The SBC Organization Manual states that NAMB “exists to work with churches, associations, and state conventions in mobilizing Southern Baptists as a missional force to impact North America with the Gospel of Jesus Christ through evangelism and church panting.” However, over the last ten years, NAMB’s shift from the historic convention partnership model to a societal top-down model has created significant relational challenges because of the way they work in new work states. Things came to a head in June of 2020 as NAMB made more unilateral changes to the cooperative agreements with new work conventions.
Ten years after the GCRTF report was approved, which called for those cooperative agreements to end in seven years, additional changes that would have to extend the agreements through September 2023 resulted in a letter being sent to NAMB and the Executive Committee by six new work area state convention executives. The letter basically asked the Executive Committee to mediate ongoing issues they were experiencing with NAMB. Other new work state executives had concerns, but they were working towards a more conciliatory letter. Here is a link to that letter: Letter to NAMB from New Work Area States
NAMB officers offered a response a few days later. Here is a link to that letter: NAMB Responds
On separate occasions, the SBC Executive Committee staff and officers met and discussed the various issues with both parties. In January 2021 the Executive Committee issued a white paper entitled “Cooperation is the Way Forward.”
Shortly thereafter, NAMB trustees approved a resolution in response to the white paper. RESOLUTION OF THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES ON COOPERATION AND MISSIONAL STRATEGY
A few of you will be interested enough in the topic that you will take time to read the information on the above links. For the rest of you let me simply say that the issues remain unresolved. NAMB and the new work conventions have struggled to figure out how to work together with or without cooperative agreements. I would ask you to pray that the core values and the seven principles mentioned in last week’s article will actually take root.
The issues we face with SBC home missions are not new and are very complex, and they will require humility, confession, and divine intervention before we can move forward in a true spirit of cooperation. I have observed a number of strategic principles being misapplied in the last ten years that have contributed to our current environment. Here are two of them—more will follow in subsequent articles:
NAMB’s third president arrived acting like there were no healthy associations or state conventions in the new work area, and that NAMB 3.0 would do it right. That is a bit ironic since NAMB’s two previous presidents resigned under pressure, and the GCRTF report’s recommendations primarily addressed NAMB’s ineffectiveness. Jesus gave us all some counsel about trying to remove the speck from someone else’s eye when we have a beam in our own (Matt 7:5)
Because of our polity, most of the ineffectiveness has to be treated with benign neglect. That is until the unhealthy are ready to address their problems, or there is a leadership transition. What we can do in the meantime is focus our time and energy on supporting and partnering with the healthy among us and celebrating what God is doing in their midst. If that celebration enlightens, encourages, or convicts the unhealthy among us, then to God be the glory.
In the business world, the financial crunch of inefficient and unaffordable structures are eliminated by bankruptcies, structural changes, or acquisitions. In the government world, politicians simply raise our taxes and ignore the structural problems. In the church world, it usually takes a major intervention or financial collapse before we are willing to make necessary changes. A great example of healthy organizational intervention is recorded for us in Exodus 18 where Jethro gave wise counsel to his son-in-law Moses.
One example of how we expanded structure is how we dealt with the overwhelming geographical challenges in some of our new work states. Over time the five states that formed the Northern Plains Convention were transformed into four separate state conventions: Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas (North and South together). The new conventions solved a huge geographic challenge, but they also created a financial burden as they staffed a traditional structure in each convention. In 2010, those conventions had a staffing structure that was not financially sustainable without continued NAMB support—and the GCRTF report’s approval meant those dollars were going to disappear.
God is still in the redemption business. To be able to join Him in His work, we must all be willing to seek “True Wisdom.” That is not only the wisdom from above that is found in scripture, but it is also the wisdom we can glean from past successes and failures. I will point to additional strategies I have learned from the school of hard knocks in the days ahead.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Last week I began to shift our focus from SBC Home Missions History into the current events world. But before I set out a series of events that have been ten years in the making and that have now elevated the conflicts between NAMB and new work states onto the national stage, let me share principles and practices I have learned from reading and experiencing that history. Every organization will rise and fall on the basis of its leadership. When a church or any SBC entity is struggling, its current leadership has to change before it will experience effectiveness. That change usually comes in one of two ways: 1) Current leaders have a truly changed heart and mind—God is always in the redemption business, or 2) A new leader arrives who is able to cast vision, build relationships, and develop and implement effective strategies.
