After a six-year hiatus, I attended the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) held last summer in Phoenix, Arizona. I wasn’t boycotting, but five years ago I became the pastor of a church that was in a bit of a rebuilding season. We really didn’t have the money to send me to conferences or conventions. The church even took out a line of credit (by faith of course) when they called me, just in case things got too tight. Thankfully, we never touched it.
So it had been a while since we made financial contributions to the SBC, and many of the members and attenders had no allegiance to our Southern Baptist roots, which date back to our beginning in 1900. The church was not against the SBC, but most people were fairly indifferent. Expectedly, they joined the church because of its ministry to them or their family or because of significant relationships, rather than our denominational affiliation. Some admittedly even joined despite our SBC ties.
So starting at zero, we began to increase our Cooperative Program and other missions giving. We developed church planting partnerships with Baptists in Nicaragua and Southeast Asia as well as a North American Mission Board (NAMB) church planter in Portland, Oregon. As financially fragile as we were, I remembered how the impoverished Macedonia church had begged the apostle Paul to allow them give to the church in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 8).
Sacrificial giving and Gospel-centered partnerships are marks of a healthy church. The worst thing we could have done is to circle the wagons and focus only on our needs. So we determined to engage, to give, to pray, and to go in order to support the bigger work of Southern Baptists in our community and around the world.
There are many wonderful church planting networks and mission sending agencies, so why the Southern Baptist Convention? Why a denomination at all? Could we not go non-denominational like many churches do? These are great questions, so full-disclosure here: I’ve had a personal connection with Southern Baptists all of my life. I grew up in a SBC church, was saved and baptized in a SBC church, was educated at SBC seminaries, and have served SBC churches for the last 25 years. But like many pastors and church leaders in my generation, I have had my share of doubts about the SBC along the way. I’ve questioned our polity, our efficiency, and even our financial priorities. There was a time I questioned our missiology as well. And I’m still not crazy about our name.
Yet through all my reservations, I’m convinced God still believes in the Southern Baptist Convention and has given us a unique, even historical, opportunity to advance Jesus’ Kingdom in this generation. I’ll answer the following five questions to explain.
Why the Southern Baptist Convention?
We live, as many have noted, between two worlds. God created us, we are responsible to Him, and heaven is our home; and yet we are surrounded by humanity and called to love our neighbors as long as we are on earth. This space between what is and what will be is significant, and requires of Christians both grace and truth. It calls for fidelity to theological foundations as we nurture a first love relationship with God as well as a compassion for all people.
Our human tendency is to make this an either-or proposition. Either we are faithful to God, and against the people around us who are not. Or we prefer popularity with people while discounting to some degree the will and ways of God.
Rather than embrace the tension between fidelity to God and love of neighbor, churches and denominations also tend to lean one way or the other. Either they are driven by the seekers they hope to attract or by the orthodoxy they hope to preserve. We are only humans, so getting this exactly right is impossible, but it seems Southern Baptists have historically and still currently hold these two priorities in tension as well as any evangelical body in the world.
Our statement of faith, known as the Baptist Faith and Message, affirms the core of historical biblical orthodoxy. Southern Baptists believe the Bible is inspired by God; not that it is just inspirational, but, rather that it is God-breathed. The way we read it, interpret it, and apply it flows out of that basic conviction. The result of this theologically robust disposition is a thoroughly Gospel-driven way of life. In other words, we believe the purpose of the Bible is to introduce Jesus to every man, woman, boy, and girl on the planet for the glory of God.
Southern Baptists believe the Bible is inspired by God; not that it is just inspirational, but, rather that it is God-breathed.
God created the world and He made all of us in His image to have a relationship with Him. We sinned against God, and our sin separated us from Him leading to death and corruption. But God loves us and sent His perfect Son Jesus (fully God and fully man) to redeem us and to rescue us from our sin through His sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection, securing new and eternal life for everyone who trusts in Him as Lord. One day soon, God will restore all of creation to Himself where every follower of Jesus will be with Him eternally, while everyone who dies in their sin will be separated from God bearing eternal judgment for their sin.
