Let me start by saying I’m new around here (the Southern Baptist Convention, that is). I did not grow up Southern Baptist. I grew up in the Christian Church/Church of Christ (“4C”) stream of churches (also known as the Stone/Campbell or “Restoration” movement). The only time I darkened the door of a Southern Baptist church for a service was when I was in my mid-20’s while visiting my (then girlfriend) wife’s home church in Russell Springs, KY. My wife and I had met at a 4C church. I was happy with my 4C church. I had attended there ever since 2003 when I had returned home from college (which was affiliated with 4C churches…are you starting to see a pattern?). All of our friends went there. But something changed. Actually, I was the one who was changing. I was growing deeper in my faith and stronger in my theological convictions (none of this as a result of anything going at my church). I became dissatisfied the depth of the preaching. I was feeding myself meat and potatoes with the stuff I was reading and got nothing but cotton candy on Sunday morning. The Sunday they had us clapping to choose which worship song we would sing next was our last.
The first church we visited (thanks to an invitation from a good friend) was also the last church we visited. Ashland Avenue Baptist Church became home for us December of 2009. The gospel-centeredness drew us. The preaching was fantastic. It was soaked in the gospel. The people were loving, kind and unified. I was a Southern Baptist.
While the theological convictions and great preaching were what initially drew us to Ashland Avenue, I was still fairly ignorant of what it meant to be apart of the Southern Baptist heritage. Well, after spending last week in Phoenix, AZ with my pastor and around 5,000 of my Southern Baptist brothers and sisters, I think have a little taste of it.
The casual observer may have been given the impression that the SBC is dying. Baptisms are down. Church plants are not nearly as plentiful as thought. Cooperative Program giving is suffering. So is the Lottie Moon offering. Only around 5,000 messengers even showed up in Phoenix (which is the lowest since World War II, I’m told). Could it be that the once proud Southern Baptist Convention was on it’s way out? Perhaps. But perhaps not. Frankly, I think reports of the SBC’s demise have been over-stated.
First, the new leadership that has come onboard at the SBC and it’s entities are moving us in the right direction. I only heard Kevin Ezell speak twice, but I like this guy. His report on NAMB and his “you have heard it said, but I say to you” speech was remarkable. The SBC was confronted with the hard-cold reality of inflated numbers and ambiguous measurements. The election of Pastor Fred Luter to VP of next years convention was also a big deal. It’s the first time Southern Baptists have elected a black man to that high of a position (Drs. Akin & Moore have already started a twitter campaign to make him President of the SBC in 2013). But, this is significant not just because of Pastor Luter’s skin color. Pastor Luter is the real deal (so I’m told by trusted friends/family). This was no religious affirmative action, but rather a reflection of the direction we are headed.
Second, there were several key resolutions and motions that passed that will set the course for greater gospel fidelity in the future. The fact that Southern Baptists are generally white is a problem. For, when our King returns, peoples of all tongues and tribes will gather around His throne. If our churches don’t look like a microcosm of that impending reality, can we really call ourself gospel people? Do we deserve the moniker “evangelical”? The motion to increase ethnic diversity among the SBC leadership and the resolution entitled “On Immigration and the Gospel” were both monumental steps towards ensuring that “evangelical” is not just a name, but a reality that defines our churches. These did not pass without controversy. Several attempts were made to amend the resolution and make them weaker. We do have a few crazy cousins in the SBC (I will not forget Wiley Drake for the rest of my life). But they were defeated and the motions and resolutions passed. A gospel-spirit hung over the messengers. This can be nothing but a cause for rejoicing over the future of the SBC.
Finally, there seemed to be a lot of people like me. While that may sound wildly arrogant, allow me to explain. Although I’m about to turn 30, I think I’m still considered part of the young side of the SBC. I met a lot of young, intelligent, gospel-minded guys. The SBC’s future is bright because there are a lot of young SBC pastors, interns and seminary students who have passion for gospel-centered, mission-minded churches. I had the chance to go to the Baptist21 panel discussion and the room was full of young men. And if you can get young men to eat boxed lunches while listening to theological heavy weights (Piper, Mohler, Akin, Platt and Ezell) discuss the issues of the day, then there is something good happening there.
Perhaps I’m a little naive (I am an SBC rookie), but I have great hope for the future of our convention. I am excited about being Southern Baptist, because I’m excited about the gospel. I may not understand all the politics or entities. But from my perspective, the SBC is headed in the right direction and I’ll happily labor to ensure it arrives where fidelity to the gospel might take us.