Stingy with praise, and mouse clicks

You football addicts out there may have seen a brief ad for the Southern Baptist Convention during the Fiesta Bowl broadcast Jan. 2. The thirty-second video ran in six cities during various bowl games this year and was meant to convey the benevolent ministries enabled by the SBC Cooperative Program funding mechanism.

I’m all for it. The CP paid for most of my seminary training, some continuing education, training for my church staff, and support to start most of the churches I’ve served or joined. It’s a wonder and the best imaginable way to address the full span of Great Commission ministries.

The ad prompted scorn from some quarters, though. In brief, the video focused on the meals provided during Katrina relief, houses started through World Changers, a prison ministry of New Orleans Seminary, and AIDS relief through our missionaries in Africa. Necessarily, the Executive Committee chose a very few of many ministries they might have mentioned. The response was harsh criticism by some outside the convention.

Jeffrey Weiss of the Dallas Morning News wrote a story that fairly described the ad as well as providing a generous forum for the convention’s detractors. In essence, the article described the ad as an apparent effort to redeem the public image of our convention by showing our softer, compassionate side.
Tedious SBC critic Robert Parham (Baptist Center for Ethics) called the effort a “bait and switch,” misdirecting views from the true priorities of the convention. His claim is that a very small percentage of SBC money goes to social ministries. Our deception is apparently saying we care when we don’t do as much as Mr. Parham would do if he were in charge.

Sociologist Nancy Ammerman of Boston College has followed the SBC for years and she thinks the SBC’s attempt to clean up its image is pretty thin. She says a couple of mouse clicks would lead you to “the SBC most people think of” (referring to testimonies of former homosexuals and converted Muslims). Let’s look at Dr. Ammerman’s mouse clicks and Mr. Parham’s “bait and switch” comment for a minute.
While I have no guilt that a couple of clicks into shows you an example of people set free from self-destructive sin or false religion, another click demonstrates that our commitment to the whole needs of people is true and constant. That third click took me to a story about the $16 million Southern Baptists gave (during the same year as Katrina) to Indonesian tsunami relief. Go back to start and three clicks will tell you of thousands of meals, temporary housing, medical care, and clean water projects that have been provided by Southern Baptists who both send and go in response to the earthquakes in Pakistan. This, again, happened during the same year as Katrina.

Invest a couple of additional clicks and you’ll see that our World Changers projects are not just a piddling effort from the past. Ninety-three are scheduled for 2006 and thousands of people are already signed up to help with various building and relief ministries.

Educational and moral programs like “True Love Waits” have saved many lives in AIDS-ravaged Africa. It’s not a sideshow to those nations that have taken the social ramifications of spiritual truth seriously.
Compare this with the money we spend on fighting the things we’re “against” (destruction of unborn people, homosexual behavior, alcohol abuse, abuse of women and children in pornography, etc.) Our Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission admittedly gets a lot of press but is the least of our 12 national institutions in CP funding. On the state and local level, spending on moral issues is paltry compared to other ministries. We are known for those things because they are among the few things that non-evangelical reporters can comprehend when they read our releases or attend our meetings. They can’t help it but neither should they pretend to understand the reality of our ministry.

What is the Southern Baptist Convention? It’s over 40,000 churches, most of them also grouped more locally in associations and state conventions. These churches have their own community ministries, they feed their neighbors, they house evacuees, they furnish apartments for those whose possessions are buried in the sludge of New Orleans’ lower Ninth Ward, they give their time and money to girls with crisis pregnancies?all of this is “off the books” when newspaper articles assess the compassion of their denomination. Associations and state fellowships of churches also do these ministries in their own spheres of influence.

Another difficulty faced by those who can only comprehend the humanistic efforts of religious groups is that our convention spends far more time offering training (one click from most Baptist websites), recruiting for future ministry (one or two clicks), soliciting funds for current ministry needs (no more than two clicks) than we do crowing about past effectiveness. There is too much to do and too many things we’ve committed to for us to put it aside so we can convince the inconvincible.

Our “singular focus on proselytizing” is also a stumbling block to outsiders. We might think of this as missions and evangelism. We believe that people are precious to God, made in his image, eternal beings who need salvation in Christ alone. What hypocrisy it is to give them a bowl of beans or a blanket and leave them in their sin because it’s politically incorrect witness to homosexuals or Muslims, (or pagan stockbrokers for that matter).

Disagree with us if you like (you’re welcome), but don’t be so scandalized that we believe the eternal souls of people are more important than their temporary pain. We profess to live by the Book and face a storm of derision when one of us is perceived to fall short of that standard. Look at the very broad coverage given to an Oklahoma pastor arrested for “lewd behavior” recently. No one has spared the mouse clicks in chasing down that story.

Certainly, we should be held to the standard we uplift. Stop the whining then when we do try to live by it. If it’s OK for us to love our brother by feeding and clothing him, it should be OK for us to tell him the truth about sin and salvation. If it’s allowable for us to honor God in our worship, it is just as biblical when we honor him in our families, careers, and citizenship.

Is it a bait-and-switch scam when we say that we have demonstrated our love for God and people in 2005? It has been said, ad nauseam, that we are evangelistic and moralistic as a denomination. It probably wouldn’t occur to any denominational leader that people will think we’re abandoning these convictions simply because we also feed, house, and clothe the needy. No deceit intended or accomplished. Mr.
Parham has forgotten an awful lot if he doesn’t know this.

We should embrace the fact that thousands of people have also found life in Jesus Christ even as they experience the generosity of Southern Baptist Christians. We should not apologize for doing our best at the thing that makes us distinct from governmental or secular relief agencies.

Southern Baptists don’t do these things to brag or to be accepted by others. Our mission is global and thorough because that’s the only biblical way to do it. We have an audience of one, you might say. I think it’s allowable for us to correct the record when our good works are used to lift us up for ridicule, though.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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