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FIRST-PERSON: Semper Reformanda: more than a phrase

WASHINGTON (BP)–Can it be that the conservative resurgence in the SBC is turning 27 years old? Southern Baptists in their mid-30s were but children when Adrian Rogers was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979. Much has happened since those days of large conventions and presidential elections where warring sides voiced their opinions at the open microphones on the convention floor. Few young pastors even remember those days and all the issues involved in the struggle for the soul of the Southern Baptist Convention.

These days the very term “conservative” is being debated among many regarding the precise theological meaning of the word itself. Its etymology seems to be in question, and the process surrounding the struggle toward a cogent definition is both a shock to older “conservatives” and a welcome discussion for younger “conservatives.”

Many involved in the conservative resurgence seem to think that a pale “conservative” version of the old SBC was and is indispensable for denominational success. Simply cast out the “liberals,” replace them with “conservatives,” and all will be well. This strategy, while workable for short-term gains, cannot be sustained over time because the requirement of a carefully learned theology must support the worldview of theological conservatism, or doctrinal slippage will be the inevitable consequence.

The political shell may remain, giving the impression that all is well, but the theological center cannot hold given the force of the cultural onslaughts against the church in this postmodern era. Without doctrinal anchors, the SBC could all too quickly drift away. Why? A denomination of churches reared solely on a warrior motif of “liberal versus conservative” rather than “theology versus program” is destined to slide theologically. In the words of Southern Baptist theologian Timothy George, “A new bureaucracy doth not an improvement make!”

What is needed is a precise theological understanding of the protracted struggle with theological liberalism. Without it, policies of inerrancy and the “the cause” become a recipe for drift and ultimately defeat.

Pragmatically, the conservative resurgence could be in trouble. The prevailing ethos of the day held by critics of the Southern Baptist Convention is that the modern conservatism of the SBC holds no specifically theological ideas –- only political ones -– which are not worthy of serious consideration by the thinking class. Could this be true? Many critics say the level of preaching by “conservative” preachers across the SBC all too easily resembles something between an Anthony Robbins self-help seminar and a used-car salesman peddling his latest deal.

Modern strategies and tactics regarding denominational boards and agencies may quench the thirst of the SBC political animals, but unless conservatives acquire the theological means to translate biblical ideas into practice, the struggles of the 1980s could be all for nothing. The strategic imperative of many remains to seize and maintain control of the denominational infrastructure. This is and has been regarded as an excellent idea, but to what end? Without local churches which are led by capable pastors and/or elders able actually to teach the Word and take the hits which are sure to come whenever biblical preaching takes place, the conservative resurgence could become a mere footnote in evangelical history.

Without the recovery of a denominational imperative that a local congregation is the most important and indispensable agent for Christ and his kingdom, the denominational beast easily could eat her own young. The current cultural and political milieu of the 21st century offers little evidence to sustain the hope that an explicitly theological movement is necessary, desirable or even possible. Many Southern Baptist churches will not abide theologically thick preaching, because every effort has been made to make the church more seeker-friendly — to modernize the message and soften the sharpness of doctrine so as to make room for people who have never heard of the Apostles let alone the specific books of Galatians and Jude. This plan has resulted in even less response by today’s teenagers and young adults because the seriousness of the themes of Scripture have been presented so obliquely by the church that modern young professionals and students find Nietzsche and Hegel much more appealing and thoughtful than Jesus. For many of them, the philosophers and political pundits seem more confident, knowledgeable, intelligent and interesting than the ministers of their local church. While the real world operates on concrete empirical principles, the church hides her message in fantasy code. Thus, all this sensitivity to the seeker has, in many ways, backfired.

This can be a hard lesson to relearn each generation –- especially now that churches contend, in the words of historian Victor Davis Hanson, “with the sirens of the mall, Oprah, and the latte.” The affluence and leisure of modern church life make it all the more difficult to evangelize and disciple people who find Broadway more exciting than the Bible. The logic proceeds that if people are still attending Broadway shows and movies, then the church had better mimic such venues or else the sanctuary of today will be the museum of tomorrow

To assuage this fear, many churches have sought a dynamic alchemy of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “biblical” preaching brought to you by the local Baptist church. For the most part, this has failed.

The Conservative Resurgence accomplished much for which all Southern Baptists (and indeed all evangelicals) should be grateful. It rolled back theological liberalism in SBC seminaries and prevented an all-out Schleiermachian stampede. Also, it routed the denominational behemoth that used appointments to denominational posts as favors for friends and/or weapons for enemies of “the cause.”

The third and most pressing need yet to be realized fully by the reformation of the SBC is a focus on local churches as the primary agent in Gospel ministry to the world. As to this third issue, despite the revolution in theological thought initiated by the seminaries and others, restraining the appetite for big numbers and big Baptist programs has proved, thus far, beyond the human agency -– even for theological conservatives. Still, considering the immensity of what was accomplished and the improbability of its actually being realized, the success of modern theological conservatism is nothing short of remarkable. And its success, by God’s grace, would have been impossible without the vigor and verve of leaders in the 1980s.

The question remains: Is theological conservatism SBC style compatible with healthy churches who aggressively work for biblical preaching and discipleship beyond the level of theological pabulum? The SBC needs only to look at other theologically conservative denominations such as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) and see their rapid growth (fueled by some former Southern Baptists who left the denomination) for an answer.

The most recent Religious Congregations and Membership study published in 2000 by the Glenmary Research Center indicates that during the last decade a continued trajectory of decline was experienced by the mainline denominations. While the Southern Baptist Convention grew at an overall rate of 5 percent over the last decade, the PCA grew by 42.4 percent and the EFCA grew by 57.2 percent. The question sociologists who study religion are beginning to ask is how much resettlement is taking place between the various conservative denominational options. In other words, is the growth of these two denominations (the PCA and the EFCA) specifically related to religious conversion or denominational migration? If the answer is from denominational migration, then the SBC should take note.

The SBC’s progress since the 1980s has brought the denomination more than halfway toward a biblical worldview. The denomination knows who the “bad guys” are, and while the SBC seems to know who the “good guys” are and why, old Baptist reflexes might render the Southern Baptist Convention irrelevant in the modern world.

Only God knows. Only time will tell. Semper Reformanda.
Douglas Baker is a writer who lives and works in the Washington, D.C. area.

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  • Douglas E. Baker