Southern Baptist Convention

A 'disruptive' new leader takes a powerful job in the Southern Baptist Convention

A 'disruptive' new leader takes a powerful job in the Southern Baptist Convention

It's a long way from Storyline Fellowship in Denver's western suburbs to downtown Nashville and a publishing-and-ministry operation the locals have long called the "Baptist Vatican."

That's 1,165 miles, on a map. The cultural gap between the Colorado Rockies and Tennessee seems bigger than that.

Storyline Fellowship is the congregation that the Rev. Ben Mandrell and his wife, Lynley, started in their living room in 2014, helping it grow into a modern evangelical flock with 1,600 members in a revamped Walmart facility. That's the kind of challenge church planters accept when working as missionaries outside the Southern Baptist Convention's heartland in the Bible Belt.

Now the 42-year-old Mandrell has jumped from the SBC frontier into one of the most high-profile jobs in America's largest Protestant flock -- serving as the new president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. That's the complex publishing, research and media company, with about 4,000 employees, that in simpler times as called the Sunday School Board.

Bible classes remain on the agenda, stressed Mandrell. But so are many other ministries that symbolize a new reality that all religious leaders will have grasp, one way are the other: The good old days of safe, predictable church work are gone.

"Not that we're not doing what we used to do" in terms of publishing materials used for Sunday Bible classes and other familiar forms of outreach, said Mandrell, in a telephone interview.

"But we're have to do so much more because America is getting so complex and diverse. … We have to keep asking our church leaders, 'What do you need us to provide for your tool boxes to do the work that you now know that you have to do?' "

This era of rapid change led to obvious changes -- including the series of explosions on January 6, 2018, that leveled the 12-story LifeWay tower, with its iconic giant stone crosses, that loomed over one corner of downtown Nashville. LifeWay moved to smaller, modernized facilities close to the Tennessee State Capitol.

Southern Baptists facing hard truths behind the red ink in their great book of numbers

Southern Baptists facing hard truths behind the red ink in their great book of numbers

It was the rare Billy Graham Evangelistic Association event in which Graham was in the audience -- incognito in a hat and dark glasses -- and his brother-in-law Leighton Ford was in the pulpit.

Graham was set to preach the next day, noted Ford, who told this story many times. At the altar call, Graham saw that the man seated in front of him was struggling. Leaning forward, but remaining anonymous, Graham asked if he wanted to go forward and accept Jesus as his Savior.

No, the man replied, "I'll just wait 'til the big gun preaches tomorrow night."

There was a time when Baptists and other evangelicals could count on ordinary people -- unbelievers even -- showing up at crusades and local "revivals" for a variety of reasons. Some were worried about heaven, hell and the state of their souls. Some were impressed by strong local churches and figured they had little to lose, and maybe something to gain, by walking the aisle and getting baptized.

That was then. Anyone who has studied Southern Baptist Convention statistics knows that times have changed. That will be a big subject looming in the background when America's largest Protestant flock gathers next week (June 11-12) in Birmingham, Ala., for its annual national convention.

For decades, Southern Baptists have "relied on revivalism" as an evangelistic engine that would deliver church growth, noted the Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ken.

"The problem is that revivalism only works when Christianity is triumphant or on the rise," he said, reached by telephone. "Revivalism … it isn't going to be as effective when Christianity is seen to be in eclipse -- like it is in American culture at this point."

Southern Baptist membership hit 14.8 million last year, down from 16.3 million in 2006 -- falling 8 percent in that era. That reality cannot be ignored, even if it isn't has stunning as the 30-50 percent declines seen in mainline Protestant churches since the 1960s. The most telling statistics point to declines in baptisms, which fell 3 percent in 2018 -- 246,442 baptisms -- following a 9 percent drop in 2017.

Memory eternal -- Preacher Jess Moody

Memory eternal -- Preacher Jess Moody

Months after the end of World War II, leaders of Youth for Christ sent evangelists to work in the battered cities of Europe.

The rally teams were led by two of the new ministry's rising stars. The preacher in southern Europe was the Rev. Billy Graham of North Carolina and, in northern Europe, the Rev. Jess Moody of Texas filled that role.

That says something about the oratorical skills of Moody, whose life story was later turned into a Gospel Films feature called "Riding the Pulpit."

So it was no surprise that Moody later served as president of the Pastors' Conference of the Southern Baptist Convention and, in 1969, was asked to address tensions in the Vietnam War era. Moody's sermon -- "The Christian and War" -- left many pastors stunned and others infuriated.

"My country is sick and cannot seem to get well," he roared, offering what he called a "personal paraphrase" of the Prophet Jeremiah. "My countrymen have not been ashamed when they commit all kinds of hell-raising. … It has become impossible for them to blush. This means they are going to fall."

Then Moody veered into another life-and-death issue affecting those committed to ministry in urban America.

