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First Thoughts

The Southern Baptist Convention in 2022: A Sketch of Where We Are

A Glorious Mugging

Participating in the Southern Baptist Convention can feel like a mugging. The days are long, disorienting, often brutal, and when it is all over you feel sore.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the SBC, and always appreciate the unpretentious majesty of a room where celebrity pastors and rural preachers all get a ballot and an opportunity to speak. But we all know the days can be long and the issues painful.

If the SBC in 2022 was a glorious mugging, then I want to provide a police sketch of the event. That is to say, I want to describe where we are as a convention now that the votes have all taken place in Anaheim.

Here are five broad strokes describing the SBC as I see it today.

1. The SBC Wants to be Conservative

There has been a lot of talk about liberal drift in the SBC. It is worth noting that drift is always a threat, and we must be ever diligent to protect against it (Hebrews 2:1). I will not participate in a liberal denomination. Neither will my church. Because drift happens slowly and over time, it is always wise to watch for early signs and correct them quickly. This work of watchfulness will always be our job.

But if the SBC goes liberal, it won’t be today. The best evidence of this that I saw happened on the first day of the convention. In response to a church who has ordained several women pastors, an important committee in the convention recommended taking a year to study matters related to the issue. The committee did not equivocate on the issue of female pastors but wanted to study practices across the convention.

The recommendation went over like a lead balloon.

The response from the floor of the convention was so strong, that the committee was forced to withdraw the recommendation without a vote. It was clear that the Southern Baptist Convention does not want to study this matter. They want to be faithful.

There are many other examples of faithfulness to which I could point, but this is just one example that demonstrates the desire of the SBC to remain conservative.

2. The SBC Wants to be Kind

The SBC does not just want to be conservative they also want to be kind. One of the clear realities that was repeatedly expressed in countless ways is that the SBC does not want truth without grace, nor conviction without kindness. This is a really good sign since Jesus came full of grace and truth (John 1:14), and his Apostles demand that we speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).

It is possible to be mean and faithful. It is also possible to be faithless and kind. Both alternatives are wrong. The Bible demands faithfulness and kindness, and the SBC is showing that they want an obvious demonstration of these twin virtues.

3. The SBC Wants to be Safe

The big issue heading into the SBC this year was the recommendations of the Sex Abuse Task Force. These recommendations were a long time coming and were the focus of much attention heading into Anaheim. Though there was much concern about whether the SBC would approve those recommendations, all that concern was displaced.

When the vote came over 90% of messengers approved the recommendations. I talked to many Southern Baptists who wondered if the recommendations represented the absolute best way forward. They voted for the recommendations anyway because they know we need to do something to be sure our convention is the safest place in the world for the weakest among us.

My interpretation of the vote is that Southern Baptists want our churches to be safe regardless of the cost. As a man who would rather die than have someone harmed in my congregation, I am thankful for that attitude.

4. The SBC Wants to be Effective

We were constantly reminded at the convention that reaching people with the gospel is the reason we cooperate as a convention. The most encouraging times of the convention were when we were celebrating the growing number of international missionaries and the expanding congregations at home.

My wife and I each cried as we watched the silhouetted testimonies of the missionaries preparing to go overseas to dangerous parts of the world. Many others cried too.

I am a Southern Baptist and lead a Southern Baptist congregation because we want to reach the nations for Jesus. Kingdom growth is the heart of every Southern Baptist and must always be.

5. The SBC Wants to be Led

The election of Bart Barber to be president of the SBC is remarkable for at least two reasons.

First, Barber was elected because 60% of messengers believe he will be a conservative, kind, effective leader who will help our churches be safe places. What is even more remarkable is that he was not the kind of SBC pastor that typically gets elected for this post. Southern Baptists elect megachurch pastors with national platforms. Not this year. This year, the SBC elected a pastor from a small church in Texas because they cared more about principles than platforms. I don’t care who you are, you must marvel at that. The leader of America’s largest protestant denomination is pastoring a church just like the vast majority of congregations in the denomination. That is truly remarkable.

Second, this change represents something larger than the election of one man. We are seeing a massive change in the convention. The days of coming into the convention with an anointed leader are over. That is because the SBC is facing a leadership challenge. We really don’t know who the next generation of leaders are going to be, and so as we pray for Bart Barber, we must also pray for God to raise up a new generation of leaders to serve alongside him, under him, and after him. We need countless people to lead this convention into a new era of faithfulness, kindness, effectiveness, and safety.

None of us knows who these leaders will be, but God does. We can trust him that all will be well.

When I look at the Southern Baptist Convention after Anaheim, that is a sketch of what I see.

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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