‘The road not traveled’: An urgent plea for a brighter future for the SBC

"To truly understand and attack the problem of crippling decline looming large over the future of the SBC will require Southern Baptists to embrace two radical steps," says Chuck Kelley, president emeritus of New Orleans Seminary.
Charles S. “Chuck” Kelley Jr.
(Photo by Van Payne/The Baptist Paper)

‘The road not traveled’: An urgent plea for a brighter future for the SBC

By Charles S. “Chuck” Kelley Jr. 
President emeritus, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

If the inattention to decline and its corrosive effects continues, historians looking back on what happened to the Southern Baptist Convention may settle on the 2024 SBC Annual Meeting as a critical turning point.

A convergence of three current circumstances is as perfect a scenario as the SBC will ever have for turning the full attention of entity heads, messengers in the convention hall, pastors serving churches and Baptists in the pews to the complex, difficult problem of breaking the grip of decline on the SBC.

First, a new and widely respected CEO for the SBC Executive Committee has begun his tenure. Jeff Iorg has succeeded at every level. He carries no political baggage and embodies traditional Baptist theology and polity, with a bent toward thinking outside the box and a passion for evangelism.

Second, a new SBC president will be elected with the possibility of serving for two years. With the office will come the powers of the bully pulpit, agenda setting and making significant appointments.

Third, a task force assigned to evaluate the impact of the Great Commission Resurgence on the convention will report its findings to messengers. That report will certainly include a disappointing description of the present health and circumstances of the convention.

Two radical steps needed

To truly understand and attack the problem of crippling decline looming large over the future of the SBC will require Southern Baptists to embrace two radical steps, however.

  1. We must repent. We must publicly acknowledge all is not well with the SBC. We must refuse to blame anyone but ourselves. We do not need to identify a scapegoat. We are all responsible.

There are actions to take, but doing anything will be unfruitful if we do not first repent. Public and private repentance before God is not typical among the families of churches in our nation, but Southern Baptists must do this in order to exit the road we are on and find another road to a more hopeful future.

  1. The SBC must apply the principles of triage to the agenda for the meeting in Indianapolis.

Triage is the process used by medical professionals to assess quickly multiple people having a variety of problems and identify the level of urgency in each problem. This allows a medical team to focus first on the most urgent needs while ensuring that every need is addressed at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way.

The messengers to the annual meeting must focus on the most urgent issue of systemic decline and find different ways to advance other important issues, like the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force and the Law Amendment.

Messengers attending the 2024 convention must reset the attention of the SBC on actual Great Commission progress.

The convention exists to facilitate churches working together to better fulfill the Great Commission. Primary attention must be given to the report of the GCR Evaluation Task Force while non-Great Commission issues are advanced by the creative use of other means.

How can this be done? By taking a road less traveled.

We must interrupt the current convention conversation.

One way to do this is to receive the ARITF report and immediately refer it without further discussion to the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for discussions about where to go from here. This issue naturally connects with the ERLC more than any other SBC entity. The ERLC has staff, a trustee body representing the SBC and a budget giving them the ingredients for a more thorough discussion than the convention could ever have in its business sessions about how to proceed on the complex issue.

This move does not sweep the sexual abuse issue under the carpet or give it a blank check. Far from it. It gives the issue a true track to run on in SBC life.

A second way would be to handle the Law Amendment differently.

Controversy about the amendment (read more on pages 16–19) appears to be driven as much by confusion as by conviction. Most Southern Baptists believe the Bible teaches every pastor leading a church should be male. Less clear are opinions about the inclusion of the term “pastor” in the title or job description of other church staff members who are not the leader of the church.

More clarification and careful explanation of the theological and practical issues involved is essential to maintaining the unity Southern Baptists have always had about gender and the office of pastor. This kind of discussion is not possible on the convention floor.

Thorough analysis needed

A thorough analysis is needed, and the Council of Seminary Presidents could be asked to prepare a White Paper, which is an available tool used by many organizations when facing critical decisions.

The presentation and discussion of the White Paper in a future convention will provide a natural opportunity for messengers to make a motion and vote on the issue.

By taking these two radical steps, messengers attending the Indianapolis convention would position themselves for a rare and unusual opportunity. The stage would be set for messengers to listen carefully and consider a formal analysis of the state of the Great Commission in Southern Baptist life.

We need to be brokenhearted, realistic and determined — determined to attack the challenge of implementing the Great Commission together as the prime directive, the task that must always be done first.

EDITOR’S NOTE — This opinion piece has been edited for space and also appears in the June 6 edition of The Baptist Paper. The full version of the piece appears on Chuck Kelley’s website and can be read here

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