Southern Baptist Convention: Can it thrive in the 21st Century?

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American culture is morphing at light speed on matters such as secularism, sexuality, and spirituality. Can the denomination remain relevant in such a moment?

American culture is morphing at light speed on matters such as secularism, sexuality, and spirituality. Can the denomination remain relevant in such a moment?

American culture is morphing at light speed on matters such as secularism, sexuality, and spirituality. Can the denomination remain relevant in such a moment?

American culture is morphing at light speed on matters such as secularism, sexuality, and spirituality. Can the denomination remain relevant in such a moment?

When the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) gathers in Baltimore tomorrow for its annual meeting, they are expected to discuss their declining numbers as well as cultural hot buttons such as homosexuality and transgender issues. As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s like deja vu all over again.” Membership and baptisms within the denomination have been declining for years and the SBC never misses an opportunity to publicly weigh in on the political and cultural issues du jour.

But the larger question hovering over the Convention this year seems to be whether the nation’s largest Protestant denomination can thrive in the 21st Century. American culture is morphing at light speed on matters such as secularism, sexuality, and spirituality. Can the Convention remain relevant in such a moment?

To address this question, I talked with Dr. David Dockery, the newly elected president of Trinity International University and author of “Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Proposal.” Here, we discuss the denomination’s decline, sexuality, and racial reconciliation.

RNS: The Southern Baptist Convention has reported an annual decline in baptisms since the late 1990s with another decline and membership has declined for the past seven years. Some have called this “a spiritual problem” while others speculate that it is “a cultural problem” brought on by an increasingly post-Christian, pluralistic society. In your opinion, what’s driving this decline?

DD: I think the issues that you have noted are multi-faceted and rather complex. Many of us across SBC life have not recognized well the rapidly changing cultural context in which we now find ourselves, perhaps best typified by the Pew study on “the rise of the Nones.” Secondly, I think, we are all probably unaware of the incipient universalism that dominates the thoughts of many in our congregations. The combination of these two factors means that the reality of the lostness of those all around us has somehow disappeared from our thinking and thus the urgency of Great Commission efforts has taken a backseat.

I am also somewhat certain that the ongoing tensions in our midst and the ways that we have at times failed to demonstrate Christian love and unity with and toward one another in our own denominational context have not always been helpful for some in the watching world around us. In the days to come, we will need to trust the Lord to grant us much wisdom in our evangelistic outreach and strategy, courage and faithfulness in the sharing of the gospel, and sensitivity to the ways that we relate one to another within our SBC world and, also, to the changing context and culture that we have been called to serve at this time.

RNS: Journalist Molly Worthen speculates that the “Conservative Resurgence,” (movement to purge liberals from SBC life in the 1970’s and 80’s) has “failed” because they are now “hemorrhaging members just like everybody else.” How do you respond?

DD: It is hard to measure the success or failure of a movement that in many ways is still in progress and ongoing formation. Certainly there is much for which to give thanks regarding the recovery of commitments to the full inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture and to the truthfulness and transforming power of the gospel. I do think that leaders across the SBC are rightly concerned about the decline in baptisms and church membership, but it will be awhile before all of the aspects and implications of the conservative resurgence can be evaluated and interpreted.

RNS: Pastor Danny Cortez of The New Heart Community Church in California created a media firestorm recently when he led his SBC-affiliated congregation to vote to accept the gays and lesbians into the life of their congregation. How should the denomination respond to churches who take such a position, in your opinion?

DD:  I think that almost all congregations across the SBC are quite aware of the clear teaching regarding both doctrinal and ethical matters in the “Baptist Faith and Message (2000).”  The denomination needs to respond carefully, wisely, and prayerfully to this congregation or to other congregations who struggle with and wrestle with these matters. In doing so, it is important to recognize that Baptist churches are autonomous and can make decisions for themselves on a variety of matters and we all respect their privilege to do so, but it is vital to note that churches who choose to relate to the SBC do so voluntarily in light of shared doctrinal commitments, which are best expressed in the Baptist and Faith and Message.

