LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) faces a critical crossroads and must move into the future with denominational structures and methods open to change or face serious decline, the president of an SBC seminary said.
R. Albert Mohler Jr. spoke at a forum on the future of the SBC held Aug. 19 at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. (Video and audio of the forum) The school’s president said the SBC in 2009 continues to operate largely out of a model that the denomination adopted from corporate America in the early 20th century, a model that prioritizes efficiency over theological conviction in carrying out the task of missions.
“Certainly in business, efficiency can be a make-or-break word between profit and loss,” Mohler said, “but when it comes to missions and the work of our churches and the work of the Gospel around the world, efficiency has a limited application.
“What this really marked, more than anything else, was an infusion of a business culture into the life of the denomination. … Churches were now concerned with efficiency; decisions were made on the basis of efficiency.”
In the 1950s, the SBC underwent a restructuring calculated to bring greater denominational efficiency, Mohler said; this led to the adoption of a programmatic approach to ministry based more on corporate management practices than theology.
The approach worked because in those days the SBC largely held the evangelical franchise in the deep South and its programs were so vast that a Southern Baptist would develop a “tribal identity” that defined his church life from the cradle to the grave; Southern Baptist children would participate in all of the age-appropriate SBC programs from life until death, he said.
Though American culture, particularly in the Bible Belt, has changed profoundly, Mohler said the SBC has continued to operate out of a 1950s programmatic mentality. He compared the denomination to two American institutions: the General Motors Corporation (GM) and the shopping mall.
For most of the 20th century, more than half of all automobiles sold in America were manufactured by GM. While the car-buying culture changed in the late 20th century, GM continued to operate out of a business model that worked well in the 1950s. Now, the auto giant has declared bankruptcy and has ceased to be a publicly traded corporation.
Similarly, shopping malls exploded in number over the second half of the 20th century, but today, hundreds of the hulking complexes sit empty because businesses want to operate outside of malls so their storefronts will have increased visibility.
In the same way, Mohler said the SBC faces a bleak future if it continues to minister out of a business model from the 1950s instead of one driven by theological and missional concerns, neither of which is susceptible to the shifting currents of culture.
“The question we have to ask is the same question that General Motors should have been asking for the last 20 years: What has changed and why have we not?” Mohler said. “Or for those whose business is the shopping mall: Has the logic of this particular organizational pattern been eclipsed by something else?
“Are the people who are actually in our churches today and the people we are trying to reach today, are they attracted to that kind of logic or does it seem like an age gone by?”
Mohler said the SBC faces at least 10 questions, which he put in terms of dichotomies. He said Southern Baptists in the future will be either:
— Missiological or bureaucratic. The denomination will be driven by the work of the Gospel mission as set forth in Scripture or it will die a slow death along a path clogged by bureaucratic red tape.
“The missiological logic, I would suggest, is the only logic that fits the church of the Lord Jesus Christ,” he said. “Unless the SBC very clearly asserts an unashamed, undiluted and ruthless missiological logic, we are going to find ourselves out of touch with our churches, with the generation now coming into leadership and with the world we are trying to reach, because the logic of bureaucracy will never take us where we need to go.”
— Tribal or theological. The SBC must be driven by common doctrine and not a “cradle to death” ethos in which one is a Southern Baptist by virtue of being raised in a SBC church. The SBC “tribal identity” no longer exists because the cultural assumptions that underpinned such a nostalgic identity have disappeared, he said.
— Convictional or confused. The basis of cooperation among Southern Baptists must be a robust theology, Mohler said. Southern Baptists must not be afraid to discuss and even debate theology, he said. “If we avoid talking about theological issues, if we try to minimize the theological logic of this denomination … or if we make every issue a first-order issue, we are going to have a very confused people,” he said. “Southern Baptists are going to have to grow up theologically in this new age and we’re not going to have any choice. Southern Baptists are no longer going to be insulated from the theological and ideological currents around us.”
