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Symposium looks at ‘SBC & the 21st Century’

[SLIDESHOW=41212,41213,41214]KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP) — A symposium on “The SBC & the 21st Century: Reflection, Renewal and Recommitment” set forth a range of projections for the nation’s largest evangelical body, Sept. 28-29 at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The event, which Midwestern President Jason Allen said will take place on a triennial basis, featured keynote speakers Frank S. Page, Ronnie Floyd, Paige Patterson, R. Albert Mohler Jr., David S. Dockery and Thom Rainer.

Allen, who also led a main session, noted that such an event had not been held in SBC life in recent years and that the purpose of the gathering was to engage issues vital to Southern Baptist identity, heritage and future.

Allen said significant challenges face the SBC, including: Will we grow more unified around shared convictions and mission or will we fragment over secondary concerns and tertiary doctrinal differences? Will we see generational transition as an opportunity to seize or a change to resist? Will we be able to maintain a distinct Baptist identity while we engage and partner with the broader evangelical community?

“In planning the event, we believed the need for addressing such issues was self-evident,” Allen said, “and we pray the results will make a substantial contribution at every level of the SBC moving forward.”

Allen announced a partnership with B&H Academic on a book project comprised mostly of the presentations at the symposium. David Platt, Daniel Akin, Walter Strickland, Collin Hansen and Justin Taylor also will contribute chapters to the book, which will have the same title as the symposium. It will be available at the SBC’s June 2016 annual meeting in St. Louis.

“As a seminary that exists for the church, it can be counted on that this entire project has and will emphasize Southern Baptist churches and how to strengthen them, not how to perpetuate denominational machinery,” Allen said. “This is what SBC servants must be about, and that is what this symposium is about.”

Recaps of the featured speakers’ presentations during the symposium follow.

Frank S. Page – “The Cooperative Program and the Future of Collaborative Ministry”

Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee, opened the symposium recounting the 90-year history of the Cooperative Program and the impact of the SBC’s collaborative ministry over the years. Wondering if it is taken for granted among Southern Baptists, Page noted one outsider’s comment about the CP: “Do you Baptists understand what you really have with the Cooperative Program?”

As an asset that no other denomination possesses, Page said the Cooperative Program accomplishes ministry and missions in a way that lone churches cannot do.

“The CP is a collaborative way of doing work that gives every church in the SBC a seat at the table,” said Page, noting the small memberships of the vast majority of Southern Baptist churches. “When we recognize who we are, no matter how big or small, every church can be a part of doing something bigger than themselves. It is extremely important that they know they have a part in sending missionaries … supporting theological education … and planting churches all over this continent.”

Page said he foresees a bright future for collaborative ministry within the SBC. Goals he desires to see achieved through the Cooperative Program in the days ahead include 7,000 missionaries reaching the world for Christ; 15,000 new church plants across the continent; decreasing tuition and fees at all six SBC seminaries; and reaching the masses of lost college students.

“When we work together, God can do things that are mighty,” Page said. “His power is pointed out, and His plan is pointed out. The geographical spread of the Gospel is clearly delineated, and we need desperately to come together seeking the power of the Lord like never before.”

Paige Patterson – “Guard What Has Been Entrusted to You: Counsel to the New Generation of Southern Baptists”

A list of 12 witticisms highlighted Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson’s counsel to the next generation of Southern Baptist leaders.

Ranging from “Culture is your friend in the same way a brown bear is your buddy” to “A Christian who has not seriously suffered is like a beautiful Rolls Royce without a motor,” Patterson imparted wisdom from more than five decades of ministry.

“Arrogance is as charming to God’s people, and as appealing to God,” another of Patterson’s witticisms asserted, “as an angry bull is to a wounded cowboy in a rodeo arena.”

While arrogance knows no age restriction, Patterson said it typically rears its head in ministry among younger believers. The reasons, he assessed, include insufficient experience, too little knowledge and inadequate time spent walking with God.

“I suspect that this last reason pretty much tells a story,” Patterson said. “A man cannot be haughty when he has just been walking with God that morning. Imperfection has been on a stroll with perfection, and the further they hike the more obvious the chasm between them appears. In the end, the imperfect one is not so much known by his ascription of praise to the Sovereign God in words that anyone can echo, but by the diminution of himself and his humble service to his Sovereign Lord.

“My hope for the future of the church is that a recovery of humility and integrity … will distinguish the body of believers clearly from the world,” Patterson said. “Above all, may such genuine piety be observed in our preaching.”

