SBC starts tomorrow. Worth watching?

June 14, 2010

SBC

The annual Southern Baptist Convention starts tomorrow and will be viewable via webcast from the SBC website. I cannot say that I’m very excited about it. The big issue for the past couple years has been the Great Commission Resurgence, and everything that I’ve read from promoters of the GCR has been dull and predictable.

Basically, Southern Baptists aren’t evangelizing as much as they used to — membership has dropped (slightly, relative to other large denominations) — so they need to start evangelizing. How do you get the people to start evangelizing or, at least, give more financially to domestic and foreign missions? Tell them that they’ve become complacent and deluded by postmodern cultural messages — oh, and remind them that, in regard to foreign missions, millions of people are dying and going to hell because they are ignorant of the Gospel. So, that’s what I’ve read over and over. Certainly there is much to commend in the GCR statements and reports. Surely we evangelicals are complacent and lack conviction, and surely we need to have a heart for those who have never heard the Gospel. (Although, I don’t buy into the “going to hell by ignorance” understanding of God’s works and ways; God’s electing purposes are bigger than the visible Church.) However, attacking complacency and blaming postmodernism is not a sufficient means for building a church culture that values personal evangelism and missions. Rather, Christians who delight in God, amidst all the secular forms that obscure his glory, will evangelize by transforming the secular, revealing its true telos in Christ, and telling others of this hope.

In other words, pinpointing the symptoms, such as complacency, is not enough, when the causes are rooted deep in the Southern Baptist psyche. The problem with the SBC’s emphasis on evangelism is that this has always and only been the distinct emphasis of the SBC. Southern Baptists have proven that they can do evangelism, but have they proven much else? Where is the catholic vision of an ecclesiology that reaches outward to include all forms of human life? Where is the discipleship that is sustained and secured, not by an intellectual sectarianism and emotional escapism, but by a disciplining of the entire scope of the human personality: reason, volition, and aesthetic? Where is the confidence, not in oneself but in the Lord’s work of a new creation, where we humbly attend to all of life (including the secular forms)?

Once these issues are addressed, the SBC may or may not have increased statistics, but she will have vibrant churches under the Lordship of Christ. She will have authentic witnesses to this Lordship.

10 Responses to “SBC starts tomorrow. Worth watching?”

  1. Kevin,

    I think what you’re describing simply doesn’t exist. Every church or denomination has need of grace, and the SBC is no different. I have heard SB pastors who have pointed out that our motives behind missions cannot be the fear of people going to hell, but the joy of telling them about Christ. I have heard SB deans point out that SBs have been soft on our responsibilities to the environment. I have heard SB pastors and scholars call for our churches to have renewed visions of their mission; one that is holistic and not simply compartmentalized.

    These things take a long time to happen, though. Church culture is one of the most obstinate, death-defying creatures out there. The GCR is about changing how we spend money – and it’s much needed. It’s the first step in the SBC changing her identity and in a younger generation beginning to have a voice.

    It’s not really about fear of postmodernity, or anything like that. I am at ground zero for the GCR and I haven’t heard anything like what you’re talking about. Either I’ve missed a lot or you’ve read the wrong propaganda.

    Don’t get me wrong, as a Southern Baptist, I’ve got my qualms about this or that. But I also know that imperfect as it is, it’s something worth our effort to preserve and improve upon.

    The fact of the matter is that SBs for too long have danced to modernity’s song. When at the turn of the century, they bought into doctrinal imprecision and started focusing on growing churches more than discipling people, the SBC turned into a massive machine enslaved to efficiency and modernist notions of success.

    The GCR may or may not be just what the doctor ordered, but as you seem to recognize, something’s gotta give.

  2. Kevin Davis said

    Thanks, Tyler. I greatly appreciate your perspective. First, I want to say that the GCR discussions dealing with fiscal issues are long overdue. I didn’t mention this, or the proposed structural changes, because my concerns are more with the theology at play.

    As for the theology at play, Al Mohler, to name the most prominent exponent of the GCR, has been wholly explicit in his concerns about a relativistic/postmodernistic complacency within the SBC, where congregants are not willing to stand for the “hard truths” of the faith, including the damnation of those who don’t hear the Gospel. He has said this in a recent talk I watched on the SBTS website, and he has said it multiple times before. He may not use the language of “postmodernity,” but the concerns are the same as those voiced by Carl Henry long ago. My main complaint, however, is not against his call for doctrinal fidelity amidst the ridicule of the world. I agree, even though I disagree about particulars in his view of salvation outside the Church. Rather, my complaint is against the lack of any critical awareness about the intellectual isolation, emotional-spiritual shallowness, and aesthetic depravity of Southern Baptist church life. The myopic call for more evangelism, while necessary, is not sufficient. Like I said, “Where is the discipleship that is sustained and secured, not by an intellectual sectarianism and emotional escapism, but by a disciplining of the entire scope of the human personality: reason, volition, and aesthetic?”

    Thus, my criticism is born out of a greater frustration, not with the GCR per se, but with Southern Baptist theology (and culture) in general. I appreciate the renewed care for doctrine at SBTS and elsewhere, and I largely agree with the Conservative Resurgence’s aims. Yet, in the wake of the Conservative victories, I don’t see a holistic vision of the Christian life. Of course, what I mean by “holistic vision” will require a lot more space and time than I have here, although I have addressed this topic before in various ways (peruse the blog archives).

