Shortly before his death, Adrian Rogers was asked his opinion about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention. Without hesitation Rogers answered that he was greatly troubled about what lay ahead for the Convention. From a lifetime of investment in the SBC, he observed that Southern Baptists get along well “on the battlefield,” but sometimes can hardly tolerate each other “in the barracks.” That is to say, Southern Baptists love to fight, but fight to love. We fear Rogers was right.
It was not always this way. Beginning in the 19th Century, Missionary Baptists organized state conventions across the United States. Under the “convention” method of cooperation, Baptists voluntarily gathered in an annual convention to raise funds and provide oversight to a number of shared ministry concerns. Most Baptists believed they could cooperate in more ministries through these conventions than any individual church could undertake in isolation. Conventions were the Baptist alternative to connectionalism or denominational hierarchies. Organize through conventions, but only for priorities clearly identified.
When the Cooperative Program was established in 1925, it became the central means of funding all of our denominational ministries. The CP greatly simplified the process, ushering in a new era of cooperation. State conventions focused on church planting, Christian higher education, mercy ministries and a variety of programs and services. The SBC took the lead in foreign missions, theological education, curricular development and publishing and redemptive cultural engagement. States collaborated with the SBC in home missions, including evangelism and disaster relief. Through this partnership arrangement, Southern Baptists grew to become the largest Protestant denomination in America.
At the 2010 SBC Annual Meeting in Orlando, Southern Baptists indicated their desire to experience a Great Commission Resurgence. We are grateful for this renewed interest in fulfilling Christ’s command to take the Gospel to every people group on Earth. Unfortunately, the discussions surrounding the GCR have brought forward tensions in the Southern Baptist family. In particular, some Southern Baptists have taken an almost adversarial posture toward state conventions, resulting too often in an adversarial response from those who are invested in the work of state conventions. This has nurtured an environment of mistrust, a ticking time bomb in a network of churches committed to voluntary cooperation.
Much of the friction centers upon the Cooperative Program. How much should state conventions retain? Who should take the lead in promoting the CP? Why are so many churches cutting the percentage they invest in the CP? What is the best way to measure substantive financial support of the Convention and her related ministries? There are diverse opinions about the best way to answer each of these questions, and every proposed answer seems to irritate other Southern Baptists. These are serious issues that we must address if we are to enjoy a Great Commission Resurgence in the SBC.
For our part, while we are not uncritical toward state conventions (or our national ministries), we believe state conventions must remain important Great Commission partners if Southern Baptists are to fulfill our Lord’s gospel mandate. We further believe that if state conventions focus attention on a core set of ministry priorities, churches will invest greater money in the Cooperative Program. This will lead to two results. First, it will allow states to devote greater amounts of money to a more streamlined list of ministries. Second, it will free larger state conventions to forward more money to the Southern Baptist Convention and develop stronger financial partnerships with smaller state conventions outside the Deep South and Southwest.
As we move forward, state conventions should primarily serve local churches in the crucial ministries of church planting (and revitalization), Christian higher education and mercy ministries. This will involve a renewed commitment on the part of states to make these areas their central concerns in terms of funding and personnel. This will likely mean that some valuable ministries will need to be returned to local churches and associations so that state conventions can focus their efforts where they are most needed. It will also involve adapting each of these three essential and historic state convention ministries to contemporary needs.
From the very beginning state conventions have played a key role in mobilizing churches to evangelize their respective regions through church planting. Over the years, they have trained church planters to engage underserved areas as well as work among minority ethnic groups and immigrants. They have helped established congregations finance new church plants and assisted in assessing and training church planters. They have also helped churches and local associations collaborate with the North American Mission Board in planting churches all over the South and indeed across the nation.
States must continue to emphasize church planting and assist local churches and associations that desire help in establishing new congregations. Lord willing, they will continue to partner with NAMB in church planting efforts. But every effort must be made to ensure that collaboration does not lead to duplication. We would recommend that church planter assessment be undertaken primarily by local churches and associations, training be conducted in cooperation with NAMB and strategy be developed in collaboration with state conventions. Each would cooperate in providing sufficient funding for church planters, partnering on a case-by-case basis. A similar arrangement could work for congregational revitalization.
Since the 19th Century, Baptists have been committed to Christian higher education, founding dozens of colleges and universities across the nation. Initially, most of these schools were established by entrepreneurial individuals or local associations and were primarily concerned with educating future ministers in theological studies and the classical liberal arts. Gradually, most became related to state conventions and embraced a wider range of course offerings. Through the leadership and monetary support of these conventions, many have grown to become some of the finest institutions of Christian higher education in the world.
Baptists only stand to gain from the renaissance occurring in Christian higher education. Distinctively Christian colleges and universities are all the more valuable as growing numbers of public (and some private) schools have embraced a militantly secular agenda. We believe state conventions should invest even greater financial resources in Baptist colleges and universities. This will include more money for annual operating budgets and increased scholarships for Baptist ministerial students. In return, state convention-related schools must renew their commitment to serve the churches through the ministry of higher education. This will include greater emphasis on faith and learning integration, emphasizing the Christian intellectual tradition, embracing Baptist and evangelical emphases and cultivating a campus atmosphere conducive to spiritual formation.
State conventions have always been the key means through which Baptists have engaged in gospel-inspired mercy ministries such as caring for needy children and senior adults. Baptist churches assigned state conventions with the responsibility to provide housing, food and education for orphans and other children in crisis. Children’s homes became safe places for at-risk young people. In their concern to care for the elderly, many state conventions established retirement homes grounded on a biblical ethic of respect, dignity and the love of Christ.
In the early years of the 21st Century, many state Baptist children’s homes are beginning to explore and expand their ministries toward adoption and foster care, a trend that seems to align with the larger orphan care movement that has thankfully inspired so many of our churches. We hope it continues. Baptist retirement homes must adapt their strategies to minister to senior adults in a culture that idolizes youth and an economic context that will likely result in substantial changes in government services and the healthcare industry. State conventions should also consider ways to partner with the many Christian crisis pregnancy centers that are serving families across America.
The Southern Baptist Convention began in controversy, and the real possibility exists that it might soon end in controversy. The outcome, however, does not rest with state convention apologists or the defenders of national agencies, small church pastors or megachurch ministers, CP champions or independent spirits. Our future rests with Southern Baptists who, under the lordship of Jesus Christ, dictate the direction of their churches and finance the future of the denomination. God does not need the SBC or her state convention partners to advance His kingdom, but we pray that both might work together and be used of the Lord for gospel purposes until that day when all things are made new.
It is our sincere hope that our tensions will give way to a new consensus, one built upon the orthodoxy reaffirmed in the Conservative Resurgence and expressed in the orthopraxy embodied in a Great Commission Resurgence. We hope older pastors and leaders will be open to new ideas and younger pastors and leaders will not denigrate the tried and true. We hope those “on the ledge” will remain in the family and that grouchy family members will not alienate those teetering on the edge.
In another conversation with Rogers before his death, the venerable pastor was asked, “Will the SBC be around in 10 years?” His response: “Probably not–if things continue as they do today.” Perhaps the barracks are unbearable for Baptists. We pray this is not the case. Southern Baptists claim to follow a man who said that the world would know His disciples by their love for one another. Our hope is for renewed gospel cooperation, for the glory of God and the sake of the Great Commission–so that the world may know.
Douglas E. Baker is executive editor of the Baptist Messenger and Communications Team leader for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.
Nathan A. Finn is an Assistant Professor of Church History and Baptist Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.