Are Southern Baptists Capable of Being Missional? Part 2

See Part One here.   Please note that I am writing with broad generalizations about overall trends and perspectives. I have seen many exceptions to what I am writing here. But, they stand out in my mind because they are exceptions, not the rule.


A couple of days ago, I asked if Southern Baptists were capable of being missional. Of course, the answer is a qualified "yes." Anyone is capable if they are in touch with the Spirit of God and are participants in God's Kingdom. But, is it likely? For all of our talk about evangelism, the Great Commission, and missions as a people, I am leaning toward the answer being "no."

Let's go back to how Southern Baptists started. We say that the Convention started over missions. The SBC was started in 1845 over the right of southern slaveholders to be appointed to serve on the mission field. Northern Baptists, dominated by abolitionists said no. Southern Baptists were offended by this and broke away from the northern baptists, starting their own convention in Augusta, Georgia in 1845. The peculiar institution of slavery had to be defended because that was where the South drew its economic lifeblood. The Southern "Way of Life" had to be protected. Eventually, a war would be fought and 600,000 people would be killed from both sides. Still, Southern Baptists didn't challenge the status quo and they became defenders of the "Lost Cause," a mythos that claimed that even though the South lost, she was in the right and was more pure and moral than the rest of the country.  Racial prejudices were recodified in the Jim Crow laws and segregation that emerged in the late 1800's and early 1900's and Southern Baptists went along, supporting the larger culture and the social economics of the day. The SBC became the state church of the South and helped to solidify the civil religion that emerged.

Southern Baptists engaged wholeheartedly in the Fundamentalist-Liberal controversies of the early 1900's. As liberal theologians began to question the validity of Scripture, the person of Jesus, and the need for Jesus' atonement, fundamentalists affirmed these Biblical truths, but they also pulled back and away from the larger culture where they could practice their faith unhindered. They were now in a fight for truth. They started their own colleges and publishing houses to promote salvation. Salvation was seen as belief in gospel propositions so that someone could go to heaven when they died. What was important was personal piety, Bible reading, church attendance, and participation in the church's programs. After WWII, SBC churches in the South began to explode with this privatized religion and as Southerners moved across America, they brought their religion with them. But, it was a truncated gospel that was focused primarily on personal salvation, escape from hell, and personal morality and advancement. There was not much concern about the "other" unless you saw the "other" through the lens of missions which is something that paid professionals did "over there." To talk about social concern, the needs of the poor, injustice, or oppression either here in America or around the world would have you lumped in with the liberals who promoted the "social gospel" or, even worse, with the Communists.

When the Civil Rights Movement erupted in the 1950's, instead of seeing that blacks were treated unjustly and calling for an end to segregation, Southern Baptists either remained quiet or actively opposed the cry for justice from their neighbors. Southern Baptist pastors like Douglas Hudgins of Jackson, MS called for a "closed society" wherein whites and blacks would remain seperate in all regards and white Christians would be protected from the presence of blacks (see God's Long Summer by Charles Marsh). Baptist celebrity pastors like W.A. Criswell also affirmed racist views and the need for segregation of the races. It was not until the Federal Government came in and mandated integration and the culture began to rethink these views that Baptists changed their mind. This was just forty years ago, by the way. 

Southern Baptists retrenched and pulled back from the world that was changing all around them. Private schools were started all over the South in the late 1960's so that white kids would not have to go to school with black kids. In fairness, it wasn't just Southern Baptists doing this. Whites all over the South did this. But, with the majority of white Christians in the South being Southern Baptists, we could have changed things or at least created quite a contrast if we had lived prophetically with a view for the "other" instead of through trying to protect our own "way of life."  As the private schools were started, white flight also kicked in as whites quickly left neighborhoods when blacks moved in.  Separation and security and maintaining our "way of life" was the goal.

In the 1950's and 1960's, white Southern Baptists complained about the political activity of black Baptists as they called for Civil Rights, saying that they should just focus on saving souls. But, by the 1970's, when they saw their cultural consensus beginning to fall apart, suddenly, white evangelicals were mobilized to take part in the political process and clamor for power. Southern Baptists, also fighting a Conservative Resurgence to pry control of the denomination away from moderates, found themselves very comfortable as culture warriors in the political spectrum, fighting for the rights of conservatives and to return America to God. As suburban sprawl spread across the South and the rest of the country, Southern Baptists built huge churches full of people that were very much alike and who affirmed the same values and perspectives. These churches, private schools, suburbs, and bedroom communities all existed to promote a "way of life" that had to do with conservative values, affluence/consumerism, Christian morals, and the proliferation of salvation through growing their churches and expanding their "way of life." This view eventually spread all over America.

