevue-style churches, FBC Jacksonville-style churches, etc. I grew up in a medium-sized church in Southeast Georgia that self-consciously patterned much of our ministry after what we saw modeled under Homer Lindsay Jr. and Jerry Vines at FBC Jacksonville.

But the megachurch culture has been transformed. While the above-mentioned paradigm is alive and well, it is now but one model among many. The seeker-sensitive movement influenced many megachurches during the 1980s and 1990s. The emerging church movement(s) influenced some in the last decade. Megachurch pastors with SBC roots like Andy Stanley and Ed Young Jr. have helped shape the ministries of many megachurches. Many SBC megachurches, especially those found in the newer models, are only nominally Southern Baptist. And fewer churches look to the megachurch culture(s) as their role models than was the case a generation ago.

4. The Revival of Calvinism

Southern Baptists were a Calvinist-led denomination during the mid-19th century: almost all of the leading pastors, educators, and editors, with a handful of notable exceptions, were consistent (“five point”) Calvinists. If associational records and state paper articles are any clue, almost all of our churches seemed to be at least broadly Calvinistic, though there was clearly some debate about the extent of the atonement. By the late 1800s consistent Calvinism was on the wane among Southern Baptist leaders, and by about World War I it was relegated to a handful of small churches here and there.

Around World War II Calvinism began to undergo a revival among English-speaking evangelicals in general, and by the 1950s some heretofore non-Calvinistic Southern Baptist churches had embraced Calvinism. Fast forward to the 1980s and Calvinism began to become popular among some conservative collegians and seminarians. This trend picked up during the 1990s and 2000s. Now Calvinists make up a significant minority within the SBC, and the number continues to grow, especially among younger Southern Baptists. Several well-respected pastors, including some megachurch pastors, are Calvinists. One seminary president is a Calvinist. A number of Calvinist networks and fraternals, both formal and informal, exist within the Convention. And none of this is counting those who are broadly Calvinistic but reject particular atonement. This factor will continue to be a point of debate with the SBC for at least another generation.

5. Changing Relationships between Southern Baptists and Independent Baptists

During the 1940s and 1950s virtually the only difference between conservative SBC churches and Independent Baptist churches were that the former still gave money to the Cooperative Program. Both groups held to biblical inerrancy. Both groups focused on strong pulpit ministries and emphasized personal evangelism. Both groups abhorred progressive theology, especially in the SBC. Both groups were mostly dispensational. Both groups cultivated a generation of vocational evangelists who were among the most influential men within the respective movements. Independent Baptists even pioneered some ministries adopted in large numbers by SBC conservatives, most notably AWANAS and bus ministries. But all of that began to change in the 1960s and 1970s.

A growing number of Independent Baptists adopted a more strident view of “biblical separation” than most Southern Baptist conservatives could countenance. Many Independent Baptists made dispensationalism a test of fellowship, adopted King James-Only theology, and continued to promote racial segregation long after it had come to an end in the South. Southern Baptist conservatives rejected the “fundamentalist” moniker for these (and other) reasons. But some Independent Baptists, particularly those associated with men like John R. Rice, Jack Hyles, Lee Roberson, and Jerry Falwell, continued to cultivate relationships with individual Southern Baptist pastors and some (most notably Falwell) actually joined, or in some cases re-joined, the SBC. So the contemporary SBC is decidedly different than the strictest type of Independent Baptists, but close enough to “moderate” fundamentalists that some have even found a home among us. Many Southern Baptists are “fundamentalish” (if I can coin a term), but not necessarily mobile

Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future

This week Crossway has published a new collection of essays titled Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future. David Dockery edited the volume, which is substantially (though not entirely) based upon the two Baptist Identity Conferences held at Union University in 2004 and 2007. You can still listen to the audio presentations from those conferences by clicking here and here.

The contributors to Southern Baptist Identity include Dockery, Al Mohler, Stan Norman, Greg Wills, Timothy George, Russ Moore, Paige Patterson, James Leo Garrett, Morris Chapman, Ed Stetzer, Jim Shaddix, Thom Rainer, Mike Day, Richard Land, Nathan Finn, and Danny Akin. Justin Taylor at Between Two Worlds recently conducted a helpful interview with Dockery. The book will be available for purchase at the SBC Annual Meeting in Louisville.

On The GCR Declaration, Part 2

Lord willing, over the next few days I will be blogging through the GCR Declaration in anticipation of next week’s SBC Annual Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. This is the second article in what I hope will be a series. As you read, please remember that while Between the Time is a group blog that includes a number of Southeastern Seminary professors, these articles (and every article I write) represent my own personal opinions. I speak only for myself, so please avoid imputing my views to any of my fellow contributors unless they have publicly spoken/written about these matters and you can cite their agreement. The comments are open, but because of the large volume of blogging I will be engaging in this week you will understand if I choose not to interact with many comments.