— Secular or sectarian. Southern Baptists are sectarian by their very nature, Mohler said. Because of their allegiance to Christ and Scripture, he said that they should be qualitatively different than the world in their mores, ideology and convictions. In the mid-20th century South, Southern Baptists did not have to be sectarian because they were “at home” within that culture, Mohler said, but no longer.
“The South became the Sun Belt and the primary religion of the Sun Belt is materialism,” he said. “We have gotten contamination from other worldviews and we are going to have to recover the sense that the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is always, in a New Testament sense, sectarian. It is going to be made up of resident aliens who are never fully at home in the culture because the culture itself is a Genesis 3 culture and the church is called to a different worldview under allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ.”
— Younger or dead. The SBC, Mohler said, is losing two-thirds of its young people between adolescence and adulthood. He said Southern Baptists must reach the younger generation with a theologically robust vision of the Christian life to rescue them from a deadly therapeutic ethos that says God wants their lives to be worry-free, prosperous and happy.
— Diverse or diminished. Mohler said studies show that by 2050, 25 percent of all Americans will have a Hispanic grandparent. The denomination will have to become more racially diverse to reach America, he said.
— Missional or more methodological. “For a long time when you asked the question, ‘Who is a Southern Baptist?’ you got a methodological answer,” Mohler said. “You got a certain historical answer, a certain minimal theological answer, but by and large, it was a methodological answer. By and large, that’s not going to be an option in the future. The church is not methodological but is deployed for the cause of the Gospel.”
— More strategic or more anemic. Southern Baptists must update their missions strategy at every level. Local churches will have to become individual missiological units to reach their communities, Mohler said. A fast-changing world demands that Southern Baptist be constantly rethinking their missions strategy.
— More bold or more boring. “This is a generation that is not going to be satisfied with boring,” Mohler said. “The kind of boring logic which is the same thing being said in roughly the same way every time — no surprises — is simply not going to work because that’s not the way the New Testament is. The mission of the Lord Jesus Christ is so bold that it can never be boring. … This means we are going to have to take risks.”
— Happy or bitter. The SBC has gained a reputation for denominational crankiness, Mohler said, adding that Southern Baptists often seem upset, angry and frustrated even while claiming to be happy.
“Crankiness often erupts on the floor of the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said. “We criticize people who are not even there. We raise issues as if this is where the SBC should direct its energies. … The risk here is that we will be cranky in all the wrong ways. If we stand by the Scriptures, we are going to have to say hard things to a culture around us that will consider us backward, unloving, intolerant, while having to stand by the truth. … We cannot afford to waste our energy on being cranky about things that are irrelevant and unhelpful and extraneous to the life of the SBC. When we gather together there had better be evident joy and there had better be a unity of purpose and a commonality of heart or people will stop coming.”
Regarding the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists’ unified giving plan, Mohler said the convention has perception problems and reality problems.
“We have problems in terms of the fact that we say we are sold out to missions and yet the closer you look at the actual infrastructure of the Southern Baptist Convention at every level and all the rest of you trace the dollars, only a small portion of that offering plate dollar ever gets close to the International Missions Board,” he said. “It’s a perception problem, but the closer you look it’s also where we have a lead problem.”
Mohler said Southern Seminary would not be viable without the money channeled through the Cooperative Program, but the plan in its current form is simply not enough.
“It’s not enough for two reasons. Number one, as it’s presented it sounds like our greatest goal is to cooperate. Well, the United States Army can have a Cooperative Program. This needs to be very clearly presented in both its ethos and its reality as a way of reaching the nations with the gospel of Christ, without having to explain what it is. Do we cooperate? Yes, and in 1925 (when the Cooperative Program was founded) the big question is whether the Southern Baptists are going to cooperate. The big question in 2009 is whether Southern Baptists are going to be relevant in the mission of God and the world.
“The second reason is because I just don’t believe we’re going to be able to tell Southern Baptist churches in a new age what you must do and how you must give,” Mohler said. “We’re going to have to at every level make sure that we are worthy of the support.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Baptist Press staff writer Erin Roach contributed to this article.)