In one of his more famous "Yogi-isms," Yogi Berra once quipped, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." Southern Baptists came to such a fork this week, and with respect to Berra, they took the fork that mattered most.
Some thought the convention was like a building wired for demolition, on the verge of imploding this year. Instead, this year proved to be refreshing as it confirmed the more hopeful direction the SBC has been heading in recent years. People showed up and they made a difference.
While social media bouts were on display prior to the convention—building up the hype and drama much like a promoter for a premier boxing match—many saw the writing on Twitter as the writing on the wall for Southern Baptists.
This was the year of the SBC’s demise.
However, as I left the convention and took some time to debrief and analyze what took place, I believe the path for the SBC is one of a more hopeful and fruitful future. Here are reasons I believe this.
The election was a fork in the road.
The election was a fork in the road for several reasons:
1) It represents an approach from the posture of faith over the peddling of fear.
Overall, the election of Ed Litton, and most of the decisions at the convention, showed that Southern Baptists can face the challenges of our time in ways that are both biblical and wise—not to mention in ways that are missionally engaging without assimilating to the greater culture.
CRT has been a topic garnering heated debate among Southern Baptists. But the reality is, many have used fear tactics, lumping important discussions about race with CRT—and thus making it the proverbial bogeyman.
The election of Ed Litton is important. He has been calling for (and modeling) racial reconciliation, encouraging people to listen to the lived experiences of African American leaders. His election demonstrates how over half of the messengers wanted to move forward in a posture of racial reconciliation in a way that honors the Scriptures and is sensitively aware of the challenges still faced by our brothers and sisters of color.
I know that Litton will continue to move the SBC more towards the posture of faith rather than the peddling of fear in this area.
2) It represents the choice of love over legalism.
In his presidential address, J.D. Greear spoke loudly and clearly against the legalism that so easily plagues the SBC.
In John's Gospel, Jesus represents both grace and truth (John 1:14, 17). Most have heard some rendition of the statement, “Truth without grace leads to legalism; grace without truth leads to worldliness.”
Southern Baptists, for over a generation, carry the reputation of having a strong stance on truth, but too often to the neglect of grace. Jesus warned the legalists in Matthew 23:23 who focused on toeing the line of their convictions to also focus on "the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness," words to be heeded today as well.
In nominating Ed Litton, Fred Luter, the first African American president of the Southern Baptist Convention, noted Litton's commitment to both the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. Litton's election continued this path forward about how we might best continue both to share and show the love of Jesus with a lost and broken world.
Evangelicals are always concerned about sharing the good news of the gospel, and this has always been central to who the SBC is. The messengers at this year's convention seemed to understand Southern Baptists must be people of truth while being people who love our communities and neighbors well. This includes, in particular, how to learn to love people who are different than us: people of other races, backgrounds, and ethnicities.
Like all decisions, they are made by people who show up—and those that showed up pointed to a better path.
3) It represents choosing Scripture over culture.
We often think of people succumbing to the culture to be a challenge on the left side of the religious spectrum, but we can also be co-opted by the right. We saw that at the SBC this year.
Some have tried to paint Litton as a liberal, or one not committed to the authority of scripture. Perhaps that's understandable when the language comes from media outlets who really don't understand the SBC.
But a bigger problem is how leaders like Litton, former SBC president J.D. Greear, or Southeastern Baptist Seminary president Danny Akin get criticized as having theologically drifted. The problem is when people conflate their burden for racial reconciliation by adopting views and approaches contrary to scripture. This fear-mongering and scare tactics mirror the ways of the world rather than the Word of God. The reason this happens is because too many believers, including Southern Baptists (and too many pastors and leaders), watch cable news many, many hours a week, and they're being discipled by their cable news more than by Scripture.
For example, I received an email after the convention with the subject line, “SBC Goes Liberal.” Here’s an excerpt from that email,
The Southern Baptist Convention is a mess. We just had our annual election for president. We prayed long and hard about it and our prayers revealed: Jesus was rooting for Mike Stone for president. Lucifer was rooting for progressive activist Ed Litton for president. . . . It seems that left-wing, open-borders, anti-White activist Ed Litton just won the SBC presidency, barely beating conservative Mike Stone.
I normally don’t air out emails like this in public. But I think airing this one, at this time, illustrates my point. “Left-wing, open-borders, and anti-White,” are cultural labels. Ed Litton and the others named in the email are people of integrity, people who love Jesus, people who believe the Bible is inerrant and infallible, people who preach the Word passionately, and people who have a deep desire to share and show the love of Jesus and see people come to Christ. These descriptions are Scriptural and biblical.