RNS: You edited a book a few years ago called, “Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future.” But many Southern Baptists are rooting their ecclesiological identities outside of the denomination. Some have chosen to drop “Baptist” from their name. The convention even voted to allow a different label for churches who felt the SBC moniker wasn’t helpful. Does this trend concern you?

DD: I think that for many years this trend that you have noted has been developing.  I am sure that some find it more problematic than do others. I think it is a choice that each congregation must make as they determine the best name for the church and the best way to serve the context and community where they are located. Churches who cooperate with the Southern Baptist Convention must find the best way to carry out their responsibilities to make sure that those in their congregations are aware of the church’s commitments regarding doctrinal beliefs, church practice, and support for shared and cooperative efforts regarding missions, evangelism, education, and benevolence ministries.

It is becoming increasing clear that the work that Robert Wuthnow, the brilliant Princeton sociologist, did on “the restructuring of American religion” is more of a reality now than when that research was completed over two decades ago.

Cover courtesy of B&H

Cover courtesy of B&H

RNS: The Southern Baptist Convention was founded over the issue of slavery and they were strong supporters of segregation and Jim Crow Laws. But in 1995, the Convention passed a resolution condemning racism as sin and apologizing for their past. Is this enough? Should Southern Baptists consider the matter of race and the hurtful past “water under the bridge” or what more should they do to pursue reconciliation?

DD: We can give thanks to God that Southern Baptists as a whole have made much progress in these areas in recent years. Southern Baptists are now one of the most ethnically diverse denominations in the entire country. The election of Fred Luter as SBC president over the past two years is more than a symbolic victory in this regard. I had the privilege this past year to participate in a most encouraging and heartening effort by serving as the convener for an important gathering of racially diverse leaders from all across the entire Convention who are committed to finding ways to strengthen commitments to racial reconciliation as well as to intercultural competence and communication.

But while giving thanks for all of these important markers of progress, I would quickly add that we still have a long way to go in our efforts to live out the kingdom aspirations of diversity and racial reconciliation made known to us in Revelation 7. Thus, we need to continue to give much attention to these matters.  We need not only focus on what it means to become faithful Great Commission followers of Christ, but also Great Commandment followers of Christ who are called to love those around us.

  • Atheist Max

    David Dockery said,
    “I think, we are all probably unaware of the incipient universalism that dominates the thoughts of many in our congregations.”

    Well that ‘incipient universalism’ is why God makes no sense!

    As former Pastor Jerry DeWitt explains this
    the 5 steps he took to becoming a non-believer.
    His notions of God began to expand
    once he stopped believing in Hell:

    1. God loves everybody
    2. God saves everybody
    3. God is in everybody
    4. God is everyone’s internal dialogue
    5. God is a delusion

    We will all do better when we climb down from the claims of religion
    and confront our society with reason and rationality
    instead of ancient, parochial, tribal nonsense.

  • samuel Johnston

    Let’s stop horsing around and speak plainly.
    The Great Commission IS THE PROBLEM!
    (Matthew 28:16-20, New International Version (NIV))
    “18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

    Men can only live in harmony is there is mutual respect. This aggressive and condescending doctrine sends thoughtless idiots to my door who generally know less than I about their religion. It is the legacy of the mobs, sent by the clergy to burn the libraries. It is the legacy of the heresy trials, and the torture chambers, dunking stools, and a thousand other intimidations aimed at those who would not bend their heads to religious tyranny.
    IN THE NAME OF A MERCIFUL, AND JUST GOD, JUST STOP! Let each man be content under his own fig tree.

  • Doc Anthony

    From “Former Pastor”, to “Non-Believer”, you said. Sincere thanks for pointing out the tragic downward progression, because it really does happen.

    One only needs to stop believing a little bit of Bible, in order to eventually stop believing in Christianity (or even stop believing in theism at all).

    Some of these churches think they’re being “relevant” by refusing to believe the creation/fall/flood claims of Genesis, or refusing to believe the Bible’s claims about Hell, or refusing to believe what the Bible says about homosexuality. That’s totally mistaken.

    These churches are asking, they’re begging, for MORE of their members to become atheists, not LESS. And they WILL get their wishes granted!

  • Doc Anthony

    This is the first time I’ve seen somebody going ballistic against Christ Great Commission. Good grief.

    ( A legacy of Library Burning? Seriously dude? Do you do any historical research? The myth about Christians burning ancient libraries has been TOTALLY debunked by today’s scholars.)

  • Tim

    Thanks for bringing some sanity to the comments, Doc.

  • Shawnie5

    Thanks, Doc. I always get a chuckle when someone brings up that old nonsense about Christians burning the Library of Alexandria. Carl Sagan should have stuck to his “star stuff” and left history alone.

  • samuel Johnston

    @ Doc
    “Christ great commission”. “…the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.
    Wow. Jesus is not claiming to be “The Christ” (he never made such a claim, others made it on his “behalf”), and he was not a Trinitarian. Carl Sagan was not a religious scholar. The “Great Commission” is a forgery, which is not to say that if it were not, it would be a good idea. Modern “scholarship” does not mean that everybody who gets a book published is a scholar.

  • Shawnie5

    Even if the Great Commission were a forgery (which has never been proven) it would not make much difference. It’s only a condensation of the Mount Olivet discourse, where the disciples were “commissioned” in greater detail.

    “The Christ” is only another name for Messiah, which Jesus most certainly claimed to be. As to His claims to divinity, you may have missed them but the Jews who heard Him certainly did not. They knew what He was saying when He said “The Father and I are one,” and “Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father,” and “Before Abraham was, I AM.” Even His favorite name for Himself, Son of Man, was a direct reference to Daniel 7 and they knew it.

  • samuel Johnston

    Proving negatives is very difficult, which is why the burden of proof is on those who make the claims.
    If I say I saw Bigfoot and the Flying Spaghetti Monster hovering over the White House the other evening, and show up at your door to invite you to our rally, you have just cause to be skeptical. The probability is simply too low. Gods and monsters never seem to show up clearly and cleanly, but live only in the mist of human imagination, superstition, and fears.

  • Shawnie5

    And all that was relevant to my comment, how?

  • Atheist Max


    He’s saying your claims are empty.

    I’ve been watching you for a few months – astounding how many claims you keep repeating. There isn’t a shred of evidence or REASON why any of the claims of the Bible would be true and yet ….you don’t seem to even get an inkling that we Atheists are on to something.

    “Jesus is Lord” means this…

    “I tortured, beat up and shot up my son
    with a first century equivalent of an AK47
    and made him bleed to death for your personal benefit”
    – Yahweh God
    (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John)

    The world must run away from this nonsense as fast as it can!

  • samuel Johnston

    Jesus wrote nothing (couldn’t write?), all we have at best, is the testimony of untrained people’s memories from the distant past, not even contemporaneous statements. All attempts to reconstruct an historical Jesus have failed – on every level. That is why folks like you must rely on magic, hearsay, dogma, and a book which was not ratified in its final form until 419CE. With Four Centuries to fiddle, revise, redact, and falsify; magic is really badly needed to swallow the product.
    A few levels of evidence are 1) beyond reasonable doubt 2) clear and convincing 3) weight of evidence 4) more probable than not 5) scintilla.
    The Christ myth is at best, based on a scintilla of evidence about an historical person. Paul
    expected Christ’s return imminently, as have Christians ever since. They have always been disappointed. Very reasonable! Keep up the good work.

  • C Brakefield

    I think that part of the problem is starring the SBC right in the face, yet none of you look at the reflection. Beth Moore and Lifeway(Along with other females who have been called into the ministry) are filling arenas with women hungry for the word of God. Yet, these same women are not allowed to serve in the local churches in the ways that they have been called to serve. No women getting excited to be in a SBC church equals no children being brought to church.

    Wake up!

  • Shawnie5

    If you’ve been “watching me for a few months” then you ought to have noticed that I have no interest whatsoever in going around and around with people like you about the existence of God. The Psalmist dismissed the atheist position briefly with “The fool has said in his heart, There is no God.” I see no reason to add anything to that. I am happy to leave it up to God how He chooses to reveal Himself to the individual, and to the individual how he responds.

