Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Future of the SBC

These have been eventful days in the life of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). When we met in June in Louisville, I think every messenger left with a sense of anticipation that we are on the verge of major changes in our denomination. I, for one, had a sense of curious expectancy at what the Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) Task Force would be doing over the next twelve months and what recommendations they would bring to Orlando. The realistic side of me (which is often very pessimistic) believed deep down that most of their forthcoming recommendations would amount to hollow rhetoric with no substantive change in the direction of the SBC. There were just too many seemingly insurmountable obstacles for there to be a significant overhaul in the way the SBC operates, regardless of how much those changes were needed. Oh how things have changed over the last 90 days.

The first major post-convention event came with the dismissal of Geoff Hammond as President of the North American Mission Board (NAMB). Though it seems that we rank-and-file Southern Baptists may never know all of the reasons behind this controversial decision, we have to accept that it has happened in the providence of God, and NAMB's future is now in the hands of its trustees. What recommendations will they bring? Who will succeed Hammond at the helm? Will anyone be willing to step into that position after so much turmoil at NAMB in the last 10-15 years? Will NAMB be able to prove that it is still a viable arm of missions for the SBC? I do not know the answers to any of these questions.

The second major post-convention event came with the somewhat unexpected announcement of Jerry Rankin's retirement as President of the International Mission Board (IMB). I will say up-front that I love Jerry Rankin. I was so blessed when he accepted my invitation to speak here in our church when the SBC was in Greensboro in 2006. I believe that history will show that God used him in ways that have yet to be fully realized in bringing the unreached peoples of the world to Jesus. But now the future of the IMB is uncertain, though not as uncertain as that of NAMB. The IMB has always been, and will continue to be, the backbone of SBC cooperation. Through the IMB, Southern Baptists are fully funding the work of over 5,000 missionaries serving around the world in some of the most strategic places and roles. Recent restructuring at the IMB may prove to only increase the effectiveness of this agency.

However, with the leadership positions of both SBC mission agencies now vacant (Rankin's retirement is not effective until mid-2010), the table appears to be set for the GCR Task Force to propose a radical change in how Southern Baptists do missions. I remember sitting in Binkley Chapel at Southeastern Seminary when I heard Alvin Reid say that the day may be approaching when Southern Baptists see the need for only one unified mission board. At the time I thought that it was a radical and far-fetched notion that would never transpire in my lifetime. At this point, I view it as not only a possibility but a probability. What would it look like? How would it function? How would the emphasis be divided between the USA and international efforts? At this point, any attempts to answer those questions would be merely speculative.

This week, a third post-convention event of monumental proportions has taken place with the announcement of the retirement of Morris Chapman, President of the SBC Executive Committee (XCom). As I understand it, the XCom acts on behalf of the Convention between annual sessions and serves as the chief promoter and guardian of the Cooperative Program (CP). For those outside of Baptist life, and those within who have not been properly oriented, the CP is the formula used for the distribution of funds between Baptist entities to ensure cooperation and to eliminate competition between them. It is really a marvel to behold, and has been the lifeline of SBC funding since its inception in 1925. It is probably no stretch to say that the CP saved the SBC from ruin in 1925. However, the CP has fallen on hard times in recent years. Disproportionate distributions between State Conventions and the SBC (some states keep upwards of 65% of CP money in-state, forwarding only 1/3 of it to the work of the IMB, NAMB, and SBC Seminaries), the increase in "special offerings" promoted among churches, and the tendency of churches to personalize mission giving through more designated channels, have caused the CP to reach a plateau. Something about the CP will have to change if it is to remain the lifeline of Baptist funding. Chapman's retirement could open the door for those changes to occur.

Additionally, in recent Conventions, Chapman's reports have become increasingly divisive. I was not in the room during his most controversial report in 2009, having adjourned to the Exhibit Hall to speak with a colleague in higher education. When I returned, my companions who heard the report were outraged at the comments Chapman had directed at Calvinists in the SBC and a few other statements in his address. The last thing Southern Baptists need in this day is an infight about Calvinism and anti-Calvinism (no serious Southern Baptist can be rightly called an Arminian) led by one of our own leaders! Though Chapman has served Southern Baptists well, and been an important figure in our recent history (his election as SBC President may well have been the end of the war between Conservatives and Moderates in the SBC), his retirement opens the door for a new leader at the XCom, or perhaps even more radical changes. I hear fellow pastors questioning the need for the XCom, and even questioning the viability of the CP in our day.

There is much uncertainty about what the future holds for the SBC. Several things are now certain. First of all, and most importantly, our future is in God's hands. We must look to Him, seek Him, humble ourselves before Him, and trust Him. He does not need the SBC. We are not "God's last and only hope" as one zealous voice spouted long ago. The Christian Church existed, advanced, and thrived for 1800 years before the SBC came into being, and can do so after our demise. God is gracious to use the likes of us in such powerful ways as He has in our history, and we must be good stewards of the trust He has placed upon us.

Another certainty is that major changes WILL be recommended in Orlando in June, 2010 concerning the SBC Mission Boards. Whether these will include a unified board or substantial changes to the function of the existing boards, only God knows. But change is on the horizon, and vacancies at the top of both boards will only accelerate that change.

Another certainty is that the CP WILL undergo a massive overhaul. This may come in any number of ways, but it will happen. As it happens, State Conventions will have a difficult task of proving to Southern Baptists that they continue to deserve so large a slice of the Baptist money-pie. I also expect other changes related to the allocation of CP funding at the SBC level. Some entities may disappear all together or be lumped into others.

Finally, some younger Southern Baptists have pleaded for the opportunity to be heard. It seems that their voices are being heard louder than ever now, and the open offices at the tops of three important SBC entities may offer opportunities for fresh voices in Baptist life. This presents a bit of a dilemma for me personally. I think that the best fit for all three of these positions (assuming they will ALL be filled) are pastors who have led biblical and gospel-centered churches or missionaries who have been faithful through many years of experience and perhaps hardship. But, that means that those individuals will be removed from those churches in order to serve the denomination, and I am not sure that is a good thing. I am sure that it is better than the alternative of having other individuals serving those positions. I am also confident that the best people for those positions will probably not be chosen because they will not seek them. I have "ideal" future-presidents of the IMB and XCom. I do not have one in mind for NAMB because I am not sure what to think of NAMB's future and I am certain that no one in their right mind would want to take that position. Both men I have in mind for the IMB and XCom are great pastors in great churches. I do not believe they would (or should) step aside from those positions for a job in the denominational hierarchy.

Change has been demanded. Change will occur. No one likes change except babies with dirty diapers. I believe in five years we may look back on these days as being the most significant days in Southern Baptist history. But will they be significant for positive or negative reasons? God knows the answer, and Southern Baptists must look to Him now.

1 comment:

Russ Reaves said...

When I wrote these words originally, I had no idea that one of my predictions would occur so rapidly. In this piece I said, "Both men I have in mind for the IMB and XCom are great pastors in great churches. I do not believe they would (or should) step aside from those positions for a job in the denominational hierarchy." One of these men was Frank Page, who I believed would make an excellent president of XCom. When Frank took the position of VP/Evangelism at NAMB, I was surprised, but thought for sure that this would mean that he would not become president of XCom. Now he has been appointed to that position, and I couldn't be happier. He is the kind of guy Southern Baptists need in that position. Let's pray for him.