My choice has always been to pray and work for option number one, with the realization that changed hearts are the purview of God. I have suggested that the current tensions between new work conventions and NAMB are the result of missteps by current and former leaders. I also suggested that litigating those errors is not as beneficial as learning from them and changing our hearts and minds so we can move forward with God-honoring cooperative efforts. With that in mind, let me share some principles I’ve learned:
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
My last article brought our historical pilgrimage to June 2010, and the approval of The Great Commission Resurgence Task Force’s Report (GCRTF). What I didn’t point out is that the report was issued and approved while the North American Mission Board (NAMB) was in the process of seeking its third President—the two previous presidents’ tenures had not ended well. Kevin Ezell began to serve as NAMB’s president in September 2010 with the specific task of implementing the GCRTF’s recommendations. Those circumstances were very similar to the situation Bob Reccord stepped into in 1997 when the convention adopted the Covenant for a New Century which combined the Home Mission Board, Brotherhood Commission, and the Radio and Television Commission and renamed it NAMB. In both cases, major changes were made. However, in spite of all the early changes made under Reccord’s leadership, after a few years, NAMB looked a lot like HMB did. Long-term change didn’t occur.
Most new work leaders “assumed” that what had happened under Reccord’s leadership would happen under Ezell’s: changes will occur, but over time, the home mission’s work will end up looking like it always had. But that didn’t happen! As I describe the significant changes that have taken place, I will attempt to be balanced. But again I will confess that my perspective is shaped by my experiences. I am a third-generation Wyomingite who was born before a single SBC church existed in the state. At the age of sixteen, I moved with my family to Oklahoma where I joined FBC Vinita. I became an active church member, deacon, lay pastor, and seminary student and lived for twenty years in two old-line states (Oklahoma and Texas). I have served as pastor, director of missions, and a church starter strategist in two new work states for the last thirty-plus years (Iowa and Nebraska). Through those years I have been blessed with countless learning opportunities, primarily funded by NAMB. They have sharpened my God-given abilities. I can state that the newly adopted title Associational Mission Strategist (AMS) aptly describes how God gifted me, and how I have been equipped to function in my role.
From a strategic perspective, what happened in our association is what I “assume” the GCRTF “assumed” would happen in most situations. My dual role as a DoM/Church Starter Strategist slowly shifted as NAMB “assumed” leadership over SBC church planting. Fully funded NAMB Church Planter Catalysts began to lead church planting, and my time was freed to do more in the leadership development and church health areas. However, the reality is that our association is one of the very few in the new work states that was actually able to pick up the slack as NAMB support was eliminated over time.
The net results of these changes are that I am now the only full-time AMS that is supported solely by his association in the following nine states: Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. There are seven state conventions represented in this nine-state region, and each of them has also experienced a steep decline in the number of full-time staff. Ten years ago over thirty full-time, dual-role, and jointly funded men served associations in those states. Three associations that geographically bordered ours have disbanded in recent years (two in Iowa and one in Nebraska). The two remaining associations in Nebraska have pastors who serve as volunteer coordinators. Our association’s geographic region expanded to an area the size of South Carolina and larger than ten other states.
An analogy I have used to describe what happened is not flattering. In 2010 our SBC family had a lot of children and teenagers—(24) and a few adult offspring (17)—I am speaking of organizational not spiritual maturity. For years and years, the parents and adult offspring had provided nice credit cards for the children and teens with very few strings attached. One day they told all the children and teens that over the next seven years their credit limit was going to be gradually reduced to zero, and then they would be on their own. Some of the children were toddlers and seven years was not going to be long enough for them to be able to live on their own. Some of the children and teens didn’t believe it would happen, so they didn’t prepare. A very few heard and began to prepare for a new day when they would be on their own. Some of them were mature enough to make the transition with minimal impact.
What I just described in numerical changes and via an analogy directly impacted the lives of hundreds of individuals, their spouses, and their families. Although the changes created minimal impact in my life, I have many friends who still carry deep scars because of what happened to them and their families. I could expend a lot of energy placing blame, and there is plenty of that to go around, but we can’t go back and change history. So, how do we move forward?
I will suggest two big things that will help us. First is we must acknowledge that our home mission’s work has ALWAYS struggled! It can only be as strong as our desire to be cooperative and as our wisdom to do it well. Second, we must actually embrace the eight Core Values that were listed in the GCRTF report adopted at the 2010 SBC Convention. We can’t just “assume” they will be true. Those values are:
Next week I will identify current events that have moved the tensions between NAMB and new work conventions into the broader SBC world. I will also begin to identify specific leadership principles and strategies that we can use to mitigate our challenges in the days ahead.
15Pages 7-8 of the Draft Final Report of the GRCTF, April 26, 2010
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
In the last two articles we have been on a high-speed run through SBC history with a specific look at our home missions work. As we turned the last curve, we found ourselves in 1961 celebrating the fact that we had finally fulfilled the vision cast in 1845 of being a national convention of churches. I pointed out that Southern Baptists did not become a national convention based upon our great mission strategy but because of the migration of former southerners. The churches they planted were predominantly for white folks who had a Southern Baptist background. I have worked with a significant number of ethnic churches, and the early SBC churches in the new work states could best be described as “ethnic churches.” They were ethnically southern and many emphasized the point by naming their church First Southern Baptist Church—which is on the cornerstone of our current office building.
Because the vast majority of the churches in those new work states are main line churches (Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.) and members of the SBC churches went door-to-door like the Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses, we were viewed as cults. Our worship services were also VERY different—even different from other established evangelical churches in the area: public invitations at the end of each service, informal and highly relational worship style (a lot of hugging and chatting before and after services), and unusual terminology and speech patterns (ministers were called “Brother” and not “Pastor,” they used southern idioms, and had a southern drawl). If that wasn’t enough, ecclesiological issues surfaced because SBC churches had a strong emphasis on congregational polity, individual church autonomy, Sunday School for adults as well as children, and we used lay pastors. AND, we had worship services on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night and did revival services. For a more in depth description of the challenges we faced, follow the link describing SBC expansion in the Upper Midwest.
However, by the 1980s some of the new work areas began to see the number of SBC churches and church membership numbers plateau, and in a few cases, even decline. The strategy of congregationalizing former southerners who had migrated north and west had run its course. Most Southern Baptists still live where there are a lot of SBC churches and a lot of other Baptists and evangelical churches. But in the new work areas ALL Baptists combined number far less than five percent of the total population and in most areas ALL evangelicals combined are around ten percent. So, the Great Commission was not going to be fulfilled by just starting churches of, by, and for people with a Baptist or evangelical background. We needed to figure out how to become missionaries and be willing to move out of our southern AND our Baptist comfort zone.
It was time for new mission strategies to be developed! Some new work conventions recognized the need for change and began to make adjustments in their strategies. However, the reality is that because of our theology, polity, and multi-level cooperative partnerships making necessary changes is hard. Even when everyone agrees changes need to be made, there will be differences of opinion on what those changes should be, how and when they should be made, and who has the ultimate authority to make those decisions. For good measure we can also throw in the reality that in church life unless the changes are implemented with great skill and tact they will ALWAYS cause push back and pain!
Conversations that should have begun decades before were suddenly forced upon churches, associations, and conventions in the new work areas when the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force (GCRTF) issued its initial report in February 2010. That report called into question the effectiveness of the historic partnership model: “The North American Mission Board and the state conventions have operated for several decades by what is called cooperative agreements and cooperative budgets. Through the years they have become complex and at times cumbersome, resulting in a lack of accountability.”12 In light of no or slow growth in many new work areas, the report also questioned who should be in charge of strategy development. “NAMB must become the leader in our strategy to reach North America.”13 The reality is that Southern Baptists had worked in a cooperative/partnership relationship since 1845 with the local churches through their associations and state conventions taking the lead role in strategy development.
What Southern Baptists in the traditional southern states did not understand at the time was that our International Board and NAMB have always functioned very differently. A career missionary who serves through our International Mission Board is fully supported by the Board. Those missionaries function unilaterally in areas where there is little or no Christian work. In other words, they work like missionaries appointed by societies rather than conventions, because there are no local churches, associations, or conventions with whom they can partner.
By contrast, only a very small percentage of those who were “NAMB appointed field missionaries” in 2010 were fully supported by the Board. If you were a church planter you had financial support from a sponsoring church, the local association, the state convention, co-sponsoring churches, and NAMB. If you were serving in the dual role of a Director of Missions/Church Starter Strategist, your position was funded by the association, state convention, and NAMB. There were even specific state convention positions that were jointly funded by NAMB and the state convention. The level of NAMB support for a given role depended upon the strength of the church, association, and the state convention. Historically SBC’s home mission work was partnership based.
The Task Force did not recommend that historic relationship agreements be renegotiated, but that they should be eliminated. “Therefore, at the end of four years [final language was seven], the North American Mission Board will be completely free from these present agreements.”14 Their recommendation, when it was approved at the SBC Annual Meeting in June 2010, created a nationalized model for doing home missions (more of a societal model) and caused a 1800 shift in who had the authority to set strategy.
With these realities in mind, what changes would you have envisioned taking place? What impact could they have on churches, associations, and state conventions in the new work areas?
