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NewsOn Religion: Is ‘Southern’ more important than ‘Baptist’?

On Religion: Is ‘Southern’ more important than ‘Baptist’?

When megachurch pastor J.D. Greear became the 62nd president of the Southern Baptist Convention, he saw all kinds of statistics headed in all kinds of directions.

After decades of growth, America’s largest Protestant flock faced steady decline as many members joined thriving nondenominational evangelical and charismatic churches. Ominously, baptism statistics were falling even faster. On the other side of the 2018 ledger, worship attendance and giving to SBC’s national Cooperative Program budget were holding strong.

But one set of numbers caught Greear’s attention, he told the SBC’s executive committee, as he nears the end of his three years in office.

“Listen, I made diversity … one of my goals coming into this office, not because it’s cool, or trendy, or woke,” he said. “It’s because in the last 30 years, the largest growth we’ve seen in the Southern Baptist Convention has been among Black, Latino and Asian congregations. They are a huge part of our future. … Praise God, brothers and sisters.”

Greear’s blunt, emotional address came during a Feb. 22 meeting in Nashville in which SBC leaders ousted two churches for “affirming homosexual behavior” by accepting married gay couples as members, and two more for employing ministers guilty of sexual abuse.

Those issues loomed in the background during Greear’s remarks, which ranged from a fierce defense of the SBC’s move to the right during 1980s clashes over “biblical inerrancy” to his concerns about “demonic” attacks from social-media critics who are “trying to rip us apart.”

“I’ve read reports online that I was privately funded by George Soros with the agenda of steering the SBC toward political liberalism,” he said. “My office has gotten calls from people who say they’ve heard that I am friends — good friends — with Nancy Pelosi and that we text each other regularly; that I am a Marxist; a card-carrying member of the Black Lives Matter movement and that I fly around on a private jet paid for by Cooperative Program dollars.”

Greear urged a renewed focus on evangelism and church planting, with a steady drumbeat of references to the Great Commission — the command by Jesus that Christians should spread the faith worldwide. After all, back in 2012, the SBC’s national meeting approved the use of “Great Commission Baptists” as an unofficial name — a move hailed by those seeking distance from the term “Southern” and the convention’s roots in an 1845 split over slavery.

“Do we want to be a Gospel people or a Southern, Republican culture people?” asked Greear. “Which is the more important part of our name — the ‘Southern’ or the ‘Baptist’?”

The ultimate challenge, he said, will be creating a “movement of churches that engages all of the peoples in America, not just one kind. … That is very difficult. Bringing together people of different backgrounds and cultures and ethnicities into one body creates challenges, and anybody who says that that’s not true has never actually done it. People bring in their music and their style preferences and political approaches and they all are as passionate about these things as we are, and that creates friction. But it is biblical.”

In recent months, leaders of the SBC’s National African American Fellowship have expressed concerns about statements by seminary presidents that — while condemning racism outright — claimed “affirmation of Critical Race Theory” is incompatible with the Baptist Faith and Message doctrinal statement. Several prominent Black pastors, in response, led their congregations out of the convention.

Greear stressed the need for SBC leaders to commit to more “robust, Bibles open, on our knees” dialogues with Black church leaders on what parts of CRT are inherently secular and clash with biblical teachings on racism and sin.

“We should mourn when closet racists and neo-Confederates feel more at home in our churches than do many of our people of color,” he said.

The painful reality is “that if we in the Southern Baptist Convention had shown as much sorrow for the painful legacy that racism and discrimination have left in our country as we have passion to decry Critical Race Theory, we probably would not be in this mess. It’s not that clarity about the dangers of Critical Race Theory is not important. It is. It’s that, as Jesus said, we’ve ignored some of the weightier parts of the law — justice, mercy and compassion.”

Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

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