In analyzing this convention, the messengers publicly said they will not give in to the culture wars of the past but will continue down the road where the Word of God matters more than the labels or headlines of this week’s cable news network.
The messengers chose scripture over culture, in this case, the right-wing culture of cable news.
A False Report Rejected
Furthermore, the election revealed a false report about critical race theory.
I've tried to understand and to help others understand CRT. For instance, we hosted a ten-part series with different evangelical voices on the topic. [You can access them here.]
Yes, this I can say without ambiguity: Ed Litton does not hold or teach Critical Race Theory, regardless of how you feel about CRT. He is in the space of pursuing racial recognition, and some mistakenly conflate those two separate though related spaces. After Ferguson, Ed began to meet with some African American pastors there in Alabama and began to learn some of the civil rights history that sometimes white evangelicals have missed.
Litton brought forth an elevated awareness that perhaps the lived experience of African American leaders, pastors, and more is different than those of us who are Anglo and from an Anglo tradition. Neither he nor any other leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, would have a full-throated embrace of Critical Race Theory.
That’s silly— and the messengers rejected this false report and chose a more honest path.
CRT has become for many a kind of catch-all term regarding race issues and the bogeyman of our time. Southern Baptists have had their share of bogeymen over the years--the charismatic bogeyman, the Calvinist Bogeyman, and now the Critical Race Theory bogeyman--to name a few.
The fact is there are a significant number of people who think we have had enough conversations about race and in particular systemic racism. Making CRT the issue is an attempt to try to make the issue of race go away. But, that’s not what the messengers decided. They know there is more work to do, and I’m glad the younger and more diverse messengers showed up to make that clear.
I'm a Southern Baptist, and there's a significant number of us who believe that systemic racism and structural issues still exist, that elements of the past have been projected into the present. While our nation continues to be formed into a more perfect Union, there's still more work to be done.
What this means for the future
I am hopeful for the future for many reasons.
First, I'm hopeful after seeing Ed Litton elected as the president of the SBC. I know him to be a man of conviction and compassion.
Second, I'm also hopeful because much of the future of the SBC is in new churches. Sixty percent of the church plants in the Southern Baptist Convention by the Send Network of the North American Mission Board are non-Anglo. The future is there. The next generation of Southern Baptists is there.
What's surprising to a lot of people is, among Southern Baptists, almost a quarter of SBC churches are predominantly non-Anglo. And their numbers are growing—meanwhile, the numbers of predominantly white churches are declining. The future is in the gospel, and the gospel is taking root well in new churches with ethnic diversity. The future is going to continue to move forward with a convention that is more diverse.
Third, having been in the room, I will give you another example of why I am hopeful. Every time sexual abuse was mentioned, every single time, the messengers had an opportunity to respond concerning sexual abuse—whether it was a motion, a resolution, or an amendment—they strengthened the response. They sought to create a more independent investigation to see when charges were leveled. On every occasion, they did so.
I left encouraged.
At the same time, the SBC remains a very divided convention, which mirrors our very divided time—something we should lament. In the presidential election, there was a very significant kind of get-out-the-vote campaign for people who were concerned that talking about these and other issues indicated some sort of liberal drift.
Southern Baptists have had close votes before. We've had runoff votes that did not impact the direction the final vote decided. This is the largest deliberative assembly in the world. When the SBC gathers in an annual meeting, they're debating motions that no one else does with 15,000 people. There's still deep division in the denomination.
The annual meeting just ended; division continues.
Yet, we have to get used to this—the votes showed that noise on social media is not the same as decisions at an annual meeting. But, that noise will not be going away.
And, we will all have to grow accustomed to it. It’s time to not run away when social media gets loud. It’s time to stand up for what is right even when it is hard.
We're all living in a new level of constant argument. Social media has become weaponized. So, Southern Baptists (and leaders of all denominations) are going to have to get used to a significant number of people and who vent on social media.
Still, we have to do the right thing, even when it's the hard thing.
Just as the Apostle Paul exhorted the deeply divided Corinthian church to do the deep work of loving one another—the leaders in the SBC will have to set the example and do the deep work of mending the divisions. This work is worth it, for it is love that embodies the presence and power of Jesus in a dark world.
In closing, this was a watershed moment, a tipping point. I'm mixing metaphors to make the point. There's a fork in the road, and that fork has been taken. It doesn't mean everyone is on the same page. But I left encouraged. And I think many people left encouraged as well.
There’s gospel work to do, people showed up to prioritize that work, and the SBC is better for it.