The Future of the Southern Baptist Convention

I’m neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. That’s a bad start for confidence in my predictive powers. But let me speculate on the future of the Southern Baptist Convention with whom I have been associated my entire life.

In many ways I am describing what is more than what will be. Perhaps this is more of where we are than where we are headed. While it seems likely we will have more of what we currently have, God can change things dramatically. Perhaps we will have a great revival. Perhaps we will have ruin. But here is where it seems we are and where we are headed. (Keep in mind the “neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet” part.)

1. We will be less evangelistic. It is hard to imagine a denomination being much more evangelistic than the SBC was for several decades. While not all churches were evangelistic, and certainly many individual members weren’t, the denomination as a whole was focused on reaching people.

For a variety of reasons, we are less so now. Focusing on those reasons is for another blog. (Is it theological, cultural, because evangelism is so hard, etc.?) But it seems obvious we are less likely to be involved in evangelistic activities. We even talk about evangelism less. We are, for example, far more likely to use the terminology “church planting” than “evangelism”. This change is a seismic shift in our midst- sort of “San Andreas-like”. Is our future to fall into the ocean like California?

2. We will be more focused on academics. I like academics. I went to school for a hundred years and earned a Ph.D. in an SBC seminary. So an emphasis on academics isn’t, in and of itself, a bad thing. But the down of that up involves a few things. We may end up focusing less on practical ministry. (I think seminary education ought to focus students more on the practical side of being a pastor, missionary, church planter- learning how to teach and preach, exegete correctly, provide servant leadership, etc.- than on preparation for earning a Ph.D.)

It appears we are becoming better at theological argumentation than apologetics. Perhaps we are becoming more likely just to be argumentative as though being a good debater is the goal of ministry.

Our leaders and models are now more likely to be in academia than in a pastorate. This is a real change that is worth noting. Whether that is a good change or a bad change, it is a real change and ought to be recognized as such.

While I like our emphasis on academics, do note the biblical emphasis on godliness, holiness and passion for God that is deeper than merely earning good grades. Academics aren’t the ultimate goal of the Christian life.

3. We will be less Baptist. We are less likely to talk denominational distinctions in general these days. (Unless it has to do with Calvinism. Then it is all we talk about. :)) Distinctions separate and we tend to want to unite with other Evangelicals. This will most likely continue as biblical Christianity become less popular in the culture.

I already hear of some Baptist churches that accept people into membership who have not been immersed after conversion. That was practically unheard of until recently. We use the Baptist name less now and that seems likely to continue. It is sort of odd how quickly the word “Baptist” started being like a cuss word. (Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard Baptists cuss before, they just didn’t use the word “Baptist” as a cuss word!)

4. We will be less connected. We are less likely to be united by a common methodology. We are less likely to agree on issues of sotierology. We are less apt to attend meeting where we might have seen each other. Many tend to value the work of local associations and state conventions less and attend their meetings less frequently. We seem to be growing less connected as a group.

We are more likely to connect via affinity subsets than by our denominational connections. It is very understandable in many ways. But, we do miss some good things by being around people who are older, younger or otherwise different than us. Those personal connections were certainly valuable to me and, should you try them, might be to you.

Okay, perhaps I was more descriptive than predictive here. But the truth is, none of us knows the future. In fact, I’m not sure I have the present down too well! I do know this. God has blessed the world through the work of the SBC. I hope there is more of that to come.

32 responses to “The Future of the Southern Baptist Convention

  1. I agree with your observations. One area I see slightly in a slightly different way. We are not focused on academics, but on academic credentials. Our schools are watering down degrees. We are so worried about liberalism in our schools that we do not provide as well rounded an education with an honest look at other viewpoints, and we keep lowering GPA requirements. We are in danger of running paper mills that turn out a lot of degrees that don’t mean much, and we seem to be okay with that.

  2. Tony, I think we are still a long way from becoming paper mills but I appreciate your concerns. I do think there is much more to being a godly minister than academic credentials. Thanks!

    • I have just been really concerned with a particular seminary. In the recent past, they have dropped the number of hours for an M Div, lowered the language requirements for a PhD, lowered the GPA requirements for all programs, eliminated residency for PhD, and a host of other academic diminishment. Yet, everyone is thrilled because enrollment is dramatically up. If you dumb it down, more people will come, pay tuition, and graduate. The criteria for evaluating this particular seminary very much appears to be a matter of marketing and financial success rather than academic success.

  3. This hits home for me having just attended my first National Convention last year. I believe there are some good discussions and emphasis being brought in on the national level regarding prayer and evangelism. However, the SBC will always be made up of the members. As a young leader myself, I prayed long and hard about whether the SBC was for me anymore. Not because of doctrine or mission, but because of historical mindset in the body. If we can really find traction with “church revitalization” and helping our congregations celebrate their history while adapting to their future, then I believe God can choose to let us hang around as a denomination. And don’t get me started on your fantastic points about our seminaries…

    • Heath,
      Thanks for writing. I’m glad you have decided to hang around and certainly hope the Lord does! Church revitalization is critical to our future as you note.

