Recent days are unprecedented and place the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in a crucial time, says Dr. Chuck Kelley, the president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS).
During a chapel address on August 21, Kelley told NOBTS students and faculty that “Southern Baptists have the blues” and that “the future is unclear” for the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
“The tone after Dallas in 2018 was very, very different. As different as different could be. There was not triumph and excitement. There was not anger or frustration. There was a bewildering confusion over Southern Baptists behaving differently,” he said, reading from his personal journal.
The “Baptist blues,” he said, stem from “unprecedented circumstances” including moral indiscretion, growing tensions between older, traditionalist Southern Baptists and the rising young and theologically Reformed, steady membership and baptism decline.
According to Kelley, the Southern Baptist blues include the termination of Dr. Paige Patterson, the former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, after he failed to investigate and report two separate rape allegations by female students.
The increasing influence of theologically Reformed leadership, including the SBC’s newly-elected president, J.D. Greear, raises another alarm, especially among the denomination’s old guard.
“One final ingredient I should mention has been mixed into the jumble of all these unprecedented actions. Completely different, completely unrelated. And that is the increasing tensions over the advance of Calvinism in the SBC, bubbled over a bit in the SBC presidential election at that Dallas Convention,” Kelley said.
“Although neither nominee promoted the election as such, the election became in the eyes of many a choice between younger, Reformed leadership or older, traditional Baptist leadership. The younger, reformed candidate won, adding to the concern of many on the future of the traditional convention emphasis on evangelism and missions and the traditional theological focus on the Bible as the centerpiece of theological conversation and discussion,” he added.
He insisted that his remarks are not about “putting each other in camps” and even praised Dr. Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Dr. David Platt, former president of the International Mission Board. Both are NOBTS alumni and well-known Reformed Southern Baptist leaders.
The dominant area of concern for Kelley seemed to surround purported decline in Southern Baptist church planting, conversion, and baptism statistics.
“This is now year 17 of the longest decline in baptisms in the history of the SBC. Unprecedented. And that decline in baptism shows absolutely no sign it is slowing down,” he said.
Kelley explained that since 2009 the SBC planted 871 new churches. But since 2009, 772 Southern Baptist-affiliated churches either closed their doors or disassociated from the convention. “Where is the fruitfulness in evangelism that Southern Baptists became so accustomed to?” he asked.
He added, “It would have been one thing if our only decline was in that single area of baptisms. But it’s worse than that. For most of the last decade, the SBC has been declining year after year in membership, worship attendance, and Sunday school, Bible study, small group…the typical common churches of the SBC are struggling on an unprecedented scale.”
Some Southern Baptists likely disagree with popular exaggerated claims of an SBC identity crisis and shrinking influence and evangelism. Fruitfulness is found within SBC churches planted especially in urban areas, like Washington, D.C. for example. And interestingly, Kevin Ezell, president of the SBC’s North American Mission Board (NAMB), reported to the 2018 Dallas convention that SBC church plants baptize at a 67 percent better attendee-to-baptism ratio when compared to traditionally established churches. Ezell also noted that recently tightened standards for church planters likely contribute to a decrease in total church plants.
“When we raised our assessment, we knew church plant numbers would go down. But we will not compromise our quality in order to present bigger numbers the second week of June,” Ezelle stated, as reported by Baptist Press. “We must not focus on quantity, we must focus on quality.”
Baptist Press also reported that nearly twice as many representatives, called messengers, attended the 2018 convention than the previous year. Of the demographics gathered, 35 percent reported being first-time attendees and an encouraging increased number of messengers, 25.2 percent, were between 18 and 39 years of age.
There are certainly areas within Western Christianity to be concerned, watchful, and prayerful. But Southern Baptists’ Christian witness continues to spread, especially when considering church plants in urban areas. When one considers Washington, D.C. or even my own SBC-affiliated small town local church as case studies, the Southern Baptist Convention is thriving, not dying. We pray for the SBC’s continued faithful witness and the Lord’s blessing.Google+