"This is my blood I'm spilling in this sermon," he said. "I've been loyal to this convention for the past 25 years and I intend that every breath I take of God's free air will be a Baptist breath, but you listen. … It takes the black and the white keys to play the Star Spangled Banner! And you can't do it without both.

"We must solve the problem of racial hatred within the next 10 years or prepare to become the dinosaurs of the 21st century."

Moody died last month at the age of 93, after several decades out of the spotlight. He lived to see Southern Baptists slowly, but surely, denounce the sin of racism. In 1995 the SBC repudiated "historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past." America's largest Protestant flock apologized to African-Americans for "condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime."

Tensions lingered, and in 2017 the SBC made headlines by repudiating "white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as a scheme of the devil" that continues to attack America, while urging advocates of "racist ideologies" to repent.

Time for #SBCToo: 'Wrath of God' has fallen on the Southern Baptist Convention

Time for #SBCToo: 'Wrath of God' has fallen on the Southern Baptist Convention

During her years at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, April C. Armstrong kept a journal of her experiences as one of the few women earning a Master of Arts in Theology.

There were scary moments with a Master of Divinity student who was preparing for ordination as a youth minister. When she rebuffed his advances, he claimed that, as part of the security team, he had keys to all doors on the Fort Worth campus. He added, "I know where you live."

Armstrong was at Southwestern from 2004-2007 and, during that time, saw the last female professor exit the School of Theology. In one class, a male student quipped that "sophia" -- Greek for "wisdom" -- shouldn't be a feminine word because "no woman is wise." Then there was the chapel service in which a young woman sang a solo, inspiring President Paige Patterson to note that it was good that her skirt went to her ankles, since that would help men avoid the temptation of staring at her body.

"I was there to experience three years of unrelenting misogyny that it seemed NO ONE was willing to stop, because speaking out against it would realistically have drawn down the wrath of Paige Patterson, who could make or break your career," she wrote, at her #SBCToo website.

Armstrong, who later earned a Princeton University doctorate, added: "The best thing SWBTS did for me ... was to inspire a fierce, intensifying righteous anger."

Anger is timely, along with grief, as waves of #MeToo and #ChurchToo messages about sexual abuse and domestic violence have triggered a series of stunning headlines. Most have been linked to the work of Patterson, a hero on the right because of his leadership in the conservative blitz that took control of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1970s and early '80s.

Now, Patterson has been pushed into retirement, and beyond, after news about sermons in which he critiqued a teen-aged girl's body and, on another occasion, knocked female seminary students who weren't striving hard enough to be attractive. An old recording from 2000 -- when Patterson led Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary -- led to renewed debate about his advice to an abused wife to stay with her husband, offering prayer and submission rather than seeking legal help.

Finally, The Washington Post reported that a Southeastern student claimed she had been raped by a seminarian, but Patterson advised her not to report this to police.

Media storm about domestic violence stirs up old issues for Southern Baptists

Media storm about domestic violence stirs up old issues for Southern Baptists

It's a fact of life for clergy: They never know when ordinary conversations will turn into potentially tense encounters that some believers consider "counseling."

Many pastors have been trained, to some degree, in "pastoral counseling." Some may even have professional credentials. All of them face the challenge of handling tricky, dangerous moments when discussions of sin, repentance, forgiveness, prayer and healing turn into issues of safety and law.

Domestic violence is, of course, a bright red line. That often means there are complex faith issues linked to divorce looming in the background.

"Things have greatly improved in the past five to 10 years," said Denny Burk, leader of the Center for Gospel and Culture at Boyce College, on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary campus in Louisville, Ken. "Evangelical awareness has increased when it comes to mandatory reporting of domestic violence cases. I'm not sure many people were talking about that 20 years ago.

"We're not where we need to be, by any means. Lots of people in our pews, and even some leaders, still don't understand how important this is. ... At a seminary, we talk about these issues all the time."

There are cries for more change, as waves of #MeToo news have led to #ChurchToo debates. Then an anonymous source gave the Washington Post an audiotape from 2000 in which a revered Southern Baptist leader claimed that Christians must do everything they can to stop divorce, even if that means strategic silence about domestic violence. This recording had already caused debates in the past.

"It depends on the level of abuse, to some degree," said the Rev. Paige Patterson, a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention's conservative revolution in the 1980s. He is currently president of Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

"I have never in my ministry counseled anyone to seek a divorce, and that's always wrong counsel," he said.

The challenging task of passing on a Bible story that's bigger than witty vegetables

The challenging task of passing on a Bible story that's bigger than witty vegetables

It's easy to capture a kid's attention with cartoons about Noah and the Ark, Joshua's laps around the walls of Jericho and other colorful stories from scripture.

Phil Vischer ought to know, since for millions of Americans under the age of 25 he is best known as Bob the Tomato and the brain behind the original VeggieTales videos. But over time, he realized that he faced a bigger challenge as a storyteller, one symbolized by the sign on his 1990s office wall that proclaimed: "We will not portray Jesus as a vegetable."

