Overview:

The 2022 Annual Report of the Southern Baptist Convention reveals some interesting takeaways: faction warfare heats up, while denominational leaders fight for the future of their own dominance.

Reading Time: 12 minutes

For those watching the drama at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the release of their Annual Report is one of the biggest events of our year. Like a naive fool, I’ve been checking for months for the 2022 Annual Report on the SBC’s official annual report archive. This is where all of their previous annual reports live, after all.

But how silly of me to think that! Little did I know they published it 2 weeks ago and just haven’t linked it on the archive yet. So we have it now. And buried in its many pages, we find some very interesting information about the denomination’s strategies for the year or two to come⁠—and the schism that continues to heat up between its two major factions.

How we even obtained the 2022 Annual Report

Every summer, the SBC holds their big jamboree, which they call their Annual Meeting. Churches everywhere may send various numbers of attendees to it, provided they have donated enough money and can foot the visit on their own dime. At this meeting, attendees⁠—called messengers⁠—propose ideas for the next year and vote on the current year’s agenda items. They also elect their denominational leaders, hear reports on how and what various SBC subgroups are doing lately, and listen to the best music and preaching the denomination offers. It’s quite a busy weekend!

One to two months later, the SBC releases their Annual Report, which is the writeup of that Annual Meeting. Once it is released, the SBC links it on their official annual report archive site.

But as of today as I write this post, the 2022 link is still missing. I’ve checked every few days for ages now, and it simply isn’t there.

I got desperate, thinking September is ridiculously late, and simply Googled for it.

Thanks to the politicized firecrackers at the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC), a state-level group under the SBC, we now have the SBC’s 2022 Annual Report. They told us how to find it: go to SBC.net, then hit the Resources tab (on my browser, I click the 3 dots on the upper right navigation bar, which pulls up a big blue window full of columns). From there, it’s the first link under Resources.

Via SBC.net

The SBC faction wars

A moment ago, I called the MBC “politicized firecrackers.” And oh, they are. Their churches’ leaders appear to be members of the Old Guard, a faction that ferociously opposes any hint of progressiveness or encroaching human decency in their churches’ ranks.

Cutting back on systemic racism? They’re against it. Making life harder in any way for clergy-based sexual predators? They don’t see sex abuse as a problem they must fix in the first place. Sexism? Gosh, maybe women should just stop being so sinfully ambitious. And oh, they do love the evangelical culture wars, just like their enemy faction, the Pretend Progressives.

(These are not official faction names. It’s just what I call them. As far as I can tell, neither faction has a formal name for itself.)

For their own part, the Pretend Progressives at least make a stab at fixing racism, sexism, and sex abuse, though so far they’ve seemed unwilling to go the distance to really make things happen.

At heart, no doctrinal or cultural differences exist between the factions. Pretend Progressives simply recognize where the winds of favor are blowing right now, while the Old Guard drills down harder on its demands.

The flocks want racism, sexism, and sex abuse dealt with. Annual Meeting messengers will reliably vote for candidates who favor reforms in these areas. And so the Pretend Progressives mouth the words, and they get elected to the plum SBC roles. That’s all it takes for the Old Guard to haaaaaaaaate them and call them the most vicious smear names you can imagine out of TRUE CHRISTIANS™.

The Old Guard is big mad lately because they’ve been steadily losing all their squabbles with the Pretend Progressives for a few years now. Things hit a fever pitch this summer at the Annual Meeting, when their strongest presidential candidate yet, Tom Ascol, lost against the relatively unknown Bart Barber of the Pretend Progressives.

Where the MBC fits in with the faction wars and the 2022 Annual Report

Months ago, I pegged the MBC’s leadership as generally Old Guard because of their ferocious opposition to the Pretend Progressives’ sex abuse investigation. They expressed this opposition by holding the denomination’s Cooperative Program (CP⁠—yes, really) hostage to their demands.

The CP funds all of the denomination’s activities on the collective scale. It pays for SBC seminaries, missionaries (both domestic and abroad), its top-ranked Executive Committee (EC), and its equally-powerful Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). Of late, the CP has also funded the denomination’s response to their widespread sex abuse crisis.

