KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP) — Hopefulness for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention in a season of denominational transition was voiced by Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, in a discussion Sept. 19 with Jason Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Titled “The State of the SBC,” the discussion during Midwestern’s chapel hour focused on the many significant changes facing the denomination. Among these is the need to fill four entity leadership positions within the SBC and to address a generational transition as well.
Rainer, who announced Aug. 28 his impending retirement from LifeWay, said while presidential vacancies are significant at the SBC Executive Committee, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, International Mission Board and LifeWay, there’s also a great transition at the local church level.
“We are in disruption due to massive transition in denominational leadership, but we’re also in disruption because of local church struggles,” Rainer said. “In the history of our denomination, by any metric, everything we see in the numbers tells us that we’re in a massive transition time at the local church level as well. Sixty-five percent of our churches are declining and 90-percent of our churches are in need of significant revitalization.”
Rainer warned that an inward focus and lack of outward focus is causing dissension at the local church level in many places.
“We’re fighting over so many things at the denominational level, and that is a reflection of what’s happening at the local congregational level. We’re spending our resources inwardly in dissension instead of outwardly in the community, and we’re missing the idea of thinking, ‘What can I do for the Kingdom?'”
Asked what his biggest concerns are for the SBC in 2018, Rainer bluntly stated that the denomination is no longer primarily a Great Commission organization and has lost its first love — Christ and sharing Him.
He noted that this answer didn’t come without personal accountability as well. “This is a reflection on me and all of our leaders. I frequently ask myself how often, during the course of a week, I am intentionally and prayerfully seeking to share the Gospel. I can point to a few times when I am, but I can point to a lot more times when I am not.
“So I can begin to point a finger at the denomination or at local church pastors and leaders, but then I feel the inward conviction of whether I’m personally doing enough, and no, I am not.”
The conversation turned to a brighter forecast for the future of the denomination when Allen asked Rainer about his thoughts on J.D. Greear’s election as SBC president.
“J.D. Greear is and will be a great SBC president,” Rainer responded. “His heartbeat is, first of all, the Gospel and it’s not a slogan to him — it is reality. He is a leader that loves church planting, and he will be about the task of starting new churches. He is also one who will be singularly focused upon his primary objectives, and he will not be distracted by the tertiary things mentioned earlier.
“There is also a generational shift there…. [T]o have a 45-year old youthful president who isn’t aligned with a political camp and is just aligned for the Gospel and for the church is just incredible. This gives me great hope and joy and portends well for our denomination into the future.”
Allen noted a coming generation of believers who possess an ambition to truly give their lives to something more. He added that he would never encourage them to do that toward propping up a tired denomination, rather that they give their lives to the church, to the Word of God, to the Great Commission, and the convictions Baptists hold dear.
“If our hearts are right, our beliefs are right, and our mission is right, inasmuch as we need a denomination, those denominational aspects we need will take care of themselves,” Allen said.
Rainer concurred, praising aspects of ministry as seen among millennials and the next generation. While not as many millennials are attending church, he described them as a different kind of believer.
“They don’t do church as usual,” Rainer said. “They don’t do ‘church-ianity.’ They want to make a difference. One of the greatest hopes I have for our denomination and greater evangelicalism is this and the next generation. They may be fewer in number, but the possibility and potency for the Gospel is immeasurable.”
While there is much work to be done within the SBC, Rainer said it all begins by staying focused on mission.
“If we aren’t driven by mission, we don’t just have a missiological problem, we have doctrinal aberration,” he said. “That may be one of the greatest shrouds we’re not looking under right now. Faithfulness to the Great Commission and sharing His Word is all about truth, because what are you sharing anyway?”