That was the reaction of longtime SBC chief parliamentarian Barry McCarty June 23 when the sea of ballots were raised by Southern Baptist Convention messengers overwhelmingly in support of a motion creating a task force to study how Southern Baptists can “work more faithfully and effectively together in serving Christ through the Great Commission.”
McCarty’s exclamation as he surveyed the vote could be heard because he was standing close to the podium where SBC President Johnny Hunt was presiding over the historic session of the Southern Baptist Convention last week in Louisville.
Desiring to confirm that I had heard McCarty correctly, I sent him a message via Twitter—the social networking Web site many Southern Baptists used for quick, 140-character thoughts about developments during the annual meeting. McCarty (@BarryMcCarty) aggressively “tweeted” throughout the SBC.
(Twitter has become so popular in SBC circles that by the end of the annual meeting Hunt (@johnnymhunt) joined the “Twitterverse”! This came only one day after Hunt told me at a news conference he was not on Twitter, relying instead upon his daughter for Twitter updates.)
“All of us on the platform were amazed at the GCR vote. I can’t remember a contested motion ever passing by a 90-95 percent affirmative vote,” McCarty told me. That’s saying something considering the fact that McCarty has served as chief parliamentarian for the SBC for several decades and has witnessed some highly contested matters of business.
The overwhelming endorsement of the task force motion, offered by R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, unquestionably demonstrated there is a strong concern among Southern Baptists that we’re off-track and something serious needs to be done to repair this situation.
The motion was the culmination of months of discussion across SBC life triggered first by a chapel address at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary by President Danny Akin, and later through a 10-point “Great Commission Resurgence” declaration drafted by Akin and released by Hunt on April 27. As the SBC met in Louisville, more than 4,000 Southern Baptists had endorsed the declaration. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m among those who have signed the statement.)
The agitation and unrest in Southern Baptist life found its expression in the GCR declaration, and seems to be reflective of widespread concern that the SBC has lost its way, demonstrated most tangibly in flat and slightly declining baptism and membership statistics.
New data by Ed Stetzer and his team at LifeWay Research released June 22 during a meeting of the Association of State Baptist Papers in Louisville underscores the urgency of the moment. Stetzer predicts Southern Baptist membership will fall nearly 50 percent by 2050 if the trend of the last 50 years is maintained. Two factors that are contributing to this possible decline is the aging of the SBC and its relative ineffectiveness in reaching ethnics.
Stetzer told Baptist state paper editors the dire projections can be reversed with stronger emphasis on evangelism that includes “engaging ethnicities,” which will be an increasingly larger component of the US population in coming decades.
No doubt, this data will dominate the work of the SBC’s Great Commission Task Force.
Hunt named the task force—19 persons, including himself, on June 24. Incredibly, nearly one-fourth of the membership comes from Florida, illustrating the importance of Florida Baptists to the SBC. Further, since the task force will report at next year’s annual meeting in Orlando, Florida Baptists will have a unique opportunity to participate in what could be a truly historic SBC.
Clearly, it’s impossible to predict recommendations that may be forthcoming from the task force. That hasn’t prevented much speculation in the months leading up to the Louisville SBC.
Although Hunt said in a news conference only hours before the motion was adopted that there is “no desire whatsoever to touch the structure of the SBC” and Mohler said during the debate on his motion the task force is “not an effort to reinvent the Southern Baptist Convention,” many ideas prompted by the GCR declaration could easily be regarded as a restructuring and reinvention of the SBC.
Indeed, even after several revisions to tone down its stronger language, the GCR declaration, in “A Commitment to a More Effective Convention Structure,” still asserts, “We must take steps toward simplifying our convention structures in an effort to streamline our structure, clarify our institutional identity, and maximize our resources for Great Commission priorities. We should ask hard questions about every aspect of our Convention structure and priorities and pray for God’s wisdom and blessing as we pursue wise answers to those questions.”
Although messengers did not technically endorse the GCR declaration since it was not part of the motion, it’s clear that messengers had the declaration in view when the Mohler motion was adopted.
Still, I can’t help but think that many messengers may have shared the thoughts of Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. At a meeting of his Nine Marks ministry held several hours after the Mohler motion was adopted, Dever said he supported GCR and voted for the motion but admitted he really wasn’t certain he knew for what he had just voted.
In light of the possibly significant recommendations that could be forthcoming from the task force, I urge Dr. Hunt and task force Chairman Ronnie Floyd to do everything possible to make the deliberations of the task force as transparent as possible. Rather than an announcement of possibly dramatic changes shortly before Orlando, Southern Baptists need to be informed along the way in order to achieve strong unity in whatever recommendations that may come from the task force.
The work of the task force will be daunting and difficult, to say the least. Floyd appealed through his Twitter account (@ronniefloyd) on June 24, for “at least 5,000 Southern Baptists to pray daily for the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force members. We need God’s vision.”
Florida Baptists on our own should be able to fulfill that request. I challenge you to join me in this commitment.
Indeed, we should pray for the task force. But, as many have noted, Southern Baptists don’t have to wait on the report of the task force next year in Orlando to begin a Great Commission Resurgence in our own hearts and churches. Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, eloquently notes this in his column on this page.
Turning the GCR “Wow” of Louisville into the GCR “How” of Orlando will be no small task and its success ultimately will require the commitment of all Southern Baptists— and, more importantly, the blessing of God without which all of our strivings are for nothing (1 Cor. 3:7-9).
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