I can’t overstate the importance of this fund. This is the fund that SBC churches must support if they wish to attend the Annual Meeting. In fact, the denomination gives the description “cooperative” to the churches that qualify for attendance.

When an SBC church or donor wants to send a very powerful message of disapproval to the denomination, they start talking about withholding funds from the CP. Even just the threat of it gets the denominational leaders’ attention in a major way, as former ERLC leader Russell Moore discovered years ago.

Every single time an SBC member church has done this in the recent past, it has been the Old Guard protesting a Pretend Progressive project. Pretend Progressives haven’t ever returned the favor.

This year, the MBC created a temporary CP giving plan called “Plan B.” It allows member churches to qualify for Annual Meeting attendance while withholding funds from the CP-funded projects they don’t like. Their executive director, John Yeats, outlined this plan this past April. For the record, he wasn’t thrilled at all with it.

(Insert obvious, tasteless, and entirely appropriate “Plan B” jokes here.)

John Yeats also just so happens to be the Recording Secretary for the SBC’s Annual Meetings. He’s the one who prepares the report each year. In fact, this is his last year in the role. I’m betting that’s why the MBC website writers decided to just tell people exactly where to find this year’s report.

Diving into the SBC’s 2022 Annual Report

Our main page of interest is page 122, where the denomination summarizes its performance metrics for the previous year. (All Annual Reports detail activity from the previous year. Also, as a tip, search for “baptisms.” That quickly pulls up the metrics page.)

Page 122, 2022 Annual Report

For the most part, we’ve seen these figures already. The SBC tends to release their overall metrics as a sneak peek ahead of the Annual Meeting. Their arrangement of numbers remains interesting to me. For example, see the “total members” line under “Other 2021 Items”? That used to live with the baptisms section. Here’s an example from the 2019 Annual Report:

Page 136, 2019 Annual Report

They began putting the Total Members line in their “Other Items” section in the 2020 Annual Report, probably because that figure was tanking so hard nobody wanted to show the numeric or percentage changes anymore. And of course, 2021’s annual report detailed the utter catastrophe the pandemic wreaked upon their metrics in 2020. So “Other Items” is where Total Members lives now, and likely where it shall live forevermore.

And now, here are the 2020 numbers the SBC is still trying to recover from:

Page 132, 2021 Annual Report

They may sound super-stoked about their baptism ratio rising from 1:114 to 1:88, but their figure for 2019 was 1:62. They’re nowhere close to recovering this all-important statistic.

(The baptism ratio is officially the most important metric in the entire denomination. It indicates how many people the SBC baptizes per number of established SBC members. It’s a measure of evangelism success. And it’s been tanking steadily for about as long as I’ve been alive, 50ish years, despite every effort they’ve made to game it.)

Fascinating accountability proposals

We start seeing the winds of future change blowing early in the 2022 Annual Report. Starting on page 57, here are some of the proposals messengers made for future voting:

  • Form a Task Force to Conduct a Forensic Audit of the North American Mission Board (#17)
  • Disclose Executive Salaries of All Entities of the Southern Baptist Convention (#18)
  • Ask the Executive Committee to Cease Using Executive Sessions (#20)
  • Create a Transparent Vetting Process for Trustees of the Executive Committee (#21)
  • Publish Trustee Contact Information in the Book of Reports (#25)
  • Amend the SBC Constitution to add Article XV “Transparency and Accountability” (#27)
  • Request the Executive Committee Study the Impact of Waving [sic] Attorney Client Privilege #28)

(For reference, the EC is typically an Old Guard group. And for years, various SBC members have suspected the North American Mission Board of seriously misusing funds, and not without reason.)

It goes on and on and on like that, culminating in #34, “Abolish the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission,” and #35, which demands the removal of the Recording Secretary from the Executive Committee. Really gets the ol’ noggin’ joggin’, doesn’t it?

In between, we have various culture-war items. Proposal #22 demands that the SBC kick out any member church affirming women as pastors. (Considering thousands of women pastor SBC churches, that’ll definitely go over well.) After that, #23 demands the SBC’s leaders make a very visible statement of support for Israel in their statement of faith. I’m not surprised; the SBC’s various leaders have been fretting lately that younger SBC-lings don’t seem to care much about that cause.

