A hopefulness for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention amidst a season of great denominational transition was the theme of a discussion between Midwestern Seminary President Jason Allen and LifeWay Christian Resources President and CEO Thom Rainer on Sept. 19.
Entitled, “The State of the SBC,” and moderated by Allen, the discussion took place during Midwestern Seminary’s chapel hour and focused on the many significant changes facing the denomination. Among these is the need to fill four entity leadership positions within the SBC and to address a generational transition as well.
Rainer, who announced on Aug. 28 his impending retirement from LifeWay, explained that while vacancies in the SBC Executive Committee President & CEO, president of Southwestern Seminary, and president of the International Mission Board roles are significant, there is also great transition at the local church level.
“We are in disruption due to massive transition in denominational leadership, but we’re also in disruption because of local church struggles,” Rainer said. “In the history of our denomination, by any metric, everything we see in the numbers tell us that we’re in a massive transition time at the local church level as well. Sixty-five percent of our churches are declining, and 90-percent of our churches are in need of significant revitalization.”
Rainer warned that an inward focus and lack of outward focus is causing dissention at the local church level in many places. He sees this trend at the denominational level as well with disagreements over tertiary, and even less important, issues.
“We’re fighting over so many things at the denominational level and that is a reflection of what’s happening at the local congregational level. We’re spending our resources inwardly in dissention instead of outwardly in the community, and we’re missing the idea of thinking, ‘What can I do for the Kingdom?’”
When asked by Allen what his biggest concerns are for the SBC in 2018, Rainer bluntly stated that the denomination is no longer primarily a Great Commission organization and has lost its first love – that is Christ and sharing Him.
He further noted that this answer didn’t come without personal accountability as well. “This is a reflection on me, and all of our leaders. I frequently ask myself how often, during the course of a week, I am intentionally and prayerfully seeking to share the gospel. I can point to a few times when I am, but I can point to a lot more times when I am not.
“So I can begin to point a finger at the denomination or at local church pastors and leaders, but then I feel the inward conviction of whether I’m personally doing enough, and no, I am not.”
The conversation turned to a brighter forecast for the future of the denomination when Allen asked Rainer about his thoughts on J.D. Greear’s election as SBC president.
Rainer said, “J.D. Greear is and will be a great SBC president. His heartbeat is, first of all, the gospel and it’s not a slogan to him – it is reality. He is a leader that loves church planting, and he will be about the task of starting new churches. He is also one who will be singularly focused upon his primary objectives, and he will not be distracted by the tertiary things mentioned earlier.
“There is also a generational shift there. While he’s not young, young…to have a 45-year old youthful president, who isn’t aligned with a political camp, and is just aligned for the gospel and for the church, is just incredible. This gives me great hope and joy and portends well for our denomination into the future.”
Allen noted a coming generation of believers that possess an ambition to truly give their lives to something more. He added that he would never encourage them to do that toward propping up a tired denomination, rather that they give their lives to the church, to the Word of God, to the Great Commission, and the convictions we hold dear.
“If our hearts are right, our beliefs are right, and our mission is right, in as much as we need a denomination, those denominational aspects we need will take care of themselves,” Allen added.
Rainer piggybacked on that thought by praising aspects of ministry as seen within millennials and the next generation. He noted that while not as many millennials are attending church, they are a different kind of believer.
“They don’t do church as usual,” Rainer explained. “They don’t do ‘church-ianity.’ They want to make a difference. One of the greatest hopes I have for our denomination, and greater Evangelicalism, is this and the next generation. They may be fewer in number, but the possibility and potency for the gospel is immeasurable.”
Wrapping up the discussion, Rainer summed up his thoughts on the work of the SBC saying that while there is much work to be done within our denomination, it all begins by staying focused on mission.
“If we aren’t driven by mission, we don’t just have a missiological problem, we have doctrinal aberration. That may be one of the greatest shrouds we’re not looking under right now. Faithfulness to the Great Commission and sharing His Word is all about truth, because what are you sharing anyway?”