After a troubled year, messengers hear hard but honest reports
Prior to their annual meeting in Dallas, Southern Baptists were already wrestling with issues of leadership. The departures of two key Baptist leaders from their posts had frayed denominational nerves and reignited old conflicts. And the upcoming SBC presidential election deepened divides over theology and generation and ministry philosophy.
Some years, the issues that create buzz online fail to figure prominently in the actual gathering. This was not that year. Baptists meeting in Dallas did address some difficult questions of leadership. But for the most part, they did so together, leaving Texas having made several strong statements of unity, with their voices and with their votes.
Greear’s decisive win
In 2016, J.D. Greear bowed out of the election for SBC president in order to avoid a contentious run-off with Steve Gaines. His withdrawal from the race defined that meeting in St. Louis, and set the stage for a probable re-run after Gaines completed two one-year terms. What was less expected was the candidacy of Ken Hemphill, a 70-year-old Baptist statesman respected for his contribution to SBC life in a variety of leadership roles.
The run-up to the Greear/Hemphill election wasn’t without controversy. Public campaigning for both candidates by Baptist leaders made a return this year, as did divisive rhetoric. But the candidates stood together on a number of occasions, in-person and on social media, to call Baptists to prayer for the SBC and its mission.
Greear’s victory was overwhelming: He received 5,410 votes (68.62%), to Hemphill’s 2,459 (31.19%). “Congratulations to J.D. Greear,” Hemphill tweeted after the election. “He will be a fine president.” Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, expressed his own appreciation for Hemphill and reached across the aisle with a message to his opponent’s supporters: “I hope the 31% who voted for Ken…would see I want to be a president that goes forward with them, because they are a necessary part of the body of Christ.”
As president, the North Carolina pastor seems poised to continue Gaines’s focus on renewing evangelism across the Convention. At a post-election press conference, he outlined six priorities for the SBC, including evangelism, a key issue for the past several SBC presidents. Greear also pledged to focus on diversity and mobilization and engagement of the next generations of Baptists.
Igniting passion for church planting and missions also will figure into Greear’s agenda as president. According to Baptist Press, Summit currently has more than 150 people serving as International Mission Board missionaries, and has planted almost 250 churches.
Although Greear has said his election is not about passing the baton from one generation to the next, that he is the first Gen Xer to hold the post is important at a time when the SBC is working to engage younger leaders. His bent toward reformed theology, while a matter of much discussion leading up the election, didn’t appear to dissuade many voters in Dallas.
“I don’t believe the issue is as much about handing the baton to the next generation or about reformed theology as it is about encouraging Baptists to be a sending force to the difficult places around our nation and around our world,” said Sammy Simmons, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Benton, Ill. “Who better to lead us than someone who is faithfully leading his church to be a sending force.”
Trust the trustees
For the generation of Baptists raised mostly after the Conservative Resurgence that began in the late 1970s, trustee boards and nomination processes are largely business boilerplate. In Dallas, however, trustees of Baptist entities were back in the spotlight—and the subject of debate on the convention floor.
Tom Hatley, a pastor from Arkansas, proposed a motion to dismiss Southwestern Seminary’s trustee executive committee, the body that terminated President Emeritus Paige Patterson’s employment two weeks prior to the Dallas meeting. Hatley took issue with the executive committee’s move to fire Patterson, who was removed as president May 23 and named president emeritus after weeks of controversy over past statements about women and domestic abuse. Then, the executive committee fired Patterson May 30, citing new information about how Patterson handled an allegation of sexual abuse against a student during his tenure as president of Southeastern Seminary.
When Hatley’s motion was brought to the convention floor for debate and a vote, Bart Barber, a Texas pastor and member of the trustee executive board, stood to speak against it. “If you rob the trustees of their spine, you rob the messengers of their voice,” he said. Messengers sided with the trustees, voting down Hatley’s motion.
In another show of support for elected trustees, messengers also made the somewhat unusual decision to amend the Committee on Nominations’ report. Dan Anderson, who is completing a term as a trustee of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, was denied the opportunity to serve another term when committee members from his state convention, Kansas-Nebraska, chose to give his spot to another candidate from their convention. Their unusual decision was made, Anderson said, because of the perception that he wouldn’t oppose ERLC President Russell Moore.
Trevor Atwood, chairman of the ERLC trustees, spoke on behalf of Anderson, asking messengers to “right a wrong” and reinstate him. They did.
Moore, who recently marked his fifth anniversary as head of the SBC’s public policy agency, continued to face backlash because of his harsh criticism of President Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. Some Baptists saw Moore’s refusal to support Trump, and perceived criticism of those who did, as an indicator that the agency doesn’t represent the interests of most Southern Baptists.
Nathan Rager, a messenger from Florida, proposed to amend the Cooperative Program budget by defunding the ERLC and moving its allocation—$3.2 million—to the International Mission Board instead.
