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Another View of the Past 25 Years

Baptist Press this week reported on a celebration by the leaders who launched the revolution that altered the course of the Southern Baptist Convention 25 years ago.

Neglecting the facts that the membership growth of the convention has slowed since then, that the percentage of the population of the United States claimed by churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention has actually declined over the past 25 years, that giving to the Cooperative Program has not kept pace with inflation, and the rejuvenation of the Baptist movement which they promised has not come, they celebrated anyhow.

Perhaps it is the positions of power, prestige and six-figure salaries that many of the revolutionary leaders now draw from SBC boards and agencies that give them cause to rejoice.

Their core explanation for this celebration is that Southern Baptists have not done as poorly as such mainline Christian denominations as the United Methodists, Presbyterian Church, American Baptist Churches, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church and United Church of Christ. They seem to have neglected the facts that all of these groups were in decline prior to 1979, and that most keep more honest membership roles than do the Southern Baptists.

Actually, there was no indication that the Southern Baptists were following the others into numerical decline in 1979. So, for this group of leaders to claim that they saved the denomination is not logically defendable. Their claim to having saved the Southern Baptist movement has absolutely no basis in fact.

Further, they did not deal with the fact that many Pentecostal denominations and the Independent movement have grown and “gained market share” during the past quarter century. Still worse, the most recent study of church membership growth in the United States found that among larger groups the Mormons were being the most successful. This is certainly a hard lick for the argument that equates numerical growth with the blessing of God.

As a sociologist and Baptist loyalist, let me offer an alternate interpretation of what has happened to the Southern Baptist movement over the past 25 years.

In 1979 the SBC was underway with the effort called Bold Mission Thrust. It set valuable goals for our efforts. While there had been some differences among us since the early 1960s, we still enjoyed a legacy of trust and success in mission expansion. By 1979 there were Southern Baptist Churches in every state in the Union. In the west we had passed many of the mainlines to become the largest non-Catholic Christian denomination. We had a passion to win the lost and plant new churches. We believed that God’s hand was on the movement. We were poised to expand God’s Kingdom. We felt that God had put us in place to reap a great harvest for Him.

Then the attacks upon boards and agencies by the agents of change eroded trust. Ambitious clergy saw this as the path to success. Fighting became the focus of the clergy. Threatened, many became defensive. Many compromised. Bold Mission Thrust languished.

History teaches us how difficult it is to stop a revolutionary movement once it has proven to be successful. Since the leaders gained control about 15 years ago of the agencies, they have tried to tame their revolution with mixed results. The list of topics of resolutions presented to the SBC in recent years is indicative of this, as is the withdrawal from the Baptist World Alliance, and the narrowing of who can be appointed by the mission boards.

The observation of a retired vice president of the Home Mission Board, Gerald Palmer–one who was reared in the old Northern Baptist Convention–keeps coming back to me. When the break in that denomination came, each group moved further and further from the center and became narrower and narrower in who would be allowed to be a part of their group. Consequently, they became increasingly ineffective, and they dwindled. I fear that something very similar is happen among the family that was once called Southern Baptist.

Our prospects were so bright in 1979. Has God’s glory departed from our temple?

It struck me as ironic that in the same period that the leaders of the revolution were celebrating their success, the nation began to mourn the passing of President Ronald Reagan. Among the video clips shown during that week was one of candidate Reagan asking the rhetorical question, “Are you better off now (1980) than you were four years ago?” It was a very effective tool in his defeat of Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter.

I rephrase that question to ask, “Are Southern Baptists better off 25 years after the launching of the revolution?” My assessment is that we are not. What is your assessment?

Perhaps, this is the question that Southern Baptists need to be asking one another today.

Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.