LOUISVILLE, Ky.—Despite membership declines compounded by an apparent generation gap, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) faces a bright future, SBC President Johnny Hunt said June 23.
Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., met with reporters shortly after messengers to the SBC annual meeting re-elected him without opposition to a second year in the convention’s top post.
In the two months leading up to the annual meeting, Hunt called for the SBC to embark upon a Great Commission Resurgence as a way to counteract the convention’s malaise. The Great Commission was Jesus’ command to spread the gospel throughout the whole world.
Hunt collaborated with two SBC seminary presidents — Danny Akin of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Al Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — to promote formation of a Great Commission Task Force. That group would study the convention and recommend ways it can change in order to reach more people with the Christian gospel.
The proposal drew resistance from some older SBC institutional leaders and executives of some state Baptist conventions. They expressed concerns about a section of the recommendation that calls for “a commitment to a more effective convention structure.”
Hunt met with reporters later in same the day that Mohler presented the proposal to the convention and Akin affirmed it in a major address, as well as just a couple of hours before messengers overwhelmingly approved the task force.
“I think there is a sense of urgency” about facing the convention’s problems, Hunt said when asked about the SBC’s two-year drop in membership and scenarios that predict continuing decline.
“Everybody is talking the same talk — that we need this Great Commission Resurgence,” he noted. “We are saying, ‘The times have been desperate, but we have not been.’ But we’re hearing Southern Baptists say, ‘We need to be serious’” about revitalizing the convention and spreading the gospel.
“People are really speaking and sharing their hearts,” he said of the response he received from the Great Commission Resurgence proposal. “I’ve received international calls from missionaries, saying, ‘Don’t get discouraged; stay the task.’”
Hunt said he was “a little taken aback” when SBC Executive Committee President Morris Chapman mentioned him by name in a defense of the SBC status quo against the proponents of the Great Commission Resurgence.
Hunt and Chapman previously discussed the proposal for two hours in what Hunt called “civil communication.” He also had taken pains to reassure alarmed state convention executives, he added.
“I have no desire to touch the structure of the SBC,” Hunt said, noting he does not have authority to reorganize the convention, even if he wanted to.
Changing the convention structure is not his passion, he added. “I understand and respect the process of convention trustees. To try to usurp their authority would be the worst thing in the world I could do. …
“Whether we like it or not, we have allowed a good bit of mistrust to develop in the context of our convention. People feel our words are loaded: ‘What did you mean by that?’ Then you question one another’s intent or motive. Our yes should be yes, and our no should be no. I desire to be a man of character and integrity.”
Asked about his desired outcomes from the Great Commission Resurgence, Hunt mentioned allocating more money to fund missions efforts and also eliminating redundant ministries.
“Is overlap taking dollars that could be placed somewhere else to pierce the darkness with the gospel?” he asked.
The Great Commission Resurgence proposal produced positive results, even before it was put up for a vote, Hunt said.
Both of the convention’s missions agencies responded with positive actions, he said.
“The North America Mission Board is studying refocusing Great Commission ministry, and the International Mission Board is looking to save dollars,” he said, adding some state conventions also are studying how they fund state and national endeavors.
Also, the proposal attracted a crowd of young adults to the convention meeting, he said.
“I’m encouraged to see so many young leaders here,” he said, urging the SBC to “move beyond perception and begin to hear the tone of some of these young leaders. I am so encouraged go catch their passion.”
Hunt theorized resistance to the Great Commission Resurgence proposal reflected “a little bit of each” — a generation gap within the convention, as well as disagreements over methodology and church structure, and possibly even disagreements over how Christians should dress in worship and what kind of songs they should sing.
Addressing the generation gap, Hunt called on older Baptists to tune in to the younger generation. “Learn from them,” he said. “Stay abreast of them.”
Southern Baptists will rally to support the Great Commission Resurgence because they love missions, he said, predicting increased giving to the SBC’s Lottie Moon Offering for foreign missions.
“Southern Baptists are passionate about the Great Commission, “ he said. “They’ll rob both Peter and Paul to do the missions.”
Hunt promised to name a “very fair” roster of Great Commission Resurgence task force members. It includes two seminary presidents, a college president, a director of associational missions, three Executive Committee members and pastors of churches of various sizes, and it will reflect ethnic and geographical diversity, he said.
Ultimately, the response to Great Commission action is the prerogative of local churches, Hunt said, expressing confidence in that fact.
“I believe our best days are ahead of us. They can be,” he said. “I believe the Southern Baptist Convention is in a defining moment. We’re saying to our constituents, to 43,000 churches: ‘We need more money for church planting, for the Great Commission, to spur on in evangelism.’”
Responding to questions on other topics, Hunt said:
• Seattle megachurch pastor and non-Southern Baptist Mark Driscoll “stole the show” on the first day of the SBC meeting.
Driscoll and his Acts 29 church-planting movement have attracted a huge national following, particularly among young pastors. But he has drawn the ire of older generations, particularly for his use of profanity and discussion of vulgar topics, grunge dress and acceptance of alcohol use.
Several motions presented from the floor of the convention opposed Driscoll and chastised Southern Baptists for affiliating with him.
“I don’t know him; I’ve never met him,” Hunt said. “I do know a lot of young men like to follow his blogs and his podcasts.”
Hunt also said efforts to mandate that Southern Baptists shouldn’t work with Driscoll are out of line.
“The entire premise of being a Baptist is thrown under the bus when you start telling someone who they can fellowship with,” he said. “We believe in the priesthood of the believer.”
• Calvinism is “part of our history,” despite some messengers’ condemnation of the theological system named for the 16th century Christian reformer.
“This debate has been alive 400 years,” Hunt said, referencing the longstanding strain of Calvinism in Baptist life. “There are wonderful men and ladies on both sides. The Baptist tent is large enough for both.”
• Inviting President Barack Obama to speak to the SBC meeting would have been “unwise” this year.
Hunt said he was not aware that any invitation had been extended to Obama, even though George W. Bush consistently addressed the convention’s annual meetings through live broadcasts.
“We will have a resolution to really honor our president, especially in context of his being the first African-American person to be elected president,” Hunt said. “We have much to celebrate, but many conservative believers are troubled by his policies. So, it would have been unwise to invite him.”
The convention likewise did not invite Republican political leaders to address this year’s annual meeting “because we want to give our prayer support to our president,” he said.
• U.S. Christians don’t need to be worried about the possibility of being thrown in prison for preaching the gospel or accused of hate crimes for addressing moral issues.
“I’m not overly concerned (about that), especially if our preachers stay in the context of preaching biblical truth,” Hunt said. “But if the day comes when we would be in prison for preaching the gospel, we would join Christians in about two-thirds of the rest of the planet.”
U.S. Christians should not believe political resistance could prevent them from preaching the gospel, especially in light of the testimonies of faithfulness from so many of their sisters and brothers around the globe, he said.