Richard Land, Moore’s predecessor at the ERLC, spoke against the amendment and in doing so, seemed to caution messengers against muzzling the entity’s voice.
“One of the aspects of the ERLC is that if you do what conventions ask you to do, you’re going to offend everybody sooner or later when you speak the truth in love,” said Land, now president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, N.C. “The Commission has been called the conscience of the convention, and we need the ERLC to speak to Southern Baptists and to speak for Southern Baptists when they have reached consensus. We don’t wait for unanimity. Otherwise, we’d be mute.
“But when we reach consensus, Washington, the United Nations, and the world needs to hear what Southern Baptists believe about compelling issues.”
Righting the ship
Because the Annual Church Profile (ACP) numbers are released just before the annual meeting, the convention often is a setting to talk about bright spots and challenges, which has, in recent years, focused on declining baptism numbers.
Augie Boto, interim president of the SBC Executive Committee, used part of his report in Dallas to shed light on some of the numbers, and to encourage Baptists toward an all-hands-on-deck approach to the challenges they face.
Boto compared the denomination to a ship, that, while not sinking, is in need of maintenace. “If we look at vital stats, it looks like we may have been focusing on where our ship is, rather than where our ship should be going,” he said. Expressing concern for state conventions, he underscored the vital role they play in evangelism.
Boto said the SBC’s 34 state conventions have hit a high mark for how much Cooperative Program giving they forward to the Executive Committee for national and international missions and ministry. The concern is, Boto said, that the focus on sending more money out of the state can neglect important ministries there at home.
“Most of that work is being done at the state level. That most important work—evangelism—it must, it must be provided for. It must be done at the state level.”
Boto made two suggestions “to bring our ship back under power. We need to witness and to tithe—two things we used to do better.”
Two task forces brought reports to the Dallas meeting in hopes of reinvigorating Baptist efforts in evangelism and discipleship. The group appointed by President Steve Gaines to inspire greater effectiveness in evangelism presented several recommendations for pastors, churches, SBC leaders, and the Convention as a whole (see page 9). Another task force, this one focused on discipleship, brought its findings as part of the North American Mission Board’s report.
Tennessee pastor Robby Gallaty recounted that the task force analyzed the last 20 years of ACP data and discovered that, despite 7.1 million baptisms over that span, average church attendance remained virtually flat. Even after factoring in for mortality, Gallaty said 6.5 million people had dropped out of church attendance over those 20 years.
“Our convention could be twice as large as it is today if we would have simply engaged the people we just baptized,” he said. Have we, Gallaty wondered, viewed baptism as the finish line, rather than a starting point?
He summarized the task force’s recommendations: increase Bible engagement for church members; examine the connection between salvation decisions and group involvement; and examine the number of groups that multiply on a regular basis. Gallaty encouraged Baptists to participate in the “80 by 20 challenge,” with a goal to increase the percentage of people engaging the Bible in SBC churches to 80% by the year 2020.
Revive us, again
Kie Bowman’s journey to the convention podium was in question up until a few days before the meeting convened. The Texas pastor, elected in 2017 to serve as the alternate convention preacher, filled the spot left vacant after Paige Patterson withdrew from preaching the message.
Even on the morning he was to preach, Bowman’s message was delayed by an address from Vice President Mike Pence (see page 1). When he finally stood to speak, the Scripture passage he chose seemed appropriate for a Convention rattled by weeks of controversy and difficult conversations. Preaching from the book of Ezekiel, Bowman focused on the God who is able to breathe new life into dead things, just as the dry bones came back together in Ezekiel’s vision.
Some messengers may be struggling in their marriages or with their children or in their ministries, Bowman said. “Some of you may be just struggling with where we are as a convention. We’ve heard some sobering reports. Yes, we believe in the Good News. Yes, we’re optimistic, but it’s going to be an uphill battle and we all know it.
“It may feel like to you that there are a lot of dry bones around your life, but here’s your good news: God specializes in raising the dead, and nothing is impossible with God,” Bowman said. “Anything God has ever done before he can do again, and anything God’s ever done anywhere he can do here. Anything God’s ever done with anyone, he can do with you.”
Gaines’s final president’s message was similarly encouraging, focusing on a supernatural God able to do supernatural things.
“What is going to be the solution to our decline?” asked Gaines, pastor of the Memphis-area Bellevue Baptist Church. “What can God do with us?
“First of all, you have to believe in a bigger God than you believe in right now. You need to believe in the God of the Bible and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Gaines opened and closed his message in song, concluding with the resurrection anthem, “He’s Alive.” He called Baptists to tell a waiting world what they know to be true.
“I believe one of the greatest things we could walk out of here with in a few days is to tell the world that God is still on his throne.”
– Illinois Baptist team, with additional reporting by Baptist Press