At some point, he said, children need to learn the whole story of faith -- including the hard parts. This has to happen quickly in a culture that barrages them with competing signals as soon as they leave their cribs.

"You have to have the big story of what our faith is all about," said Vischer, in a telephone interview. "Our moral beliefs are like ornaments we hang on a tree. The problem is that we've thrown out the tree and we expect the ornaments to keep hanging in the air on their own.

"You can't just tell kids, 'Behave! Because I told you so!' … Without a big spiritual narrative, some larger worldview, you have nothing to hang moral behavior on."

That was the challenge at the heart of Vischer's talk -- "Beyond VeggieTales: Forming the Moral Imagination of Your Kids" -- during a recent Nashville conference on parenting held by the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Speaker after speaker mentioned a media culture that feeds children clashing concepts of good and evil, success and failure, before they enter kindergarten. Digital screens are everywhere, packed with compelling stories.

Volume is rising in closed-door LGBTQ debates among Baptists on the left

If the liberal wing of Baptist life down South started naming saints, one of the first nominees would be former President Jimmy Carter.

But it's crucial to note that the man who put "born again" into the American political dictionary is Baptist, but no longer Southern Baptist. His theological views have evolved, leading to his 2000 exit from the Southern Baptist Convention. Take marriage and sex, for example.

"I think Jesus would encourage any love affair if it was honest and sincere and was not damaging to anyone else, and I don't see that gay marriage damages anyone else," Carter told The Huffington Post last year.

Plenty of Baptists agree, but have not felt free to be that candid, according to Don Durham, a former leader in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. For 25 years the "CBF" has served as a network for Baptists on the losing side of the great Southern Baptist wars of the 1980s. Now, Durham said, the "volume has been turned up" in behind-closed-doors CBF debates about sexuality.

"It's time to have substantive and open conversations about the genuinely difficult disagreements we have over how to organize the institutional expressions of how we will relate to sisters and brothers who happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or who
understand themselves as queer," wrote Durham, in an essay circulated by Baptist News Global, an independent website at the heart of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship life.

"I'm not naive. I know we will never have uniform responses to the many questions such conversations will hold -- and we don't have to. However, let's not be institutionally naive either. … There are now too many for whom our institutional expressions around LGBTQ topics are no longer tenable for us to pretend any longer that we can distract one another from that topic by focusing on all of the other things on which we agree."

There's nowhere to turn? When hurting people believe they have to flee the pews

In the not so distant Baptist past, all Sunday services ended with altar calls in which people came forward to make public professions of Christian faith or to become part of a local congregation.

But it was also common, during the "invitation hymn," for church members to come forward and huddle with the minister for a few quiet, discreet minutes. The pastor would announce that they had come forward to "rededicate their life to Christ" and then ask those assembled to offer them hugs and prayers.

"That's something that we've lost, somewhere along the way. We need to regain that confessional part of the faith," said the Rev. Thom Rainer, head of LifeWay Christian Resources at the Southern Baptist Convention's headquarters in Nashville.

"It used to be common for people to go forward, rededicate their lives and get right with the Lord. … It was a chance to tell the pastor you needed help. It was important that our people knew they could do that."

The alternative is much worse, he stressed, in a telephone interview. If believers don't know how to reach out for help, or if they think they will be harshly judged if they do, they usually remain silent before using the exit door, for keeps.

The bottom line is shocking, said Rainer. If most churches could regain just the members who fled over the span of a decade -- for personal or private reasons, as opposed to dying or moving out of town -- worship attendance would triple.

For Southern Baptists, Mayberry is now officially dead

When the Rev. Russell Moore was a Baptist boy in Mississippi, he knew the culture around him had lots of unwritten rules.

Dogs didn't live in the house. Women didn't chew tobacco in public and men didn't chew at church or in funerals. Tattoos were forbidden and scary.

So he was scandalized one Sunday when a man came to church sporting a tattoo of a naked lady and propped his arm on the pew for all to see. To the young Moore's surprise, his grandmother whispered that this was good news -- because the man's wife had long been trying to get him into church.

Moore recalled his grandmother saying: "He's not trying to be rude, honey. He just doesn't know Jesus yet."

In a way, that's where Southern Baptists are right now, said Moore, in a pastors' conference sermon before the recent national Southern Baptist Convention in Columbus, Ohio. Baptists are struggling to relate to real people who live in a changing culture that frightens, or even angers, lots of church people.

"For a long time … in certain parts of this country, baptism was kind of a Bible Belt bar mitzvah," said Moore, who leads the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in Washington, D.C. "You needed a Christian identity, you needed a church identity, in order to make it as a good American, in order to be part of the culture around you. Those days are over."

Moore's words in recent weeks -- in pulpits and mass media -- have offered fresh evidence that some leaders of America's largest Protestant flock realize the cultural ground is shifting in America, including their once safe base in the South.