Let me pick back up with my race through Baptist history. By 1880, “Southern Baptists began to debate seriously both in the Convention sessions and elsewhere whether a southern Home Mission Board (HMB) was really needed since the associations and state bodies in the South and the northern society were so active in the work.” These tensions created a “rivalry with the state bodies in the South, [and] not only radically diminished the receipts of the [HMB] but also closed many areas of work to it.”4 Established societies continued to do well in spite of the fact that “nearly half of all the offerings…was used for collection and administration.”5 We were still struggling to see the value of cooperation!
“The convention took radical action in 1882. Messengers voted to dismiss not only the secretary of the HMB but the entire elected board of trustees and move the headquarters to Atlanta.”6 A new Corresponding Secretary (I. T. Tichenor) was elected, a new office location was established (moving from Marion, AL), and a renewed passion to work together across the south was envisioned. “In Tichenor’s last year as secretary in 1899, 671 missionaries were supported jointly with the state boards. Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma Territory, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia were cooperating with the board in part or all of their work.”7 A significant step had taken place and once again leadership paved the way!
Fast forward to the 1920s. The decade brought huge challenges. A deep agricultural recession caused the “two mission boards [to] cut their work to the bone in massive retrenchment; other SBC institutions, especially the seminaries, faced imminent foreclosure; and the SBC and its entire assets could probably have been thrown into bankruptcy proceedings had the creditors desired.” If that wasn’t bad enough the “SBC received another jolt in 1928 at the revelation that Clinton S. Carnes, treasurer of the Home Mission Board, had embezzled $909,461 from the agency.”8
But in the midst of those great challenges the Cooperative Program (CP) was adopted. “Launched in 1925 the plan called for churches to send their offerings for denominational ministries to their state conventions. The states, in turn, would retain a portion of the funds for work within the state, forwarding the rest to the SBC office in Nashville.”9 The convention had struggled for eighty years in an effort to get traction for its convention model. Societal style fund raising for the fledgling convention had been a failure. Baker notes in his book, “The significance of the adoption of the Cooperative Program resides in its correction of the ambivalence in the financial methods carried over from the society plan in 1845 and its exploiting of the genius of the convention-type program. The Cooperative Program brought the goal of the original constitution of 1845 closer to realization.”10 Collaboration became real!
As we approach the 100th Anniversary of the Cooperative Program, the SBC funding model has become the envy of every other denomination in America. “Cooperative is the right word to describe this stewardship program, and it shows the near canonization of both the word and the concept among Southern Baptists. To be ‘non-cooperative’ is a serious thing to Southern Baptists, and to be ‘independent’ has become a severe criticism.”11 The dream of an organized convention of churches replacing the old societal model had come to fruition.
But what happened to the idea of Southern Baptists becoming a national body of churches?
In 1900, formal alignment of churches was still limited to those in the original fourteen states with two exceptions: the District of Columbia and the Oklahoma and Indian Territories. Through a series of conferences with the American Baptist Home Mission Society that began in 1894 the first new state convention to be added was New Mexico in 1912. Churches in Oklahoma which had been dually aligned with Baptists in the north since statehood in 1907, became solely SBC aligned in 1914.
The depression and the dust bowl migrations resulted in SBC leaning churches being planted in California. Their desire to affiliate with SBC life led to a decision at the 1942 SBC Convention in San Antonio to recognize California. Before the Kansas Convention was formally accepted, it was discussed at three national conventions, 1946-1948. A committee was appointed at the 1947 meeting to bring a recommendation on “The Kansas Application.” They recommended that in light of agreements with northern Baptists the application should not be approved. A floor amendment passed which reversed the committee’s recommendation. This action opened the door to further national expansion over the next two decades.
Migration from historical SBC areas during and following World War II to fill jobs in the more industrialized northern states, to staff the military bases many of which were outside the south, and to explore the oil and mineral-rich areas in northern and western states led to a more national vision on the part of Southern Baptists. The first Southern Baptist Church in the south was FBC Charleston, South Carolina, and it was established in 1682. By contrast, the first SBC churches in the Upper Midwest are as follows:
North Dakota—First Southern Baptist Church, Ray (later disbanded), 1953
Iowa—Fairview Baptist Church, Anamosa, 1954
Nebraska—First Southern Baptist Church (Southview), Lincoln, 1955
South Dakota—First Southern Baptist Church, Rapid City (now Calvary), 1955
Minnesota—Southtown Baptist Church, Bloomington, 1956
In 1961 with the formation of a mission congregation in Vermont, Southern Baptists could finally claim a presence in all fifty states. After the initial excitement died down, the hard work began of strengthening and expanding churches in the newer work states. However, by 1980 some of those areas began to see the number of SBC churches and church membership plateau or, in a few cases, even decline. The strategy of congregationalizing former southerners who had migrated north and west had run its course. It was time for new mission strategies to be developed!
