As the SBC Annual Meeting approaches, here is my list of the five most pressing issues that will be avoided during the annual meeting. Of course, these issues will be “dealt with,” but they will be dealt with in such an unclear manner that the end result will be the same as the Garner Motion of 2007, a motion that generated huge amounts of debate both before and after it passed. The motion passed, but we still don’t know what it meant or how to apply it. I predict that the same lack of clarity will generate lots of rhetoric but very little substance about:
1. The Declining Membership of the SBC
Way too much has been written already about the recent report from Lifeway. After analyzing the information from the Annual Church Profiles submitted by the churches of the SBC, the facts are in. The number of baptisms performed in SBC churches dropped over 5% to the lowest level since 1987. For only the second time since 1926, total membership in the SBC decreased. Membership growth had been essentially flat since 2000, but 2007 saw a slight decrease of .24%. At the same time, average worship attendance increased slightly for the same year.
Already, there are two competing interpretations about the meaning of the numbers. Lifeway’s own Ed Stetzer has blogged about the impending crisis facing the SBC while Paige Patterson tells us that the news is just about ghost and goblins and nothing really to fret about. Regardless who is right, Indy will hear lots of saber rattling and calls for renewed committments to evangelism, but I don’t anticipate that anyone will speak the real cause: we have been quenching the Spirit in our denomination for decades and are now reaping what we have sown.
2. Regenerate Membership
Indy will see at least one resolution on regenerate membership. The two resolutions that have already been announced (Tom Ascol’s and Malcom Yarnell’s)are similar with the exception that one calls upon the convention to repent from its false statistics. The idea of regenerate membership (that only Christians can be members of a local church) is as old as the idea of baptists themselves. What won’t be spelled out is what the resolution really means. Is this an attempt to purge our membership rolls so that the numbers we submit to the SBC more accurately reflect our true fellowship, or a call to go after the strays, or a challenge to remove the goats from within the flock? Again, we will discuss and pass a motion in Indy that most of us will not know what the application of the motion really means.
3. Hammer’s Resignation
Rodney Hammer, regional leader of the International Mission Board for Central Europe, resigned on May 5th. In his resignation letter, he states his objection to two policies within the IMB. The first deals with the policy on what makes for a valid baptism (the one performing the baptism must hold to certain beliefs). The second deals with the policy of the exercise of the spiritual gifts of tongues in one’s private and personal prayer life. As baptists, we simply have to agree to disagree about the second issue, but the IMB refuses to do that. Regarding the first issue, see point #4. The real question is whether or not the convention in its meeting will do anything to sanction the trustee board. If you understand how the SBC works, then you will know that the convention can’t instruct the trustees of any of its agencies to do anything. What a system we have: we send our money and are totally unable to influence the policies under which they are spent, even in the annual meeting. Rodney Hammer resigned on principle, but his sacrifice will get totally unnoticed in the annual meeting.
4. Baptist Identity
There is a growing movement to identify what it means to be baptist. While it is important for us to know the distinctives about the baptist faith, this movement is claiming ownership to the term “baptist” unlike ever before. There are some in our midst who actually believe they have naming rights in the SBC. “One is not truly a baptist (let alone a Southern Baptist) unless they believe exactly like I do on these issues.” The list of baptist distinctives usually includes principles like the priesthood of the believer, sole competency before God, autonomy of the local church, and no creed but the Bible. But the baptist identify folks want to apply these principles and enforce their interpretations of the distinctives. For instance, they would have us to accept that the validity of one’s baptism is dependant upon the theology of the one performing the baptism. Specifically, if the one performing the baptism does not believe in the security of the believer (once saved always saved), then the baptism is not valid. Did we not learn anything from church history? Aren’t we asking quite a bit of a new convert to be able to analyze the theology of their new pastor? I still hold to the historic baptist idea that the validity of one’s baptism is linked to their personal faith in Jesus Christ and rebirth. But I doubt we will have any opportunity to express our opinion about this new movement when we come together in Indy.
5. Why we are even in Indy in the first place
The biggest elephant in the room will be the simple fact that we are even gathered in Indy at all. Not that I have any problem with the town of Indianapolis (though I have never been), but why are we caucusing in the modern technological age? How is it that we can put a missionary in the most remote region of the planet but we can’t figure out a way to conduct the business of the annual meeting in such a way that will allow each church to be represented? Have we not heard of internet streaming video, web casting, online voting, or even regional meetings? What happens in Indy will not reflect the SBC but only the few thousand who either live close enough to drive or those from large enough churches to provide their pastor with travel budgets to attend a three day meeting on the other side of the nation. We can do more to include more people in the discussion, but we won’t talk about that either.