I had a great experience this week at the annual meeting of the SBC in St. Louis. Although there are a few areas where I hope we can do better in the future (see the next post), I have a strong sense that the best days of our denomination are still ahead of us. There is much to be excited about regarding the future of the Southern Baptist Convention, and I’ll list here just a handful of observations about the meeting that led me to that conclusion.
First, I was impressed by the number of younger leaders who were present and enthusiastic about participation in our denominational life. The fact that J.D. Greear received almost 50% of the vote for president is a testimony to their strong presence in the SBC. This group of leaders has gratefully inherited from previous generations a strong commitment to biblical inerrancy and the historic doctrines of the Christian faith, but they have their own distinctive emphases. They have reflected more deeply on the nature of the church and the nature of its mission. They are committed, not merely to evangelism, but to making disciples through planting and building up local churches. They have profited from a greater wealth of evangelical theological scholarship than their forbears had the opportunity to access, and thus have a broader understanding of theology and a deeper understanding of how the whole Bible fits together. They have thought carefully about how to contextualize the gospel in an ever-changing world. This generation of leaders, who are the fruit of both (1) the conservative resurgence and (2) a greater openness to the broader evangelical world since the 1980’s among Southern Baptists, are a mighty army for the kingdom of Christ. God is raising up a generation of leaders whom he has prepared to face a world that will continue to grow in its hostility to the gospel. Because of this generation, I believe the mission of the SBC will not only survive into the future, but it will also flourish.
Second, I am encouraged by demonstrable evidences in my denomination of a growing racial diversity and a healing of racial divides between black and white believers. That was a major theme of the gathering, and an indication that we are collectively repenting of the sins of our past. As I will note in a follow-up post, I am actually not a fan of the Confederate flag resolution that was ultimately approved by the messengers. I will explain why later, but my disagreement with the resolution itself does not mean I do not recognize the very good heart that is behind it. I am fully capable of disagreeing with details but affirming with my brothers and sisters their hearts to express repentance and seek reconciliation, so that the gospel may be adorned by the visible unity of believers in Christ of every ethnic background. More work remains to be done here, but we should be thankful for what has been accomplished.
Third, I saw a clear repudiation of what one might call the “Trump agenda” among the SBC messengers this week. Yes, there were some present who favored restricting religious liberty for Muslims, but the dominant tone of the convention (so far as I could tell) was one of affirmation of the historic Baptist principle of religious liberty for all. In addition, Southern Baptists presented themselves this week as a denomination that is welcoming toward refugees, while not ignoring the responsibility of the federal government to establish and maintain policies that will help ensure our security. The Donald Trump candidacy has degraded a number of evangelicals who have compromised their convictions as they have rallied to support him, but I did not see a lot of evidence of that degradation, at least among the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2016.
Finally, I am encouraged by J.D. Greear. If you are not aware of what happened, the first ballot for the office of president of the convention–with three candidates to choose from–ended up without a majority winner. So there was a subsequent run-off vote taken between J.D. Greear and Steve Gaines. I was a bit surprised to learn a few hours after the run-off that, between two candidates, neither had a majority! That sounded to me like a mathematical impossibility, but it turned out that both Greear and Gaines were around 49% (with Gaines having a slight advantage), while there were just enough ballots filled out incorrectly to make up the remaining percentage. Apparently, convention rules stipulate that incorrect ballots must still be counted, even though they could not be applied to either candidate. So that created the need for a third vote the following morning.
But when it came time to vote, Greear announced that he was withdrawing his name from consideration and giving his support to Steve Gaines. It was an act of humility that put the needs of the convention before personal ambition. Greear rightly said that, should either candidate win with 51% on a third vote, the result could be division in our convention. It was far better for Greear to step aside and defer to an older leader. In doing so, he won the respect of the entire convention and, I hope, put himself and his generation in a position to assume leadership of the convention in the near future. It is clear that Greear and Gaines have differences in theology and methodology, but this demonstrable act of unity between them will, I hope, strengthen unity throughout our denomination.
All in all, a very encouraging few days in St. Louis. I’ll share more about where I hope we can see future changes in the next post.