4Page 260 of Robert A. Baker’s book The Southern Baptist Convention and Its People 1607-1972
5Page 240 of Robert A. Baker’s book The Southern Baptist Convention and Its People 1607-1972
6Page 428 of H. Leon McBeth’s book The Baptist Heritage.
7Page 264 of Robert A. Baker’s book The Southern Baptist Convention and Its People 1607-1972
8Page 620 of H. Leon McBeth’s book The Baptist Heritage.
9Pages 621-622 of H. Leon McBeth’s book The Baptist Heritage.
10Page 404 of Robert A. Baker’s book The Southern Baptist Convention and Its People 1607-1972.
11Page 622 of H. Leon McBeth’s book The Baptist Heritage.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
So far, I have discussed how the political shift in the traditional SBC states, our growing ethnic diversity, and sweeping cultural changes have fed some of the conflicts we are currently facing. Today I will begin to address the roots of the tensions we are experiencing as we moved from being a southern regional convention of churches into a nationwide network. I have to start this discussion by admitting that the closer we are to a situation the less objective we can be in its analysis.
Some basic Baptist History is going to be required, and I will be as concise as possible. At its inception in 1845, Southern Baptist churches were located in fourteen states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. The purpose of the Convention as stated in Article II of the constitution is “to provide a general organization for Baptists in the United States and its territories for the promotion of Christian missions at home or abroad.” To fulfill that goal, two mission boards were immediately formed: The Foreign Mission Board and The Domestic Mission Board. Our attention will be focused on the latter.
Ten years after its formation The Domestic Mission Board absorbed the work of the American Indian Association and the name was changed to the Domestic and Indian Mission Board. In 1874 its name was changed again to the Home Mission Board and remained so until 1997. With the approval of the Covenant for a New Century the Home Mission Board, Brotherhood Commission, and the Radio and Television Commission were combined to form the North American Mission Board (NAMB). At the 2010 SBC Annual Meeting with the approval of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force Report, NAMB’s role was significantly redefined. The implementation of this change has generated the issues that many new work conventions are currently having with NAMB. But to understand why we need to put things in historical context.
At its inception, the fledgling convention had two major challenges as it sought to fulfill its stated purpose. The first was related to providing “a general organization for Baptists.” What is hard for us to picture from our perspective of SBC life is the reality that the newly formed convention was starting from absolute zero as it began to design a different way for Baptist churches to organize themselves. All the existing mission societies, both foreign and domestic, were in the north. But what some Southern Baptists envisioned was not just starting new mission societies in the south, but rather their goal was to create a convention model. Instead of multiple independent benevolent societies, one for each area of need, the idea was to organize a convention of churches that would create multiple boards to meet the various mission and ministry needs that would arise. This wasn’t a new idea. It is one based upon churches cooperating and collaborating through a unified funding process. The existing societal method was based upon individuals with specific interests supporting an independent society that is organized to meet those defined needs. Societies are in essence parachurch organizations funded primarily by the contributions of various individuals. A Baptist association or convention is a group of independent churches who choose to work together to identify, organize, and resource a variety of ministry and mission needs.
A “critical section of the new convention’s constitution was Article V, by which the body departed radically from the society principle that each organization should deal with only one benevolence. The new article provided:
The Convention shall elect at each triennial meeting as many Boards of Managers as in its judgment will be necessary for carrying out the benevolent objects it may determine to promote, all which Boards shall continue in office until a new election…To each Board shall be committed, during the recess of the Convention the entire management of all the affairs relating to the object with whose interest it shall be charged.”1
This convention model was not immediately nor universally affirmed. Specifically, the Domestic Mission Board had trouble gaining traction. Among many issues facing the board was leadership tenure. The first president and secretary resigned shortly after the board was formed. The next corresponding secretary served for only five months. “In addition [to them and] to several [others] who declined the office, eight men served as the corresponding secretary”2 by the turn of the 20th Century.
It should not surprise us to know that the board had “a basic organizational problem…They had not yet worked out the relationship of the local church, association, state convention, and Southern Baptist Convention. Many identified home mission work as the task of associations and state conventions. To them, the Mission Board seemed at best unnecessary duplication and at worst a rival to local work.”3 More in-depth analysis of our current reality will follow, but how many of us have had similar conversations related to the question “Who’s responsible for what?” or have made comments like “We don’t need and can’t afford SBC organizational duplication of ministries.” So we can say without contradiction that organizational issues are not new!
The second major challenge related to the new convention’s purpose was that of becoming a national body of churches: to provide a general organization for Baptists in the United States and its territories. Although the new convention began to work on the organizational component from day one, the geographical expansion did not begin formally for over 150 years. The Civil War and Reconstruction years didn’t make the fledgling convention’s work easy.