The Gospel’s truth leads Southern Baptists to a Gospel urgency to share Jesus with everyone on planet earth, which motivates an intentional and Spirit-led missiology leading to cultural engagement, evangelism, and church planting efforts in North America and around the world. So as we make disciples of Jesus, we are not simply asking people to affirm a set of beliefs, we are calling people to follow Jesus and to join His mission to redeem the world.
The Gospel’s truth leads Southern Baptists to a Gospel urgency to share Jesus with everyone on planet earth.
What is the value of a denomination?
Even the word, “denomination” is hard to say, and for many of us, it’s hard to see the value of trying. There was a time building institutions was in vogue. Coming out of World War II, we understood the need for institutions that would create stability and produce economic opportunities. So the idea of religious institutions seemed quite natural as well. As we entered the 1950’s and 60’s, however, Americans began experimenting with moral freedoms, which pushed back against religious institutionalism. Many suggest President Nixon’s Watergate scandal of the early 1970’s was a turning point where we learned to distrust institutions altogether.
With technology, transportation, and economic prosperity moving us around with great speed in the 80’s and 90’s, institutions appeared sluggish, out of touch, and incredibly vulnerable to corruption. So many of us just stepped away from corporate America, civic and government involvement, and the church. We decided, even if at a subconscious level, that going it alone was better than trying to get along with others.
So many churches went “non-denom,” believing their independence would free them up from the constraints of cooperation to fulfill their mission. Many, but definitely not all, of these churches blossomed. While revealing many of the errors of institutional traditionalism, these churches reminded us of the value of clear leadership, creativity, and cultural relevance. They reached many previously unchurched people, and renewed our hope that Jesus saves anyone who trusts in Him.
At the same time, the “non-denom” churches discovered they produced who they were. The independence they celebrated became the independence their attenders practiced. So those who attended the church were not always ready to invest in the church. Church membership became an out-of-style constraint producing a non-accountable, non-measurable approach to making and reproducing disciples of Jesus. Willow Creek Community Church, an iconic church that led the way in this movement, has since admitted the fallacy of this approach.
Another interesting result of the “non-denom” movement was the emergence of church networks. Ironically, “non-denom” churches discovered the value of cooperating with other like-minded churches to accomplish the Gospel mission. Eventually, many of these churches aligned with multiple networks and some now have joined historical denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention. Flagship churches like The Village Church led by Matt Chandler, Harvest Bible Chapel led by James MacDonald, and most recently Harvest Church in Southern California led by Greg Laurie have renewed their relationship or newly joined the SBC. These churches, and others like them, have alliances with other networks, but see value in partnering with Southern Baptists.
Despite the amazing resources available, no church regardless of size or status is good enough to go it alone. The New Testament missiology of planting local, autonomous, neighborhood churches is still as relevant as ever, but that approach includes cooperation with other local, autonomous, neighborhood churches.
The apostle Paul wrote letters for a network of cooperating churches. These churches raised money, prayed, and sent missionaries with one another and for one another in order to win souls and plant churches.
The Kingdom of God is too precious, the mission of God is too big, and the need in the world is too critical for any of us to go it alone. So SBC churches cooperate with other like-minded churches to make disciples of Jesus among every nation, tribe, and tongue.
How does a church participate?
Meaningful ministry happens through sacrificial, accountable relationships, and that is how a church participates in the SBC. We are not connected through an ecclesiastical hierarchy like our Methodist or Presbyterian friends. Autonomous Southern Baptist churches voluntarily cooperate with each other at the local level through associations, at the state level through state conventions, and then through the SBC, which is the national organization.
