Lessons from conservative resurgence still fresh

1995 SBC restructuring and 2000 faith statement signaled maturity of theological movement.

They said it couldn’t be done. For that matter, it shouldn’t be done.

Former Southern Baptist Convention entity heads doubted the long-term impact of electing a conservative, Adrian Rogers, to the SBC presidency in 1979, writing it off as a political maneuver “loyal Southern Baptists” would reject.

Twenty-five years later many of the conservative challengers are leading SBC ministries, influenced by lessons learned amid the controversy between theological conservatives and moderates. Theological integrity was at the center of the reformation conservatives sought in the denomination. From hiring seminary faculty holding to a high view of Scripture to examining the doctrinal beliefs of missionaries serving at home and abroad, the priority of applying Bible-based convictions can’t be overstated in understanding the conservative resurgence.

Two recent developments?a restructuring of the denomination’s bureaucracy in 1995 and passage of a revised Baptist Faith and Message confessional statement in 2000?completed the reformation. The former reaffirmed the local church as the headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention. The latter clarified doctrinal guidelines in precise language on issues of biblical inerrancy, church officers and the traditional family?thus removing slack for doublespeak when stating one’s views on the nature of Scripture, for example.


Every SBC entity leader elected after their trustee body gained a conservative majority recognized the importance of grassroots connection. “Having been part of the conservative resurgence from the beginning, I was very much aware of the fact that many of the agency heads had either purposely or unconsciously insulated themselves from a huge constituency within the convention,” said Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land. “They either ignored them or were unaware of them.”

He recalled a related conversation he had with former Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Duke McCall while the two were attending a Baptist World Alliance meeting early in Land’s tenure. Land quoted McCall as saying, “‘Well, there’s no question, we got so busy running the machinery of the convention that we lost touch with the rank and file.'”

Land determined the ethics entity would not lose touch, pledging the staff was “there to serve the local church.” He keeps a certain number of Sundays open in case smaller churches invite him to preach. “Bigger, multi-staff churches do more planning. By the time smaller churches invite you to preach you’re booked up.”

James T. Draper accepted a similar challenge when he followed Lloyd Elder as head of the Baptist Sunday School Board. The editor of the Indiana Baptist challenged Draper and department leaders to seek and accept chances to preach and worship in places like Gas City, Ind., or Goshen, Ark., so to “remember how gritty it can be in a small-town, single-staff church.” Within a few weeks, Draper accepted an invitation arranged by an Arkansas trustee of the Sunday School Board to preach at the church’s Goshen mission.

Draper also changed how the trustees interacted with Sunday School Board staff. “I inherited a debriefing session,” he explained, referring to a meeting his predecessor held with about 20 key administrators after each board meeting. Staff would be asked to share anything they’d heard trustees say about their work.

“Trustees had been told not to talk to staff and the staff had been told not to talk to trustees. I never saw so much smoke and mirrors in all my life. Why not just give straight answers?” Draper questioned. “Problems were pushed aside rather than being dealt with.” He immediately changed protocol to encourage interaction and problem solving between trustees and staff.


SBC Executive Committee President Morris Chapman appealed to Southern Baptists to encourage understanding of time-honored principles of cooperation for God’s Kingdom expansion. “Our convention may be doctrinally pure, but without cooperation, without trusting one another, our convention shall cease to have the dynamic missions enterprise that reaches to the far corners of the earth.”

Chapman told a recent conference at Union University: “When those of us who participated in leadership roles in what has been called the Southern Baptist conservative resurgence gather for the silver anniversary celebration, it is something to celebrate. Our beloved Southern Baptist Convention was saved from theological and numerical decimation known to most mainline American denominations in the last half of the 20th century because of the conservative resurgence.”

He added that “thoughtful, aggressive, prayerful politics was integral to its success,” defining politics as the art of working with people. “However, one of the challenges we now face, in my opinion, is how to move beyond aggressive partisan politics to a model of denominational decision making that is more normative for Southern Baptists and more beneficial.”

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