As I’m writing this, I’ve been here in Indianapolis since Saturday, and since the time the Pastors’ Conference kicked off Sunday evening I’ve been searching for words that could paint a picture of the experience.
But when the Gaither Vocal Band took the stage to perform their song by the above name, my search was over.
This has been a surreal experience. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the SBC you can probably tune in online. I’ve done that in the past, and it was quite instructive. When a couple friends joined me in sharing online running commentary, it was also quite enjoyable. (Note: I'm NOT encouraging it as a wise investment of time.) But that was another day.
Today I’m here. To this point I haven’t been able to formulate a coherent, big picture analysis. Perhaps in the process of sharing some snapshot observations a metanarrative will emerge.
My SBC experience began with the Pastors’ Conference, which was formerly an strategic tool of the SBC Conservative Resurgence, but is now essentially a series of sermons preached by men chosen by the leader of the Conference for whatever reasons he chooses.
I’m not going to lie. My expectations were low as the whole thing began. But when Johnny Hunt kicked off the Pastors’ Conference quoting A.W. Pink, twenty ears way on the left side of the room perked up. Later he busted out some Spurgeon and J.I. Packer.
Those moments of encouragement were fleeting. The Pastors’ Conference incarnates the steep price the SBC must pay for years of theological indifference. Sadly, the sermons that interacted most faithfully with the text of Scripture and advanced the fewest unhelpful theological and methodological notions were the ones preached either by non-SBC pastors or by men who gained their theological foundation when liberalism in the SBC was less pervasive and therefore less stifling to conservative students.
Here’s a taste of the Pastors’ Conference:
We heard the “biblical theology” for a come-forward invitation: “I believe the invitation is God’s idea.” God invites people into the ark in Genesis. In the last five verses of Revelation, the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Time and again, Jesus says, “Come.” Therefore, we should invite people to come down the aisle to an “altar” to do business with God because biblical faith is always accompanied by works (true) and the invitation is a great way to demonstrate that (false).
We heard, “Laughter may be the best message you’ve ever preached.” Sadly, I fear this may be true for most of those who "Amen"ed.
We heard interminable appeals to win souls in order to get our numbers up. “Every number has a story.” We heard little if any mention (I’m trying to be charitable) of the fundamental biblical motivation for evangelism of proclaiming the glory of the name of Jesus Christ to all the nations.
We heard three shout-outs to bloggers so far. One encouraged us to use blogs to fight for a Word-centered reformation. Two suggested that bloggers are one of God’s chief tools in bringing unjust trials on pastors. Interestingly, the pro-blogger speaker was also one of few to this point who adopted the novel approach of interacting with the Word of God in his sermon. And even he spoke at a parallel event, not on the official program.
While the guys from my church were chatting at one of the tables in the cafeteria area, a couple friends of our church stopped by and listened to our frustrations. One of them quite plausibly pointed out that the men who have been in the pulpit to this point were the men who received their training in the darkest days of the SBC. They were drawing nourishment while they were in seminary from whatever sources they could find. Though those sources were evangelical, they weren’t theologically sound. So I’m grateful that God equipped those men to reclaim lost ground in the SBC in the 80s and 90s. Nevertheless, I fear that their ongoing influence is undermining the future.
Let me close with a few observations, some of which I’ll articulate in words borrowed from the friends with me. First, in the SBC God is a means to an end. We need to seek his presence because he is the source of revival, which is a way for us to get our numbers up. Second, last year Executive Committee President Morris Chapman berated Calvinists. This year he went after sex offenders. Hmmm . . . Third, SBC preaching is pervasively typological. Every character in the Bible is a type . . . of us.
Finally, the public face of the SBC is functionally atheological. The good news is that I was able to observe some very clarifying evidence that theology does matter in the convention. In particular, the issue of women in pastoral ministry has popped up in a couple of different contexts, and when the chips are down people are making decisions to guard the SBC’s cooperative statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message. Surely there is backbone encased by all the flab, but I wonder how long it can survive under such unhealthy conditions.
So the SBC is in a precarious position. The preaching put on display is counter-productive to the principles of the Resurgence. It’s not that anyone denies the authority, inerrancy, or sufficiency of Scripture. It’s not that anyone would explicitly reject expository preaching. The problem is that the prevailing majority of the preaching that’s on display reduces biblical authority to (at best) a trite series of mottos and (at worst) a jumping-off point for man-centered theology or a comedy routine.
Just as I’ve argued that fundamentalists who profess allegiance to Scripture are hypocrites when they tolerate (and even elevate) preaching that undermines it, so is a fundamentalistic SBC Conservative Resurgence that tolerates what we’ve seen and heard this week.
There aren’t many young people here. There will be fewer the longer the status quo continues. But some with the will and capacity to change that status quo are energized to do so. Keep your ears peeled for an alternative pastors’ conference in 2009 that features preaching that focuses on the good news about Jesus Christ from the pages of Scripture to the glory of God. To the glory of God ALONE.
P.S. As I was typing the above paragraph, an SBC presidential nomination speech referred to salamanders as “fish.” The more I think about it, “somewhere between Jesus and John Wayne” may be too charitable.