We cooperate in three primary ways:
Participating churches give to the SBC through what is called the Cooperative Program. Normally, churches give a percentage of their offering receipts to their state convention which then sends a portion of that on to national causes. The SBC does not require churches to give a specific amount or percentage. These contributions fund global missions, seminary education, and local church support. You can see more details on the Cooperative Program here.
Southern Baptist churches network together to share the Gospel, make disciples, and plant churches around the world. That means local churches build relationships and directly support the work of new church plants through prayer, funding, and special projects. We regularly pray for missionaries, we engage in mission education, we encourage our church members to send their children to Southern Baptist universities and seminaries, we participate in church revitalization, and we send missionaries and church planters through our mission agencies.
Healthy partnerships require more than a cursory nod of agreement. Southern Baptist churches participate by finding a way to be involved in the process. Institution building may have lost its shine, but it is just as important as ever. The next generation needs this generation to be involved in defining what is important and how we will accomplish the mission of God. This means we encourage church members to serve on committees, attend meetings, and engage in discussions. We cannot do everything, but we must do our part.
Why is the SBC important to individual Christians?
Many of us who are members of or attend a Southern Baptist church do not naturally think of ourselves in terms of our denominational affiliation. We are Christians who love our church, but we do not quickly see the relevance of the SBC in our daily lives. In one way, that is healthy. Denominational loyalties can turn us into religious elites who exclude others as we find our self-worth in an institution rather than in Christ. Those self-righteous attitudes are sinful and hurtful to the Kingdom, and require quick and consistent repentance.
On the other hand, denominations mean something, not just to churches, but also to individual Christians. First, our relationship with the SBC gives us the benefit of wise counsel as we approach the Bible. It’s misguided to think we can interpret and apply the Bible to our lives while neglecting the last 2000 years of church history. The SBC affirms a well-orbed biblical orthodoxy that is essential for human flourishing and for the faithful propagation of the Gospel now and for the generation to come.
It’s misguided to think we can interpret and apply the Bible to our lives while neglecting the last 2000 years of church history.
Further, our partnership with 50,000 other SBC churches as well as two mission organizations, six seminaries, a cultural engagement entity, state conventions, local associations, and a host of subsidiary organizations, is a steward of trust.
Missionaries who are serving in the hard places are counting on us. We have a responsibility to the students at the Baptist colleges and seminaries. Our giving helps make their Christian education possible. Kids being rescued by one of our Baptist children’s homes need us to be faithful. Disaster Relief coordinators need to know we are with them. The church planters in inner city Chicago, in trendy Portland, in the desert city of Phoenix, or in the harsh winter land of Maine answered God’s call on their lives with the confidence that we would be with them. Being a part of something bigger than ourselves is more than a benefit to us, it is a responsibility to the something bigger.
Cooperation sanctifies us to seek Jesus and His Kingdom with biblical fidelity and genuine love for the glory of God.
Finally, the SBC affects us personally by providing a pathway for us to make an impact in the world. It answers questions like, “What can I do?” “How can I make a difference?” “Where can I give financially?” “Where should my children go to college or seminary?” “How can I serve the widow and orphan, and protect the most vulnerable among us?” “How can I revitalize or start a church?” The SBC offers amazing opportunities for personal involvement in Kingdom living. Whether we want to volunteer or serve vocationally, we can join the mission of God by running on the tracks Southern Baptists have built for us.
The SBC, like every other religious organization, is only composed of fallen human beings. But we are more than fallen; by grace we are redeemed by God, called by God, and empowered by the Spirit of God to make the glory of Jesus and the beauty of the Gospel known to the ends of the earth.
We are not perfect, but cooperation is a sanctifying work that allows this diverse lot to seek Jesus and His Kingdom with biblical fidelity, unity, and Christian love for the good of the world and the glory of God.
It’s a privilege to partner with Southern Baptists as we honor the giants of our faith who have gone before us, make disciples of Jesus of those around us, and build a godly legacy for those who come behind us.
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