What I Saw in Dallas: A Report From the 2018 Southern Baptist Convention

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First things first: Southern Baptists aren’t like other denominations. The most significant distinction is the nature of voluntary cooperation. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) does not have a (official) hierarchy. Heck, the SBC isn’t even really a denomination — at least not in the Mainline Protestant sense. Each SBC church owns its own property. Each SBC church controls its individual church practices and pastoral staff. The SBC is different because it is a group of churches who have decided to voluntarily cooperate.

How do they cooperate? They pool their collective resources and then distribute them around a common cause — telling people about Jesus. They use these funds to send missionaries, plant churches, fund seminaries, and engage the culture.

And our church — Houston Northwest — is part of the SBC.

Once a year the member churches gather for two days and take care of business. Each member church sends delegates — known as “messengers” — and participates in a very large two-day business meeting. As part of that meeting, they hear reports from the institutions they fund and they vote on matters of business.

I (and several others) were messengers to this year’s SBC in Dallas this week.

Another good thing to know is that the SBC is something like a family reunion. You see friends you haven’t seen in years (well, at least us pastors do). It’s good to hug them and to catch up on their lives.

Of course, like any good family reunion, you are also reminded that you may have a few crazy relatives out there.

But, hey, they’re family. So you love them as best you can.

These are my thoughts on my family reunion.

First, the Positives:

To begin, I was immensely encouraged by the business portion of the Convention. Each year, the SBC forms a Resolutions Committee. The resolutions are public statements presented by the Convention, staking out positions on any number of public issues, attempting to bring the gospel to bear on our culture. This year’s committee, chaired by Jason Duesing, provided resolutions on the following topics:

  • The dignity and worth of women.
  • Abuse.
  • The holiness and integrity of ministry leaders.
  • Racism.
  • Immigration.
  • The image of God in all of humanity.
  • Social media.
  • Gun violence.
  • Opioid addiction.
  • Solidarity with Arab Christians.

These resolutions (along with several celebrating anniversaries and thanking volunteers) passed overwhelmingly. The SBC is speaking into some of the most broken areas of our world, and it is doing so with a biblical and prophetic voice.

In addition, we heard some very encouraging updates from our SBC institutions. A few of those include:

  • The seminaries are growing in enrollment. They are more diverse than ever before. They have more women than ever before.
  • The North American Mission Board is planting more churches, and they are making a massive impact in Canada. 71% of baptisms in Canada from SBC churches this year are from churches that we have helped plant in the last ten years.
  • The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission continues to be a bright spot. Russell Moore’s leadership is consistent and prophetic, and he outlined a number of fronts on which the ERLC has won significant battles this year, namely on religious freedom at the Supreme Court.

Finally, I thought the business of the Convention was handled in a very solid manner, and I was encouraged by two decisions in particular:

  • The Convention voted overwhelmingly to elect J.D. Greear as its next president. J.D. pastors Summit Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is committed to the things necessary to see churches grow and multiply to share Jesus. (To be clear, I also thought the other candidate — Ken Hemphill — would be a fine choice. But I cast my vote for J.D.)
  • The Convention voted to support its institutional trustees after the trustees of Southwestern Seminary made a hard decision to remove the President Emeritus. A few voices in the Convention were calling for the removal of the trustees, but after debate and a rousing explanation from trustee Bart Barber, the Convention voted by an 85 or 90% margin to stand with the trustees.

Secondly, the Concerns:

The Executive Committee of the SBC brought a very insightful and sobering report to the denomination. In summary, while giving is very strong for the Convention at the national level, the state conventions are struggling for funding. Additionally, while many new churches are being started, we are seeing a trend of decreased baptisms. There is an optimistic way to interpret the data, believing that new churches will soon be reaching more people, but, at the end of the day, that is only hope. I was reminded that I (and HNW), must strategize on ways to take the gospel more clearly to the people of Houston and the world in order to make a dent in lostness.

Overshadowing most everything else at the SBC was the surprise decision of the leadership to allow Vice President Mike Pence speak on the second day of the Convention. As messengers arrived, they were informed of the Vice President’s appearance, and this was very troubling to a number of our messengers (including myself). At the beginning of business, a motion was made by Pastor Garrett Kell to not allow time for the Vice President to speak. His reasoning was clear; to invite the Vice President would: send a mixed signal about where our true allegiances are, would potentially send a confusing message to our minority members, and could potentially endanger our overseas workers. There was a vote, and the Vice President was allowed to come speak by a 60–40 margin. (Full disclosure: Not every messenger from HNW agreed with my assessment nor voted the way I did on this particular topic.)

I voted against the Vice President coming to speak at the Convention because of a deep concern that — historically — we (the SBC) have aligned ourselves far too comfortably with politicians and have grown far too comfortable with power, rather than speaking prophetically. During my tenure at HNW, we have allowed two politicians on our platform — one Democrat and one Republican. One we prayed for (Mayor Sylvester Turner). The other (Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick) we invited to hear his testimony. With both of those officials we learned an important lesson: Politicians are politicians. Even those with vibrant faith like to talk about the issues that are important to them. If you hand them a microphone, they will do so — even if you previously asked them not to do so. Consequently, I feared that having the Vice President in our Convention would be used not to talk about faith, but rather to make a mid-term campaign stop. To be clear, I believe Vice President Pence to be a believer in Christ without doubt. I also believe that, as Ed Stetzer has wryly stated, when you mix religion and politics, you get politics. And, if you know Baptists, one of our strongest convictions is religious liberty and the separation of church and state.

If you’re a member at HNW, you’ve heard me say this repeatedly: We serve one King. We honor the government officials in our lives, but we also need to know that when we cozy up to any political leader or party, we are creating unnecessary division, and we are mixing our messages. If you’re interested, I wrote a series of thoughts on that very topic here.

Unfortunately, the Vice President did indeed make a midterm political speech with a little faith splashed at the end. (Lots of talk about what has been accomplished, foreign policy, etc.) And there was a lot of standing and cheering. And, unfortunately, I believe it communicated a very mixed message, because the standing and cheering was for something other than Jesus. When we invite a politician to speak, we implicitly communicate that we agree with policies. And given the nature of political rhetoric and divisiveness surrounding politics and policies these days, there is little to gain and much to lose by inviting a candidate — even if he or she is a believer. Bottom line: I didn’t think it was wise.

One final thought on this topic: The Convention will be debating and voting in 2019 to no longer invite members of political office for the reasons outlined above.

Finally, a Question:

One issue that continued to bubble to the surface in several conversations was the role of women in the SBC’s leadership and in the local churches. Several women posed questions regarding this issue in the hallways, the exhibit hall, and at the microphones. In fact, I believe that almost every single seminary president was asked questions on this topic after their reports.

The SBC has officially adopted the theological position of complementarianism (men and women are different and have different roles in the family and the church), but you could sense a question bubbling up in a conversation at a national level:

What does that mean, practically? How can SBC churches maximize the voice, gifts, and roles of women in the church?

I’m intrigued to see where this leads nationally, but, in the meantime, I’m spending a great deal of time reading and studying on this, personally, this Summer. A beautiful thing about being Baptist: We don’t have to wait on the SBC to tell us what to do. So I am going to spend time studying the Scriptures so that we might take a clear position. I want the women of HNW to be able to exercise in the sweet spot of giftedness and Scriptural allowance. I look forward to that conversation.

Those are my thoughts. It was a great few days — even the hugs with crazy uncles.

There is always work to be done. There is always change needed. But I’m encouraged about the days ahead.

See you in Birmingham next year.