What if we were gone?

Aquestion was posed to me recently in the context of evaluating our convention’s ministry: “What if SBTC didn’t exist?” It’s thought provoking on several levels and also allows us to analyze trends in the work Southern Baptist churches have in common. And I believe we see enough from where we are to give a reasonable answer.

If we take the question as asking, “What if the SBTC had never formed?” we might speculate that the only Southern Baptist state convention in Texas would be smaller than it was and more liberal than it is. That’s pretty easy to see from the trends of the past 16 years. SBTC has had a preserving influence among Southern Baptists in Texas.

But what if the SBTC and other denominational expressions of Southern Baptists ceased operations? It’s another way of asking what we contribute to the kingdom of God. Denominational bodies can imagine a truly post-denominational age more easily now than most could have 20 years ago. I think the work of our churches would be different in a lot of ways.

First, while many large churches would not particularly miss the training and resourcing denominational bodies provide, they cannot take for granted that their strength and independence is forever. I can name churches in our state that have moved from mega-church status to ministry-threatening decline during the short life of SBTC. These churches need strategic help from the fellowship of sister churches that they could not have imagined in 1998.

Second, places like Laredo and El Paso would have not have had the attention that has benefited those cities in recent years. Maybe a church or two or four would have had the Rio Grande borderlands on their hearts but would those places become the strategic focus of scores of churches utilizing the resources given by thousands of churches? I believe the church planting emphasis, evangelistic focus and leadership training initiatives the SBTC launched in the borderlands is far more extensive than it would have been without a statewide strategy. That is, unless some denomination-like network of churches decided to adopt a statewide strategy of their own—reinventing the state convention wheel, you might say.

Third, the response of likeminded churches in Texas to emergency needs in our state and beyond would be less prepared, less effective and less credible without a statewide strategy. Without planning and coordination beyond the local church we’d always be behind the ball or in the wrong place when something happened. The reason Southern Baptist Disaster Relief is a major player across the world is that state conventions train and prepare and coordinate so that the disaster of the day is addressed while resources are gathered for the needs of next week.

Fourth, small churches and church plants would have a harder lot than they now do. While some of our stronger churches are very generous in helping new churches and struggling churches, that case-by-case assistance is not general. No one has perfectly untangled the revitalization knot, but the need is general—not confined to one community—and again requires a strategy and a strategist concerned with churches no one else would think about. Texas without a state convention would be (nearly) every church for itself. That’s not good news for our smallest, eldest and declining churches. These churches may not be the long term future of our country’s spiritual life; they are its present and they will be significant players in the lives of millions of American Christians for decades to come. 

Fifth, SBTC’s ministry partners would not necessarily go under, but they are strengthened by the support given through SBTC churches. More than they are now, these institutions would be thrown back on the tender mercies of societal missions. Reasonably, we could expect that some would do better than others though not necessarily based on need or worthiness. Their fortunes would depend more on the effectiveness of their fundraisers.

Sixth, I think there would arise a whole gaggle of smaller denominations (whether they call themselves that or not) with very similar intent and doctrine. The aggregate would likely be weaker, less effective and eventually more doctrinally diverse than the current SBC is. Look at the varieties of independent Baptist groups in the U.S. We’d add to those numbers and suffer the same limitations in ministry they experience.

In order to do the things that churches  instinctively desire to beyond their own communities, Southern Baptist churches currently benefit from having a state convention, and a national one. For many churches, the resources of their big sister churches, strategically applied, will help them minister in even their own local contexts. Without apology, I’d say that our current SBTC and SBC fellowships do add something positive and even necessary to the life and work of churches. That’s not saying denominationalism works perfectly or even well at all times, but within the great variety of ministry networks and franchises across the U.S., no one has yet come up with something that works better at addressing a state, national and global Great Commission strategy. In my mind this argues that improving and strengthening our various denominational fellowships is worthwhile. Letting them slip away and then starting from scratch once we realize what we’ve lost would definitely be a huge step backward.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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