I have a lot of thoughts about the SBC, and I think you should too (if you live in the USA). Why? It is the largest group of Protestants in the country and the direction it takes will both reflect and influence evangelicalism in general. It is responsible for educating a massive portion of theological students and the impact on missions is likewise great. But I’m not a Southern Baptist. Why? Quite simply it’s because I’m not in a Southern Baptist church, and the fact that I don’t live in the South means I don’t particularly feel compelled to encourage our congregation to join it. In other words, I think the regional identity of the Convention should matter (even if they have not maintained it themselves). In other words, the reason I’m not Southern Baptist right now is both convictional (I think it should be regionally identified) and non-convictional (there’s nothing I have against the SBC doctrinally and I could—and do in my work at SBTS—still affirm the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, as I did in my book Still Confessing).
What are my thoughts on the SBC? Well, there are a lot, but as one who is concerned for healthy Baptist life, I have several that I think would help to reinvigorate it. This doesn’t solve all the problems we all know about right now (sin’s the problem; repentance, diligence, and the return of Christ are the solution). However, consider these as suggestions for how the SBC could be better in terms of the structure it ought to have.
First, associationalism. Baptists have been an associating people since our beginning. By “associating,” I mean formal communion among churches. Formal means there’s an entrance and a mutual concern and at times a removal. The SBC is generally structured in three “tiers” of fellowship: local, state, and regional (though the latter has become national, and indeed international). The SBC really is designed to direct resources for common ends (education, missions). It is the local associational level at which the theological and fidelity conversations should be had. The reality? Many churches are never involved in the local association or the state associations, and the reason is that they don’t find them valuable. Ways forward? 1) Remove churches that are inactive. This had been a very common practice among Baptists. 2) Assess the agreed upon doctrinal commitments (BFM and various other confessions) and be willing to have the hard conversations that lead to some congregations being removed from the associations. 3) Make associational meetings more robust (they are generally a-theological because of the huge spectrum of SBC theology today; local associations don’t need to be as broad as the SBC). Ask for reports from the churches and engage in the older forms of mutual support in theological and practical decision making within the churches. (Often, local association meetings are basically just reports of some evangelistic outreach—e.g., a block party or ESL classes—that a church is doing). Pastors, you’re in charge of the associations, not the DOMs, so speak.
Second, reform the SBC’s missionary practices. The North American Mission Board (NAMB, pronounced like “lamb”) had originally focused on reaching the Indians and immigrants. Now, NAMB is seeking to plant churches all over the country. It’s an unfortunately common experience for me to hear of local ministers complaining about the way NAMB seeks to overwhelm an area where there are already local associations and local church plants. NAMB still does try to help with reaching immigrants and they are involved in things like disaster relief and caring for those who are rescued out of sex slavery. Great! But if our (Baptists’) polity is to emphasize the local church and local associations, then NAMB should not be operating on its own in local areas. The other missionary organization, the International Mission Board (IMB), is one that has favorable positions on paper, but I’ve heard very disturbing stories from the mission field. While officially opposed to the “Insider Movement,” the IMB has not actually resisted it among missionaries on the ground (I’ve heard multiple stories of IMB missionaries having to leave the field because of their concerns with the IMB’s on-the-ground permissive stance toward the IM). While the goal ought to be to see Baptist churches planted and self-sustaining (at which point I would think the IMB would see their task as complete), very often the reports are that IMB workers don’t have that goal as clear in their minds.
Third, be willing to let go. This goes to things that were implied in the former two items. Early Baptist associations planted churches in other areas, which then grew into self-sustaining associations. There was communication between the associations by way of reports, but it wasn’t a way of just expanding the reach of one of the associations. The Baptist Union and the various conventions (such as the Triennial and Southern Baptist Conventions) extended the communion of churches in ways that Baptists were concerned about very early on. The SBC should, it would seem, probably be willing to resist the urge to have churches in New England and New Zealand. Plant churches? Sure. But then allow those churches to form their own associations etc. Be willing to be smaller for the sake of the health that comes from more localized politics (politics in the sense of people working together). The reality (regardless of whether it must or ought to be this way) is that by having a robust Southern Baptist Convention, energy is sapped from the hard work that goes into local efforts. Serve the churches and the local associations. That’s baptist. Note when the task you desire to do or have already engaged in is beyond the purview of what you should do and cut it off to allow it to grow by itself.
The SBC is the largest group of Protestants in the US, and the result is that their health affects the health of us all. We should be seeking the good of the SBC and urging them to continue to reform according to the Scriptures, which are best expressed in Baptist principles. This means more focus on the local churches, more focus on the local associations, more desire to serve as a conduit only insofar as it is proper, and less seeking to be a “global” movement. I praise God for the SBC because it was the commitments of that communion of Baptists to the gospel that edified me and trained me for the ministry. I never “left the SBC” but only the area where the SBC is (and I think ought to be) functional, and my desire is for Southern Baptists to continue to uphold Baptist principles and take the gospel to the lost.