By the 1980's and 1990's, the church growth movement had firmly taken hold in the consciousness of both evangelicals and Southern Baptists. The SBC had just been transformed by the Conservative Resurgence, so theologically, it was protected against the intrusion of liberalism. Now was the time to grow. Except,  Southern Baptists didn't grow. They just consolidated. Smaller churches started drying up and more and more people started going to larger churches. This happened everywhere. Eventually, full-service megachurches sprung up in suburbs and bedroom communities all across the land. As Americans became more affluent and were able to exercise their consumer choice in where they lived, what they bought, how they traveled, and in every other possible option known to man, it also seemed fitting that they should exercise their "right to choose" when it came to their worship experiences. Initially, the story went, churches needed to be relevant to appeal to the lost. But, in reality, churches often grew from Christians who were bored with their previous church experiences and wanted something that fit their place in life and met their felt needs. They wanted choices. This ability to choose was an exercise in freedom that also protected people from the kind of people they didn't want to be around. So, they ensconced themselves in religious fortresses to keep them well fed and in need of nothing.  And, this was called "church growth."

Eventually, this approach also began to run dry. By the 2000s, we realized that just having really large churches wasn't advancing us or the gospel the way we thought. We were losing the culture. People were rejecting the conservative values that we promoted so vehemently. Our "way of life" was in danger. We kept trying to move further and further away from problems geographically, but they kept following us. Worse, our own children began to reject the cozy world of safety and security that we were creating and they were leaving the church too!  Even worse than that, Southern Baptists began to realize that offerings and baptisms were in decline. We couldn't put as many missionaries on the field. Our denominational entities could not keep growing exponentially. We were losing the battle against lostness. 

At this point, I think that we panicked and did what we have done since we first started: we looked around and saw that our "way of life" was threatened and we began to rethink how we were doing things to preserve our own lives and institutions. At the end of the day, for the Southern Baptist, salvation is often about us. It is about our life and our passage into heaven. So, church becomes about us. Missions can actually become about us. When things are primarily about us and our comfort and our "way of life," we don't just quit seeing things that way automatically.  Once we are convinced that the old ways are not working, we look for new ways to get what we wanted all along.  And, for the Southern Baptist, too much had been invested through the Conservative Resurgence and through building our churches to mammoth proportions to let our way of life fail.

Enter "Missional." In the late 90's, this word was being used by Christians on the edges of the Evangelical landscape who were convinced that the Spirit of God was sending them to actually live among those who did not know God and to incarnate the life of Christ among them relationally. They were also flying under this banner to plant all kinds of churches of varying forms. It was very different from what Southern Baptists in the South were doing. But, missional was a good word and it was a useful word and it was one that some in Southern Baptist life thought would be helpful. So, we started using it. We came up with a "Great Commission Resurgence" to broadcast the concept. Except, missional didn't mean what it used to mean. It has now become a code word for something else entirely – church growth. It means expanding influence in the culture and growing the ministry, occasionally making a foray outside of ourselves in some kind of ministry endeavor. And, we call all of that "missional." Except it isn't. It isn't "living sent."

God is missional. It is His character. It is not something that we get to after we have matured or gotten our lives fixed up or something that is optional. It is who the people of God are to be because it is who God is. But, we can't get there when we live our lives in a defensive posture or when we engage in "missions" because we are trying to make people be just like us. We can only live missionally when we lose our lives. The Spirit of God is sending, but as long as we keep protecting ourselves in our religious and domestic/family fortresses, we miss Him and His call.

My point in this long treatise is that Southern Baptists have either been defensive of their position or have been colonizers of culture to bring their "way of life" wherever they went, searching for familiarity, safety, power, and influence (remember, I'm speaking generally here – there are notable exceptions). Big churches and big programs have been the vehicles of the gospel over the past 30 years. That is how we think. It is in our DNA. But, missional doesn't happen just because we do some outreach. It won't happen until we lay down our lives and incarnate the gospel in our communities. If we are constantly in a defensive posture and are always reacting against real or perceived intrusions into our "way of life," then we, by definition cannot be "sent people." Sent People live with open hands and hearts and are willing to risk all because they are intimately tied to Jesus, the One who gave all for them.    

