The future of the Southern Baptist Convention

Communications Staff — October 29, 2009

Future of the SBC is hopeful if Great Commission remains central and key questions are addressed, SBC leaders say at Union University conference

Southern Baptists today have much to be thankful for and build upon from their forebears, but must consider structural changes to the Southern Baptist Convention and embrace methodological diversity within the denomination, speakers said at Union University’s Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism conference, Oct. 6-9. The conference was held in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the Baptist movement.

Southern Baptists must address “hard questions,” Akin says

Danny Akin said he is not optimistic about the future of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination but he is “hopeful” – if Southern Baptists will fully commit themselves to the Lordship of Christ and His Great Commission.

But if Southern Baptists are not moved to a complete commitment to missions, “We don’t deserve a future,” Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in his Oct. 8 address on the future of the SBC.

Citing the promise of Rev. 7:9-10 in which heaven will be populated by vast multitude of all peoples, Akin said, “The question that stares Southern Baptists in the face is this: will we join hands with our great God in seeing this awesome day come to pass or will we find ourselves sitting on the sidelines watching?”

To remain viable as a Great Commission-advancing denomination, Southern Baptists must answer several hard questions, said Akin, who previously served as dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Such questions to consider include changing the name of the SBC, overlap and duplication in SBC structure and programs, and the mechanisms for church planting, Akin said.

“I want to challenge us to do simple convention,” he said. “We must streamline our structure, clarify our identity and maximize our resources.”

Akin believes the SBC’s Cooperative Program (CP) remains a useful tool, so long as Southern Baptists remain open studying the CP and “making improvements if possible.”

As Southern Baptists address these hard questions, they should maintain the commendable advancements of their forebears and hold the ground gained during the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence, Akin said.

Praising Southern Baptist leaders like Paige Patterson, Adrian Rogers and Jerry Vines who led the Conservative Resurgence during the 1980s and ‘90s to oppose the “poison of liberalism” in the SBC, Akin said these “heroes of the faith” should be honored and not forgotten – and newer generations of Southern Baptists need to be told of their sacrifices.

Southern Baptists must stand upon Lordship of Jesus Christ, the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture, a commitment to expository preaching and the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 as a healthy and sufficient guide for cooperation, Akin said.

The question “What is the best way to reach with the Gospel the people I live amongst?” should shape the ministry of Southern Baptist churches and the SBC, Akin said, which will require methodological diversity.

“It is foolish to gripe about organs, choirs and choir robes, guitars, drums, coats and ties,” he said. “It is also a waste of time. It is time to move on with the real issue of the Great Commission.”

Mohler: next generation will shape the future of the SBC

The rise of secularism and the fall of cultural Christianity in the deep South over the past two decades have conspired to make the 20-something generation crucial for defining the mission of the SBC over the next 10-20 years, R. Albert Mohler Jr., told students Oct. 9 at Union University.

Mohler, president of Southern Seminary, said the younger generation of Southern Baptists will shape the future of the denomination, a stewardship it must not take lightly.

“I’m thankful it’s not the inerrancy crisis that we lived through in the 1970s and 1980s, your generation is a generation of beneficiaries of that controversy,” he said. “But you must be a part of forging a new identity for the Southern Baptist Convention. It is going to be yours and you are going to decide what to do with it.

“It (a new identity) is not something we can create with a new slogan, for new slogan will not save us. There is a need for a resurgence of Great Commission passion, vision, commitment and energy in our denomination.”

A refocusing on the Great Commission is going to be costly, Mohler said, because it will require asking questions that have not been asked within the SBC for several generations and dealing with issues not previously considered.

“We were not called simply to receive what has been handed to us in terms of structures and continue it because of brand loyalty,” he said. “We’ve been called to be a church on mission.

“The vision before us is not the perpetuation of the Southern Baptist Convention, but the call of the nations to exult in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Dockery and Stetzer: Right kinds of denominations still have a place

Though church denominations are in decline, Union University President David S. Dockery said he is still convinced of the benefits they provide, such as structure, connections, coherence and accountability, especially for groups like the SBC.

“I believe (denominations) do matter, and they will continue to matter,” Dockery said. “But if, and only if, they remain connected to Scripture and to the orthodox tradition. Even with all of the advancements of our technological society, we still need some kind of structure to connect and carry forth the Christian faith. We need conviction and boundaries, but we also will need a spirit of cooperation to build bridges.”