    If you want a good example of a catholic intellect adhering to Southern Baptist beliefs, look at E. Y. Mullins. Or, if you were searching the broader Free Church tradition, look at P. T. Forsyth.

    • Kevin Davis said

      All of my complaints would cease if the SBC could produce a John Milton or a J. R. R. Tolkien: disciples of Christ who could see all the contingencies of our faith, reaching upward toward God and outward toward all of creation, and transpose these contingencies onto new narratives and images.

      Tyler, once you understand why the SBC is not fertile soil for such minds, then you will understand my concerns about “the Southern Baptist psyche.” This is not about elitism. A “church life” that can produce such minds can also produce a laity that lives confident, joyful, and free in the vision of God’s glory.

  3. Tyler Wittman said

    I hear you man. And even though we probably would disagree about a few big points, I really do value hearing from your perspective and for once having a civil discussion about these things with someone burnt out about this stuff.

    Mohler’s usual line with regard to truth and postmodernity has in mind both relativism and those who believe particularism is a bad word. I assure you Mohler is not a glib pedant when it comes to “postmodernism.” He doesn’t think postmodernity has swept through Baptist churches either, he has the culture at large in mind with such comments.

    One last thing: there are a lot of younger guys in the SBC who definitely share the concerns about aesthetics and isolationism that you mention. More than you might think (though still not tons)! Thus my point about church culture and the time these kind of things require. Some of the most promising young Southern Baptist scholars are increasingly recognizing that the paucity of excellent arts in evangelical (not to mention SBC!) life is an exigency worth our attention.

    And no, I trust this is not about elitism.

    To riff on what my pastor says when explaining our church’s relationship with the SBC: sometimes, it’s kind of like that crazy uncle you have. Other times, it’s like a brother in arms. Either way you’re related, so you gotta love them!

    • Kevin Davis said

      Tyler,

      I enjoy this civil discussion as well. I’m glad to hear that you’ve seen an awareness, among younger guys, of these fundamental weaknesses in the SBC. Really, it’s inevitable — our generation has vastly more exposure to diverse culture, art, and intellectual forums. We can see where excellence is valued, and where pragmatism is valued. The SBC is the latter. If the denomination is only concerned about “soul-winning,” then pragmatic means will invariably dominate. If the denomination is concerned, first and foremost, about being a witness to the glory of God, then evangelism has a healthy context in which to win true and lasting disciples, across all social strata and among those with varying intellectual gifts.

      My fear is that the GCR, and the rhetoric supporting it, is yet another instance in the greater failure among Southern Baptists to excel at anything other than evangelism. Even if the GCR is “successful” and baptisms increase, we’ll just be back in the same situation in another generation or two…because we will have made shallow disciples in a shallow church with shallow children who grow-up and leave the church.

      I respect a lot of what Dr. Mohler does, but he is not the man with the vision that the SBC needs. I’m not sure who that man is or if he even exists…yet.

  4. Tyler Wittman said

    Kevin, I may have mentioned this to you before, but you really must read Gregory Wills’ book, “Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900.”

    It’s his dissertation he wrote at Emory and it’s phenomenal. He demonstrates how the turn towards pragmatism came when Southern Baptists started to become weak on doctrinal rigor and big on numbers, “soul-winning” numbers. Giving up on the difficult practice of church discipline opened the door to shallow churches with shallow disciples, etc. In other words, this is a problem SBTS tries to drill into your head while you’re there. A lot of the younger, Reformed SBCers are big on recapturing church discipline, doctrinal rigor, etc.

    If that can be matched by an aesthetic awareness and a refusal to let anti-intellectualism settle down in the church’s ethos, then I think you’ll see some of this stuff right itself.

    • Kevin Davis said

      So, where is this exalted vision of the Church in all the discussions surrounding the GCR?

      I’m glad to know that SBTS has a lot of guys who are intent on deepening the local church, but I’m not seeing that awareness coming from the principal advocates of the GCR. From what I’ve observed, the “soul-winning” myopia is on full display. Certainly that’s the message being sent to the laity.

      Thanks for the book recommendation; I’m sure that I would enjoy it.

  5. Tyler Wittman said

    “where is this exalted vision of the Church in all the discussions surrounding the GCR?”

    I’m with you! I haven’t seen any of it in the more public rhetoric. The GCR could profit from more ecclesiological reflection. I’m not sure, I haven’t had the time to read everything out there (and there’s quite a bit).

    There are at least two books coming out by B&H with articles by various SB scholars and pastors addressing different aspects of this whole thing. Surely someone has addressed it (I can only hope).

  6. james said

    Hey i just read through this dialogue and appreciate the respectful interaction. I am a Canadian and find myself in sympathy with these issues in Evangelicalism in general. Kevin you said “attacking complacency and blaming postmodernism is not a sufficient means for building a church culture that values personal evangelism and missions.” I also find this treatment for the problem of Evangelism to be insufficient. There is clearly a divide in how to stay vibrant as the church in the face of the shifting culture and just blaming relativism and postmodernism as the bogeyman might seem helpful but i suspect it is a smokescreen for a deeper anxiety. That is, the painfulness of facing up to a changing world and even a changing consciousness in the younger generation.
    I also agree that the church needs to stop blaming cultural trends as the problem and start embracing this great catholic and compassionate vision of the whole world. I am tired of Evangelicals who want to create insider, “we are better than you are” culture, and instead want to work with those who want to build bridges, bless the world, and see God’s hand inside and also outside the church.
    Cheers! Great post!

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