The voices of Southern Baptists who journal their opinions via Internet Weblogs have wielded notable influence lately within the world’s largest evangelical denomination and have attracted attention without.
After SBC President Frank Page’s resounding election at the 2006 annual meeting in Greensboro, N.C., news of the bloggers’ clout graced the pages of the Washington Post and Time magazine, The Guardian of London and other notable journals. But even prior to Greensboro Baptist bloggers were making noise within the family.
With the 2004 national elections, blogging was cast into the media limelight, with political blogs gaining mention from mainstream media sources. Dictionary producer Merriam-Webster declared “blog” the 2004 word of the year.
Within the SBC, International Mission Board trustee Wade Burleson, an Enid, Okla., pastor, has been restricted from committee assignments until he issues public apologies for allegedly blogging inaccurately about fellow board members on his blog? kerussocharis.blogspot.com. His blogging also prompted an early 2006 board vote to restrict trustees from publicly criticizing board actions.
In late 2005 Burleson began citing his disagreement on his blog about new IMB qualifications for missionary candidates, and to allege that fellow board members violated board rules by misusing pre-meeting social conversations to strategize about board business.
At the SBC annual meeting, messengers asked the IMB to do a thorough internal investigation and to present its findings during the 2007 SBC annual meeting.
Referencing the Burleson matter, fellow IMB trustee Lonnie Wascom told the TEXAN that the newness of Internet communications and blogging are somewhat threatening and strange to the older generation of trustees who think of communication in terms of face to face, telephone or letters.
The newness, the lack of accountability, the ability to post anonymous responses on blogs, and the tendency to forego the “old rules of attribution” are some of the challenges that IMB trustees have experienced in the blogging world, Wascom said.
While Burleson sticks by the accuracy of the information he has posted and has offered to retract anything that can be proved inaccurate, Wascom said Christian bloggers should be held to an even higher standard of not only accuracy but also wise judgment.
The Louisiana trustee cautioned bloggers, “Always honor confidentiality. So many items we deal with at the IMB involve personnel in sensitive areas of the world. Indiscriminate posting of materials can potentially put lives at risk.”
Wascom continued, “It wouldn’t hurt for a blogger to ask someone in administration, for example, about the appropriateness of posting an item involving actual missions personnel before putting it out for anyone with a Google search engine to know about. If I say something and a blogger wishes to quote me, he should make certain it is quoted accurately and follows all rules of attribution. Then, because we are supposed to be brothers and sisters in Christ and always looking out for the good of others, go to a higher level and double check with me (or any other trustee or other person) before posting.”
Some benefits of blogging noted by Wascom include the ability to root out confusion and disperse information quickly to large numbers. “Information is power,” he said.
After six months of hosting a blog about IMB issues, California IMB trustee Jerry Corbaley called it quits a few weeks ago, preferring to offer articles and discussion about other issues at www.missionsconnexion.com.
“I still think all SBC organizations must adopt procedures to rapidly address rumors, regardless of what type of media are involved,” Corbaley wrote. “There comes a time when groups polarize to an extent that rationality is a casualty. Our prejudices blind us to the meaning of one another’s words.”
While believing thousands of Christian blogs address relevant issues in positive ways, Corbaley expressed frustration that the reputation of blogging is being formed by what he claims is the most radical element.
“The polarization between this tiny fraction of Southern Baptists and the vast majority of Southern Baptists over IMB issues is too far advanced for me to have any positive effect through participating in the public discussion of issues,” he wrote.
Corbaley cautioned against missionaries sharing concerns in an open online forum, believing such an approach spreads doubt.
“Shouldn’t the blogging of concerns only follow a patient and effective attempt to resolve differences within the ‘system’?” Corbaley asked.
In a press conference following his election to the SBC presidency, Frank Page referenced the role of bloggers, noting that though bloggers are few in number, a growing number of decision makers who do not participate in blogs are reading them.
“Leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention do read those blogs to try to get a barometer of what certain subgroups are thinking or saying.”
Uncertain of the role they played in the election of an SBC president, Page said the amount of media attention given to bloggers gave them “perhaps an inordinate amount of influence” that he labeled “a growing force in denominational life.”
Jerry Sutton, who ran against Frank Page and Ronnie Floyd in the three-way SBC presidential election, cited bloggers as one of many factors in the election results. He stated, “Their ability to provide unfiltered interpretation to the SBC world no doubt influenced some,” Sutton said.
Floyd, an Arkansas pastor, used his blog at www.betweensundays.com to relate his vision for the SBC and answer questions raised about his nomination during the months before the election. His communications director offered pre-election reports from Greensboro.
A June 14 article on Time’s Web site that credited bloggers with electing Page describes the writers of Southern Baptist blogs as “a group of younger (under 40) Baptists frustrated at the inaccessibility of the levers of power.”
The subtitle read, “The upset victory of a non-anointed candidate to lead America’s largest Protestant denomination signals the growing power of online activists, even in old-line churches.”
A Religion News Service article posted at WashingtonPost.com thrust bloggers like 27-year-old St. Joseph, Mo., pastor Micah Fries, who blogs at friesville.com, into the limelight.
Perhaps nothing created more buzz on the Baptist blogs than the casual question asked by outgoing SBC President Bobby Welch during his presidential address at the annual meeting in Greensboro. Welch wondered if more souls would be won if bloggers spent more time on gospel sharing and less time blogging. In the same breath, as “amens” wer heard, Welch chided older pastors for treating their cell phones like pacifiers.
