Originally published April 30, 2021
The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention is coming up in a few weeks.
As a lifelong Southern Baptist, I have thoughts. Feelings, even.
For the past several years – some might even say it started as soon as the Conservative Resurgence was over – the SBC has been on a slow but steady downward and unbiblical trajectory. False teachers line the (virtual) shelves of LifeWay Retail and headline LifeWay-sponsored conferences. False doctrine like extra-biblical revelation and Critical Race Theory are championed. Women have been preaching to men at conferences and para-church events for decades, and now women preaching the Sunday morning sermon in SBC churches is increasing in frequency and acceptance. NAMB was recently taken to task for sponsoring church plants with female pastors. Yoking with heretical, New Apostolic Reformation organizations – for example, when sitting SBC President Ronnie Floyd was a featured speaker at IHOP’s 2015 conference or when LifeWay’s Sunday School curriculum recommends music by Jesus Culture – a clear violation of Scripture, is defended.
And so much more.
It’s a real mess, folks. And to many average Southern Baptists like me, with no power, no position, it’s a mess that feels insurmountable. Beyond discouraging. Hopeless. Not worth the effort of trying to save.
Why? Because nobody in power cares what doctrinally sound, Joe and Jane Churchmember think. In fact, Joe and Jane often feel like we are seen by some in SBC leadership as ignorant, backwoods annoyances to the ruling class. The huddled unwashed masses stupidly crying, “Biblical reform!” as the multi-seminary-degreed elites condescendingly pat us on the heads and send us back to our pews assuring us they know what’s best.
I watched it happen in 2012 when I attended the annual meeting. A messenger went to the microphone after then president/CEO Thom Rainer’s report on LifeWay and began to express concern about the false teachers LifeWay carries. Dr. Rainer’s answer? “Trust the trustees.” The trustees, of course, being the ones who approved those authors for sale by LifeWay in the first place.
There are several brave and hardy Joes and Janes out there who still have fight left in them. Who believe the SBC is worth saving. Who believe it can be turned around if there’s a groundswell of involvement from the grassroots.
God bless them.
I mean that with all my heart. God bless them – mightily. I admire and heartily support them, and I urge you to support them too. I hope, against all hope, that they are right.
But I think there may be a bit of a disconnect in understanding where the “It’s time to chuck the whole thing” side of the aisle is coming from. So I just wanted to take a few moments to air that out – at least from my perspective.
“Change is made by those who show up.” I’ve heard it multiple times from several different voices in the “grassroots for change” movement urging Joe and Jane to be present at the annual meeting each year. And, in theory, I completely agree. If you can show up, you should.
But in practice, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Yes, if you’ve got plenty of money, your time is your own, and your health and life circumstances permit you to travel to wherever the convention is being held every year, it’s pretty easy to show up.
It’s also easy to forget that not every Southern Baptist is so blessed. In fact, I would take a wild guess that probably 85% or more of Southern Baptist church members and a significant number of SBC pastors are not that comfortably fixed.
We don’t have hundreds or thousands of extra dollars in our family budgets every year to fly or drive what’s often thousands of miles across the country to the meeting site and pay hundreds more for a hotel, meals, and other expenses once we get there. That’s not the type of expense a lot of families can sacrifice for, save up, or scrape together just because we’re being urged to “show up” – the money simply isn’t there.
We have jobs that prevent us from taking time off for the convention. Many of those jobs don’t offer paid vacation time. If we don’t work, we don’t get paid. In some jobs, if you don’t show up whenever you’re needed, you get fired. Even for those fortunate enough to get paid vacation time, that time is limited and may need to be spent on something else – a family wedding, caring for a sick loved one, painting the house.
Some who can afford to make the trip and have the time to do so are limited by other life circumstances such as their health, local responsibilities, and family obligations.
It’s even difficult for many SBC pastors to attend the convention. Are we forgetting that the majority of our churches are small and many of our pastors are bi-vocational? “According to the 2014 Annual Church Profile (ACP) report, 90% of the churches reporting average fewer than 272 in their worship service, and 75% average fewer than 131.”1 Think about how much it would cost to fly your pastor to Nashville, feed him, rent him a car, and put him up in a downtown hotel for several days. How many of our churches that run 20 or 30 or 40 in Sunday worship can afford that? Some of them can’t even afford to pay their pastors a salary.
And then there are the Janes and Joes who are able and willing to attend the convention but find themselves members of doctrinally unsound SBC churches that actually agree with CRT or women pastors or any of the other aforementioned issues. Maybe their churches were once sound, but have taken an unbiblical turn. Or maybe God has only recently opened their eyes to sound doctrine and they’re trying to effect change in a stiff-necked church before being forced to abandon ship. How many of those church members are going to get approved as messengers by their churches? Having been in that situation myself, I can answer that question: Zero. That’s how many.
