J.D. Greear says his election does not indicate a generational shift in the Southern Baptist Convention. But the photos of Greear, 45, with his opponent Ken Hemphill, 70, and outgoing SBC President Steve Gaines, 60, might attest otherwise. Then there’s the jeans and tennis shoes he wore as the incoming SBC officers were introduced Wednesday afternoon.
“What I don’t think this [election] represents is a passing of the baton where the older generation fades off into the sunset and the new, young generation is in charge,” Greear said after his landslide win. “We walk forward together,” he said in a conciliatory tone.
Two years after he won the approval of many by stepping aside in a tight race with Gaines saying he wanted to avoid division in the denomination, Greear won this election by a 2-1 margin, taking 69% of the vote. With this overwhelming tally, Greear became the youngest president of the denomination in its 173-year history.
In the election, little mention was made of Greear’s reformed theology. In fact, much was made of his North Carolina church’s record of evangelism and sending missionaries to the field through SBC channels. His nomination speech seemed to take pains to assure those who might be concerned about a shift away from evangelism by the election of a Calvinist. Greear expressed his commitment to evangelistic renewal in the denomination in a subsequent press conference.
Greear takes office facing a challenging slate of issues not evident when he announced his candidacy five months ago. In addition to the continuing decline in baptisms and per capita Cooperative Program giving to missions by SBC church members, Greear faces the issues of unreported sexual abuse and moral failure by SBC leaders, the role of women in Southern Baptist leadership, and the future of the Executive Committee, International Mission Board, and now troubled Southwestern Seminary.
In reporting Greear’s election, Christianity Today called the SBC presidency a “symbolic, visionary role.” Today, that description could not be more wrong. Greear will not only be the new face of the SBC, he will be the first of his generation to assume the role at a most critical juncture in SBC history. Greear told his church that his service wouldn’t require any more of his time than his usual travel schedule as a nationally recognized and much sought-after speaker. It will be interesting to ask him in a year if that assessment was correct.
Digging out of this mess will take more time and effort than anyone imagined. And it will require true leadership.
– Eric Reed