Friday, June 25, 2010

Reflections on the 2010 Southern Baptist Convention

Looking back on this year's Southern Baptist Convention in Orlando, Florida, there are several key points that deserve to be highlighted in retrospect.

I have attended thirteen consecutive SBC Annual Meetings, dating back to 1998's gathering in Salt Lake City, Utah. During that time, I have been witness and party to some matters of great and historic importance in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention. I hope that many years from now, we will look back on this gathering in Orlando in 2010 as a monumental Convention in Baptist life.

Of first importance was the discussion surrounding the Great Commission Resurgence. This conversation has been building for some time, and came to a head at last year's meeting in Louisville. During that convention, I helped Dennis Conner draft a motion that the President of the Southern Baptist Convention appoint a taskforce to study Cooperative Program giving and consider allowing churches to designate portions of their Cooperative Program funds to specific causes. At the time that we drafted that motion, I was not even in favor of it. I love the Cooperative Program (for those unfamiliar with the Cooperative Program, I have provided an overview of it here). I saw the motion that I was writing as a potentially fatal blow to the Cooperative Program. However, as the Convention unfolded, and through many private conversations, I began to see that the Cooperative Program was already terminally ill. If anything, this motion would offer some measure of "life support" to the CP by encouraging churches to continue giving to it, while also allowing those churches to support specific Baptist causes and withhold support from Baptist causes that they did not want to fund. While this motion was not acted upon, the spirit of it was included in another, larger and more important, motion.

Dr. Al Mohler presented a motion in Louisville that the president appoint a task force to examine how Southern Baptists might best cooperate for the sake of the Great Commission. The full text of that motion is as follows: That the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting June 23-24, 2009 in Louisville, Kentucky, authorize the President of the Southern Baptist Convention to appoint a Great Commission Task Force charged to bring a report and any recommendations to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Orlando, Florida, June 15-16, 2010, concerning how Southern Baptists can work more faithfully and effectively together in serving Christ through the Great Commission.

This Great Commission Resurgence Task Force met several times over the last year to discuss ways of streamlining Baptist efforts to reach the lost in North America and the ends of the earth. We anticipated receiving their report and recommendations, knowing that major changes would certainly be outlined. There were assumptions along the way that the report would insist on State Conventions keeping less CP money, or that perhaps the International Mission Board (IMB) and North American Mission Board (NAMB) would be combined into one agency, to name a few. As the year progressed, we learned that these options would not be presented. What was presented was a lengthy document that provided important background material leading up to seven recommendations. The document can be read in its entirety here.

With the report slated for Tuesday afternoon, many messengers postured to strike the report preemptively through motions from the floor during the Tuesday morning session. Of sixteen motions introduced from the floor in the morning session, no fewer than six were directed toward the GCR Report, and at least three others seemed somewhat related. This was to be expected, given the advance publication of the report and all the polarized rhetoric that had been swirling through social media outlets and Baptist Press before the meeting. What was not expected (at least not by me), is that Dr. Morris Chapman would take the opportunity of his final address as Executive Committee President, a post he has held honorably for eighteen years, to launch into a full-scale attack on the GCR Report. His "report" can be viewed here (advance to the 7:00 mark for the beginning of Chapman's tirade).

He began with a question that many were asking in the face of the pending GCR Report: "What is wrong with the Cooperative Program?" This question was met with enthusiastic applause, as were several follow-up statements made in support of the CP in Chapman's address. But as his address became more venomous, the applause lessened, and I believe that, in the hearts of many, respect for Dr. Chapman lessened as well. My perspective on Chapman's address is that he jumped into deep waters to rescue the CP, and as a result, both may have drowned. His comments included pandering to select groups of Southern Baptists in order to sway them away from supporting the GCR, as well as direct attacks on a few SBC leaders whom he did not name but did not need to. At one point Chapman said, "We must learn to differ, and yet love each other in Christ," but there were undoubtedly many who did not detect this kind of love in his words.

It saddens me that Dr. Chapman chose to "go out" like this, but that's something he's going to have to live with, and I hope that he feels like he did the right thing within his conscience. Moreover, I hope it will not tarnish what was an otherwise noble career as a leader in Southern Baptist life.

Moments after this divisive address, the GCR Task Force presented their report and recommendations. There were numerous questions, motions to amend, speakers both for and against the recommendations, and some of the sloppiest parliamentary process I have ever witnessed. You can view the report and the debate here (the report concludes and the debate begins around the 37:00 mark and goes throughout the remainder of that linked video and continues here). In the end, the recommendations, slightly but not substantially amended, passed overwhelmingly.