Also, #39 demands that the SBC formally boycott Disney. Again. Because that tactic has always worked so incredibly well all those other times evangelicals have tried it.

If people don’t understand why I’m so interested in SBC politics, maybe they will now. This is all just absolutely fascinating to me. What a mess.

And the report’s presidential address was a statement of strategy, as usual

Starting on page 106, we find the usual SBC President’s annual address. Annual Reports always include a transcription of it. This year, outgoing president Ed Litton gave a sermon about compassion—and Southern Baptists’ overall lack thereof. See, he’s got a hunch about just why the denomination’s metrics are tanking so hard:

We may yet discover, as Southern Baptists, that our decline in baptisms is really due to the fact that our churches and people have become separated from the hurt of their communities. We’re isolated from the pain and suffering that lives all around us.

Page 109, 2022 Annual Report

To which we may safely say:

Yes, Ed Litton. That is obviously and totally exactly why almost nobody wants to join your churches anymore. We’re all just in so much “pain and suffering” without the product you sell, active membership in SBC churches. And your evangelists don’t act like they care enough about their marks’ “pain and suffering,” which is obviously and totally a completely accurate indication of how well your product would fix anyone’s “pain and suffering.”

He continues,

Over this past year, I’ve not heard a single person say about us, “Oh, how they love one another.” Don’t you wish they did?

I don’t know if he means SBC members aren’t saying that or if he’s indicating people outside the denomination. Either way, I’ve never heard anybody say that of the SBC as a whole, nor of Christians as a whole. Sometimes, Christians say that of their own churches or groups. But Christians simply are not known for their overwhelming love. Double that for evangelicals, who tend to be known far more for the opposite!

So in his address, Ed Litton asks evangelicals to magically grow a sense of deep compassion. That compassion will, he asserts, lead to more of them trying to recruit more new members. And he assures his audience that this greater effort will lead, in turn, to the SBC finally recovering from its decades-long slump.

Good luck with that plan, is all I can say. If Southern Baptists could be that compassionate, they wouldn’t be control-hungry culture-warriors in the first place. Also, they’ve always hated evangelism.

Also on the 2022 Annual Report agenda: discipleship and demands for more literalism

Following Ed Litton’s address, Juan Sanchez delivered the Annual Meeting’s official sermon (starting on page 112). Sanchez is a pastor from Austin and one of the leaders of The Gospel Coalition (TGC), a major opinion site for hardline Calvinist-leaning Millennial evangelicals. He is also the very first Latino pastor ever to give this sermon.

(Last year, when the SBC elected Sanchez to deliver this year’s sermon, they achieved another first: Ramón Medina became their first Hispanic elected to be their First Vice President. The SBC has both First and Second Vice Presidents. Think of it like the Sith, except the master has two apprentices instead of one. Also, they’re all elected individually. It’s not uncommon for a vice president to be in a different faction from the president. Of late, this fact has factored greatly in Old Guard political machinations.)

I am willing to bet that Juan Sanchez is a solid Old Guard guy. All the usual Old Guard sites approve mightily of both Sanchez and his sermon.

Instead of focusing on compassion, Sanchez instead stresses how important it is for Christians to make their churches “healthy.”

Brothers and sisters, a healthy church is a church in which its members are walking together in a manner worthy of this call. When a church is healthy, it brings to light God’s eternal plan in Christ and displays to the cosmic powers the wisdom of our God and His plan in Christ. . .

Page 112, 2022 Annual Report

He’s not 100% wrong. The utter dysfunction of almost all evangelical groups speaks volumes about the truth value of their claims.

But to achieve that health, he tells listeners, pastors must stop worrying about “social justice” and start enforcing more “discipleship.”

He also calls for more “expositional preaching.” All of this is supposed to make SBC churches behave themselves better and present unity to all of us heathens.

Captain Cassidy’s Christianese 101: What those mean in terms of SBC politics

Social justice means all the stuff Pretend Progressives say they support. It is very much an Old Guard snarl term. They uniformly oppose all forms of social justice. If Christians want to do something about racism, sexism, or sex abuse, they just need to Jesus harder, because that fixes literally everything.

Discipleship is more of an evangelical-wide idea. It means strictly enforced parent-child style relationships between experienced church members and newer ones. New converts are typically all for the idea until they realize just how far their faux-parents’ control really goes.

In discipleship, the parent in the relationship takes charge of the child. Parents dictate how their faux-children engage with the church. Sanchez tries to claim that “teaching, modeling, and even correcting” runs in both directions in discipling, but I can absolutely guarantee you that the faux-parents bristle mightily at being on the receiving end of this process. They’re authoritarians to the bone, and discipleship was designed for them to flex power.

To help his listeners learn about discipleship, Sanchez recommends “a little book by Mark Dever called ‘Discipling.'” Dever was one of the bellierent anti-COVID precaution crowd at the start of the pandemic. Whatever he has to say about discipling, it’s going to make the faux-children in these relationships massively vulnerable to abusers and predators.

Evangelicals think that if they immediately disciple new converts, then it’s much harder for those converts to leave. I don’t know either way, but I suspect the opposite is increasingly true.

Expositional preaching is just preaching using lots and lots of Bible verses that are all understood in a literally-true, always-prescriptive way. This approach is called biblical literalism. Hardline evangelicals have this idea that somehow, tons of Christian preachers don’t ever refer to the Bible in their sermons.

When you hear praise for expositional preaching, you won’t be amiss in assuming the speaker is one of the worst-of-the-worst control-hungry evangelical culture warriors. As it is, the Calvinist hardliners who now infest the SBC used biblical literalism as their route to winning the denomination’s last schism, the Conservative Resurgence of the 1980s-1990s.

Literalism is the engine that allows the worst-of-the-worst evangelicals to gain so much power and why they just keep getting worse and worse.

If evangelicals aren’t already doing this stuff, they cannot be compelled to start

The basic obstacle that Juan Sanchez and Ed Litton alike face is simple: evangelical leaders don’t actually have the coercive power to force their flocks to do anything they’re demanding. Once upon a time, pastors had a lot more power over their congregations. That power has faded, especially over the past ten years.

Ed Litton’s demand that evangelicals start feeling compassion comes many years too late for the denomination’s members. Their leaders have spent the past forty years dehumanizing their enemies and nakedly grabbing for political power over the heathens surrounding them. When their failed power-grabs have gotten them too frustrated, they have petulantly withdrawn to private communities (which themselves are rife with abuse and failure).

The only way evangelicals could actually begin to regrow their sense of compassion would be to exit the culture wars and renounce their political ambitions. And not even the Pretend Progressives are advocating for either idea.

Juan Sanchez has a lot better chance of pushing more evangelicals into discipleship and getting more pastors to lean harder on literalism. Both of these will inevitably result in more abuse, because that sort of power draws authoritarian predators like rotting meat draws flies. Neither, however, will result in evangelicals becoming more compassionate and unified, nor in shining up their tarnished Jesus Auras at last. If evangelicals could do any of that, rules and strict discipling would not be the reasons why.

The ultimate takeaways: serious faction warfare heats up further while top leaders fight for the dregs remaining

With all of this said, I can easily see why the Old Guard isn’t just flipping double birds at the SBC and flouncing off to form their own new ultra-authoritarian evangelical denomination.

Despite its solid decline, the SBC itself remains a huge moneymaker. The CP might be declining a bit too, but it still rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Overall giving, called “undesignated receipts,” still stands at over 11 billion dollars annually.

Say what you want about the SBC’s leadership, but they do not willingly walk away from any money on the table.

Overall, the 2022 Annual Report looks like a hard-fought tug of war between their two factions. The only folks guaranteed to lose this fight are the tiny number of actual progress-craving evangelicals like Dwight McKissic, a Black pastor who presented this motion:

To Request The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Study Removal of Any Name Connected to Chattel Slavery.

“That in keeping with the 1995 Resolution on Racial Reconciliation, Article XV of The Baptist Faith & Message 2000 and the Scripture’s clear teaching on the sin of racism, it be requested that the trustees of Southern Seminary study the feasibility of removing any name associated with the seminary, including buildings, academic programs, endowed chairs or scholarships, of individuals who participated in the American system of chattel slavery.”

Page 59, #37, 2022 Annual Report

Though the motion itself might actually succeed, actual progress is the one thing that neither faction cares about right now.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...