A rich legacy: So. Baptists not new to mercy ministry

While younger evangelical groups are renewing their passion for social activism, leaders within the Southern Baptist Convention are countering criticism from some younger Baptists that the denomination has failed to transform a postmodern culture with what they perceive as a proclamation-only social ethic.

In fact, many Southern Baptist leaders contend that the convention’s fellowship of churches has combined the verbal proclamation of the good news with physical demonstrations of Christian love since the denomination’s inception in 1845, and that criticisms by theological moderates, and more recently, from adherents of emerging church models present a false dichotomy between social engagement and evangelism.

Linda Bergquist, adjunct professor at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary and church planting missionary in the San Francisco Bay area for the SBC’s North American Mission Board, believes Southern Baptists have consistently engaged the culture on difficult social issues and social needs.

“Actually, Southern Baptists have always engaged in ministries that affect people socially,” Bergquist said. “For example, across the world, we are one of the first groups called in to assist with disaster relief. In the name of Jesus we feed people, clothe them, help with medical needs, tutor children, resettle refugees, assist people in finding jobs, teach English, and so much more. We do these things because they are a reflection of Christ in and through us. …They are part of who we are as a family of Southern Baptists.”

One has to look no further for evidence of Southern Baptist social relief than the list of recent natural disasters.

“I am really impressed with the national and global record of Southern Baptists in disaster relief ministry,” said Rick Durst, professor of historical theology at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, in an e-mail. “One of the first people I led to the Lord was on the search and rescue team from Southern California that was at the twin towers with their search dogs within 24 hours after the towers fell on 9/11. However, their access was delayed due to understandable if regrettable response by the NYPD and FD on site. In contrast, as soon as the Baptist Men’s disaster ministry team arrived (also within 24 hours) and identified themselves as having been at the Oklahoma City bombing, NYPD and FD gave them immediate access and appreciation for coming to Manhattan. My point here is that in an increasingly traumatic world, Baptists having a practice of caring in the most difficult places are granted unique access to the hurting hearts and lives of people.”

During natural disasters Southern Baptists have often partnered directly with the Red Cross. A search for “Southern Baptist” on the Red Cross website yields numerous press releases with statistics of local church support. One such news release indicates Southern Baptists prepared more than 68 million meals for the 2005 hurricane season survivors.

“This was seen very specifically when we had the Katrina struggles in New Orleans,” said Mark Liederbach, associate professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in an interview posted at baptisttwentyone.com. Liederbach shared the interview with fellow SEBTS evangelism professor Alvin Reid, with whom he recently co-authored the book “The Convergent Church.” The book presents a model for conventional churches to converge with members of emerging church models on several issues, including social engagement.

“Southern Baptists poured millions of dollars, but more importantly, thousands and thousands of man hours. And not only were they rebuilding churches and rebuilding homes, digging people out of rubble, but in the process while they were there, they were verbally proclaiming the gospel,” Liederbach said.

Reid credited Southern Baptist relief work in the wake of the 2004 tsunami for opening doors for gospel proclamation.

“[I] had a student who graduated from our college and spent two years in Southeast Asia?.She said she was in an area that was completely Muslim, and completely closed to the gospel. But because of the incredible relief efforts of Southern Baptists from the tsunami, she said the gospel is more open to that part of the world than any time in recent history,” Reid recounted. “In other words, they would not have been able to proclaim the gospel in that community had they not shown how much compassion they have.”

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