Pragmatism and Its Death Knell Among Southern Baptists

Posted on September 21, 2010


Churches in the Southern Baptist Convention are in a panic concerning falling attendance and baptisms.  In today’s world of success driven theology, church growth methodology has fallen pray to the god of pragmatism or “whatever works.”  The belief is if a church is able to pack more people in the pews, then it must be a successful model to be copied by other churches no matter the methodology or theology.  The explosion of church growth conferences in North America that give a billing of speakers from mega churches is indicative of this panic as more and more pastors are seeking answers to their own dwindling numbers.  Pastors who attend these conferences either feel like failures because they haven’t had the phenomenal growth of these mega churches or become energized with the next “new thing” that will answer all the problems at their church and provide the only standard of success they desire: exponential growth.  There is a search among Southern Baptists for the “silver bullet” that will ease our panic and produce bigger and better churches.  The question of this search is two fold: “Where does one find this “silver bullet” and of what does it consist?”

Within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) there have been two areas of pragmatism that has been on the rise in recent years.  First is increasing attraction to research and poll driven models of ecclesiological church planting and growth.  Recent offerings from leaders within the convention (Simple Church, Transformational Church) have begun with an investigation of what works in our culture through surveys of churches rather than beginning their research with, “Thus saith the Lord.”  This is not to say that surveys don’t have their proper place or that the writers did not use scriptural references in their works.  In fact there were some insightful points in both books and I would recommend them to anyone for those insights, but scripture has been removed as the first and foremost foundation of those books.  This pragmatic approach puts the cleverness of humanity at the center of church growth and planting rather than God and will ultimately lead the church to a theology of self-reliance that abandons not only God’s Word, but His empowering Holy Spirit.

A second area has been the reductionist mindset of many to reduce the number of doctrines of cooperation, minimizing them to a place where unity can be achieved among the most.  Among evangelicals, David F. Wells has argued that this mentality is what helped produce doctrinal apathy in evangelical churches.  He states, “In hindsight, it is now rather clear that the toleration of diversity slowly became an indifference toward much of the fabric of belief that makes up Christian faith.”[1] Similarly, a toleration of diversity or a “wider tent”[2] philosophy among Southern Baptists will lead the Convention and many of her churches to a greater indifference of biblical doctrines that find themselves under the banner of Baptist.

Southern Baptists were on the right track at one time.  The crowning jewel of the conservative resurgence in the SBC (1979-2000) was the revised Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M 2000) as approved by the convention in Orlando Florida on June 14, 2000.  The revision was intended to correct abuses by some[3] concerning the 1963 BF&M, address new issues that came on the scene since the last revision, and set up a stronger system of accountability among those who relied on the cooperative financial support of Southern Baptist churches.  Ultimately, it was an effort to prevent the return of liberalism and doctrinal indifference that reached its pinnacle in the convention by the late 1970’s.  A short ten years later from the 2000 revision, messengers again meeting in Orlando Florida adopted a new vision statement of cooperation to penetrate lostness that was absent any significant presence of the preamble or the eighteen articles of BF&M 2000 which considered itself to be a statement of, “doctrines we hold precious and as essential to the Baptist tradition of faith and practice.”[4] With this new vision statement, there was an absence of the BF&M[5], which was considered a unifying document among churches confessing “essential” beliefs of those who call themselves Southern Baptists.  In place of the BF&M was the Great Commission Task Force Report that produced an opposing mission statement of “what draws us together” and eight new “Core Values” that are to aid as, “a means of ensuring that we work together.”[6] We even find some advocating that a new confessional statement be made up absent certain doctrines that divide us.  The way to revival is not abandoning truths about Jesus, it is by embracing as much of our Savior as we can.  I agree with Dr. Danny Akin when he states, “We must affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 as a healthy and sufficient guide for building a theological consensus for partnership in the gospel…”

The report of the Task Force was to address the falling baptismal rates in the Southern Baptist Convention and how the convention could help the local church in this matter.  While one may or may not argue that this is what was ultimately addressed, the whole deal of addressing falling baptismal rates being the impetus to the Task Force leaves an inquiring question.  Are falling baptismal rates the problem or only a symptom of the problem?  It is my belief that falling baptismal rates are only the symptom and, while being a concern, they should not be the primary focus of any resurgence whatsoever.  The source and beginning of any resurgence within the local church or the convention itself is rooted in the authority and Lordship of Christ in the heart and actions of believers who constitute those churches.

[1] David F. Mills, The Courage to be Protestant, Kindle edition 151-159

[2] The “wider tent” is a term used among many internet bloggers to promote the belief that doctrinal standards should be minimized in order to have as many people as possible cooperate in the Great Commission.  The idea is that larger organizations with more diversity will better accomplish the Great Commission than minimizing those who participate based on the doctrinal standards of the organization.

[3] For example the statement, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ” was used by some to disregard any doctrine in the BF&M they did not agree with, opting instead for their own understanding of what they thought how Jesus would interpret the scriptures.

[4] BF&M

[5] References were made to the BF&M concerning state conventions and local associations for its adoption, but it was not considered as the doctrinal focal point of cooperation in the report itself.

[6] Draft Final Report of the Great Commission Task Force of the Southern Baptist Convention.