Twenty years from now, historians are going to call the upcoming annual meeting a defining moment for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). It will determine if the SBC chooses to let the Great Commission and the gospel define its mission or if it will be seen as a geographical, cultural and political voting bloc. It will determine the basis for SBC unity.
At least that’s the position of James David Greear as he finishes his third year as SBC president. Greear’s association with the SBC presidency began in 2016 when he withdrew his candidacy after neither he nor Memphis pastor Steve Gaines broke the 50% threshold despite being the only two candidates. Add in an unexpected third year as president due to the cancellation of the 2020 annual meeting amid COVID-19, and Greear – better known as J.D. – has been a leading figure in Southern Baptist life for half a decade.
“We need to leave St. Louis united,” Greear told messengers five years ago before making the motion to elect Gaines by acclamation. Despite the current day’s divisions in the SBC, unity is a hope he not only holds on to, but sees tremendous evidence of.
“I’ve spoken at most state conventions across the country, and I see Southern Baptists who just want to be about the Great Commission and reaching our neighbors who aren’t like us,” Greear said. “Yes, we all have our political opinions and hold them differently. But our differences on secondary matters ought not be the defining reality of the church.”
That observation has come from his time with “rank and file Southern Baptists across America, whether in big cities or small, rural towns.” The focus, he observed, is on evangelism and missions and not “tertiary and secondary questions.”
“They want the main thing to be the main thing,” he said. “They recognize that our society is changing and diversifying. If we’re going to reach our society, our leadership is going to have to change with it.”
Greear cited the North American Mission Board’s (NAMB) report that 63% of its church plants are led by people of color. Fifty-one percent of the appointments he made to SBC committees are also people of color.
“When you see people stepping forward to lead, that’s a demonstration of God doing something,” he said. “He is pursuing a unity of diversity and unity of cause in the SBC that’s preparing to take us in the future of reaching all of our country with the gospel, not just people in one ethnicity and geographical area.”
According to Greear, the volume level of criticism during his presidency does not match his experience in actual number of critics. But it did lead to unexpected attention in other areas.
“You have a loud and vitriolic small minority that want our Convention to be about preserving the status quo or being divisive over secondary issues,” he said. “I joke that it’s like when Toto pulls back the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. This big, booming voice actually belongs to this one tiny man. That experience has actually been a pleasant surprise and given me hope.
“However, I wasn’t prepared for some of the cheap shots that came against me, particularly my church. People at The Summit couldn’t understand why everything we do is suddenly controversial. We’ve had others take out Facebook ads targeting church members and trying to sully my reputation.”
The SBC’s biggest challenges moving forward are going to begin with the basics, Greear said. That starts with how Southern Baptists see themselves and their mission.
“It’s going to depend on whether or not we’re a Great Commission people, if we’re basing our unity on that or if we’re going to be preservers of a geographical or cultural heritage,” he said. “I’m not talking about compromising on things like the sanctity of marriage, religious liberty or the sanctity of life. Those things are political, and we will always be clear on those things.
“God has not called the SBC, first and foremost, to save America politically. He’s called us to testify the gospel to all peoples. The rules of engagement are different as to your primary purpose, and that’s going to be a challenge going forward. Are we going to rally around the Great Commission? Are we going to reach those in all parts of the country, not just the red or blue parts?”
The focus, Greear said, should be on presenting and living out the gospel for a younger generation. Greear pointed to NAMB’s projection that by 2030, more than a third of Southern Baptist churches will be no more than 20 years old.
“I talk to younger pastors, Black pastors, Hispanic pastors all the time who are wondering why they should be a part of this Convention when there’s so much slander and distortion and exaggeration,” Greear said. “That’s going to be a challenge. If we’re going to posture ourselves in a spirit of the Pharisees that treats the traditions of men like they’re the commands of God and be preservers of the status quo, then at that point Jesus said you’re like a whitewashed tomb. The exterior is pretty but you’re filled with bones.
“If we don’t say we’re a Great Commission gospel people, we’re not only going to lose our [pastors of color], but the next generation of Southern Baptists.”
It is “absolutely” possible to address issues such as racial reconciliation and sexual abuse without placing the gospel in a secondary position, he said.
“Racial reconciliation is one of the fruits of gospel transformation,” Greear said. “We always say that vertical reconciliation leads to horizontal transformation. It’s also evangelistic for us. Are we just going to be a church for southern Republicans? Or are we going to be a Convention that reaches everybody? Churches that are seeking to fulfill the Great Commission should reflect the diversity of their communities and proclaim the diversity of the kingdom.
“Sexual abuse is the same thing. What kind of gospel are we preaching that doesn’t lead to us protecting the most vulnerable in our congregation?”
He added that it is always possible to place a fruit of the gospel above preaching the gospel, and is something that must be guarded against. But “in this day and age we’ve got to focus on areas where the gospel is transforming us. That means how we relate to people around us who aren’t like us as well as to how we protect the most vulnerable.”
Greear said that type of witness in no way includes a compromise on biblical fidelity, but the opportunity to provide a living example of it. An SBC that “loves Baptist doctrine, God’s Word and the Great Commission” doesn’t bend on pro-life positions, religious liberty or issues related to the sanctity of marriage or God’s design for gender, Greear said.
He further confirmed that “without caveat” The Summit Church, all SBC entity heads, state convention executives, SBC officers and other leaders affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, the exclusivity of Christ and the inerrancy and sufficiency of scripture. Those standards and following the example of Christ are crucial for how the SBC will progress.
“Jesus taught us this when He went to the cross, though in the form of God He considered himself a servant,” Greear said. “That is the mission.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Scott Barkley is national correspondent for Baptist Press.)