By Mark DeVine
July 19, 2016
A review of The SBC and the 21st Century: Reflection, Renewal, and Recommitment, Jason K. Allen, editor (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 266 pages.
“If a church calls itself nondenominational, nine times out of ten it’s Baptist.” So blogged the pastor of an Episcopal church in suburban Philadelphia. He hoped to stem attrition from his congregation to that of those he deemed sheep-stealing Baptist wolves decked out in nondenominational sheep’s clothing.
The blogpost illumines certain urgent, paradoxical, and profound challenges addressed in the new volume from B&H on the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and the 21st century. This much needed and remarkable book adds to the rich conversation engaged by other important contributions including Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future (2009); Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism (2011), and the uniquely insightful Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal (2008), all three either edited or authored by David S. Dockery.
This new volume attempts to reckon with a lost Baptist heyday even as it seeks to find and forge a path forward. Southern Baptist ascendency between 1950 and 1980 gave periodic rise to an unseemly, triumphal, Baptist strut—rhetorically and otherwise. How distant must such halcyon days seem now, and how obnoxious such a strut appear, when “hiding” one’s Baptist identity is seen by many to serve gospel advance?
On the other hand, must not some deep-seated potency still churning within the still southern-shaped Baptist movement account in part for the Anglican pastor’s trouble? Serving Yankee Episcopalians on their home turf, he feels compelled to protect them from the clutches of closeted Baptist interlopers! What jarring paradox allows for both the pastor’s cocksure identification of surreptitious Baptists and his hope that exposure of that identity might give pause to the more dis-lodgeable parishioners under his care? Baptist weakness and strength juxtaposed, complex, indicative of spiritual vitality intertwined within a crises of identity.
Volume editor, Jason K. Allen identifies the enduring Southern Baptist mandate in the title of his introduction: “A Never Changing Witness in an Ever-Changing World.” Surely The Controversy within the SBC (1979-1989), however fractious and fraught with bitter fruits, did take a significant step toward recovery of that “never-changing witness.” But, just as surely, “the ever changing world” within which that witness must sound confronts Southern Baptists with an equally urgent and perhaps unprecedented challenge.
Allen sketches the foreboding contours of that challenge through a series of twelve questions—questions that must leave Baptists yearning for renewal both sobered and stunned. Consider these two: “Will we grow more unified around shared convictions and mission, or will we fragment over secondary concerns and tertiary doctrinal differences?” “Can we be content as a distinct cultural minority and remain faithful to the dictates of Christ in the face of social marginalization?” How distant does Martin Marty’s tantalizing assessment of Southern Baptists as the Roman Catholics of the South seem now? Firmly planted on the far side of such a reversal of cultural standing, how shall Southern Baptists move forward?
Repeatedly, the twenty contributors to this book reflect a certain staple of Baptist fixation without which, I believe, only a sad and retrograde future awaits. Fixation on growth.
Flip through these pages just catching glimpses and you might mistake it for some new baseball abstract from Bill James. Measurements aplenty, percentages everywhere, charts galore. Why? The great commission, that’s why. Not only in David Platt’s chapter dedicated to international missions or the other six concluding chapters focused one way or another on the advance of the kingdom of God, but throughout the book an irrepressible interest in evangelism, church planting, and missions presses its way to the surface.
For many Baptists, numerical growth covers a multitude of sins. Where passion for growth morphs into obsession, fixation on growth can become a double-edged sword. What a woeful spectacle results from Bible-ignorant, gospel-forgetful, doctrine-devoid “growth.”
But woe unto us if we imagine for one second a bright Baptist future apart from persistent hunger to see the conversion of sinners.
If the infusion of a heightened passion for souls into the Baptist movement during the Great Awakenings and the rejection of hyper-Calvinist nonchalance running from Andrew Fuller to Charles Spurgeon endure, we should all rejoice. Other pressing challenges confront us, but none deserve attention apart from their relation to Great Commission obedience.
Among those other concerns addressed in this volume is the doctrine of the church and its repercussions for re-shaping congregational life and pastoral practice. Alongside the essential role of the church as equipper and launcher of evangelistic and missional enterprise stands the local expression of the gathered Body of Christ itself as a fundamental arena of divine blessing, sanctification, and worship. The church must send out and deploy but also gather together. The church is not only a means to an end but an end as well. “I will build my church,” He said.
John Mark Yates identifies the loss of confessional seriousness and church discipline as crucial indicators of ecclesial pathology. Refusal to maintain a robust conception of church membership and failure to guard the door to the church itself contaminates worship, compromises witness, abandons earnest discipleship, and weakens the care of souls. Could the current widespread crafting of local church covenants among newfangled, often reformed “Baptist” churches within and without the SBC signal serious efforts to address the concerns Yates articulates? Time will tell.
Hovering around the edges, sometimes poking through the center of conversation about the SBC is the older and larger reality of the Baptist movement within which Southern Baptists, even when unrecognized, live and move and have their being. Much of David Dockery’s historical survey and the heart of Christian George’s re-exploration of the Downgrade Controversy testify to this inextricable historical symbiosis—a familial Baptist bond perhaps more detectible and intriguing during this time of needed renewal than the decades of ascendency afforded.
Perhaps a bigger question mark hangs heavier, or at least differently, over the future of the Southern Baptist Convention than over the larger Baptist tradition itself. R. Albert Mohler Jr. and Collin Hansen highlight the importance and new complexities of Baptist relationship to other believers, especially other evangelicals, in this increasingly secular and post-Christian terrain we face. Could that growing, permeable, boundary between the SBC and the new “Baptist non-denominationals” prove fertile ground for fruitful partnership within an SBC “strategically reinvented” as Ronnie Floyd believes renewal will demand? Again, time will tell.
In the meantime, all who yearn to embrace fully what God might be pleased to do with us Baptists going forward can profit much from the competent, deep, and insightful engagement of the most crucial issues drawn together in this volume.
Dr. Mark DeVine is an Associate Professor of Divinity in the area of church history and doctrine at Beeson Divinity School. He is the author of Replant: How a Dying Church Can Grow Again and Bonhoeffer Speaks Today: Following Jesus at All Costs. DeVine has written extensively for theological journals and has contributed to Evangelicals and the Nicene Faith, Evangelicals Engaging Emergent, and The Disciple’s Study Bible.