Southern Baptist Convention President Johnny Hunt, of Georgia, has put his finger on a need and a sore spot for the churches of our denomination. For a variety of reasons, most unrelated to associational, state convention, or SBC agency work, we don’t witness to our neighbors and our churches are not making disciples at the rate they did decades ago. Energy, bright ideas, strategies, and cleverly named emphases have rolled through for the past 30 years with little effect on the decline. What next? President Hunt hopes he knows the answer to that.
At the SBC annual meeting later this month, Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., has confirmed a motion will be made directing him to appoint a likely 12-member task force to study his “Great Commission Resurgence” declaration calling the SBC to greater commitment to our Lord’s missionary mandate. There is little doubt that the convention will approve such a motion during its annual meeting in Louisville. For many convention observers, the work of that task force will be the place where the debate over the future of the SBC will ensue. I believe that we can affect the nature of that important debate before the names of group members are even revealed.
No one can disagree that American Christianity has generally gone tepid. Southern Baptists, who took comfort in less-bad numbers than mainline churches, have awakened to the fact that we are also in decline in spite of good work, good theology, and the finest of institutional support. Many have said that this is a spiritual problem that permeates every corner of our convention where there is a Baptist soul. I believe the facts of our denominational decline and spiritual torpor have implications for every aspect of local church work. They also provide some challenges for the churches’ denominational helpers. Obviously, offering resources and five-year plans has not been the answer to the needs of churches. Our critics seem to think it sufficient to declare denominations dead and irrelevant. This wise-sounding mantra hasn’t helped much either.
Article IX of the GCR declaration would commit the SBC “to evaluate our Convention structures and priorities so that we can maximize our energy and resources for the health of our local churches and the fulfillment of the Great Commission.” If I can define the terms for myself, I agree. Our denominational structure is big, slow, and resistant to organizational reform. Presumably, it is also inefficient but that charge is only useful if someone comes up with something that actually meets critical needs in a more efficient way. No criticism necessarily of the individuals involved, organizations have personalities of their own that don’t always reflect the intent or heart of those within. Restructuring of denominational work is the point where the GCR task force will likely make its most actionable and controversial suggestions. The convention messengers in Louisville have the responsibility to ensure that the proposals of the task force are useful and have a chance of passing in some future day. I offer some ideas that will make those two things more likely.
First, the makeup of the task force must be broadly representative of those who will actually attend the SBC annual meeting and participate in the convention’s business more than once or twice. Specifically, the task force should include people from groups and regions most likely to be affected by denominational streamlining. One member should be an executive director from a state convention that did not sign the GCR declaration (so far, only two have). This inclusion acknowledges that these leaders have influence and an important role within their respective states. Unless these men are brought on board, changes will be hobbled at the first step.
The committee should include at least two people who will be affected by any drastic change in the ministry of the North American Mission Board, a widely discussed possibility. I suggest a new state church planter and an effective pastor from the northern or western United States.
A Baptist college president or executive staff member would provide a view from those who depend on support from state conventions. Some of the rhetoric aimed at state convention ministry will be personal to these folks.
Include a state convention president, perhaps one who did not sign the GCR declaration. Again, since a majority did not sign on, those folks (like the state executives) must be won over rather than dismissed as obstructionist.
Add a director of missions to the task force. The association is the most local manifestation of denominationalism. This leader will have a different perspective than most other members of the group. It’s a perspective that matters.
Second, I suggest that the members of the task force commit that they will not, for at least two years, accept any vocational ministry position (job) or be paid for writing a book related to or growing out of the work of the task force. This commitment will help keep the motives of members pure. It will also give any implementation of task force recommendations increased credibility. If some Southern Baptists are going to face difficult changes in their ministries, it might go down better if no task force members find themselves with shiny new jobs in the process.
Third, the committee must find a way to do its work in the sunlight. Johnny Hunt has been pretty candid with his thought processes and intent. This sort of candor can only benefit the nuts and bolts work to come. I realize that executive sessions facilitate committee brainstorming and discussion but the practice also erodes trust. Executive sessions are efficient in the same way that martial law is most efficient in extraordinary situations. Unless this tool is used rarely, the process will become closed to all but insiders. I challenge the committee to keep the doors open. Work with at least the same accountability and transparency as our political lawmakers. Make it so that task force members only speak those things they are willing to see in print. Discussions will be more thoughtful, speech will be more circumspect, and feedback will be constant. More Baptists will trust the committee because the committee has demonstrated its trustworthiness. Presenting the convention messengers with a fait accompli next spring will be less effective than keeping us all in the loop. Surprise us and we may still endorse it, but many of us will not support it. Also remember, two Southern Baptists can only keep a secret if one of them is deceased.
Fourth, it would be timely and responsible to put a cap on what this task force can cost the SBC. They could meet in cities with easy air access; most committee members could pay their own meeting expenses; agencies that send staff members could pay that out of travel budgets, etc. If efficiency is part of our goal, the GCR task force can set a good example in this way. Convention messengers should set a ceiling on task force expenses.
These suggestions do not abrogate the president’s righ