Ronnie Floyd – “Kindling Afresh the Gift of God: Spiritual Renewal, Strategic Reinvention and the Southern Baptist Convention”

“A fire left to itself usually goes out,” said Floyd, SBC president and senior pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas. Basing his presentation on 2 Timothy 1:6-7, Floyd noted, “If we want the power of the Spirit to be everything through us that He is within us, then we must take the initiative personally and intentionally to fan the flame of the Spirit of God.”

As this takes place, Floyd said Christians will move into seasons of spiritual renewal. He added, “This deep work of God occurring within us will alter our strategies, reinventing them to the glory of God. And yes, this needs to happen within our Southern Baptist Convention in the way we carry out our work together.”

Floyd suggested that if Southern Baptists become more concerned about preserving old structures and systems than seeing them conform to what God is doing today, they could lose both the work of God and the emerging generation of Baptists.

“The stakes are high, and we better land with God and refuse to fight against what He is seemingly doing among us,” Floyd said.

He then covered six questions concerning challenges facing the SBC, citing the greatest one for this generation: “Knowing what we know about our past and present, as well as having the resources of churches, people, influence, reach and dollars, how can we leverage all for the purpose of advancing the Gospel in an unprecedented manner into places where the Gospel has never been before regionally, statewide, nationally and globally?”

Floyd noted the importance of the SBC being lean, nimble and diverse as well as working toward innovation for best practices. But what must propel this innovation, he said, is the Lord Jesus.

“The need of the hour is to believe our God reigns!” Floyd said. “Without Him, nothing durable can be achieved; with Him, the evangelization of the world is a certainty.”

R. Albert Mohler Jr. – “Southern Baptists and the Quest for Theological Identity: Unavoidable Questions for the 21st Century”

Discovering one’s or an entity’s identity in present times is difficult due to ever-increasing pluralism, said Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. However, he noted, it is a task that Southern Baptists must undertake, especially on the theological front.

With modernity and liberal theology influencing the identities of Christian denominations throughout the 20th century, Mohler said Southern Baptists remained “at ease in Zion” or comfortable within their denominational bubble. However, this changed in the 1970s.

In the 1970s, the question of identity became unavoidable, Mohler said. “There is no way that one can speak of the future of the Southern Baptist Convention … without the identity question being front and center.”

With the passing of nominal Christianity and faltering tribal identities of other Christian groups, Mohler said Southern Baptists realized that what was left was a group of believers who understood the costliness of adherence to faith in Jesus Christ.

Looking toward the future, Mohler noted 10 questions Southern Baptists must address as they seek to understand their theological identity. Among them: “Will Southern Baptists embrace an identity that is more theological than tribal?” and “Will today’s generation summon and maintain the courage to minister Christ in a context of constant conflict and confrontation?”

His final question originated from Jesus’ question to His disciples in Luke 18: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Mohler focused that question on the SBC. “Understanding that Jesus asked that question of His disciples means that surely He must be asking it of us,” he said. “Our responsibility, though in one sense for the church universal through the ages, is a responsibility for our denomination and our churches at this time…. May the Lord find us faithful.”

David S. Dockery – “Who are Southern Baptists? Toward a Trans-Generational Identity”

Dockery, president of Trinity International University, set forth an in-depth history of Southern Baptists, dating back to the 17th century.

Acknowledging that Southern Baptist identity has changed significantly from 1845 to 2015, Dockery suggested a major shift toward recovery, or re-envisioning, took place around 2005.

“The millennials came along during this particular time, and they began to see not only Southern Baptist life differently but they saw the world differently,” Dockery said. “What was happening around the country began to be reflected in Southern Baptist life. A true generational shift was taking place.”

Dockery cited 12 areas of constancy among Southern Baptists that this new generation must “acknowledge and wrestle with as they participate in Southern Baptist life in the days to come.”

Among these: Southern Baptists’ commitment to the convention’s model of ministry and the SBC being characterized by controversy and conflict as well as being cooperative, confessional, compassionate, a Great Commission people and a group who understand their culture.

Looking to the future, Dockery suggested that Southern Baptists must become interconnected to other denominations and networks committed to the Great Commission and Great Commandment; become intercultural and interracial as opposed to insular; become intergenerational, finding its ultimate identity in Christ, not in particular generations.

“As we envision, or re-envision, a blessed future for Southern Baptists, we can no longer be naive to the multifaceted changes and multi-level challenges around us,” Dockery said. “We pray that shared collaborative efforts of churches and SBC entities will bring forth fruit, will strengthen partnerships, alliances and networks for the extension of God’s Kingdom, the advancement of the Gospel … for the eternal glory and grandeur of our great God.”