Many of these difficulties also hold true for the state conventions and associational meetings we’re urged to attend, meetings which are often held during work hours in the middle of the week and sometimes hundreds of miles from home.
It’s really easy for some to say, “If you don’t show up and vote, you can’t complain,” but the effect on those who want to show up, but can’t, is discouragement.
Are we effectively – albeit unintentionally – being respecters of persons by only giving a voice to those who can afford to “show up”? Are we not functionally discriminating against and silencing smaller, poorer churches and church members?
Biblical dissent is silenced or ignored.
For those of us who have seen how biblical dissent is handled by many SBC leaders, we have no reason to believe we’ll be listened to or taken seriously even if we do “show up” at associational meetings, state conventions, or the national convention.
I know of plenty of pastors and church members (including me) who have attempted to contact their local associational leaders, their state convention leaders, or leaders at the national level about some of these problematic issues. They’ve been placated. They’ve been ignored. Their emails, letters, and phone calls have gone unanswered. They’ve been dressed down and told they were wrong, or didn’t have enough faith, or were unloving or in sin, or weren’t being Christlike.
Last year we saw the grassroots outcry against David Uth, president of the 2020 SBC pastors conference, for inviting false teachers and a female pastor to headline the event. He still dug his heels in and refused to heed the godly reproof he received.
Current SBC president J.D. Greear makes a public statement about the Bible “whispering about sexual sin,” publicly supports and defends false teachers like Beth Moore, and maintains a friendship with at least one female “pastor” – among many other things – and completely ignores anyone who takes him to task for it.
The unspoken “11th Commandment” threat of retaliation against denominational, LifeWay, and seminary employees who, after exhausting all of the “proper channels” to no avail, speak out against unbiblical actions by their employers, superiors, or other denominational leaders, is an open secret, and no joke to those who have been intimidated, negatively impacted, fired, or forced to resign.
At the 2019 convention, messengers attempted to speak against Resolution 9, and their microphones were turned off. And I already mentioned what happened at the 2012 convention.
I appreciate the faith and optimism of those who think our voices can still be heard, I truly do. And I desperately hope they are right. Nothing would make me happier. But in the current SBC climate of ignoring, silencing, and even threatening biblical dissent and correction, surely they can also understand why many of us would wonder why any doctrinally sound Southern Baptist would ever dream of being listened to and taken seriously.
So….what’s the solution?
Many average church members and pastors who want change have no voice because they can’t afford to show up in person at the convention, and even if they do show up, there’s no reason to believe their voices will be heard, much less heeded. So, what’s the solution?
I can think of two practical remedies that might help a little.
Virtual attendance and distance voting- Every time I’ve suggested this or heard someone else suggest this, it has been immediately shot down – often by those urging involvement from the grassroots – in favor of messengers “showing up” in person, and because “the technological capability for this doesn’t exist.”
I’m sorry, I’m fully aware of how dense I am when it comes to technology, but I look around and see online shopping, PayPal, people filing their taxes and census forms online, online classes and testing, and all kinds of other very official things being done online that involve the transmission of sensitive information that has to be accurate, and I have an extremely difficult time believing that the Southern Baptist Convention can’t find some way in the next few years to make streaming the convention, submitting input and questions online, and voting online a reality. This is the 21st century and we still seem to be operating with a horse and buggy mindset.
Convention “Scholarships”- If you really want people to “show up,” you’re going to have to make it financially possible for those who can’t afford it. Commendably, many individual churches already do this for their own pastors and messengers, paying for their airfare, accommodations, and/or other expenses.
What about grassroots organizations establishing some sort of “scholarship” fund for pastors and potential messengers who would like to attend the convention, but neither they nor their churches can afford to send them? (Here’s a wild idea- why don’t we de-fund the ERLC and use those funds for this kind of thing instead?) What about churches and church members in the city in which the convention is being held opening their doors to pastors and messengers traveling on a shoestring budget and providing them with a place to stay, meals, and transportation around town?
Again, I wholeheartedly support my SBC brothers and sisters who are trying to effect change within the current system and structure. And I encourage all doctrinally sound Southern Baptists who can attend this year’s annual meeting to do so, and to fight hard and vote biblically. My own son and several members of my church are going to be attending, and I’m cheering them on. I’d go myself if I could. I’m hoping and praying for lots of good to be accomplished.
I don’t have all the answers. I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer. I just know that if you do what you’ve always done, chances are, you’re going to get what you’ve always gotten.
And I just don’t think the Southern Baptist Convention can survive much more of that.