Let me pause our journey into the past and ask that you reflect upon your own experience with Baptist life as it relates to the two major issues the convention faced in its early days. “What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of having a convention rather than a societal/parachurch structure in Baptist life?” Since our official name is still the Southern Baptist Convention, although Great Commission Baptists was an alternative name approved at the 2012 convention, ask yourself, “Have we really embraced being a national network of churches?” You might have noticed that the theme for the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting in Nashville is We Are Great Commission Baptists.
1Page 167 of Robert A. Baker’s book The Southern Baptist Convention and Its People 1607- 1972.
2Page 425 of H. Leon McBeth’s book The Baptist Heritage.
3Page 425 of H. Leon McBeth’s book The Baptist Heritage.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
So far I have discussed how the political shift in the traditional SBC states and our growing ethnic diversity have fed some of the tensions we are currently experiencing in SBC life. Today I want to briefly address the broader cultural changes that are impacting Christianity in America. History has often been described as a series of cycles, or some have used the image of a pendulum swing as we constantly move from one extreme to another. The book of Judges provides a classic picture during a 400-year period of Israel’s history. The book describes what happened to the twelve tribes as they constantly moved through a clearly defined cycle: spiritual health and national vibrancy, a failure to pass along a God-focused spiritual legacy from one generation to the next and a slow but perceptible turning away from God, God’s hand of blessing is removed and life becomes very difficult, people finally cry out to God and God raises up spiritual leaders, then spiritual health returns, and the cycle is repeated (Judges 2:7-19).
As a nation, we have very few remaining from what is called the Greatest Generation (those who lived through the Great Depression and WWII). As a Baby Boomer, I have experienced SIGNIFICANT changes in my life as we have moved from a time of spiritual vitality driven by the adversities faced by our parents and grandparents to a period of unparalleled prosperity. Our affluence was generated to a great extent by their sacrifices, the Protestant Work Ethic they instilled in us, and the Divine blessings that come with obedience. However, that affluence has generated a high level of self-sufficiency. We are reminded of Jesus' words: “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 9:24).
Slow and subtle spiritual shifts have taken place, yet over time they have become clear and evident. These changes have begun to accelerate in recent years. One very simple and widespread example I hear regularly is related to youth sports. There was a time when Wednesday night and Sunday mornings were set aside for church. Today, active church members regularly choose sporting events over church attendance. Sports have become gods for many in our nation. But, my goal in this article is not to rail against the darkness, but to hopefully shed light on the harsh realities of where our nation is in the spiritual life-cycle I just described, and to awaken us to the fact that a typical American church looks more like our culture than we look like Jesus.
Communication changes have deeply impacted church life. The invention and expansion of the radio and television quickly come to mind. They formed the foundation upon which our current information age has been built (internet, smartphones, social media, etc.). One blessing we have received has been the opportunity to hear great preachers. History has always had great preachers, but the ability to hear one live was extremely limited. Today, even if you miss a live broadcast, you can listen to an archived copy, or you can even choose to listen to a sermon preached by one of the great pulpiteers of the past. Subtle shifts began to take place in church life as high-profile orators became the center of attention. Inspiration and information became the focus of Christian discipleship. The idea that an individual didn’t need to “go to church” to be a good Christian was reinforced. Pride began to creep into the heart of some high-profile pastors. Consumer Christians were created as families shopped for the church with the best programs. Denominational names became irrelevant—theology began to take a back seat. Two times a month Sunday morning Christians became the norm. COVID19 didn’t create our current challenges it merely put a spotlight on where the American culture is today.
For older Baptist Baby Boomers we can remember a time when Sunday meant you were in Sunday School, morning worship, discipleship training, and evening worship. Monday was visitation, and Wednesday meant prayer time. For Southern Baptists, you could throw in the two-week spring and fall revivals as well. In that cultural context, Christian discipleship focused on providing the right Bible information within a relational context that provided the opportunity for God’s Spirit to produce genuine life transformation in those who had accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Transportation advances combined with our affluence have provided us with almost unlimited opportunities and options. Who would have dreamed about having a “Destination Wedding” during the 1950s? Prior to COVID19’s restrictions, the pace of our lives seemed to be on an annually accelerating trajectory. I personally believe that God has given us the opportunity of a lifetime to slow down, to be still and to know that HE is GOD! (Psalms 46:10) The ball is in our court.
I believe the challenges we are facing in Southern Baptist life, for the most part, have been created by self-inflicted wounds. From a sports analogy perspective, we are constantly committing unforced errors. This reality tells me that we are in the world AND of the world more than we want to admit. My prayer is that we use this gift of reflection and rest to take an honest look in the mirror and ask God to let us see ourselves from His perspective. Or we can glance in the mirror and then use this time to recharge our batteries so we are ready when restrictions are removed and the “rat race” begins again
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:23-25)
We get to choose how we spend our time!
