Thirty years ago, conservative Southern Baptists started a revolution.
Claiming their denominational leaders had abandoned the inerrancy of Scripture, they launched a "conservative resurgence" in 1979 to bring the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) back to its roots.
This year's SBC annual meeting, held June 23-24 in Louisville, featured talk about another revolution. This time, one focused on evangelism through a "Great Commission Resurgence" (GCR) aimed at reversing continuing declines in membership and baptisms.
The new movement is the brainchild of SBC president Johnny Hunt and Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. They fear that without major changes, the SBC will suffer the same fate as mainline denominations with dramatic losses in membership.
"We are saying times have been desperate," Hunt said. "Now I really do sense fellow Southern Baptists are saying we need to get serious."
The conservative resurgence was about theology, known as the "battle for the Bible."
The GCR is more about ecclesiology—how to do church.
To reach more converts, Southern Baptists have to reach out to more ethnic groups and allow churches to experiment more—at least when it comes to worship style. And they must give evangelism top priority when it comes to money, according to Hunt.
Hunt was backed by a group of center-right Baptist leaders, including former SBC president Frank Page. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also backed Hunt, saying Southern Baptists have to do a better job reaching nonbelievers.
"Is there more that we can do?" Mohler said. "There is no need for Southern Baptists to fear that question."
Supporters of the GCR pointed to research showing that, if current trends continue, the SBC will lose half its members by 2050.
"Southern Baptist decline isn't a matter of opinion," said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research. "It's a matter of math."
The decline is based on a number of factors.
First, Southern Baptists are getting older and having fewer kids. That's a problem, because the denomination is most effective at reaching people under 18.
Southern Baptists are also mostly white, at a time when America is become multiethnic, and have been slow to reach out to new ethic groups.
And they've been reluctant to change the formula that made them great. For more than 50 years, Southern Baptists grew by what Stetzer calls a "methodological consensus." While each SBC church is autonomous, their ecclesiology was remarkable consistent.
They all had choirs, sang hymns, went to Sunday school and night services, and held Vacation Bible School programs. "We all looked the same, we all believed the same things, and we all did church the same way," Stetzer said.
That world has changed, and the SBC hasn't kept up, says Michael Spencer, a Baptist minister and blogger known as the Internet Monk.
"The idea of a teetotaling, suit-wearing, hymn-singing, chicken-eating, gospel-quartet version of the SBC is the Titanic," he said. "Hope everyone is enjoying the music, but I think you might want to consider a seat in a lifeboat."
Not all Southern Baptist buy the GCR plan. They also question whether the denomination is in serious danger.
Will Hall, editor of Baptist Press, says the convention needs a minor course correction, not wholesale changes. He says that Southern Baptists are thriving, despite factors working against them such as the lower birthrate among all Americans.
"I hate to use these terms, but you can't reach people if there isn't a market," he said.
Southern Baptists have also failed to react quickly to population patterns in the U.S. While most Americans now live in cities and suburbs, almost half of Southern Baptist churches are in rural areas.
"The problem is not a lack of evangelistic fervor," Hall said. "It's location, location, location."
Some stalwarts of the Conservative Resurgence, like Morris Chapman, president of the SBC's executive committee, have also failed to sign on to the GCR.
Chapman said it's fine to focus on evangelism. But he warned that moving away from Baptist methodology was dangerous. "To hide the light of the gospel under the bushel of cultural compromise is a grievous sin against the Holy Spirit," he said.
A flashpoint between GCR opponents and supporters was Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll. Though not a Baptist, he has won a following among many young Baptist ministers and church planters, particularly those who share his Reformed theology. But Driscoll’s history of using risqué language, and the fact that he drinks alcohol and talks about sex, angers those who say his approach undermines his message.
There were five motions made against Driscoll, including a motion to have all Southern Baptist entities report any contact with Driscoll or the Acts 29 church planting network he is a part of. That motion was sent to Southern Baptist agencies for review over the next year, as well as a separate motion to ban any speaker who cusses or drinks.
Janice Johnson, a messenger (local church representative) from Winchester, Kentucky, was suspicious of Driscoll. Her church gives money to the convention in order to support missionaries, and she didn’t think that a “cussing pastor,” as Driscoll has been labeled, should have any contact with agencies that received Southern Baptist funding.
Johnson cites the Southern Baptist belief in regenerate church membership—that Christians should live holy lives, and avoid suspect behavior like drinking, cursing, and sexual immorality. “I was saved when I was 24, and came out of that old hippy lifestyle” she said. “It was refreshing to be set apart from the world, and leave that bad language behind. It’s a different way of life to serve the King—we are supposed to be live holy lives.”
Spencer said that many younger preachers were disillusioned with the convention, in part because of a recent decision to cut back on overseas missionaries because of a $30 million shortfall in the SBC's annual Lottie Moon missions offering.
His plan for revitalizing the SBC?
"Propose real sacrifices to send missionaries to the field now," he said. "The younger leaders do not believe you are about the gospel and missions. They think you are about the preservation of the [denomination], not the extension of the Kingdom."
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingJunia, the Female Apostle Imprisoned for the GospelWhat Scripture tells us about the story of this “outstanding” Jewish woman in chains.Português
- From the MagazineIs It Time to Quit ‘Quiet Time’?Effective biblical engagement must be about more than one’s personal experience with Scripture.
- RelatedHillsong Says It Is Moving ForwardNew revelations will require increased accountability, but pastor wants to look to the future.
- Editor's PickThailand Arrests 63 Chinese Christians Seeking AsylumThe “Mayflower church” members, who first sought refuge in South Korea, fear repatriation to China after finding sponsors in Texas.