  4. Reblogged this on Bob Pittenger and commented:
    This post by Pastor Doug Munton is well written and worth taking the time to read.

  5. Doug,
    Thanks for the post. I think you were on target, and I too hope that the SBC is far from ruin. I am currently reading “Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches” by White and Duesing, and some of their observations are the same as yours.

  6. Don’t really understand all the working of the SBC. I just know what God says about evangelism. We are so blessed in our area to have a great local Association… mostly small churches – probably the largest in attendance is no more than 600 on a Sunday morning. Yet, through just this group of small churches, we are sending out 25 students to foreign countries on Mission trips this summer. We are sending water well drilling equipment to three different countries who have water problems plus many other things that, to me, would fall under evangelism. Our little country church has been able to give funds to other struggling associations (mainly in the Northeast) and have partnered with other people to feed hundreds of poor Honduran children a healthy meal twice a week. Also, in Texas, mixed emotions regarding funding two groups; BGCT and SBC. We spit it up… 50/50/… don’t know if that’s good or bad. Maybe you’re not a prophet or a son of a prophet, but you’re usually pretty much right on. One more thing: I agree with you about the Seminaries spending too much time on academia and not enough time on pastoring, preaching and dealing with people. We are in the people business…. prayerfully leading them to know Christ as Lord and Savior, and as such, we need to be prepared to meet the needs of the people. That’s what it’s all about isn’t it? .

  7. Jack,
    I love hearing that your local Association is so active. There is something good about the brethren- and sistern?- getting together to do good.

  8. This hits home. I pastor a church that stretches the denominational envelope. NAMB will not assist us financially because we do not intend to “plant” in a location as we are a “house to house” church where-by the small group are each their own fellowships. I have no formal seminary experience though I am college educated. Our focus is on one on one discipleship and replicating ourselves outside the walls of a church building.

    Because we don’t look like a duck; we don’t quack like a duck; and we don’t walk like a duck, though our local association will acknowledge our work and use our work as examples of good work, they still don’t quite accept us as a duck. They are not sure what we are. Loving Christ and loving others is our first priority. Providing nurturing and meaningful relationships that build familial groups is second. Engaging in meaningful one on one discipleship is third. Replicating discipleship pairs by introducing Jesus to the unsaved is fourth. Then we rinse and repeat!

    We are a church with the Holy Spirit in the chairman’s seat. We do not preach in order to ensure the toughest questions can be asked with the expectation of receiving an answer. We have no rules outside of what God expects of us. We don’t fit the definition of today’s duck! Yet we are the way we are because over the last 20 to 30 years of being in the SBC, these were the things they’ve always told us we needed to do! Now that we are doing them at the exclusion of spending money on “stuff” and property, they don’t know who we are!

    • Bill, Thanks for commenting. Ducks are notoriously hard to define but I hope you quack for Jesus without being a quack. (That pun didn’t really work too well, did it?)

  9. I sadly agree with your observations. I have been a life-long southern baptist but today I find myself putting distance between myself and the “politics.” I am just now completing my undergraduate degree at a baptist college (at age 43 and after 20+ years in ministry), but academia, while positive in many ways, seems to be led by those who teach because they have sometimes failed in the “doing.” I am presently pastoring a church with no denominational ties. I guess I could say more but I’ll refrain from doing so.

    • Jerry,
      I’m not giving up on the potential future of the SBC. God is pretty big 🙂 and able to do great things. So, perhaps His plans are different than my guesses. And, do recognize that some professors are more gifted as professors than they are as vocational ministers and that is okay- though I sure would love to see more of our professors who can translate from academia to practicalia. (I just coined a new word!)

  10. Very good article. I agree on all points. Why does a church startup have to be church planting? and church training or leadership training now referred to as equipping? I hope we Baptist do not lose our faith and abandon baptism by immersion.

    • Russ,
      I guess terminology is always changing- but why did we have to stop saying “groovy”? That was a great word. I don’t think Baptists as a whole are close to giving up on believer’s baptism. It is in the Baptist Faith and Message- our statement of faith. But it is disconcerting to see that happen in any Baptist church.

  11. I totally agree with your view. As a full time, vocational evangelist for more than 25 years, I find that many, if not most, Baptist churches do not have revivals or Evangelism as a priority.

    I believe that as a Southern Baptist for more than 60 years, that we have gotten away from keeping the MAIN THING the MAIN THING.

    I also believe that the two primary reasons for the local (Southern Baptist) church to exist are:
    #1. Worship The Holy God.
    #2. Fulfill The GREAT COMMISSION of The Lord JESUS.

    Four years ago, I authored a book titled “HOW TO BE WISE IN GOD’S EYES, a Soul-winning strategy. The forward was written by Dr. Howard Ramsey, who authored C.W.T.