Jason Allen – “Training the Next Generation of Pastors, Ministers & Missionaries: Southern Baptist Theological Education in the 21st Century”

In addressing training for the next generation of SBC ministry leaders, Allen said theological education, both presently and into the future, seems to be unpredictable at best. Allen did offer an alternative, however.

“My argument is straightforward — we cannot predict the future of theological education, but we must choose to determine it.”

Historically, Allen said, the relationship between Southern Baptist churches and their seminaries was tenuous, or worse, because of a general suspicion of higher education as well as the theological controversies and liberalism that had spread throughout the faculties of these institutions.

However, Allen noted significant change has occurred as a result of the Conservative Resurgence, including the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. All of this has led to the present, which he described as “a golden era in theological education.”

Among his reasons for this assessment: SBC seminaries are more theologically conservative than they have been in a century; their faculties are notably accomplished; they are larger than ever before; they remain affordable and accessible; and they remain on mission toward Great Commission work.

Looking to the future, Allen noted the best path for the SBC is working to determine where theological education is headed. Among the areas of focus he included were: maintaining confessional integrity and mission clarity, developing sustainable business models, being agile and adaptable to educational delivery systems, serving the churches, prioritizing the master of divinity degree for those headed toward the pastorate, and collaboratively working together within the denomination.

Summing up his message, Allen recognized the efforts of Paul Pressler, Paige Patterson and Adrian Rogers during the Conservative Resurgence and the effect it has had in providing the SBC with healthy seminaries. Now, he said, “We must have a determination to keep them.”

Thom Rainer — “By the Numbers: What SBC Demographics Tell Us About Our Past, Present and Future”

In the symposium’s final presentation, Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, set forth a macro view of SBC demographics since the convention’s inception.

Five primary questions emerged from Rainer’s research: What happened during the “Silent Era?” Are we truly an evangelistic denomination? Have we ever truly been a Sunday School denomination? Have we become a denomination of affluence as opposed to influence? Where do we go from here?

A negative finding Rainer gleaned, which he called “The Silent Era for New Churches,” occurred from 1920-49. Noting that new church work has long been the lifeblood of the SBC, Rainer said the trend over the three decades confounded him: The SBC had zero new net churches; in fact, there were 159 less churches overall in 1949 than in 1929.

“The impact of such anemic church planting cannot be overstated,” Rainer said. “Applying those numbers to the missed opportunities of those 30 years suggests we missed the opportunity to have an additional 9,000 churches in our denomination today” — costing the SBC hundreds of thousands of new baptized converts, thousands of missionaries, countless pastors and staff and more new church plants.

The reason why the Silent Era occurred remains elusive, Rainer said, but the most plausible hypothesis is a combination of local churches forsaking church planting and failed trust in the Home Mission Board.

Moving forward, Rainer said his research suggests that the convention needs healthier churches which possess traits such as a strong biblical foundation, intentional evangelism efforts, focus on small group membership, and intentionality about prayer.

“So what are the numbers telling us?” Rainer asked. “It appears … we have lost our focus. We have become complacent and comfortable. Perhaps we can turn these bad trends to good. And by the grace of God, those numbers will tell us that we are truly rebuilding the house of God.”

In addition to the plenary sessions, Allen hosted panel discussions on “Passing the Baton: Raising Up the Next Generation of SBC Leaders,” “Facing the Future Together” and one on “The Future of State Conventions” featuring state executive directors Paul Chitwood of Kentucky, Anthony Jordan of Oklahoma, Jim Richards of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, John Yeats of Missouri and Tim Lubinus of Iowa. In addition, breakout sessions were led by several Midwestern Seminary faculty members: Provost Jason Duesing, “A Denomination Always for the Church: Ecclesiological Distinctives as a Basis for Confessional Cooperation”; undergraduate dean John Mark Yeats, “16,000,000 Southern Baptists? Recovering Regenerate Church Membership”; assistant professor of historical theology Christian George and curator of the Spurgeon Library, “Downgrade: 21st Century Lessons from 19th Century Baptists”; and associate professor of Christian theology Owen Strachan, “Doctrine Will Keep Us Alive: Why the SBC & Confessional Christianity Will Thrive in a Compromised Culture.”

Allen noted that preparations for the 2018 symposium are underway, with the theme centering on a 40-year retrospective on the Conservative Resurgence and a proposed book to follow in 2019 — the 40th anniversary of the movement that began in 1979 with the election of Adrian Rogers as SBC president.

To view all main sessions of the symposium, click here.

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  • T. Patrick Hudson