Three of the blogs I regularly follow (Nathan Finn, David Worley, and SBC Today) have posted this week on the theme of a Great Commission Resurgence. The Great Commission—one of the categorical imperatives of Christianity and certainly of the SBC. Who could argue, right?
Southern Baptists, as it turns out. And that's because, like most public actions in Southern Baptist life, there's as much subtext here as there is text.
First, the positives of the GCR, expressed in the negative things it addresses. Clearly Southern Baptists are less faithful than once we were about presenting the gospel to lost people here at home. We need a resurgence in our living out of the Great Commission. Clearly the North American Mission Board has been through a few years of turmoil while we are losing to paganism the large urban centers of our nation. We need a resurgence in our living out of the Great Commission. Clearly there are doctrinal problems with an International Mission Board that has so lost its confidence in the Bible as to become convinced that the Qur'an is the key to winning Moslems to Christ. We need a resurgence in our living out of the Great Commission. The very phrase "Great Commission Resurgence" scratches an important and palpable itch in the Southern Baptist Convention. I believe that it is helpful language, and I would be pleased to go to my grave thinking that I had contributed at all to seeing a Great Commission Resurgence take place even only among my congregation, much more among Southern Baptists as a whole.
But here's the problem, in my view, that generates some controversy. The proponents of the Great Commission Resurgence are constantly presenting it as the Post-Conservative-Resurgence Resurgence. Either they declaratively (seemingly authoritatively) state that the Conservative Resurgence has ended, or they proclaim that it needs to end right away. They have the "Mission Accomplished" banner painted and packed, and they are on a desperate search for the appropriate aircraft carrier on which to erect it. As the SBC Today article points out, one reads very little effort to expound upon Matthew 28:18-20 to define the GCR, yet as the article fails to point out explicitly, the one universal constant in the speeches, posts, and briefings given on the GCR is that it is defined as not being the Conservative Resurgence.
I hold out hope for a reconciliation of the Conservative Resurgence and the Great Commission Resurgence.
Why The Conservative Resurgence Is Not Over
The two need to be reconciled because we need both a follow-through of the Conservative Resurgence and a Great Commission Resurgence. We need not sacrifice one for the other. Several factors in Southern Baptist life demonstrate for us the continuing need for a vital Conservative Resurgence.
- The very issues (and indeed, many of the very people championing those issues) that provoked the Conservative Resurgence are still active and influential in the Southern Baptist Convention at the state convention level. The great failure of the Conservative Resurgence has been its inability to translate into state convention contexts, where intimidation of pastors by denominational bureaucrats has been much more effective in shutting down conservative movements. The severity of the problem varies from state to state, but a great many leading churches in the CBF are also leading churches in their respective state conventions.
- But for a few noteworthy exceptions, the network of traditionally-Southern-Baptist colleges and universities remains entirely unchanged by the Conservative Resurgence—even are more resiliently liberal in its wake. Consider, for example, GCR proponent and recently minted Church History Ph.D. Nathan Finn. An alarming number of state colleges and universities in Baptist life would go out of their way not to hire Dr. Finn simply because he holds a terminal degree from a Southern Baptist seminary. That's ridiculous. What's more, the same universities are actively counseling their ministerial students not to attend Southern Baptist seminaries for ministerial training. University after university has successfully amended its charter for the express purpose of remaining untouched by the Conservative Resurgence. Walk onto the average "Southern Baptist" university these days any you'll be disabused of any notion that the Conservative Resurgence has reached "Mission Accomplished" status.
- The past two years of blogging have revealed more than one troubling indicator of doctrinal weakness in our convention, from speculation of autoeroticism in the life of Jesus to a wink-and-nod "caveat" system in place among our trustees and employees to an aversion toward ecclesiology (among adherents of what is essentially an ecclesiological movement!) to an out-and-out advocacy of feminism in the SBC to a denial that life begins at conception…I could go on and on. The transparency afforded by blogging—something that some people hoped would put an end to the Conservative Resurgence—has actually pulled back the curtain to demonstrate how much work remains to be done.
A Plan for Reconciling the Resurgences
First, we must note that not all who are calling for the Great Commission Resurgence are doing so from the same place. I've read some analysis that seems to regard the GCR as the anti-CR. Having opposed the CR all along, but having been unable to defeat it, people in this camp apparently see in this moment a good opportunity to employ the sacred status of the Great Commission as a dodge to supplant the CR indirectly. Such a strategy can be effective—this is exactly the way that Landmarkism was largely set aside in the twentieth century, not by articulating another ecclesiology but by changing the topic of conversation away from ecclesiology altogether. For any people who might harbor these sentiments, the reconciliation of the resurgences would cause them to abandon the GCR, since it would no longer serve their purpose of bringing an end to the CR.