    Where I become interested enough to comment is where people make erroneous claims about the Bible, Christian doctrine, or church history, whether out of ignorance, self-interest, or outright malice. SJ did this in his original comment, and instead of responding to my counter point he wandered off into different issues, as have you.

    He was not so much saying my claims are empty, as, that it doesn’t really matter that he has his facts wrong about the gospel.

  • Frank

    Interesting how fools act foolish and say foolish things isn’t it? Gods Word is certainly wise and on point.

  • Atheist Max


    You said, “I become interested enough to comment where people make erroneous claims about the Bible, Christian doctrine, or church history”

    I’m enormously relieved to learn you see yourself only as a preserver of an ancient, superstitious, meaningless yet culturally relevant artifact: The Bible.

    I thought you believed its contents in the same way a Muslim believes in the Q’uran.

    I’m relieved that you are merely among the curators
    of its dead carcass.

  • Larry

    It makes no difference as to the veracity of “The Great Commission”. It is taken as an article of faith and a sacred duty. Christians use it as their socially acceptable excuse to engage in obnoxious behavior and attack the beliefs of others.

    Samuel Johnston’s point (which you avoided in favor of apologetic nonsense) was proselytizing is an inherently obnoxious and uncivil act. It involves deliberately showing a lack of respect for others in furtherance of one’s faith. No good comes from such things.

    There are enough bad acts done in the name of Christianity against those of different sects and different faiths to see how such thinking is inherently bad for humanity. You can only deny and minimize so much before it gets silly.

  • Larry

    How about we just bring up how most times various Christian sects can’t even get along with each other, let alone other faiths?

    How often are Christians uncivil towards those of other religions in very public ways?

    It all comes back to that Great Commission. The excuse to be uncivil to “heathens”.

  • Shawnie5

    Indeed, Frank, indeed. That’s why you gotta love the trolls — they’re our “Exhibit A,” so to speak.

  • Larry

    Shawnie and Frank in agreement. Feeble minds think alike. 🙂

  • Shawnie5

    Speaking of feeble minds, Larry…why don’t you go dig up some more gems of brilliance for us about Roman overpopulation, ‘kay?

  • Shawnie5

    If “no good comes” from “engaging in obnoxious behavior and attacking the beliefs of others,” what exactly are YOU doing here?

  • Larry

    I don’t attack the fact you are Christian. I attack the fact that you are an apologist. Its not your religious beliefs I attack, its how you interact with those who do not share them.

    The command of the Great Commission by its nature is to attack the religious beliefs of everyone else. This is carried over into sectarian fighting among various groups of Christians as well.

  • Larry

    Hey Shawnie, if infanticide is such a big taboo for Christians maybe you can explain the 800 child bodies found in the backyard of an Irish home for “wayward girls”.

    If respect for the dignity and rights of others is such a major component to Christianity, then how come none of that ever comes through in a single thing you post?

  • Shawnie5

    Sure, all kinds of evils still occur, and always will as long as the world is populated with fallen beings. The difference between pagan Rome and the modern-day west with 2000 years of Christianity underlying its culture is that this kind of evil generally does not occur with the approval of society. Today 800 dead babies make the headlines and inspire outrage right and left. In pagan Rome –as well as all the other pre-christian civilizations–nobody would even have noticed. Or if they did, they would have casually assumed it was for the best. Is this a belief that should not have been attacked?

    For all the complaining about proselytizing, the fact that we no longer find it acceptable to strangle or drown unwanted newborns, or throw them into fires or off cliffs to appease some pagan god, or leave them out for animals to snack on (or, at best, to be salvaged for the slave auction or the brothels) is owing to the fact that.long ago the earliest Christians “proselytized” enough (and sealed it with their own blood, while they were at it) to bring about a sea change in western values and introduce a reverence for human life previously unknown in civilized history.

    I’m not sure why you insist that I have no real respect for human dignity and rights. I respect your humanity and freedom to choose your own path. I wish you no ill of any kind. But I think you are wrong about many things — as you certainly think I am wrong as well. I will no more pretend to endorse your views than you will mine. That is the nature of moral conviction. Were it not so, you would have none of the rights you blithely take for granted because no one would have been “obnoxious” and “uncivil” enough to stand for them.

    And needless to say, I’ve never yet called an opponent “a lying sack of crap.”. Chiding from the obnoxious about obnoxiousness kind of falls flat.

  • Shawnie5

    The great commission is part and parcel of christian belief, so of course you are attacking religious belief. Not that I mind that, because I’m not so thin-skinned as to be perpetually offended by free exchange of ideas, but at least be honest about it.

    And of course that leaves “engaging in obnoxious behavior,” which you’ve not even attempted an excuse for –not that one could be made.

  • Atheist Max


    “Long ago the earliest Christians “proselytized” enough (and sealed it with their own blood, while they were at it) to bring about a sea change in western values and introduce a reverence for human life previously unknown in civilized history.”


  • Shawnie5

    Once again, Exhibit A.

  • Samson Omotosho

    Thank God for Shawnie and Frank. I’m fully with both of you. I respect the way you ‘speak the truth in love’ (Ephesians 4:15), in spite of vicious responses possibly arising out of, as Shawnie earlier said, “ignorance, self-interest, or outright malice”. The summary of it all is that believing or not believing in God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ), and God the Holy Spirit does not make God’s existence and sovereignty any less real! It’s a ‘faith’ matter and not a ‘logic’ affair.

  • Larry

    Actually its the results of the Great Commission which bear criticism. It has promoted behavior which does Christianity a grave disservice.
    It has been used to promote sectarianism, attacks on other faiths and overall uncivil behavior.

    You almost want to admit that such things are integral to Christian faith. If that’s what you want to do, go ahead. I won’t stop you.

    Just don’t make any kind of pretension about the faith respecting the beliefs of others or leading to behavior expected to do so.

  • Larry

    What do you call 800 dead babies in the backyard of a convent?

    The cost of doing business. 🙂

    Btw comparing what happened in a 20th century religious facility to ancient Rome is hardly appropriate. As late as a generation or two ago one would have expected church and government working together to cover up such stories. Not unlike what they systematically did with all sorts of abuse and misdeeds.

    “And needless to say, I’ve never yet called an opponent “a lying sack of crap.””

    Because you were always the one spinning the obvious lies. It would be hypocritical for you to respond the same way. 🙂

  • Shawnie5

    “Btw comparing what happened in a 20th century religious facility to ancient Rome is hardly appropriate.”

    No reason why not. Why do we care about it now while no one would have cared about it then?

    “Because you were always the one spinning the obvious lies. It would be hypocritical for you to respond the same way.”

    No, it’s because even though I go a little harder than I probably should on those who, knowingly or not, misrepresent religion or history, I do have a regard both for manners and for proper argumentation.

    You make a great deal of noise about my “obvious lies” but have failed to refute a single one — which should be easy if they’re so “obvious.” Not that I mind this…you make my case for me better than I could make it all by myself.

  • Atheist Max


    I’m guilty of ‘self-interest’ and ‘outright malice’ when it comes to religion.
    But not “Ignorance”.

    You said, it comes down to ‘faith’ so Christianity’s validation technique is the same validation technique used for all other religions; Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.

    Faith is what you plug the hole with when the story makes absolutely no sense.

    YOU are the one embracing ignorance.
    I make no empty claims. You do.

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  • Lles Nats

    So what’s the heathen’s excuse?

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  • judy

    May your church hemorrhage completely until you give God control and let HIM DECIDE who is to minister in HIS CHURCH.

    Any women who continue in your denomination after what you have done is permanently damaged by the view that God thinks less of her than the men if she stays and continues to be brain-washed…she will be an ineffective leader of her children.

    You need to compare scripture with scripture instead of taking 5 verses OUT OF CONTEXT….your recent decisions show that your doctrine is very shallow…Jesus commanded that “The princes of the Gentiles lord it over one another, but IT SHALL NOT BE SO AMONG YOU”..YET YOU DEFY CHRIST AND LORD IT OVER WOMEN…this is absolute disobedience…

    If women are not equally in the image of God and if they are not equal to men, then your children are increasingly less in the image of God with each passing generation…your position is not logical.

    God will judge you for your insult to His great creation of women…and will lead them out for His glory to serve Him as He chooses.