12Page 20 of the Progress Report of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force of the Southern Baptist Convention, February 22, 2010
14Pages 21-22 of the Progress Report of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force of the Southern Baptist Convention, February 22, 2010
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
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
Last week I opened my discussion of Resolution 9 by suggesting that our cultural diversity has created much of the controversy that has surrounded it. I also encouraged you to review several web-links that give us a history of how we got to our current point of contention. Another area that has fueled the fire has been our definition of terms--and remember your culture informs your definitions.
In the early first century, the accepted definition for the Hebrew word Messiah was that of a conquering king. However, after the execution of Jesus of Nazareth as a blasphemer and a heretical teacher, there arose a sect of Judaism called The Way. They believed that this man Jesus was also God and that He rose from the dead. They pointed to a multitude of OT passages that described the Messiah as both a suffering servant and a conquering king, and claimed that Jesus would soon be coming back as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
This teaching was also viewed as heretical and it drove a Pharisee by the name of Saul to zealously pursue men and women who had become involved in the group called the Way. Luke describes his attitude and actions in Acts 9:1-2:
Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem
As Luke continues his narrative, we read of a miraculous encounter that transformed the persecuting Pharisee Saul into the great missionary to the Gentiles we call the Apostle Paul.As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. (Acts 9:3-5a)
Saul’s definition of the Messiah was forever altered. This self-identified Pharisee of the Pharisees began to tell everyone he encountered about The REAL Messiah. How we define things is important. Defining terms reminds me of my seminary days. Having enrolled in a Masters of Divinity program with my undergraduate Bachelors of Science in Agricultural Economics, I quickly discovered that my vocabulary was limiting me. I came to realize that the only college experience I had that really prepared me for seminary was the fact that I had learned the Greek alphabet when I pledged a Greek Fraternity. I found myself studying in the library and strategically positioning myself close to the thickest dictionary I have ever seen. The first year, I got a lot of exercise jumping up and walking to that dictionary. Unfortunately, there were times when the word I sought wasn’t there. A scholar had used a Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or German word “assuming” anyone who would be reading his thoughts would automatically know what the word meant. Sidebar comment: that dictionary had a ton of words, but I don’t recall a single one of them having only one definition.
That experience helped me to see that every area of study will have its own vocabulary. Each field of study is filled with acronyms and insider insights with accompanying stories that are specifically related to their work world. Each discipline develops a unique culture and language. This complicates conversations especially when different areas of study use the same word but assign a very different meaning. Because all of us tend to “assume” that everyone defines words as we do, no one stops to define terms in the middle of a conversation. A couple of simple examples: For someone in the Audubon Society a crane is a bird in the waterfowl family. If you’re a construction worker a crane is a piece of equipment used to reach high places. For a doctor, the word arm is a noun referring to a part of the human anatomy. While someone in the military will use the word arm as a verb to describe the process of providing someone with military equipment.
Let me suggest that part of our difficulty in discussing Resolution 9 is related to a difference in the definition of terms. Theologians are talking about terms developed and defined by Sociologists who are studying discriminatory laws: Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality. I am NOT saying that we cannot understand theories developed by another field of study. What I am saying is that we can easily develop an incomplete definition if we have not taken time to dive deeply into theories developed by another academic discipline.
Pastor Stephen Feinstein submitted a resolution at the 2019 SBC Meeting which contained strong language stating his belief that “critical race theory and intersectionality (CRT/I) are founded upon unbiblical presuppositions descended from Marxist theories and categories, and therefore are inherently opposed to the Scriptures as the true center of Christian union.” Pastor Feinstein seems to view CRT/I as having been developed in the field of Political Science rather than Sociology. Remember, I suggested in an earlier article that politics DOES play a negative part in how Southern Baptists view current events.
The resolution committee, which was a culturally diverse committee, modified his original resolution to include phrases like “Critical race theory and intersectionality have been appropriated by individuals with worldviews that are contrary to the Christian faith, resulting in ideologies and methods that contradict Scripture.” The final resolution, as approved, included four separate Whereas and four separate Be it resolved clauses that affirmed in one way or another the sole sufficiency of scripture. The strongest stated “That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, June 11–12, 2019, affirm Scripture as the first, last, and sufficient authority with regard to how the Church seeks to redress social ills, and we reject any conduct, creeds, and religious opinions which contradict Scripture.”
My guess is that if you began reading this article with a strong opinion on Resolution 9, then you still hold that opinion. I would just encourage you to hold it with humility, and I would remind you of the provisos I mentioned in my first two articles. My prayer is that as we encounter difficult topics and conversations in the future that we are more careful and kind as we begin to clarify the definition of keywords we are using. All words have multiple meanings!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.