While the idea of denominations is negative for many people, Dockery said denominations have been important throughout Christian history “to carry forward the work of those who come together around shared beliefs and shared practices.”

Ed Stetzer kicked off the conference by addressing the question, “Denominationalism: Is There a Future?” Stetzer answered in the affirmative, so long as denominations are serving local churches and not assuming a place of pre-eminence in the ministry of believers.

Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence, said churches that belong to denominations have a confessional standard that holds them accountable to orthodoxy. In addition, Stetzer said denominational networking and cooperation is inevitable for churches that are missions-focused.

“Like-minded people will always find ways to associate with one another. One positive reason for this is missional cooperation,” he said. “The vast majority of world missions, church planting and many other forms of ministry are done through denominational partnerships.

“When it comes to global missions, denominations tend to be the tools used by local churches to get the global work done. Some level of cooperation between like-minded local churches is both unavoidable and beneficial for those who want to make an impact in a lost world.”

Stetzer said as we proceed in the 21st century, one key characteristic of healthy denominations is methodological diversity. While denominations must maintain confessional uniformity, methodological diversity must also be allowed for the sake of cooperation in advancing the Gospel.

Southern Baptists can learn something from ‘doctrine-friendly’ Emerging churches, Devine says

While some Emerging churches do not uphold basic Christian doctrines, others are doctrine-friendly and theologically-sound and from these Southern Baptists can learn and benefit, Mark DeVine said.

DeVine, associate professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School and a Ph.D. graduate from Southern Seminary, examined the role doctrine-friendly Emerging churches can play in the SBC.

DeVine said that perhaps the biggest potential contribution of doctrine-friendly Emerging churches to not only Southern Baptists, but all of North American Christianity, is their engagement with the multiple cultural sub-cultures that now make up the continent.

“No longer can Christian believers and would-be evangelists expect to encounter unbelievers with whom they share a deep, wide and rich cultural heritage across great swaths of geography,” he said. “The cultural diversification occurring in North America matters for those who would see the Gospel advance. Culture profoundly affects the conveyance of meaning and the Gospel is a message with a meaning that must be conveyed in order to be believed.”

DeVine said a failure to understand the culture in which we minister will result in a failure to communicate the Gospel. With the changing cultural landscape in America, he said Southern Baptists must view our own land as a mission field. And doctrine-friendly Emerging churches can help Southern Baptists reach this mission field.

“Where strong and deep theological affinity avails, let us be slow to view those with a jaundiced eye,” DeVine said. “Let’s do shared theology do its work and let’s be patient with these men.”

Wheaton president: SBC must become “less insular”

Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College made three observations “as an outsider” looking in at the SBC regarding its future. First, he said Baptist polity is well positioned for the decline of denominationalism. Because Baptist ecclesiology prizes local church autonomy, the churches of the SBC are in a good position to maintain the strengths of their cooperation and leave behind areas of weakness.

Second, Litfin said shifts in denominationalism should force the SBC to become less insular. While the SBC has long been able to be insular, possessing its own colleges and universities, source of curriculum, retirement and investment agency and seminaries, shifts in denominationalism may require that the SBC work more with those outside the convention.

“I would encourage you to partner with whomever you can where you can without compromising the truth,” Litfin said. “You can learn from others by hanging out with them and equally you can have a good influence by becoming a part of a broader conversation. Sitting in a catbird seat at Wheaton, I would say we need you. The broader evangelical world needs the voice of those in the SBC.”

Third, Litfin said the SBC should not depend on evangelicalism as a movement. While he has not written off evangelicalism, Litfin recognizes that the movement may not be a viable option for conservative theologians in future years. Litfin exhorted Southern Baptists and all evangelicals to remain Word-centered.

“As an evangelical, I want to keep us anchored in the truth,” he said. “Terms come and go and movements come and go. Stay Word-centered, Christ-centered, Gospel-centered. This is what will keep you useful to the Lord.”

With reporting by Jeff Robinson, director of news and information at Southern Seminary; James A. Smith Sr., executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness; and Tim Ellsworth, director of news and media relations at Union University.

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