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SBC: A Fly in the Soup

John on June 15, 2008 at 4:12 pm

I’ve been part of more than one Southern Baptist church. The first one was in Blacksburg, VA which for all intents and purposes was a deep-south, traditional SBC church. They had a nice looking facility that held about 150 people. When I got there some time in 1988 the long-time pastor had just retired. The associate, who was a young, whip-smart guy from New York, was put in charge while a search committee found the new pastor.

All of the students who attended this church wanted the associate pastor to stay. He was energetic and sharp; his messages gave you something to take notes on. Eventually the church brought in an older pastor in his 50s who, having apparently had a recent midlife crisis, drove a red sports car to church. His messages were low on content but chock full of the kind of southern charm and boisterous affirmations that the older crowd seemed to adore. They didn’t want to connect with students. They may have said they did, but when it came down to it, they wanted to feel comfortable in the church they’d built. It was theirs, not ours.

When I joined a southern baptist church here in California years later, it was very different. Originally formed within a few blocks of the beach, this church had no dress code and messages that were more topical than affirmational. I liked it immediately and after six years got a job working there. Things seemed to be going well. We were growing and began looking for land. We found it and built phase one of an ambitious development plan.

It was about this time that things started to get weird. Though our church would never be mistaken for southern baptist by and “real” baptists from the south, it maintained enough connection to the convention to be aware what was going on back East. So when the seminaries began their attack on “postmodernism” (whatever that meant at the moment) my pastor saw much of it as a cultural battle. Some of the things the conservatives railed against (topical messages, humor, etc.) were the sorts of things Jesus did. In any case, being out in California we felt well out of the fight.

But at some level, I guess we weren’t out of it. The pastor picked up a book by DA Carson and became an expert on “emergent” overnight. Then, it seemed all of a sudden to me, we had endless preaching on authority and Calvinism. For four months straight every message dealt with one of these two topics. It was as if the pastor had decided he needed to make up for 18 years of not focusing on these two topics enough.

Then he fired the church secretary. Weeks later he put the youth pastor (who’d recently gotten his first tattoo) on notice that he needed to start looking for a new job. Then a couple months later he fired the worship pastor (a partial preterist), who also happened to be my best friend. I was asked to stay, but it was pretty clear that was a formality. I found out later he’d already talked to people about replacing me.

I bring all this up because this report at Christianity Today reminded me of these experiences. It’s conveying the bad news from the latest SBC annual convention, at which much emphasis was placed on the denomination’s apparent decline:

  • 419,342: Baptisms in Southern Baptist churches in 1999.
  • 345,941: Baptisms in 2007.
  • 5.5%: Drop in baptisms between 2007 and 2006.
  • 3: The number of consecutive years in which baptism numbers have dropped in the SBC.
  • 22: Number of years that outgoing president Frank Page says it will take, given current trends, for the SBC to lose half its churches (from about 44,000 to 20,000).

The bigwigs of the SBC have reacted exactly like you’d expect SBC bigwigs to react. It’s a failure of discipline. Not enough stress on fundamentals. Not enough focus on personal evangelism. The SBC, at heart, has a managerial outlook. If something isn’t going well, it’s always because the “employees” are too lax. Get serious! Get to work! I recently learned of one local SBC church which has annual baptism quotas for staff. Apparently the Holy Spirit needs an incentive to keep numbers up.

What you won’t hear the bigwigs say, not ever, is that the conservative triumph in the SBC in the last decade has weakened the organization as a whole. What they have now are churches and seminaries full of like-minded people who don’t understand why fewer and fewer people want to join. Clearly the numbers indicate a problem, but instead of looking in the mirror, they’ll blame it on the “coarsening culture” or “weak leadership.”

Of course I don’t believe the real problem is the culture or the effort level. I believe it’s the menu. Not the main dish, but all the side items we’ve saddled it with. Even today, surprisingly few people are put off by Jesus and his message. Richard Dawkins, in his jeremiad against faith titled The God Delusion, largely ignores Jesus, as if he were peripheral to Christianity. This seemed very strange to me, but the more I thought about it I began to feel he was, inadvertently, on to something.

It’s the twenty-first century, and with the exception of flying cars, our world has exceeed what many of our own grandfathers could have imagined. So when a large portion of the populace balks at young-earth creationism and the imminent rapture, well, perhaps we should stop being surprised. When did these things get added to the menu in the first place? Perhaps this is one case where we need to stop offering the combo. Stop upselling the Gospel into the “Biggie Size” monstrosity many evangelical churches are offering. This is what’s so ironic about the current declines at the conservative SBC. Some genuine “fundamentalism” would be a vast improvement.

But like many religious sects (going back to Masada, I suppose) the knee-jerk conservatives in the seminaries would rather die fighting for every jot and tittle of the true doctrine (and that means everything including the superiority of grape juice these days) than compromise. And if we can’t admit that Jesus drank real wine, we certainly won’t be compromising with any icky, unbelieving scientists on something like the age of the earth or [shudder!] evolution.

Unfortunately for the SBC, what looks like standing strong for the faith among those dutifully manning the parapets looks a lot like ignorance abetted by arrogance to much of the rest of the world. The result is, well…the figures speak for themselves. Clearly a moment of reflection is in order. I suppose it could yet occur to the someone in charge that the problem and it’s solution aren’t methodological after all. Perhaps this is what you get when you try to purge all diversity of thought from the body. Is it really helping the church when accomplished people like Howard Van Till and, more recently, Peter Enns, are hounded out of work because they don’t toe a particular theological line? Didn’t we just have a movie about this sort of thing called Expelled?

One high-profile member of my old church said of those of us who’d left that God was “spitting out the salt.” I’ve often thought this little theological malapropism had a lot of truth to it. And what’s true on the small scale is, I suspect, true of the SBC as a whole. If the numbers are any indication, the denomination appears to have lost a lot of flavor in recent years. The SBC response seems to be to crank up the effort. But to return to my already over-extended menu metaphor, I think the solution to this problem sounds a lot less like gearing up for another round of ideological purging and more like…

Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!

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