There are a few things that need to be understood about these approved recommendations. Most importantly, only two of the recommendations that were approved make any changes. Recommendations 1 and 2 move that the messengers "adopt" something, namely a mission statement for the convention and core values. The other five recommendations that were approved do not make the sweeping changes that some may fear or expect. In each of them, the language specifically states that the messengers "request the Executive Committee" (and in the case of recommendation 5, the EC and the International Mission Board) "consider" the suggested contents of each recommendation. This means that no substantial changes are guaranteed to happen until and unless the Executive Committee acts on these recommendations or brings their own recommendations back to the Convention next year in Phoenix or in subsequent years. So, for example, the brother from Michigan who sat behind me and assured me that the passage of this report would lead to the end of our convention within five years may be premature in hitting the panic button. Likewise, those who believe that an entirely new day has arrived in Convention life are premature in their jubilation, for we will all have to wait to see what the Executive Committee does with these recommendations.

It should also be noted that until the end of September, Morris Chapman is still at the helm of the Executive Committee. Frank Page, a member of the GCR Task Force (and a former member of Immanuel Baptist Church), will succeed him on October 1. After hearing Dr. Chapman's rant against the report, it is not hard to fathom that these recommendations can be addressed and dismissed by the Executive Committee before that office changes occupants. Let's pray that this will not be so, but that the voice of the messengers will be heard loud and clear by the Executive Committee as they take up the discussions in their coming meetings.

The debate and vote understandably ran long, and as soon as it was passed, the messengers filed out rapidly under the mistaken assumption that all that remained was the benediction. However, there was a ballot vote run-off for president that only a small fraction of the messengers were present to participate in, and the introduction of new motions which included one of the most ridiculous 90-seconds I have ever seen in my history of attending the SBC. In that brief moment, a young pastor, would-be rapper, presented a motion to affirm support of Mark Driscoll and the Acts 29 church planting network. It was received well by the messengers, but no action was taken on it. I do believe that it was necessary for someone to state on the record that not all Southern Baptists are content to beat Driscoll and the A29 movement like a pinata, and that we (at least some of us) do appreciate what is being done through his network, but this young brother needed to consider his audience and the potential effect that his chosen medium would have on gaining support for his position.

In the presidential run-off, Bryant Wright was elected as President of the SBC for the upcoming year. He was my personal choice in the vote, and I believe he will serve and represent Southern Baptists well in the coming year. I was also pleased with the announcement of Frank Page as the new president of the Executive Committee, and have been displeased to learn of the tribulation that he had to endure to arrive at that post. I know that Dr. Page will face many challenges as he begins this work, and I hope that we as a denomination will hold him up in our prayers in all of our churches.

The International Mission Board report is always a highlight of the convention, and this year was no exception. It thrilled me to hear Dr. Rankin and others challenging the messengers to lead their churches to adopt unreached peoples for strategic missions focus. The entire IMB booth in the exhibit hall was set up to facilitate churches to select unreached people groups for adoption. I am personally saddened that this was Dr. Rankin's final report as president and am prayerful that the IMB search committee will be led by divine providence to find his successor.

Finally, I will add that I am encouraged to see a return of young Southern Baptist pastors to the table. I think that our seminaries, Baptist21, and 9Marks have all been influential in facilitating this. When I first began attending conventions, I was 24 years old and had been in pastoral ministry for 4 months! I was the youngest guy at the SBC (or so it felt), not including those who were being cared for in the nursery. In fact I was closer in age to those in the nursery than to a majority of the messengers. But this year as I look around, I find myself in about the "median age" category, with as many there younger as there are older, and in about mid-range in terms of experience as well. If anything, I have found that being "stuck in the middle" (with no reference to "clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right" intended) is perhaps a more awkward position to be in, but I am encouraged by the numbers of young leaders I see, and the spirit they demonstrate. In past years, many in the younger camp have been characterized by angst and antagonism. Thankfully, most of those have either changed their tune or changed their fellowship.

The 2010 SBC has the potential to be historic. It is too early to call it that yet. We have to see what happens with the GCR recommendations. Right now they only exist on paper. Time will tell if they work their way into the shoe-leather of every Southern Baptist Church. I can speak only for the congregation I serve. I can say that the issues surrounding the GCR have motivated me to recommend strategic changes in our mission involvement, and we are seeing some of those things come to pass. I pray they will continue and that Immanuel can be a part of what God is going to do through Southern Baptist churches to reach the nations in the future.

That's the end of my look back on SBC 2010, but I'd be happy to entertain questions and dialogue further about the convention in the comments section below.

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