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
In my two previous articles on Resolution 9, I have pointed to cultural diversity and the definition of terms as two areas that have contributed to the divisive debate that it has generated. Let me throw out a third item that makes our conversations more challenging: we are Baptists. The Priesthood of all Believers and our congregational polity that is based upon it grants to every professing Christian the right to their personal opinion. When we are Spirit-led the results are unlimited and God-honoring. When we are leading in the flesh the results are devastating and our witness is tarnished. An old preacher’s story depicts the latter:
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it!" He said, "Nobody loves me." I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?" He said, "Yes." I said, "Who is your god?" He said, "I am a Christian." I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me, too! What church?" He said, "Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?" He said, "Northern Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region." I said, "Me, too!" Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912." I said, "Die, you heretic!" And I pushed him over.
This story depicts the reality that when three or four Baptists are gathered together there will be five or six strong opinions on every topic. But the one thing I have observed in Baptist life that IS UNIVERSALLY ACCEPTED, and will CAUSE CONFLICT EVERY TIME is when our clearly defined processes are not followed or when they fail us. The history of Resolution 9 seems to indicate that our resolution process failed us, and as the debates became heated, the process of inclusive decision-making was skipped at a critical point.
Resolutions are a non-binding way for Southern Baptists to express their opinions on key issues. It seems that every year at least one of the approved resolutions brings major criticism from the secular press. In 2019, Resolution 9 quickly generated a heated debate and criticism from within our own family. I paused to ask myself a series of questions about the resolution process itself.
Healthy processes don’t invite debate on complex topics in the midst of a two-day tightly scripted meeting of the world’s largest deliberative body where there is limited time for debate. There are other times and places to have those kinds of conversations—and yes, they DO need to take place. But resolutions historically deal with issues to which “family members” can give a hearty AMEN! And as stated previously, there will be resolutions that those outside the SBC family will not like, but this one drew immediate fire from within.
But as the debate continued, the Council of Seminary Presidents felt like a time came when they needed to respond to criticisms they were facing. In case you haven’t figured it out, our predominantly African-American churches appreciated and affirmed Resolution 9 as approved. The optics are not good when six white seminary presidents opine that Resolution 9 was not strong enough in its denunciation of CRT/I. Setting that aside, my point here is that they did it without having conversations with African-American leaders in SBC life. After the fact, the Seminary Presidents met with African-American leaders and the following is part of the public statement they issued: (emphasis added)
All of us acknowledge that conversations of this nature should have happened ahead of time. The Council of Seminary Presidents regrets the pain and confusion that resulted from a lack of prior dialogue. Together, all of us are committed to condemn and fight racism in every form, personal and structural, in consistency with the 1995 SBC Resolution on Racial Reconciliation and the Baptist Faith and Message. We commit to working together to serve the cause of and to further the work of the Southern Baptist Convention. We will continue these conversations. We are committed to listen to one another, speak honestly and to honor our common commitment to the inerrant Word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I do not share this to be critical of our seminary presidents, but rather to challenge ALL OF US. Jesus’ exhortation on His way to the cross echoes through my mind: “For if they do these things in the green wood, what will be done in the dry?” (Luke 23:31) Some general leadership principles apply here. One is if we as a leader do not include those who will be deeply impacted by the decisions we are considering, then we will have skipped a critical step in our decision-making process. Another is that groupthink within our leadership team will always generate blind spots. This is magnified by a third principle: if we become overconfident of our position and are continually unwilling to seek honest input from those whose opinions are different, then we have sentenced our ministry to a slow, painful death.
I am thankful that conversations are continuing. My prayer is that we will all step back, take a deep breath, and let God provide all of us with perspective. In the grand scheme of fulfilling the Great Commandments and Great Commission it is possible for us to win a battle but lose the war!
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
Mark is in his twenty-seventh year of serving as an Associational Missions Strategist. He served in western Iowa for almost eight years, and is in his nineteenth year with HCN. He has a passion to see pastors and church leaders grow in their abilities to lead their churches. He continues to have a heart and desire to see new churches planted and God continues to use his strategic thinking skills in this area. Mark also has a wealth of experience in helping churches clarify who God has created them to be, and what they can do best to reach their community. He has had ample opportunities to help churches in times of conflict, and has seen God do exciting things to restore a spirit of harmony, returning churches to a time of fruitfulness. He also helps churches in transition by working with search committees. Mark and Phyllis who were married in November of 2018 have four children and three grandchildren. They will enjoy their combined 87th anniversary in just a few days.