    As I contact churches all over our America, I find that most of the Pastors are more concerned about DECIPLESHIP than about Evangelism. I have also found that MOST Pastors know how to preach but apparently do not know how to lead an individual to faith in JESUS. They are too busy trying to teach DECIPLESHIP the unsaved church members.

    Most of the THOUSANDS of people that I have seen BORN AGAIN have been church members.

    I also believe as I have experienced, many Pastors are mad and upset when anyone in the congregation, church member or not, gets Saved when someone other than that Pastor is preaching.

    Lastly, I believe that too many Pastors are trying to compete with all churches for church members, whether they are saved or not.

    We must be led by The Holy Spirit of God to GIVE THE CHURCH BACK TO JESUS.

    • Terry,
      Thanks for commenting. I am grateful for your service to the work of the kingdom and I pray God blesses you and your ministry. Evangelists are right there in the bible. Discipleship and evangelism should go together like peanut butter and jelly. (I’m getting hungry.) Blessings on you!

  12. We should pray for God’s leadership through the Holy Spirit and DO what He commands, namely carry out the Great Commission. God is blessing our little church, which was all but dead when I took over. I prayed for God to bless our church, give me wisdom to lead it, and tell me what to do. He told me to instruct the members to INVITE, INVITE, INVITE. It is working. Our membership has more than doubled and our attendance has tripled since last August. God blesses, I believe, only churches that are obedient to His Great Commission.
    Ralph (South GA)

  13. Hey Doug — I enjoyed your post! In the past we had a big concerted evangelistic effort every five years –like: Here’s Hope, etc. Do you think those were effective and do you think we’ll ever see something like that again? Blessing.

    • Ron,
      Those special efforts helped to focus our attention on evangelism. Evangelism can certainly be done without a special emphasis, of course, but the emphasis did have the opportunity to help churches focus on evangelism. And our evangelism focus has gotten off track enough that we might need a new prescription for our spiritual spectacles!

  14. Doug, I really enjoyed your insights and agree with many. Thank you for this post.

  15. Dr. B. S. Moses Kumar

    A Fifth Prediction for your kind consideration:

    You Will Be More Charismatic!

    Dr. B. S. Moses Kumar, Ph.D.
    Hyderabad Bible College,
    India.

  16. Billy Beckett

    Bro. Doug; Thank you for this article. Sometime around 1938 a lady, retired missionary, spoke to the church where my family attended. She replaced somebody she referred to as LOTTIE (Moon). Her personal testimony and magnetic presentation gave me a life long interest in Missions. I have supported SBC missions as pastor since 1955. Served 9 Yrs as trustee on the IMB.

    Dr. R. Leavell taught an excellent course in Evangelism in Seminary. Dr. Gray Allison led a practical missions program which was a practical application of evangelism on the streets of New Orleans.

    In 1832 a Bro. Jimmy Martin started the first church in the area that is now the county I grew up in. In 1869 he started the last church he started and in the same county. It is known that he started at least 24 churches, very likely more and most are still in existence.. Men like him had something that we need today, Jesus was real rather than a word that has become part of our culture. BTW Bro. Martin’s descendants say that tradition in the family has it that he could not read.

  17. Goof stuff Doug. If all these people who responded to your article would go out today and do an old fashion thing and ask the next person they see if they died tonight do they know where they would spend eternity, we could see the numbers begin to change for the better. It is good to feed the hungry, dig water wells in Mexico or where ever. It might be a whole lot better if every pastor would walk out the front door of his church and start at the first house on the street and go from one end to the other and knock on every door, tell every person who answered the door about Jesus, and see what would happen. Things would change in that pastors church. And then take the other side of the street, get him a good layman with potential, take him with him this time and see what would happen..
    Of course that is a little old fashion and might not be acceptable in some camps. Oh well, that is from the old Roy Fish camp and I guess that is out of style. Just the thoughts of an old 84 year old has been. KEEP WRITING, ONE OF THESE DAYS MAYBE SOMEONE WILL LISTEN. Give Vicky a big hug for me.

  18. Thanks for your insightful blog. It resonates well with me. As an educator, I try to blend the practical aspects of faith and theology into every class I teach and every church where I have the opportunity to share in ministry. Sometimes I feel that Christian theological education emphasizes scholarship in preparing students to write dissertations (even at the undergraduate level) to the exclusion of adequately training the next generation of ministers to lead churches. While these two do not have to be mutually exclusive, if the emphasis is on academic writing, practical ministry applications may take a back seat, ultimately weakening our churches.

  19. Billy Beckett

    In trying to be brief with my last comment I left off the most important statement. Somebody should make an intensive study of the life of the old farmer/pastor with the view of discovering the motivation, Method and the glue that has held the churches together through hardships as well as good times. BTW Bivocational was not invented in the late 1900’s.

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