I write today in the context of an article by Brad Whitt and a response by Ed Stetzer (UPDATE: Peter Lumpkins has entered the conversation as well with this article, which actually was up before mine was). The general subject matter, although much is involved here, is the content of the Southern Baptist Convention Pastors Conference vis-à-vis the various demographics within (and semi-within) the Southern Baptist Convention.
Participating in the comment streams of these articles provided me with some insight as to how other people have perceived past speakers at various Southern Baptist conferences. Learning to understand other people's point of view, even when it does not produce agreement, always is helpful.
Dr. Stetzer's article expresses amazement that anyone could possibly believe that "traditional" (whatever that means) Southern Baptists are being marginalized. What I'd like to do in this article, as benignly as I know how, is to offer a way for him and for any who share his puzzlement to gain some insight.
First, I think it is not exactly on-target to analyze past pastors conferences as though they were evidence relevant to what Dr. Whitt has written. Traditionalists in Southern Baptist life may be a bit like conservatives in political life. Those who are not conservative will generally tolerate (while arguing with) most conservatives, but they will not tolerate a Clarence Thomas or a Sarah Palin. Being conservative is mildly irritating, but being a black conservative is traitorous and being a female conservative makes one deserving of caricature.
What is necessary, I think, to answer Dr. Whitt's post is some exemplar of any room for a YOUNG traditionalist like Brad Whitt to have a voice in national Southern Baptist life. Otherwise, it is possible that young non-traditionalists (again, whatever that means) are, instead of tolerant to diversity, merely patient.
Second, just as it is helpful for Dr. Stetzer to help somebody like me to understand what kinds of things can happen at SBC Pastors Conferences to marginalize and build ill-will among that group of methodologically diverse Southern Baptists who also happen to share with us a commitment to Southern Baptist ministries and theology, perhaps it would be helpful to give an example of the kind of thing that can happen at a conference to prod and provoke people like myself.
Fresh in my memory is an occasion at which a very young pastor of a large church was invited to speak at a Southern Baptist gathering. Here is a summary of his time at the microphone:
- He began—I kid you not…the first words out of his mouth—by correcting the person who introduced him to let everyone know that his church was actually a good bit bigger than the introduction had let on. The figures were a couple of months out-of-date, you see, and he wanted to make sure that everybody understood that his church had gotten to be even more massive since then.
- So, his church was very successful, and for this he was thankful, but he was really worried because not many churches are as successful as his. So, the purpose of his talk would be to "give you a couple of reasons why your church is not successful."
- The first reason why most people's churches aren't as successful as his? Our churches don't have any relationships with any lost people. And, in fact, a church just like our churches fired him from being a youth minister solely because he wanted to have relationships with lost people and they (pastor, administrative pastor, chairman of deacons, and…nemesis of nemeses…an old person) hated lost people and hated him for not hating lost people. By this point in his speech, I must confess that I was already seeing a thing or two in his personal attitudes that seemed to me more likely to give him employment troubles at a church than his passion for lost people.
- The second reason why most people's churches aren't as successful as his? If the people in our churches were to develop any relationships with lost people, our churches are the last place that they would dare to bring them. We wear ties and suits. We sing the wrong music. We talk about theology. We fail to let demographic research be THE driving factor shaping our entire practice of church. All of these things, he said, we must change or die. Nothing about this speech sounded like an engraved invitation for all of us to join in a methodological chorus.
- I keep calling it a speech, because it cannot in good conscience be classified as a sermon. There was no text…no real reference to the Bible anywhere in the lot of this. If he needed help with finding an appropriate scriptural springboard for what he had to say, I might have suggested the story of Rehoboam.
So, perhaps this will pull back the veil a bit and help those who were disturbed by Brad Whitt's post to gain some understanding of whence his angst arises. When I walk out of a speech like that, I don't feel congenial. Just writing about it some time after the fact, I still have to work at feeling congenial when I relive the moment.
But I'd like to feel congenial. I have no problem with methodological diversity that is truly nothing more than that. We have a pretty wide array of methodological diversity within our own congregation—a good bit more, I imagine, than does the speaker I mentioned above. Theology matters to me. Theology and methodology are not non-overlapping regions. Some methodology arises out of or reflects a church's theology. We've got things to work out as we go forward that are not easy. I know that. I believe that we can do it nonetheless.
It will help us to find a stable working relationship among our diverse churches if we hear less of these types of speeches at our conferences. It will also help if some acknowledgement is made of young Southern Baptists in the mold of Brad Whitt. It seems to me that the instance I gave above is not isolated and represents a phenomenon not acknowledged by Dr. Stetzer's analysis, which seemed to portray a convention in which traditionalists are judgmental toward non-traditionalists, who are tolerant and kind and sweet and celebrative of diversity. I'm suggesting that Brad Whitt has accurately noted a widespread (but not universal) non-traditionalist expectation that the death of ministries like Brad Whitt's and mine is merely a matter of time.