Southern Baptist leaders promised years ago with their takeover of the convention’s agencies and seminaries a golden age. They have delivered an age of denominational decline, division and dishonesty.
The fundamentalist leaders said that if the Southern Baptist Convention had their view of the Bible, then the SBC would flourish in evangelistic zeal, greater church growth and moral renewal of American culture.
The SBC posted last year its first membership decline in recent history. Baptisms are down. Some 70 percent of churches are stagnant or declining.
“We thought if we fixed our theology, baptisms would grow,” said Ed Stetzer, a convention leader, at the end of April, about the SBC takeover. “We fixed our theology and then nothing happened.”
SBC membership dropped in 2007 by 40,000. Baptisms fell by more than 5 percent, declining seven out of the last eight years and to the lowest level in 20 years.
SBC giving receipts for the first quarter of 2008 were .30 percent below the same period last year. For the month of April, receipts were 15 percent behind April 2007, while designated giving for the same comparative period was behind by 46.6 percent.
Numbers are down and division is up.
For the first time since 1979, six ministers have declared their candidacy for the SBC presidency, breaking the long pattern of a select group of mega-church pastors hand-picking the next president.
One fundamentalist state convention, the Missouri Baptist Convention, is so badly splintered that it requires a peace committee to mediate divisions.
Two other Baptist state conventions have separated themselves tangibly from the SBC.
Major Baptist universities have broken away from control of their Baptist state conventions, most of which are little more than collection agencies for the SBC and distribution systems for SBC educational resources. Only last year, Belmont University severed its historic relationship with the Tennessee Baptist Convention, fearing fundamentalist control.
The SBC is experiencing division over the moral issue of the environment with one ad-hoc group accusing the denomination of being too timid about global warming. That led to a smack-down from denominational leadership and a report that claimed most pastors agree with their leaders.
Another divisive moral issue includes public education. While Southern Baptist leaders are habitually critical of public schools, they have been reluctant to support publicly the complete abandonment of that education system, a move favored by an active group that sees “government” schools as the enemies of God.
Unable to deflect criticism about the increasingly recognized problem of child-sexual abuse by clergy, Baptist leaders face division over what steps to take.
Add to negative numbers and acrimonious divisions the chronic misrepresentation of fact.
One leader was caught misrepresenting the churchmanship of former Sen. Fred Thompson, the former Republican presidential candidate for whom he was campaigning. The SBC’s moral concerns agency head said Thompson was active in a church in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., when in fact he was not.
The same leader said on his radio program that when his agency held conferences that if it had one Republican speaker, then it had one Democratic speaker. He claimed bipartisanship–except he didn’t tell the truth.
In the same program, he said, “Almost 73 percent–between 72 and 73 percent–of the entire budget of the Southern Baptist Convention goes to the International Mission Board in Richmond and the North American Mission Board in Atlanta, who have as a significant part of their ministry alleviating hunger at home and abroad, and alleviating suffering in disaster relief, at home and abroad, and with agricultural missionaries and all manner of missionaries, medical missionaries, that are alleviating the suffering of the poor.”
During 2006-2007 fiscal year, only $8 million was designated for hunger and relief out of the IMB’s $290 million budget, hardly 73 percent and hardly a significant part of their programming.
To counter the negativity, the SBC is airing TV aids in Indianapolis prior to the convention this week. The ads pitch the SBC as concerned about caring for AIDS victims, feeding the hungry and rebuilding homes. But it will take more than TV ads to blunt the SBC’s profound problems, beginning with the acknowledgment of false changes and overstated promises years ago.
Thirty years after the election of the first fundamentalist president, a few SBC leaders appear to recognize the biblical truth that whatever one sows that is what one will reap. Sow division, reap division. Sow an anti-everything agenda, reap a negative national image.
Southern Baptists stand at the denominational crossroads. One road heads toward more decline, division and deception. The other road might head toward church renewal, collaboration with other Baptists across North American and candor about partisan politics.
Which road will the SBC take in Indianapolis?
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.