We live in an increasingly post-denominational age. Even devout believers often lack any sense of commitment to a Christian tradition that transcends their own local church. Furthermore, Southern Baptists only recently emerged from a two-decade controversy that was really a denominational identity crisis. We have some sense of who we’ve been, both for better and worse, but we’re still wrestling with who we are and, even more important, who we ought to be.
Enter The SBC and the 21st Century, edited by Midwestern Seminary president Jason Allen. This book arrives at a critical moment in SBC history. As I wrote in my commendation of the book,
Denominationally, our membership is declining, our cooperative giving is down, our global missionary force is being downsized, and our baptisms are at a generational low. Yet there are signs of spiritual renewal among us, evidenced in the ongoing theological renaissance and missional revitalization taking place in SBC congregations all over our nation. This is a time for hope, not despair.
This book offers hope. In this post, rather than write a formal review, I’ll provide some general summary and offer my own reflections on Southern Baptist life as evoked by my reading of The SBC and the 21st Century.
1. We cooperate in a convention of churches because mission matters.
Southern Baptists believe in congregational polity and local church autonomy. There is a remarkable amount of variety among Baptist churches. Yet, as several contributors noted in their chapters, a commitment to the Great Commission is at the heart of our shared identity as Southern Baptists. We cooperate together in the SBC because mission matters.
Frank Page offers a sobering, but hopeful summary of the present state of the Cooperative Program. If mission is the lifeblood of Southern Baptists, the CP is the primary “vascular” system through which we fund our corporate kingdom work. Paul Chitwood and John L. Yeats offer a helpful assessment of the future of state conventions. When at their best, state conventions are regional mission boards uniting area churches in kingdom ministries appropriate to their particular context. Kevin Ezell and David Platt each offer strong calls for greater missionary impact in North America and among all the peoples of the earth. Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8 should remain key verses that animate our cooperative mission as Southern Baptists. Drawing upon insights from historical statistical analysis, including both demographic and methodological developments, Thom Rainer calls for a recommitment to evangelistic faithfulness. This is a needed word. Collin Hansen and Justin Taylor offer a friendly outsider perspective upon how Southern Baptists relate to other evangelicals. While we should cooperate with our fellow Baptists, to be sure, we should also be as generous and strategic as we can in our cooperation with other orthodox evangelicals, lest we fall prey to the insular sectarianism that has at times characterized our tradition.
2. Theological renewal remains an ongoing task.
It might be tempting to think the “battle for the Bible” was won when the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 was adopted sixteen years ago. However, that battle began in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent questioned God’s truthful words, and it will continue until the new creation. The work of theological renewal is never done. As a political movement, the conservative resurgence was a total victory; the denomination is firmly in control of theological conservatives. As a theological renaissance, it was merely a fresh start; doctrinal cruise control leads to the diabolical drift of heterodoxy.
In reiterating themes upon which he has spoken and written frequently over the years, Al Mohler demonstrates yet again that he is the very best spokesman for who Southern Baptists ought to be in our core theological identity. John Mark Yeats and Jason Duesing each ably address issues more directly related to Baptist identity. Yeats calls for a recommitment to the central Baptist distinctive, regenerate church membership, while Duesing argues that a consensus on ecclesiological convictions should inform the manner in which we cooperate as Southern Baptists. Christian George looks at the Downgrade Controversy and draws lessons for contemporary theological faithfulness. This is the pastoral use of history at its best. Owen Strachan challenges Southern Baptists to continue to stake out an orthodox position in wider cultural discussions about gender and sexuality, even as our views potentially become increasingly unpopular in the public square.
3. We need to embrace greater diversity for the sake of the gospel.
While Southern Baptists are diverse in some ways by nature of our commitment to congregational freedom, we are less diverse in our ethnic makeup. Furthermore, we are at times plagued by generational tensions that play out in many of our family discussions about doctrine, worship, and methodology.
Danny Akin and Walter Strickland focus their attention on ethnic diversity. Southern Baptists have apologized for past racism, and we’ve made significant strides toward greater diversity, but we remain a predominantly Caucasian denomination. Furthermore, relatively few of our churches are committed to a multi-ethnic vision of congregational life. David Dockery examines some of the key generational tension points in the SBC. Drawing upon history, doctrine, and mission, he calls for a renewed sense of intergenerational cooperation in Baptist life. Paige Patterson takes up the mantle of a seasoned leader and shares some of his personal concerns about continuity and discontinuity between older and younger generations of Baptists. When it comes to generational differences, we all need to show more neighbor-love toward those who differ from us in debatable matters.
4. Differences notwithstanding, we must remain a Word-driven people.
Southern Baptists are a people of the Book. Historically, we’ve emphasized the centrality of the written Word preached, prayed, sung, and shared. While we may have differing views of musical worship styles, multi-site churches, single vs. plural elder leadership models, and the use of altar calls, we must remain united in our conviction that the Bible should shape our ministry priorities and methods.
Jason Allen hints at this reality in his introduction and conclusion, but he really drives it home in his fine chapter on theological education. For Southern Baptists, theological education is first and foremost for the church. Our seminaries (and colleges) should be equipping pastors and other spiritual leaders to let the Word do its work in their ministries. Tony Merida focuses upon preaching in particular, arguing that Christ-centered expositional preaching is a God-ordained means of congregational renewal. We must never outgrow the preaching of the Word. Ronnie Floyd also discusses the need of spiritual renewal as the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Bible does a fresh work of grace among Southern Baptists. Floyd’s chapter echoes the clarion call for revival that he has been sounding during his two years as SBC president.
There is so much more that could be said on each of these themes, as well as many other important topics. I would encourage you to read The SBC and the 21st Century to fully mine its riches. My prayer is that this book would help Southern Baptists think through how we can best pursue faithfulness in our churches and our denominational ministries for the glory of God, the health of our churches, and the sake of this world that God so loves.