9 Responses to Are Southern Baptists Capable of Being Missional? Part 2

  1. Hey Alan,
    So, you should write a blog post or ten on the solution to all of this. Practically, what is the solution at (1) the individual level, (2) the local church level, and (3) the SBC level? You say God calls us to “live sent.” I can “amen” that! But, what do you mean? And how do we get there?
    To summarize your historical argument above, I believe you’re saying that Southern Baptists have focused on private, individual, moral faith to the exclusion of serving the lost world all around us. But, is that accurate? Did we *really* focus on private, personal faithful devotion to Christ and on keeping His good commandments (all of His commandments)? Can faithful and true of godly obedience in either sphere (private or public) really be opposed? I’d say there’s something deeply wrong with a private, insular, self-protective faith, something so wrong that it is a stretch to call it faith at all. Would it be right to say that your real complaint is that there has been little (if any) true Christian faith at all?
    I understand your point, though. I fear focusing on the inner world over the outer world or vice versa. I doubt we can correct an imbalance with an equal but opposite imbalance, not that you are saying that. I realize you can’t say everything in a blog post (even in a long one). : )
    If we spread out the embers, while speaking against their being gathered to heat, I think we’ll lose the heat altogether. And, I don’t believe we gathered them well (if at all), if the result wasn’t scattering. Neither did we ever scatter well (if at all), if the result isn’t true and faithful gathering.
    I suspect you agree that we need a clear personal knowledge of Scripture, personal conversion and communion with Christ, inward godliness of thought and heart, godly family life in the home (faithful Christ-saturated marriages and parenting), biblical church structure and practices, support for God-called pastors and missionaries who go to other nations, faithfulness to personal callings to be cooks, doctors, street cleaners, garbage men, and teachers, as well as diligent cross bearing service in our own community, opening our homes to the poor and needy, defending the weak and helpless, as well as clear and loving preaching not just in the church pulpit but out on the highways, in the alleyways, and gutters. Do you agree?
    I’m just typing out loud, stream of consciousness. You are a blessing, and I am convicted and challenged by your post. Press on.

  2. Absolutely, Tom. I agree with all that you have said. The need for the biblical community that is the church is great. We also should excel in personal holiness and devotion to Christ. My point is that when the church and our personal faith becomes self-serving or exists to protect us from engagement with the world, then it is not the faith that pleases God. As for solutions, those are coming in future posts, but we see what God is looking for in Isaiah 58, among many other places. Our devotion is to both proclaim and demonstrate the Kingdom Come.
    Thanks for engaging. This was a long post, I know, but even in that I did not say all that could have been said. I like how you added in the doctrine of vocation, as well. Much of this would be addressed if we had a better understanding of how we can live sent (I am borrowing that term from my friend, Jason Dukes and his book of the same title) through our vocations.
    Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

  3. Very interesting read. Yes, we are capable. If I didn’t believe that … I’d leave the SBC after 30 years of ministry.
    Have you read about the positive influence that Billy Graham had on the civil rights movement? He chose early on to NOT have segregated crowds. He paid for it early on, but was blessed for his convictions and firm stand. I wish the SBC (as a whole) had followed his lead.

  4. Ron, I think that we are capable as well when God’s Spirit gets a hold of us and rearranges our priorities and convictions. From where we stand right now, I don’t see it happening. But, with God, all things are possible. Like you, if I didn’t believe that He could work and do miracles, I would give up this whole thing as well.
    I have read about Billy Graham and I admired the stand that he ended up taking (he didn’t start off that way, but fortunately, by the mid 50’s, he came to his senses). I wish that we all would have followed his example.

  5. Alan,
    I really appreciate your reflections on the challenges the SBC faces in becoming truly missional. I think your analysis of the historical trends that brought us to where we are today is extremely accurate. I, too, have to confess to being pretty skeptical as to whether or not the convention can abandon its focus on church growth and size as the measure of health and faithfulness rather than embodying the life and ethics of Jesus in our daily interactions with others.
    I look forward to your future posts on the topic.

  6. Thanks, Gary. In talking about Southern Baptists here, I am really talking about all of us – pastors, leaders, church members – not just the denominational apparatus. What we celebrate is what defines us. I have several more posts coming in this series and I plan to end up in a very hopeful place. Thanks for reading along.
    By the way, had a great time in Guatemala. I told Carol that you said hello.
    Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

  7. Excellent post.
    A sent people has to be able to see themselves with some accuracy–or else they enthrone themselves. And any religious culture can become twisted and deformed around even the most minor matters. This is all natural human reality.
    What I see you doing here is just articulating what this looks like for the particular institution called the SBC.
    I trust that growing numbers in the SBC will notice that the matters you described (e.g. slavery, Jim Crow, Segregation, Conservative resurgence, religious-political engagement) were not just minor matters. Whether or not the SBC responded appropriately is one question. But as a starting point we must acknowledge these were very powerful realities around which the life and DNA of the SBC were formed.
    I think you are very much ‘on the mark.’ The SBC has a fast minute (maybe) to decide if it is the Southern State Religion or a prophetic missional koinania. The broader culture has already decided to absolutely hammer the Southern State Religion–and because that hammer is not Godly does not mean God will not use it.

  8. Alan,
    Could I add one more link in your chain that shows that many in the SBC are more concerned with protecting their “way of life”? Whenever someone does attempt to “live sent,” others within the SBC immediately begin to question whether that person is “SBC enough” or not.

  9. Alan, I agree, which further demonstrates how the two positions are not currently compatible. The present expression of being Southern Baptist has far more to do with defending truth, maintaining our lifestyle and culture, and providing safety and security for our tribe so we can live good lives. None of that is bad, per se, and some of it can be needed, but it is not the best and it certainly does not position us missionally. Whenever someone does step outside the fortress and begins to live differently, they often become a threat and are labelled, not baptist enough. We have to label what we dont like so we can marginalize it and not be bothered by it any longer.
    Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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