A Southern Baptist church

THIS YEAR’S Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Annual Meeting is likely to be among its most significant in recent memory. For the first time in many years, the convention will meet in Louisville, where the Calvinism of Al Mohler and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary are holding sway. This convention happens in the shadow of a brewing controversy over the direction the convention will take in the future. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Danny Akin and SBC President Johnny Hunt have articulated a vision for the SBC’s future that has the old denominational guard feeling its first real pressure since the conservative resurgence in 1979.

The challenge isn’t from the progressive wing of the SBC; that faction has largely vanished and has no political presence in the denomination or its entities. The controversy is over Akin’s Great Commission Resurgence document, a visionary recalibration of the SBC's future around the common mission of planting churches and supporting missionaries, and not around cultural issues or methodological similarity.

For the first time, the SBC is meeting with a clear indication that all its major numbers are declining. Statistics from the denomination’s own sources reveal that baptisms are down, the SBC has the largest percentage of members over 70 of any major denomination, and the most distressing of all, funding is not currently available for the sending of new missionaries to the field. For a denomination that prides itself on methodological uniformity, evangelistic zeal and the largest missionary/church planting force in the Protestant world, this is devastating news. Akin’s Great Commission Resurgence solution is broad, but the old guard can hear the music: state and national conventions have too much money going to unnecessary and duplicated structures. It’s time to restructure, sacrifice and get busy doing what the average SBC pastor believes the denomination is all about: missions and church plants.

To fix things, jobs will shrink and long time pet agencies will have to give way to new realities. This is a strange brew after ten-plus years of holding the line for the GOP in the culture war and insisting that teetotalism and traditional hymnology are crucial to being a real Baptist. We heard the early shock waves almost a decade ago when news of discontent among younger leaders and pastors began to register at the national level, with former SBC President Jimmy Draper saying the younger leaders were not showing up for work. Then the SBC’s International Mission Board adopted guidelines on speaking in tongues (against it) and baptism (must be acceptable to Baptist theology) that ignited a surprising and sizable backlash.

Now the SBC is watching its younger men flock to hear and read John Piper, Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll. The unchallenged reign of the SBC’s megachurch pastors is over, due to the internet’s delivery of networking and mentorship without going to Nashville for instructions. Mohler’s Calvinist contingent are among the most restless and critical of the SBC, as Southern has graduated a large number of students intending to go to the mission field. Now that is on hold. Suddenly, the SBC’s state and national structures look like obstacles to missions. Painting Calvinists as anti-missions and anti-evangelism hasn’t worked for the old guard, and Johnny Hunt’s move to the Great Commission Resurgence team is a major coup.

Something is happening in the Southern Baptist Convention. Restructuring? Repenting of too much investment in cultural religion? An openness to new innovation? The freedom to have a beer without shame? Who knows? New SBC voices like Ed Stetzer are finally telling the SBC the truth, and tens of thousands of young leaders are waiting to see if anyone is listening and willing to make big changes for the sake of missions and new churches. Are we about to see an SBC where cooperation is the real unity, rather than an imagined vision of Southern religion and evangelism right out of the 1950s? Stay tuned. The choices are critical. Without renewal, the SBC will see half its church to the cemetery in the next 50 years. With renewal, the SBC has the potential to have an immense and healthy effect on evangelicalism.

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