Radiating the denominational optimism of his era, in 1948 an ebullient Alabama pastor named Levi Elder Barton mused, “I am more tremendously convinced than ever that the last hope, the fairest hope, the only hope for evangelizing the world on New Testament principles is the Southern Baptist people represented in that Convention. I mean no unkindness to anybody on earth, but if you call that bigotry then make the most of it.”
When Barton penned those words, Southern Baptists were approaching their zenith. The post-war era would be good to Southern Baptists, like most every other Protestant denomination. Numerically, the SBC would enjoy dramatic expansion. Denominationally, the SBC became more cohesive and organizationally mature. Culturally, Southern Baptists neared the apex of their social influence and political clout. Christ appeared to be building his Church, and an angel appeared to be riding over the denominational dust cloud.
Nonetheless, in hindsight, Barton’s assertion may invite a smile, or even a wince. It may appear as denominationally prideful and self-absorbed. But, if one can overlook his apparent hubris, Barton projects a sentiment—an almost romantic desire—which has been the SBC’s unifying theme since 1845 and its primary catalyst into the 21st century—fulfilling the Great Commission.
Now, nearly seven decades after Barton’s assertion, the numbers still impress. The Southern Baptist Convention boasts more than 15 million members in nearly 50,000 churches. In the Deep South, the numbers are even more impressive. In fact, one in four Alabamians identify themselves as a Southern Baptist.
Yet, all is not well within the Southern Baptist Zion. Nearly 50 years ago, Dean Kelley’s insightful, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, documented the correlation between a denomination’s acceptance of liberal theology and the numerical decline that always followed. Kelley’s argument was clear enough—if a church does not believe in the full truthfulness of Scripture, the exclusivity of the gospel, and the eternal realities of heaven and hell, it feels no urgency to evangelize. Therefore, denominational decline always follows doctrinal compromise.
Similarly, Kelley demonstrated how conservative churches—including Southern Baptist churches—which still held conservative doctrine, tended to grow numerically. Sound doctrine led to evangelistic urgency.
Kelley’s research produced a stark study in contrast, and it served as a causus belli for conservatives during the Southern Baptist Conservative Resurgence. As a convention of churches most concerned with missions and evangelism, the logic was airtight. The only way to ensure vibrant evangelism and missions, conservatives argued, was to recover their theological foundations.
Yet, for Southern Baptists, past pride in our relative strength contra mainline denominations, has given way to the realization that we are currently on a similar—but thankfully—slower path. Over the past decade, denominational statistics have made this clear. Southern Baptists are not impervious to the fate of the mainline denominations. However, while trend lines document the past, they don’t have to determine the future.
The optimism of previous decades has given way to concern over how well we are reaching the world, and what role we will play in it. The deeper into the 21st century we go, the more acute our challenges will likely become. Indeed, the decades before us will likely present the SBC with unique, even unprecedented, challenges on most every front.
Denominationally, indicators such as baptisms and Cooperative Program giving cause ongoing concern. The near unbounded optimism of previous generations is now buffeted by the realities of declining denominational statistics. These realities force us to confront pressing questions like:
- Will we be agreeable to reimagining our structures, programs and efforts to most effectively reach the world for Christ or will we retrench and risk being a past-tense denomination?
- Will we recommit ourselves to funding our collective Great Commission work through the Cooperative Program or will we choose to endlessly downsize?
- Will we grow more unified around shared convictions and mission or will we fragment over secondary concerns and tertiary doctrinal differences?
- Will we see the generational transition that is upon us as an opportunity to seize or a change to resist?
Theologically, the SBC’s doctrinal recovery, as captured and codified in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, has now been fully implemented in all of the national entities. The Southern Baptist Convention stands in the year 2016 as a tower of theological certainty and convictional clarity. No one wonders what Southern Baptists believe on the big theological and social issues of the day, but this strength invites its own series of questions:
- Can we maintain intergenerational theological faithfulness, successfully projecting these gains deeper into the 21st century?
- Will we recover a regenerate church membership, comprised of baptized believers, covenanted together in a disciplined church?
- Will we be able to maintain a distinct Baptist identity while we engage and partner with the broader evangelical community?
- Will the recovery of the doctrine of inerrancy lead to a renewal of biblical authority, sufficiency, and a renewed commitment to biblical exposition?
- Will the theological uniformity of the SBC’s entities lead to more confessionally-aware and theologically-informed churches?
Culturally, Southern Baptists, especially in the Deep South, enjoyed unique influence for more than a century. An uneasy church-state alliance reinforced social, moral expectations, and fostered an ambient Christianity. That influence is giving way to mere tolerance, which, in some corners, is morphing into intolerance. Our cultural moment, including real and growing threats to religious liberty, should press Southern Baptist churches closer together toward unity in belief and mission. These realities invite still more questions.
- Can we be content as a distinct cultural minority and remain faithful to the dictates of Christ in the face of social marginalization?
- Will we have the courage to hold firm on pressing cultural issues, such as biblical marriage, against increased public agitation for approving the same?
- Will we be content to view ourselves, as Russell Moore has argued, as “communitarian instead of majoritarian?”
These issues, and many more, bring me back again to Levi Elder Barton, who was “more tremendously convinced than ever that the last hope, the fairest hope, the only hope for evangelizing the world on New Testament principles is the Southern Baptist people represented in that Convention. I mean no unkindness to anybody on earth, but if you call that bigotry than make the most of it.”
Nearly seven decades later, Barton’s assertion still rings with a certain element of truth, and I resonate with his hopeful assessment—to a certain degree.
More urgently, I am inclined toward the inverse of Barton’s assessment. As for me, I am now more tremendously convinced than ever that the SBC’s last hope, fairest hope, and only hope is for God to grant us sober reflection, spiritual renewal, and Great Commission recommitment. If you call that desperation, then make the most of it.
Though our world is ever-changing, one thing is clear—the Southern Baptist mandate is to never change. Whether delivered in Galilee by our Lord himself, preached by the apostles in the book of Acts, considered by 309 gathered messengers in Augusta, Ga., in 1845, flowing from the pen of Levi Elder Barton in 1948, discussed over beignets and coffee at Café du Monde in 1976, pondered anew in 2016, or projected deeper into the 21st Century—Southern Baptists are called to be a people standing on the Word of God, and moving forward together to reach the world with gospel of Jesus Christ.
As we do, surely Christ will be pleased to build his Church through us, and an angel will continue to ride over our denominational dust cloud.
 Alabama Christian Advocate, June 29, 1948, p. 2.
 Dean Kelley, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, (Mercer, 1972).
 Alabama Christian Advocate, June 29, 1948 p, 2.
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