Southern or Baptist? The SBC and the Future

I love the Southern Baptist Convention.

I do.

For all of her pathologies and well-deserved criticisms she remains a body of churches unflinchingly and unapologetically committed to spiritual rebirth in Christ.  It was in an SBC church where I heard the saving grace of Christ preached again and again as a boy, where despite my best efforts it seeped into my soul.  It was SBC parents, Sunday School teachers and youth workers who poured into my life shaping my character through a relentless commitment to graceful holiness.  It was at an SBC university where I was challenged to think and where I begin to discover my true self and true gifts.  It was at an SBC seminary where I was handed the tools to plumb the depths of scripture under the tutelage of church leaders and professors from literally around the world.  And now it is at an SBC church where I sit week after week with four generations of family members.  So yes.  I’m a little invested.  Thus it’s with love and commitment I say what I’m about to say.  I’m not lobbing bricks from the outside, I am invested on the front lines.

I am concerned about the future of the SBC.  I’m afraid she is too tied to a dwindling demographic and at some times and in some ways confuses the gospel with white, Southern, middle class cultural practices and values.

Don’t worry. This is not another one of those columns.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being white, Southern, and middle class.  However, that is just one culture out of hundreds if not thousands on our own shores, much less around the world.  If we truly want to be faithful to the gospel we preach, we cannot continue to idolize those roots.

Change must happen for two reasons.

First and most importantly, God demands it.  His kingdom is and will be made up of all nations and peoples and the kingdom will expand and grow with or without us.   It’s us who will miss out if we cling to our ethnicity and our past as a denomination.  Secondly, simple numbers demand it.  It’s the future of North America and it needs to be our future as well.  There is no doubt SBC numbers are in decline and the reality behind the numbers is probably far worse.

But I’m hopeful change can happen.  One Baptist group has already done it.  See if this story sounds familiar.

In the religio-political cauldron of early modern Europe, those committed to regenerate church membership find themselves deeply maligned in their home country.  They seek freedom of worship and thus in droves leave the mother country for a new start on American shores.  They first congregate in cities but then spread out over the frontiers preaching and winning converts from home like themselves as they go.  Soon, the Second Great Awakening erupts across the land.  Church ranks swell with fervent believers.  The churches grow in number so they form a convention and begin to support missions work and education.  However, despite this bulging growth, the converts and churches remain ethnic enclaves incubating the language and customs of the home country.

But as the 20th Century wears on, immigration from the home country drops off dramatically and English becomes the dominant language.  New churches planted begin to lose their ethnic feel.  The denomination was at a crossroads.  They can double down to retain their national identity, or they can embrace the rapidly growing and changing American society.

They wisely chose the later.

I’m talking about the Swedish Baptist General Conference.  Did you see that one coming?

Sensing the moment and recognizing the future, the denomination dropped “Swedish” from its name in 1945.  Today, what started as a tiny gathering of about 20 Swedish immigrants fleeing religious persecution is now a dynamic church planting movement of 1100 churches in 19 nations around the world, which includes many prominent leaders such as Greg Boyd, John Piper, and Leith Anderson.

The Swedish Baptists, though I”m sure many cherish and celebrate their heritage, have managed to graph their past onto a new, primary identity rooted in gospel mission and classic Baptist principles rather than personal history.  Only about 25% of the churches today identify with their Swedish ethnic origins.  But that didn’t happen by accident.  They made a conscious decision to build for the future.

It seems the SBC is now at a similar crossroads.  We have seen tremendous success both at home and around the world.  But our demographic momentum is running out of steam.  It’s time to make a decision.  Will we cling to the past or embrace a new future?  Are we willing to seek out and develop non-Southern leaders?  Are we willing to engage openly and honestly with those we have harmed in the past and hear their concerns?  Are we going to continue tolerating ugly rhetoric like this or approach the larger community humbly and work to find common ground?  Are we willing to let go of our cherished cultural practices to make new comers feel at home?  And what about our name?

Will there be a day when the SBC grows by leaps and bounds among new territories and demographics but is not identified with the American South?  Do we really want that?  Would we be ok if only 25% of Southern Baptists churches are recognizable as Southern?  Will we embrace gospel-centered diversity and partner with Baptists around the world, or are we secretly fine with the status quo?

Because . . . as stated above, the kingdom of God is on the move.  The only question is are we willing to join in or will we watch from the safety of our ethnic enclave sitting on our past laurels?  Will we sell everything we have and follow him . . .or will we join the rich, young ruler on the sad road with our backs to Jesus.

I think we will make the right choice.  Despite ongoing difficulties, I think there are promising signs.  I work with many of those promising signs every day.

God bless our Swedish sisters and brothers for showing us the way (by the way check out their website).

This should be fun.

Peace,

Ben

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