A second theme arises from those who did not oppose the Conservative Resurgence, but who have tired of it or have grown disillusioned with it. They may not want to overturn the CR, but they surely would like to get it over with, already. This mood is one of impatience, typified by Ed Stetzer's comments last year in San Antonio: "Wasn't the promise of the conservative resurgence that we would get to the point that we agree on enough that we can now reach the world for Christ? When will that come?" For such impatient folks, the need is (a) to reiterate the needs that remain to be addressed by the CR and (b) to show that the CR and the GCR are compatible and can proceed alongside one another—that the CR can continue without being the only thing that Southern Baptists are doing. I think there is hope for the reconciliation of the two resurgences in this group.
A third theme arises from those who are ambivalent about the Conservative Resurgence ideals, but who regard the whole thing as a negative influence upon public relations. These are our Madison Avenue Baptists. They're terribly concerned that people "know what we're for, not only what we're against." The world for which they hope is a pipe-dream. If tomorrow the SBC were to enact a thousand strategies for feeding the hungry or sheltering the homeless but were to pass one resolution against same-sex marriage, guess which one makes the news that night? And here's one important factor to note about such things as same-sex marriage—it's not the Southern Baptist Convention who is bringing these issues to the forefront of public discourse. Organized movements exist for the sole purpose of making Gomorrah of the United States of America. We can choose either to roll over to them or to take a stand for Biblical righteousness. Wherever we draw the line to take a stand, we're going to be castigated in the press for our intolerance. The Madison Avenue plan for appeasement will only lead us to our own Münich. Folks who want a kinder, gentler SBC need to be pointed to Christ's own testimony about the certainty that we will be persecuted, misrepresented, and slandered when we stand up for the truth. We need more preaching on these themes. And we need a resolve not to be what the Apostle Paul considered "men-pleasers." We need to do what is right and let the chips fall where they may.
A fourth theme arises from those who see "Great Commission" as a calling for us to forget our Baptist convictions. Within the IMB the phrase "Great Commission Christians" is code-language for evangelical ecumenism. A renewed rigor in biblical studies and in historical theology—a renewal fueled by the Conservative Resurgence and, to some degree, by renewed intensity in Southern Baptist discourse on the subject of Calvinism—is giving rise to what Malcolm Yarnell and others have rightly termed a "Baptist Renaissance." If any see the Great Commission Resurgence as a mechanism for blunting a resurgence of convictional Baptists, they are likely to be disappointed. Historically a faithfulness to carry forward the Great Commission has been quite compatible with vigorous maintenance of the Baptist distinctives, for Baptists have been among the most faithful to pursue obedience to the Great Commission.
A fifth and final theme arises from those who are concerned about flagging evangelistic zeal among Southern Baptists. As I opined some time ago, this category includes almost everyone in the SBC, and some overlap occurs between this category and each other category listed above. Yet for some this is the primary motivation, or even the exclusive motivation, for championing a Great Commission Resurgence. Some folks calling for a Great Commission Resurgence are really only saying, "We've got to become more faithful to share the gospel around the world." Granted. Such folks need to understand that, although the successful continuation of the Conservative Resurgence is not a guarantee of a Great Commission Resurgence, it is nonetheless the sine qua non of a Great Commission Resurgence. The current direction of our state Baptist universities will not contribute to a Great Commission Resurgence. No Great Commission Resurgence is forthcoming from the New Baptist Covenant any more than it is to be expected from the Unitarian-Universalists.
Not all of these themes are equally sympathetic to the Conservative Resurgence, but enough are sympathetic for us to see a consensus achieved in the SBC. Here's a plan for demonstrating the compatibility and confluence of the two resurgences:
- Leading advocates of the Great Commission Resurgence need to state plainly that the Conservative Resurgence is not yet complete.
- Leading advocates of the Great Commission Resurgence ought to develop a joint definition (platform, statement, whatever you want to call it) of the Great Commission Resurgence together with identifiable key historical leaders of the Conservative Resurgence in order to demonstrate not only the compatibility but also the solidarity of the two movements.
- The Great Commission Resurgence needs to be focused explicitly upon the planting and strengthening of Baptist churches as the specific task that the Great Commission presents to us.
- Southern Baptists need to underscore the fact that the powerhouse of the Great Commission is not to be found in contextualization, strategies, programs, bridges, the Qur'an, marketing, seeker-sensitivity, music, tiptoeing around ethical issues, pandering to cultural hotbuttons, or any other such man-centered locus, but arises solely from the gospel power of proclaiming Christ and Him crucified. This concept is a clear and solid link between the Conservative Resurgence and the Great Commission.
- Southern Baptists need to beware the potential that we might become fractured into CR and GCR camps. Each concept needs the other and will utterly fail if any divorce or separation takes place.