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First Thoughts

Is It Time to Leave the Southern Baptist Convention?

Today I want to return to talking about the Southern Baptist Convention.

First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida is easily one of the most significant churches in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention. Since I have not been at First Baptist long enough to take any credit whatsoever for that greatness, there is no personal boast in that observation. It is just the expression of a simple fact. First Baptist was once one of the largest churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, has given millions of dollars to the cooperative program, hosted a conservative alternative to the SBC annual meeting when the convention was more liberal, supplied a president of the convention from among our former pastors, and—until I got here—has always boasted of having senior pastors who were the best leaders and finest preachers that Southern Baptists have to offer.

First Baptist Church has a rich history of investment in the Southern Baptist Convention.

When Is it Time to Go?

That is why I have been alarmed at the expressions of concern I have received since last June about whether our church will remain in the SBC. The expressions of concern come in a steady trickle of email encouragements, “Pastor, when you say it is time to leave the SBC, we will be right behind you,” and in the weekly conversations with people who come up after church and ask, “How much longer do you think until we leave the convention?”

These statements are coming from garden-variety church members that I would not even have imagined are paying attention to the SBC. But they are paying attention, and they are ready to walk out the door.

I understand why.

I became a Christian in a Southern Baptist church when I was in high school in the 1990s. I have been paying attention to the SBC for almost all that time, and I have never seen this convention in as much turmoil as it is right now. Disagreements about race, politics, sexual abuse, and even the qualifications for president of the convention are all threatening to tear us apart. I do not know a single Southern Baptist who is unconcerned. Every person in my church who has brought it up to me is concerned, and they are wondering if it is time to leave.

My answer is not yet.

Of course, the time may come to leave. There may come a day when the Southern Baptist Convention is a lost cause, and our resources will be better invested elsewhere. But that day is not today.

Cooperation is Messy, But Worth It

The main reason I believe that is because of the remarkable opportunity for cooperation that Southern Baptists still have. Just one example of that is our financial cooperation. Every year First Baptist Church contributes hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Southern Baptist Convention. Our money joins up with the churches that give hundreds of dollars, and churches that give thousands of dollars, and the ones that give millions of dollars, and together we generate hundreds of millions of dollars toward the spread of the gospel all over the globe. That cooperation is producing the greatest force for world evangelization that the world has ever known.

That cooperative force is worth fighting for. If the day ever comes when Southern Baptists cannot figure out how to stay together, it will come at an unspeakable loss for the cause of the gospel in America and throughout the entire earth. We need to do everything we can to keep this from happening.

I am hopeful that the Southern Baptist Convention is not abandoning its decades-long faithfulness. I remain encouraged that Southern Baptists are in a season of thinking things through and figuring things out. We are in a long, complicated, and—at times—painful denominational conversation. But Southern Baptists have done this repeatedly over the years, and I have grown to trust that they usually come out on the right side of things.

Staying at the Table

All of us who want to see Southern Baptists grow in faithfulness must stay at the table. We must ensure that our voices are heard and ultimately prevail in all the messy complications of this denominational process. The convention is set up so that churches like First Baptist ultimately get to decide what kind of convention we have.

So I am going to Anaheim in June with a full delegation of men and women from First Baptist who will be determined to see our convention extend its faithfulness into the future. I am praying for many other faithful churches to do the same. Together, I remain confident in the future of this great convention. If that ever changes then, with a broken heart, I will say so openly. But that day is not today, and I am praying we never see it.

Dr. Heath Lambert is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. He is the author of several books, including The Great Love of God: Encountering God’s Heart for a Hostile World. 

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