Two conventions in Texas! How come?

Texas is a different kind of place, mysterious even to our Baptist brothers from other states. More than 14 years after the inaugural meeting of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention newcomers and tourists are still surprised to find us here. Some write it off to the independent, even brash, spirit of the state. In reality, the recent history of Southern Baptists in Texas is interwoven with that of our national convention.

Those men who were best known in the Southern Baptist Convention during our Conservative Resurgence (1979-1995) were often from Texas—Paul Pressler, Dan Vestal, Russell Dilday, Paige Patterson, Paul Powell, O.S. Hawkins, Edwin Young, Winfred Moore, Jimmy Allen, Morris Chapman, Richard Land, Foy Valentine, Lloyd Elder and Jimmy Draper. They were convention presidents and candidates from both sides, new and former agency leaders, and spokesmen for moderate and conservative Southern Baptists. Texas’ convention messengers during those years would enthusiastically bring home ideas from the SBC meeting, hoping to apply them to the denomination’s largest state convention. They failed. While moderates did not win an SBC election during the decades of the Resurgence, conservatives did not win an election in Texas as the big state convention began to push back in the 1990s. The theological malaise that plagued our SBC agencies from the 1950s until the 1990s had not left Texas institutions untouched. The difference in Texas was that the problems were not as extreme as they were further east and the reformers were not able to get traction to change the direction of the existing state convention.

As their state convention began to make aggressive moves to duplicate and undermine the work of the SBC, the state’s conservatives began to look for another home. Between 1992 and 1998, the growing awareness among those who welcomed the SBC’s own reformation was that only something new would reflect that renewal in Texas. On November 10, 1998, 120 churches, meeting in Houston, formed the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. During that meeting they welcomed Jim Richards as the convention’s first executive director, approved a budget of about $900,000, adopted a constitution and passed a pro-life resolution that had been rejected by their former state convention repeatedly since 1980.

Fast forward 14 years and the convention has grown by 2,000 percent to well over 2,400 affiliated churches—all of them joined together in a confessional fellowship. The convention remains committed to the same core values it embraced in 1998. These values have kept the SBTC accountable to churches according to priorities that led to the convention’s founding.

Doctrinal agreement—Unlike most Baptist bodies more general than a local association, the SBTC is confessional. Affiliated churches and institutions affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. They don’t necessarily adopt the confession as their own, many have not, but they express agreement with our current BFM and understand that it is the basic document that describes our doctrinal identity.

A plainly stated and clear commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible is a core conviction shared by SBTC churches.

Starting a state convention at the end of Conservative Resurgence, the importance of doctrine, particularly the nature of Scripture, was very much in the minds of the SBTC’s founders. The state convention from which many of our churches moved would not officially commit to the inerrancy of Scripture, preferring “authority” or some other word that proved inadequate during recent SBC history. A plainly stated and clear commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible is a core conviction shared by SBTC churches. That belief’s denominational expression required the founding of a new state convention in Texas.

Priority of missions and evangelism—Making the Great Commission a priority required the SBTC to relegate some other things in importance. Our business and financial plan specifies that no more than 15 percent of our annual budget can go to institutional support, for example. The convention values its ministry relationships with like-minded institutions but it will not allow those institutions to become its primary mission. Neither is the convention likely to have a large number of affiliated institutions. Doing so would require that missions and evangelism be diminished to support institutions. The convention’s founders set a different course from the start. Pursuing that course in Texas required the founding of a new state convention. 

The SBTC has also expressed its commitment to missions and evangelism by keeping our staff organization minimal and by avoiding debt. From the start, convention leaders determined that the SBTC would not become bureaucratically heavy. That has required that we utilize the expertise of strong churches, SBC ministry partners, consultants, and retired part-time workers. It means that our staff operates at times like that in a newer work convention, wearing multiple hats. It means that there are some things other conventions do that we simply don’t do or do in a more modest way. In a day when long-established conventions are struggling to trim their numbers through attrition or buy-outs, the SBTC is blessed to have not let our staff size outrun our mission priorities. 

Commitment to cooperative missions—Many of the churches that founded the SBTC years ago and others that joined in the first three years might have not done so if they were not enthusiastic about the Cooperative Program. Most of those churches came out of a state convention that was steadily reducing the amount and percentage of undesignated funds passed through its adopted budget to SBC missions causes beyond Texas. The founders of the SBTC determined to demonstrate their own convictions by sending 50 percent of undesignated funds through the Cooperative Program in the first year’s budget, before the convention had three employees or even one institutional relationship. That percentage was set to climb to 55 within the first 10 years of the convention’s life. This percentage does not include designated missions offerings or “preferred” budget items that are sheltered from the CP formula. The only option for churches wanting a state convention partner that would encourage support for worldwide SBC causes was to start a new state convention in Texas.

Our founders, our churches, and our leaders believe that God is using the Southern Baptist Convention and are willing to express it in all ways available. The Southern Baptist Convention and its various agencies strengthen the ministries or Southern Baptist churches in Texas. This is a boost and not a detriment to the agenda of the state convention which consists only of Southern Baptist churches in Texas. 

In brief, that’s why we started something new. Those “battling Baptists” in Texas really don’t spend much time battling; we’ve got better things to do. Our state has five to six times the land and population of our neighboring states. Our population is increasingly made up of lost folks—we need new churches and healthy churches. The missionary task of reaching Texas is more than enough to involve all the gospel-preaching churches in our state. The monumental task of the SBC’s newest state convention is to help start and strengthen churches sufficient to reach Texas and touch all the peoples of the world. That is ultimately why there is a second state convention in Texas.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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