ST. LOUIS, Mo. (Christian Examiner) – It has been nearly 20 years since the Southern Baptist Convention met for its annual meeting in St. Louis with 25,607 registered messengers in the midst of the Conservative Resurgence.
It was there, at the Gateway City to the West, after years marked by passionate discussions over liberalism, neo-orthodoxy and inerrancy, the SBC approved a report from "The Peace Committee" formed in 1985 to determine the sources of controversy in the SBC and recommend how it could be resolved.
As Southern Baptists prepare to meet for this year's June 14-15 annual meeting, pre-registration is up over 50 percent of 2015 levels, with a projected 10-11,000 total number of attendees, according to Baptist Press.
Those numbers still fall short, however, of the norms two decades ago, and at least one former Southern Baptist executive, and a longtime pastor, speculate the "stealth" nature of newer controversies may in fact be frustrating enough to cause some to stay away, while a current leader calls on pastors to attend the convention and "respond accordingly" to what he says is important business at the SBC.
Others have speculated the once-mammoth Southern Baptist Convention, with its 46,499 congregations and over 15.5 million members, is in what Christianity Today last year coined a "terminal decline" despite its growing emphasis on church planting – and the decline in participation in the annual meeting reflects an overall decline.
NEW BATTLE LARGELY 'UNIDENTIFIED'
Morris Chapman, the former president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee (1992-2010), told Christian Examiner he believes that by 2004 the objectives of the Peace Committee were met in relation to the Conservative Resurgence. At that point, he said, "everyone was getting wary, even the conservatives, (because) we just can't argue and debate full time forever."
The issues discussed between 1979-2004 specifically, he said, were different from now and grassroots messengers to the convention were led to vote their convictions by pastors such Adrian Rogers and Paige Patterson.
"I don't think what is happening right now is identified," Chapman said, "expect by a few who are paying attention."
When probed, Chapman said he believes that a discussion which may have started over different theological views – namely between Calvinists and those who are not – has turned into a political struggle.
"And in that vein, the issue of Calvinism has taken on a certain voting emphasis that I don't think it ever has had in history," he said. It has a tone of "I'm right and you are not."
Chapman, who served as a pastor for 25 years, as well as a president of the SBC before becoming its top administrative leader, said that before he eventually retired he noted a movement was gaining momentum that was different than the Conservative Resurgence, but largely flying under the radar.
"We are discussing the elephant in the room, and there's more of a stealth movement that is occurring, and nevertheless it is real and will have an impact on the convention – good or bad – whatever the case becomes."
Chapman, 75, said he plans to attend the SBC in St. Louis this year, and hopes folks don't forget that the SBC is made up of small churches "where the pastor and the people love the Lord," he said. "I never want to forget what it was like to serve my earliest churches."
FLORIDA PASTOR SAYS SBC 'HOPELESS'
Bob Hadley, a Florida pastor, told Christian Examiner he doesn't like the direction the Southern Baptist Convention is going, but sees no way to stop it – despite assurances the meeting still allows for business.
"There is really nothing that you do at the SBC annual meeting now that has any consequences with the exception of electing the president," Hadley said.
Beyond the election of a president, Hadley is referring to the fact that the SBC's Executive Committee, the North American Mission Board, the International Mission Board, LifeWay Christian Resources, and the SBC's six seminaries are governed by trustee boards, and not by the convention.
"There is no voice," said Hadley, who has been an SBC pastor for 40 years. His church, until 2015, contributed regularly to the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists' mechanism for funding missions and ministry, he said, but no longer adds its support. His church does, however, partner with local churches to contribute resources to its local association and supports the Florida Baptist Children's Home, he said.
Throughout the years, Hadley said he became disenfranchised with his denomination which he said increasingly appeared to promote Calvinism, a particular soteriological view — and its adherents — above others, to the point of drowning out those who "dissent."
"Like a woman who is eight-and-a-half-months pregnant and who is just now starting to show," Hadley said there has been an orchestrated effort to promote certain viewpoints at the expense of others in leadership throughout the various SBC entities and on SBC boards.
The result, he said, has led to the kind of apathy or hopelessness that affects not only attendance at the SBC annual meetings, but giving to SBC causes and growing as a denomination. And unlike the SBC of the past he said was a bottom up organization where the messengers gave direction, he sees the SBC as becoming a top-down organization with certain leaders calling the shots.
"When you disagree with the direction the convention has gone, there is no reason to bring my fire extinguisher to the fire," Hadley said. "I like to bring my flame thrower, to fight fire with fire. But in this situation, there is no flame-thrower to stop this mess.
