On the Future of the Southern Baptist Convention: A Graduation Meditation
This morning, we’ll celebrate our December graduation at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This is our smaller of two annual commencements, but we’ll still graduate around 130 students today. The vast majority of them are Southern Baptists who are currently serving in paid vocational ministry, are presently looking for paid church staff positions, or are preparing to be domestic church planters or foreign missionaries. I hope you’ll pray for those who are transitioning to their next ministry assignment in the coming weeks and months.
There is quite a bit of talk these days about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention (or whatever it is we’ll be called by the time we get there). Much of it is negative. Some are worried about the number of SBC congregations that evidence declining membership and baptism statistics. Others are worried about the ongoing viability of the Cooperative Program. Some are uncomfortable with certain individuals in either real or perceived positions of denominational leadership and/or influence. Others are worried that a particular theological or cultural agenda will overwhelm and ultimately destroy the SBC. Some are nervous about younger leaders, while others are dissatisfied with more seasoned leaders. And some just pronounce a pox on all the houses within Southern Baptist suburbia.
I admit that I struggle with negativity from time to time. To be totally candid, it’s hard to study Southern Baptists for a living and not get discouraged on occasion. But I study American Christianity in general enough to know that every denomination has its peculiar strengths and weaknesses. Our denominational neuroses are particularly irksome because, well, they’re ours, but the grass isn’t that much greener in other groups—it’s just a different breed of grass. So rather than despairing over the cranky and delusional among us, I prefer to focus on the good. And there is a lot of good.
Back to graduation. One reason I refuse to despair about the SBC is because, as a seminary professor, I have a unique vantage point on the future of the Convention. Simply put, I’m personally acquainted with hundreds of (mostly) younger Southern Baptist pastors, missionaries, and other younger leaders. Their zeal is contagious. Their orthodoxy is robust. Their burden for evangelism and missions is inspiring. Their commitment to the local church is deep-rooted. They are a constant encouragement to me.
Some are worried because they perceive that these younger ministers lack commitment to the SBC. I confess that I’ve met a few for whom this is the case. But by far most of the seminarians and recent graduates I know are strongly committed to the SBC. They believe what we believe. They appreciate our approach to cooperative ministry and missions. They want to be Southern Baptists. Even those students who are “on the edge” are frequently those who were raised Southern Baptist and deeply love the SBC—so much so that the cranky and delusional voices gnaw at them and push them away. They are tempted to give in to the despair.
You need to know that I’m on a personal mission to do my part to prevent that from happening. We can’t afford to lose the next generation. And make no mistake about it—these aren’t denominational apostates who “went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.” No, these are folks who want to remain part of us, but (understandably) bristle at some of the frankly outrageous things that some Southern Baptists say and do—occasionally even those who are, or have been denominational leaders. I try my best to convince students and others that the SBC is bigger than any single personality and better than the conspiracy theorists and frankly mean-spirited among us. Many on the ledge come to agree with me, and I’m thankful for every one.
Graduation is a biannual reminder that God is always at work setting apart a rising generation of pastors and other leaders. Among the people called Southern Baptist, he’s doing some exciting things, no matter what you might have heard from a misinformed denominational servant, a malcontent pastor, or a malevolent blogger. God isn’t finished with us yet, and I remain convinced that the course correction that began in the latter third of the twentieth century will continue to bear good fruit long into the future.
I’m thankful for our graduates and for their peers in our sister institutions. I’m thankful that almost all of them are convictional and committed Southern Baptists. I remain hopeful that most of the few who are convictional, but not committed will change their mind as they see the many good things that God is doing in and through Southern Baptists. And I remain very hopeful that our best days lie ahead, should God continue to desire to work through our Convention of local Baptist churches for his glory.