Baptist bloggers are also using blogs as a forum for discussion on issues concerning their churches, communities and the SBC.
Jeremy Green, senior pastor of Second Baptist Church in Waco, said he began blogging to add a voice to younger leaders in the convention.
“I believe that my generation (I’m 29 years old) as a whole is being misrepresented by some who are thought to be speaking for younger pastors in the SBC,” Green noted on his blog at sbcpastor.blogspot.com. “And it appears to me that the vast majority of the blogs that I have read are in large part only representative of a very small group within the SBC. Thus, I think it might be helpful to provide a different perspective—a biblical one.”
Despite beginning his blog only a few months ago, the perspectives Green tackles include infant baptism and regeneration before faith, alcohol abstinence and biblical illiteracy.
Similarly, Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church of Farmersvile, offers long polemics on the development of the church at his blog, including a look at the biblical basis for church validity.
“It is quie possible to construct a New Testament ideal for what individual Christians and Christian churches are supposed to be. How much deviation from that ideal is possible before a church ceases to be a church?” Barber asks on his blog, praisegodbarebones.blogspot.com.
In an e-mail interview, Barber noted that his purposes in blogging are not primarily to shape SBC culture.
“Sometime in my blog, I’m not the one initiating the conversation; I’m the one responding to someone else’s initiation, either to object or to agree. Either way, I’m setting down my ideas about topics I believe to be important.” The process of articulating his ideas helps him to refine or reinforce them.
But regarding SBC life, Barber stated, “If there ever was an information oligarchy in Southern Baptist life, it is much weaker today as a result of blogs.” He said he sees that as a positive effect of blogs, and believes that blogs are “an extremely democratic form of expression.” He calls it the present-day equivalent of the religious pamphlet in the 1600s.
“Printing technology enabled people with strongly held religious views to distribute their ideas with relatively little expense. Through these pamphlets, Baptists and other Christians allowed competing ideas about God, church, salvation, etc., to slug it out with one another in the marketplace of ideas. These became important tools as Baptists refined the nuances of their theology.”
He also believes that although many of the messengers to the SBC annual meeting do not read blogs, blogs shaped much of the discussion and many of the motions offered at this year’s meeting. “Leaders have always emerged or receded in the SBC based upon their communication with other Southern Baptists. That isn’t likely to change—blogs are just becoming one of the media through which they do that.”
On the downside, Barber lists a concern that many have voiced—the lack of safeguards and accountability.
For example, traditional journalism standards call for rigorous fact checking and objectivity in reporting—fairly representing multiple sides of a story and steering clear of inserting the writer’s opinions on the topic.
Blogs, by definition are “personal journals,” and prone to do just the opposite, to present and defend the blogger’s own views. Bloggers are often accused of not verifying their sources and of misrepresenting facts—an accusation from which traditional journalism is also not exempt.
Also, professional journalists’ articles typically undergo scrutiny from an editor prior to publication, whereas bloggers ar typically their own editors. Barber said that without an editor, he is “much more prone to escalate tone beyond what he would in person,” which he deems a negative.
Despite those weaknesses, blogs have become primary sources for breaking news. Blogs provide news publications with eyewitness testimony and commentary that they might not locate otherwise.
Some Christian news publications, such as Christianity Today and World magazine, maintain blogs. A 2003 article on Christianity Today’s www.ctlibrary.com, “A Theoblogical Revolution,” states, “With our Weblog, we’re able to cover more news from more places than ever before, and to hear from more voices than ever before.”
SBCOutpost.com, the blog of Buford, Ga., pastor Marty Duren, is one such source of alternative Southern Baptist views. Duren attended the SABC annual meeting and blogged immediate updates on convention business.
DallasNews.com the Web site of the Dallas Morning News, interviewed him and quoted from his site in its June 10 article, “New-time religion.”
On his site, Duren provides links to many other Southern Baptist bloggers who have provided influential commentary on SBC activities, as well as linking to Southern Baptist entities, Southern Baptist media sites, and IMB region sites.
A recent entry to the so-called “blogosphere” is available at sbcwitness.com where contributions are often pulled from the blogs of various Southern Baptist seminary professors at Southeastern, Southern and Southwestern.
Dedicated to “encouraging Southern Baptist cooperation and faithfulness, informing Southern Baptists about God’s great workings in our midst, and commenting on the most pressing issues facing our churches today,” the blog administrator related “a great love, gratefulness, and respect for the Southern Baptists who went before us.”
Writing in a column submitted to the TEXAN, First Baptist Church of Katy pastor Randy White warned of relying too much on bloggers’ opinions to shape SBC work.
“In years past,” White wrote, “Southern Baptists found leadership in men who built great churches through powerful biblical preaching and passionate personal evangelism. A young pastor or layman would have years of work to “prove his stuff” before ever entering the public world of SBC leadership.”
“Now anyone with an Internet connection and a lot of time on his hands can sway the hearts and minds of Southern Baptists,” White said, adding that this could be positive if Southern Baptist “never fail to take the final cue from the great church builders and soul winners of the day.”
Blogging, whether many Baptists know it or not, is proving to be a powerful venue for the new generation of SBC leaders to influence their denomination’s course. Former LifeWay president Jimmy Draper exhorted a group of young pastors in Greensboro during the SBC annual meeting to, “Keep blogging. Be nice. Don’t judge motives, and celebrate the diversity we have.”
Then Draper quipped, “If you’re not careful, you’ll be as narrow-minded as you think some of us are.”