"The SBC as we know it is gone," continued Hadley. "The annual convention cannot do anything. It is a façade. It is not a business meeting. It is a big time for people to report what they want you to know. It is a big time for people to say, 'Sit down and shut up and we will tell you what we want you to do. If you dissent, you are the problem.'"
Hadley said that outside of taking a vacation and connecting with friends, he sees no reason to attend the SBC.
"It's a hopeless picture," Hadley said.
SOUTHERN SEMINARY PROF URGES SBC ATTENDANCE
Jeff Robinson, a senior editor for The Gospel Coalition, church planter, and adjunct professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in a blog article "6 Reasons pastors and future pastors should attend the SBC annual meeting," posted at the Southern Seminary website, writes that he remembers his parents riding a church bus for 15 hours to Dallas to participate in the SBC during the Conservative Resurgence in 1985.
Thirty years later, Robinson encourages pastors, student/pastors, and future pastors to attend.
"Pastors need each other," Robinson said in his first point. They also need to know how the denomination functions, he emphasized in his second point.
"Obviously, the denomination continues to run the other 363 days through various entities as the Executive Committee, NAMB, IMB, Baptist Press, the six seminaries, a number of standing committees, and more. But business that drives the remainder of the year is done the second week in June," Robinson wrote. "Thus, these two days are very important and those who lead in local churches should respond accordingly."
Noting Crossover, an evangelism event the Saturday prior to the meeting, Robinson said, "evangelism and missions are the one consistent refrain to SBC meetings over the decades."
Denominations continue to matter, Robinson said, while noting a trend among "younger evangelicals" to the contrary.
Pointing to what he called "secondary theological matters within the SBC," Robinson asserted his assumption there is "broad agreement" on doctrines set forth in Southern Baptists' confession of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.
In his closing points, Robinson urges pastors of small churches to participate in the meeting as a messenger, and to take other members, "particularly young men" interested in ministry. This effort could promote a spirit of cooperation among pastors and churches," drawing them from all over the country to achieve a "big tent" environment, he said.
"Our annual meeting is an excellent reminder that we are together for the gospel, together to promote the fame of Jesus and his redeeming love for sinners," Robinson wrote. "If you are a pastor or plan on being a pastor, I hope to see you next week in St. Louis."
Debates about SBC entities, policies, and leaders, have resulted in a variety of news stories, blog entries, and commentaries. In brief, they are:
- SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission president Russell Moore was the subject of an editorial by Georgia Christian Index editor Gerald Harris. Harris took Moore to task for supporting the building of a mosque in New Jersey. He asked: "[W]hy would Dr. Moore spend his professional capital to defend the religious liberty of Muslims in New Jersey to build a mosque and fail to exert the same energy to get involved in Georgia's quest to pass religious liberty legislation earlier this year?"
Moore has also often been in the news over comments he has made about Republican nominee for president Donald Trump.
- SBC pastors have signed a petition calling for a Pepper-Hamilton-Baylor like investigation into NAMB president Kevin Ezell in response to allegations made by Will McRaney, former Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network. Some state executives responded, as did Ezell.
- This year the SBC's International Mission Board made news inside and outside evangelical circles when what was termed a voluntary drawdown of 600 missionaries nearly doubled with 1,132 missionaries and staff resigning or retiring, with incentives. IMB president David Platt also announced the termination of 30 seasoned Baptist missions communicators as part of the organization's "reset."
"IMB is now in a much healthier financial position," Platt said during IMB's Feb. 22-24 meeting near Richmond, Virginia. "Due to increased giving from Southern Baptist churches, Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering giving are trending upward."
Will Hall, editor of the Baptist Message, the state Baptist paper in Louisiana, in an editorial raised fifteen questions about the management practices and philosophy of the International Mission Board that he said remain unanswered despite multiple attempts on his part to get answers.
- LifeWay Christian Resources has continued to downsize its physical property by selling its historic 15-acre property in downtown Nashville and planning move to a 3-acre property nearby, after selling its 2,400-acre Glorieta Conference Center in New Mexico in 2013 for $1 to investors.
After recently announcing his resignation from LifeWay Research, Ed Stetzer, a popular statistician, and the general editor of The Gospel Project, began to serve as the executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College in Chicago. Stetzer's resignation was followed by the announcement of Micah Fries, vice president of LifeWay Research, who said he is stepping down in view of a call to the pastorate.
The Gospel Project, according to an article released in 2012, had more than 300,000 users as part of 40,000 different groups at its introduction -- with many, if not a majority of those, non-Southern Baptist. It is also considered heavily influenced by "Calvinistic" writers. Today, the Gospel Project boasts of 1 million in an advertisement on LifeWay's website.
The annual meeting begins Tuesday, June 14 with a highly anticipated presidential election that afternoon and continues through Wednesday, June 15.