Article II: A Commitment to Gospel-Centeredness

First of all, let me say I love the fact that the GCR Declaration takes a moment to offer a simple definition of the gospel rather than simply assuming that everyone knows what it is. This is one reason so many American churches (and not a few SBC churches) are in danger of losing the gospel. It’s not a matter of denial, but rather a matter of assumption. And assumption today leads to unbelief tomorrow.

I also like that the GCR Declaration doesn’t speak of the gospel as if it were just a list of truths that must be affirmed to “get in the family”. Instead, it understands the gospel to be the good news that animates every moment of our existence from new birth to resurrected glory. Southern Baptists need to hear more of this type of preaching and teaching. Until they do, the I-Podders among us will continue to spend five times as much time listening to non-Southern Baptist preachers as they do pastors in their own denomination.

I also like that the document speaks to the possible offense of some of our “styles, traditions, legalisms, moralisms, personal preferences, or unhelpful attitudes”. All of our churches have their own unique problems (even the best of them), and I strongly suspect there are certain “styles, traditions, legalisms, moralisms, personal preferences, or unhelpful attitudes” that characterize Southern Baptists in general. We can and will debate what those are, but this much I know-we better root them out and destroy them when we find them. In our public discourse we are often far more obnoxious than we think we are and too often just self-centered enough to think the problem lies with others.

I also think the GCR Declaration helpfully reminds us that all of our programs need to be closely tied to the gospel. This means more than a simple “plan of salvation” printed in the flyleaf of all our curricula. It means making the precious truths of all that God has accomplished through Christ explicit in everything. How do we read every passage of Scripture in light of the gospel? How do we do youth, children’s, men’s, and women’s ministry in light of the gospel? How do we evangelize in light of the gospel? How do we disciple in light of the gospel? How do we engage culture in light of the gospel? How do we plant churches in light of the gospel? This is the question that we must ask of everything that we do, in our churches and in our wider denominational life.

I am going to say something that some of you will think is too provocative, but it needs to be said. The number one complaint I hear about the SBC is that the Convention doesn’t take the gospel seriously enough. Numero uno. And let me assure you that I am talking about Southern Baptists from a variety of backgrounds and ages and a variety of theological persuasions. They argue that we hear a lot about programs. And we hear about the culture war. And we hear about Baptist distinctives. And we hear about our statistics. But we don’t hear nearly enough about the gospel.

I have a prediction: David Platt is going to rock some peoples’ worlds when he preaches at the Convention. That’s all I’ll say about that right now. Pray for David-he’s not what we’re used to, in a good way.

Article III: A Commitment to the Great Commandments

I will not say much here about the Great Commandment because much of what I could write would overlap with the things I said about the lordship of Christ. So let me just say this: if we love the Lord as we ought, we will love our fellow Christians and unbelievers as we ought.

I want to focus more attention on the Second Greatest Commandment because I think Southern Baptists have a conspicuous problem here, and not just in matters of racism and ethnic diversity (to which the GCR Declaration does a fine job of speaking). I just want to add that the more we love the Lord and faithfully preach and live-out his gospel the more our churches will reflect the ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic diversity of their respective regions. To the degree we focus on ourselves and assume the gospel, most of our churches will continue to look like little colonies of Dixie in an increasingly cosmopolitan culture.

But it’s the part about getting along in our intra-Convention relationships that I want to talk about. The moderates used to say that after the conservatives got rid of all the progressives, we would turn on each other because it is in the nature of fundamentalism to have to have bad guys to fight against. Now I think moderates were (and are) wrong about many things, but they were dead right about this one. And it is to our shame.

It is appalling how badly we treat each other. Some of the nastiest, most petty, most untrustworthy people I know are Southern Baptist ministers and denominational servants. I’m dead serious. Now don’t misunderstand me-most of the folks I know are not like this. But the fact that any are like this is a disgrace to Southern Baptists and a disgrace to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have seen “leaders” speak out of both sides of their mouth without batting an eye. I have seen pastors strut when they are sitting down. I have heard gossip and even vitriol couched in the language of concern and piety. I have seen people lie on weblogs, and then seen others lie when they responded to the first liars. I have heard backhanded compliments and seen daggered smiles. I have seen well-meaning men too chicken to confront other men who were sinning in their actions and speech. And I have seen some who were confronted (some by me) dismiss it with a “well, that’s not what I meant brother”. Indeed.

I already mentioned why most of the folks I talk to complain about the SBC. Now let me tell you what most bothers me about the SBC-the way we treat each other. By God’s grace I have a fantastic job, doing exactly what I want to do for exactly whom I want to be doing it. I work for godly men, and I mean that with utter sincerity. But when I see how some folks in the SBC treat each other, it makes me want to walk away from this whole thing and join another group. And I teach Southern Baptist history and identity for a living.

Friends, we have got to treat each other Christianly and we’ve got to be honest enough to admit that much of the time we don’t. I’m sick and tired of gossip, slander, character assassinations, and dog and pony shows. I want to see more integrity and hear more gospel.

I’m sorry for being so pointed (I’m on the verge of weeping while I write this-I’ve been holding this in for years), but this is a serious problem and everyone reading this article knows it is a serious problem. So what are we going to do about it?