As another Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting is about to begin, and you're about to read news stories about our democratic process and our crazy uncles who relish it, I thought I might share a few thoughts that reverberate in my mind from time to time. I'm a Southern Baptist pastor who spent the first 33 years of my life in independent Baptist/Bible fundamental churches. The last five of that were in an SBC seminary. Had God moved differently a few years ago or at some point in the future, I'd very happily pastor in an "independent" context again. In fact, one of the harder things I ever had to do was encourage the chairman of a pulpit committee not to bring my name up because I believed he'd harm his own credibility if he did so.
All that to say, I have some appreciation for both worlds and some sense of their respective strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats. As I hear of more and more in the generations younger than mine leaving IFB circles for the SBC, I wanted to reflect on some good and bad reasons to do so.
1: Better theology
Don't naïvely fall for the "grass is always greener" lie. Depending on how where you draw the lines of "independent Baptist fundamentalism," the theological diversity in the SBC at least as broad as it is in the SBC world—everything from Ed Young, Jr. to Scott Aniol, and that's just the beginning. IFBs tend to be much more compartmentalized in their relationships, so the streams of relationships in that world are usually more homogeneous. You just think the SBC is better because the people you've heard of are more sound than lots of the influential IFBs you heard preach in chapel.
If you're a faithful, articulate young pastor, you're actually much more likely to find a position of influence in the IFB network. For one thing, it's a smaller pond. There might even be a smaller percentage of young pastors in, say, the FBFI, than at an SBC annual meeting. And every year we decry how old we are! By the way, is it really influence you want, in the sense of "making a difference for the sake of the name of Jesus"? Or is it personal prominence? Because that's just carnal.
3: Better preaching
Again, you're just judging by what you've heard. Average SBC preachers sound a lot like average IFB preachers. I suspect that more SBC preachers get the necessity of Christ-centered preaching (because the Bible is Christ-centered), while many IFBs are suspicious if not hostile to the notion, possibly because they see it as a threat to their Dispensationalism. The SBC's Christ-centered preaching is generally a good thing, of course, but you'll also find some who do it badly. Whether that's worse than not doing it at all, well, that's a different conversation.
4: Missions funding
I think it's a bit disingenuous to convert to the SBC world just so you can qualify for IMB funding that'll help you avoid three years of deputation. If you've really investigated the system and you think it's a good idea and you'll happily contribute to it even if the IMB turns you down for funding, maybe that's a different story. (I also think the SBC is headed for a massive financial restructuring not too far out in the future. Whether that restructuring actually becomes a full-blown crisis remains to be seen.)
5: Healthier churches
Again, I think there are plenty of unhealthy churches in both camps. Go pastor one, whatever camp it's in, and help it rediscover the full message and implications of the gospel.
6: Less politics
Different politics, maybe, but not less. Both circles leverage fear of man. Maybe IFBs use it more to disincentivize undesirable decisions (i.e. crossing lines on separation), while SBCs use it to incentivize desirable behavior (i.e. sending more money). I've seen friends steamrolled and wounded in both groups.
I think the landscape in the IFB world is changing enough that you can cultivate local relationships with sound SBC pastors and churches (not to mention other sorts of churches), perhaps even constructive partnerships. As long as you don't get out too far ahead of your own church and you're mortifying your fear of man, you probably won't pay the price of ostracism like you might've ten years ago.
One Good Reason
Having said all that, here's one good reason you might consider cooperating with the Southern Baptist Convention: You want to partner with other believers who share gospel essentials and Baptist distinctives as much as you possibly can, for the sake of the spread of the gospel to all the nations. When all the underbrush is cleared away, I suspect this might be where IFBs and SBCs fundamentally differ. Among IFBs, you're viewed with suspicion (unless you possess the right pedigree) until you prove that you share the same theology and affiliations. In the SBC, if you're happy to cooperate by sharing financial and human resources that will be employed within the doctrinal parameters of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, SBCs will assume you're a gospel partner until you prove otherwise.
Just in case those sentences are a bit confusing, what I mean is that IFBs will scrutinize your personal beliefs and associations. SBCs will scrutinize your willingness to cooperate in gospel work that is rooted in a set of doctrinal affirmations. Most SBCs will want that work to say more than that those affirmations in one way or another, but will insist on them as a minimum. You actually don't have to affirm the BF&M2000 to be Southern Baptist, but you need to know how your money is going to be used when you start writing checks.
If that sort of partnership that sounds attractive to you, and you can hold your nose on some less foundational issues while you work for reform in whatever way you can, then maybe . . . maybe . . . you should consider friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention.