Nothing points to the failure of Christian leaders like the decline their religion has faced for oh, ten or so years now. And nothing points to the fact that Christianity is a business like how those leaders are responding to that decline. While we wait for the big Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) 2018 Annual Report, I thought it’d be fun to look at how their two nominees for the SBC presidency proposed to fix their decline. We can take a lesson from their example–but I don’t think they can.
Everyone, meet Ken Hemphill
Ken Hemphill was one of the two nominees for this year’s SBC presidential election. J.D. Greear was the other. You will probably notice a big difference between them right off the bat:
If you noticed that Ken Hemphill looks like he could be J.D. Greear’s Pop-Pop, you guessed correctly! Age might be nothin’ but a number, but in the SBC’s case it’s a very important number. In 1994, Hemphill succeeded Russell Dilday (remember, we talked about him before?) as the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) and served until 2003, when Paige Patterson took over.
That previous sentence contains a lot of “Christian love” in action. Russell Dilday got “ousted,” in the words of the New York Times (NYT). The Powers That Be (PTB) changed his locks just minutes after voting to dismiss him. And yes, he felt very surprised. Those same PTB had given him “a glowing appraisal” the very day before the vote.
Russell Dilday was a victim of the Conservative Resurgence. In turn, Ken Hemphill benefited from it–for a time. At least one commenter at SBC Voices (Ron West) thinks Hemphill himself lost his job because he didn’t play along with the PTB to the extent they desired. I couldn’t find corroboration of that claim, so take it as you like. Whatever the case, it’s very clear that the conservative end of the SBC liked him as a candidate this year.
In addition to leading SWBTS for a spell, Hemphill has pastored several churches in Kentucky and Virginia, led the SBC Center for Church Growth in the 1990s, and was a national strategist for something called Empowering Kingdom Growth from 2003-2011. (I guess nobody cares if any of those efforts actually worked to reverse the SBC’s decline.)
And now let’s meet J.D. Greear
The very photogenic J.D. Greear is pretty much just a pastor, but of a megachurch. Megachurches are super-sexy in fundagelical-land. Their pastors are as close to rock stars as it gets in Protestant ministry.
To be sure, their churches get a lot of criticism for a lot of reasons. Most of that criticism is more than justified. But nobody can deny that in an age of massive declines, megachurches almost buck the trend. Almost. A lot of it’s self-reporting errors, fudging, and straight-out cannibalism of neighboring churches, but Christians take what they can get.
As we’d expect, Greear’s church, The Summit, went from very low attendance to “just under 10000, according to statistics available through the SBC’s Annual Church Profile.” His baptism numbers have risen accordingly, from 19 in 2002 to 641 in 2017 through nine church campuses. (I couldn’t find how many of those baptisms went to minors.)
I can very easily see J.D. Greear representing a sort of Holy Grail for Southern Baptists. With the failure of so many churches, with the erosion of so many congregations, his appears to be flourishing. Plus, at 45 years old, he’s fairly young–especially compared to 70-year-old Ken Hemphill. The SBC itself skews quite old–in this chart, we learn that over half of their members are over age 50, with only 28% between the ages of 30-49 (and only 13% are young people, a Christianese phrase meaning people roughly between the ages of 18-29).
This wasn’t J.D. Greear’s first rodeo as a nominee for the position of president. He was nominated in 2016 too, but lost to 59-year-old Steve Gaines. It was a very close vote, though. In the end, Greear withdrew, allowing Gaines–a “traditionalist” candidate–to secure the victory.
The Battle Royale over evangelical churn
The leaders of this denomination know very well that they must attract young people to their banner. As their older members die off, nobody’s there to replace them.
So the vote this month in the SBC’s Annual Meeting really came down to a decision between the old guard and the young upstarts. Greear represented, to many people in the SBC, a shifting of their culture away from its misogyny in particular.
To critics, however, he also represents a further encroachment of Calvinism into the denomination. About a third of the denomination’s pastors describe their churches as some flavor of Calvinist, with another third claiming Arminianism/Wesleyanism. (That’s the opposite of Calvinism; it means that people come to the Christian god to be saved, and can fall away in turn. Calvinists think that their god has already decided who’s going to Heaven and Hell, and people can’t change his mind or resist their fate.)
When we talk about “traditionalist” Southern Baptists, we’re talking about that second group. According to Christianity Today, over 60% of SBC pastors have expressed concerns about Calvinism in their denomination.
So a lot was at stake this year. SBC voters weren’t just picking between different leadership styles. These candidates represented entire different visions for how Southern Baptists should do their thing. And both candidates were keenly aware of how important it was to end the SBC’s self-described “baptism drought.”
Here is how they each proposed to do it.
Ken Hemphill: “Our need for revitalization”
Jim Erwin, a Missouri SBC pastor and Patheos blogger, stumped for Ken Hemphill’s candidacy last month. At the time, he wrote, “I believe that Ken truly is the right man to lead the SBC for ‘such a time as this.'”
In the following guest post, Hemphill immediately led with the SBC’s “need for revitalization.” You see, he is deeply, deeply concerned about “the stagnation and decline in many of our churches.” He cites his decades of service to the goal of “revitalization.” He’s taught classes on the topic; he’s worked with a number of groups addressing it.
And yet despite all of those efforts, he concedes that more than 80% of SBC churches are “plateaued or declining today.” His conclusion: “This means we have a tremendous challenge and opportunity.“
Yes, that is what he said.
Here are his solutions to this problem.
Ken Hemphill’s suggestions to fix evangelical churn
First, everyone needs to talk to the ceiling more often. This is of vital importance. He doesn’t say how talking to the ceiling will actually help anybody. The problem is, he really can’t omit this step lest he mortally offend his tribe.
Second, he wants churches, Christian associations, and state conventions to network and work together more often and more effectively. He does not state how this will lead to “revitalization.”
Third, the SBC must plant more churches. They must be “churches of every style and variety in every context possible.” He cites the number we’ve already covered: 732 new starts in 2016, way below their goal. Again, he doesn’t state how this will “revitalize” the plateaued and declining churches. (Planting churches is Christianese. It just means to start a new church somewhere.)
Last, everyone needs to be doing more selling–especially laypeople. He wants to help churches “develop strategic plans of evangelism” that include personal salesmanship as well as church-led sales events. This last suggestion rises to the level of a valid one, and it might actually have had a chance of success–if the SBC wasn’t a thoroughly tainted brand.
This plan sounds a lot like the same ol’ things the SBC has always been pushing.
J.D. Greear: “The basic passions”
J.D. Greear’s campaign platforms sound essentially the same as his 2016 ones. He reiterated them after winning the position.
First: “Keep the gospel above all.” He doesn’t explain what that Christianese means, nor how SBC members will know when this goal is achieved. He does try to say what it doesn’t mean to him:
As a Convention, we should be neither defined nor characterized by a certain church style, method of ministry, political affiliation, or cultural and racial distinctive.
Unfortunately for him, that ship sailed years ago. The SBC is irrevocably entangled with the Republican Party, as well as with a particular style of church culture–and with racism, sexism, and culture wars. (If Christians actually did try to keep “the gospel above all,” chances are nobody’d have any problems with them.)
Second: Improve cultural and racial diversity. To his credit, it sounds like his megachurch empire has a lot of people of color (POC) in leadership positions. Now he wants to “recognize the leadership gifts of brothers and sisters of color” and “embrace their leadership.” It’s a good goal generally, but it won’t happen without some clarification. And he’s reckoning without his hosts–namely, the thousands of SBC churches led and attended by stone-cold racists. Is he going to make them accept POC as pastors?
Non-racist SBC churches are already making strides here; racist ones won’t listen.
J.D. Greear: Always Be Closing
J.D. Greear’s campaign promises continue along lines we easily recognize.
Third: “Intentional, personal evangelism.” Ah, we knew it’d come down to shaming individual members for not selling hard enough–didn’t we? It sure sounds like he’s going to be pushing hard for SBC members to Always Be Closing:
Recently, at The Summit Church, we asked each member of our congregation to identify one person they could pray for and seek to bring to Christ over the year. The phrase we kept repeating was, “Who’s your one?” This emphasis led to our most evangelistically effective year to date. What would it look like if every Southern Baptist asked God to let him or her lead one person to Christ next year and our agencies worked with pastors and church leaders to make that a possibility?
If you just heard a cry of anguish, that was the frustration of a thousand thousand Southern Baptists who know that the people around them don’t want to buy their product or become their downline.
Further, are these Christians asking permission from their sales marks to go to all this creepy effort? Or are they just planning to Jesus Roofie people?
Fourth: “Church planting and revitalization.” There’s that word revitalization again! And another plea for more church plants. This time he injects Jesus Power into his goals: “we need to plead with God for a wave of new life in existing churches.” He doesn’t say where these church plants will come from, nor how revitalization will occur.
Hey, do you suppose that as the SBC continues to decline, SBC folks will start wondering why “God” isn’t helping them?
Somehow it always falls to young people
J.D. Greear might recognize how vital it is to the SBC to get young people more involved, but somehow I doubt that his next two suggestions will be accompanied by a greater respect for those young people–or by a push to give them any power within the organization.
Fifth: Burdening SBC college students with saving the denomination’s bacon. See, back at his home megachurch, he asked college graduates to spend two years living and working somewhere near one of their church plants. He implies that their presence helped the church plants succeed. Of course, he doesn’t offer any evidence for this claim, nor state what these students are doing while living there.
Sixth: “Engaging the next generation in cooperative mission.” The SBC’s various churches all contribute money to a denomination-wide evangelism effort, both in the United States and elsewhere. The SBC calls this effort “cooperative mission.” Indeed, contributing to that fund is what allows SBC members to attend their big Annual Meeting. A church’s level of giving to this fund is a barometer of how “cooperative” it is with the denomination overall.
And J.D. Greear needs the few remaining young people in his denomination to be way on board with that denomination-wide effort. Again, he doesn’t say how he will engage young people in this effort.
What neither promised
Unsurprisingly, neither candidate suggested that maybe the SBC’s central messaging is wrong. As always, the message is always perfect in a broken system!
Both candidates decried wrongs committed against women at varying points. Alas, neither offered any solid changes to the SBC’s doomed doctrine of complementarianism. For all of J.D. Greear’s hip-cool-pastor vibe, he sure hasn’t actually suggested major changes there. (We’ll be focusing more later on that link’s howler of a non-solution.)
I feel very confident in predicting that J.D. Greear will usher in a new sense of legitimacy for Calvinism–a doctrine that, if anything, is almost as bad an offense to the human spirit as complementarianism is. That said, I don’t think anything will really be changing for the SBC.
If the SBC’s leaders don’t abandon their culture war mentality, young people will continue to avoid the denomination like the plague it is. But that mentality is the core of the SBC. It’s what grants them their sense of entitlement to control others and insert themselves into other people’s lives. They can’t reject it. Not now.
Add to these miseries the current horrors engulfing America, like child separation, and fundagelicals’ continued worship of Donald Trump, and I don’t think all the rah-rah and revitalization in the world will save the SBC.
In short, we know them now.
There will be no walkin’ this back.