I am grateful for the Southern Baptist Convention.

  • I am grateful for pastors who have shaped me through their preaching, shepherding, mentorship, and encouragement in mission.
  • I am grateful for my Sunday school teachers, and for the professors at Southern Baptist institutions who have equipped and counseled me in how best to serve the church with my gifts.
  • I am grateful for the salt-of-the-earth people in the church where I serve as teaching pastor—people who love their neighbors well, visit each other in the hospital, go on mission trips, and serve the kids in vacation Bible school.
  • I am grateful for the way my local association and state convention connects my church to others and stewards our collective resources for mission.
  • I am grateful for the institutions of the SBC, how they equip and train young leaders to fulfill the Great Commission, both in North America and also to the ends of the earth.

It’s true we have issues, squabbles, failures, and yes, sins. But in the end, these are our problems, and we together get to own them, to repent of them, to work on improving them. That’s why I still love the convention—not because Southern Baptists are perfect, but because we are family. Sometimes I get frustrated, but that sentiment is born from love, not disdain, like someone who wants the best for a family member.

In the past decade, and especially in the past year, our convention has been rocked by controversy. Debates have been heated. People have become polarized. Contention is no stranger within the SBC. Since I began following trends and topics in SBC life, I’ve witnessed debates over worship style, charismatic practices, the influence and spread of Calvinism, support for political platforms and candidates, and methodology in personal evangelism, church planting, and international missions. Visit blogs, read comments on Facebook, or talk to a variety of Southern Baptist pastors and you’ll realize that we face a number of generational, theological, cultural, and methodological challenges.

For months now, I’ve hesitated to write about SBC controversies, primarily because I want anything I say to be constructive and beneficial. I do not want to compound problems, cause pain, or increase division. My hope is to make some observations that may lead to better and more productive conversations. If Southern Baptists are to argue at times, then my hope is that we will argue well toward good solutions, and not be satisfied with ongoing quarrels, hard feelings, and personal grudges.

Cultures in the SBC 

Underneath the surface of most of our convention’s arguments and debates is the fact that we are a single denomination with overlapping cultures. Yes, there are debates over doctrine. Yes, there is contention over methodology. But in my view, most often the differences are cultural, which is why they are so difficult to resolve.

Consider the SBC as a river. Multiple streams have flowed into this river—streams of people with various views on any number of beliefs and practices. Just as streams flow into a river, sometimes they also flow out, which means they can carve out paths that lead to divergence over doctrines and methods. Today, different cultural streams in the SBC have led to rifts among pastors and institutions, and in several places, the rifts have become gulfs. In a few cases, the gulfs have grown so wide that the cultural breach now threatens our cooperative work.

I do not believe we should minimize the issues by denying that the gulfs are wide, or by dismissing the concerns of one side or the other, or by waving the banner of cooperation as if we can magically make the divergence disappear. When a denominational river begins to diverge into separate streams, we cannot merely focus on the doctrinal and methodological rocks and say, “Cooperate!” We have to work to ensure that the water from upstream, even if it takes in water from more than one stream, will flow in the same direction, that the combined stream is strong enough to avoid diverging when it runs into the rocks of difference. This work includes being aware of and attuned to cultural distinctions, while focusing on how to keep those cultures together.

For weeks, I’ve wrestled with different terms in order to best describe the cultures in the SBC. In my conversations with pastors and leaders, I’ve shot down term after term for being too negative, too confusing, or too problematic. In the end, I’ve settled on these two descriptors—“cosmopolitan” and “conventional”—because they seemed to capture something of each culture and, I think, they contain the least amount of baggage. They’re not perfect, but I hope they’re helpful.

Cosmopolitan Culture

I begin with the culture I describe as “cosmopolitan,” defined as “familiar with and at ease in many different countries and cultures.”

People who are on this side of the cultural spectrum see the SBC as their denominational home. They share similar convictions with other Baptists and appreciate most aspects of their Baptist heritage. But they are also at ease in cultivating relationships and belonging to networks outside of the SBC. They are likely to see themselves as Christian first, Protestant or evangelical second, and then Southern Baptist in their particular expression of evangelical Christianity.

Affinity: Cosmopolitans have an affinity for pastors and friends from other denominations. They are likely to see strategic partnerships with different networks (Willow Creek Association, Acts 29, The Gospel Coalition, and so on) as a healthy way of prioritizing the mission over denominational machinery. Cosmopolitans move easily between different types of churches, other denominations or networks, and can feel at home in multiple places.

Heroes: Cosmopolitans look up to preachers, professors, and thinkers who are just as likely to be from other conservative denominations as they are the SBC. Their heroes from church history are likely to be from broader Protestant circles, not primarily Baptist history.

Theology: Cosmopolitans in the 1990s and 2000s looked for practical ways to grow the church, and so they incorporated aspects of the seeker sensitive movement within a general Baptist theology. Many young cosmopolitans today lean Reformed theologically and may associate with groups like The Gospel Coalition or take their staff members to a conference like Together for the Gospel. Many cosmopolitans may not be Calvinistic in their soteriology, but because they see the diversity of soteriological views in the SBC as a sign of health, they are not alarmed by the ebb and flow of Calvinism.

Diversity: Cosmopolitans see the SBC as healthier when Baptists unite around core convictions of theology (summed up in the Baptist Faith and Message) while blessing multiple expressions in methodology (multiple structures for mission, a variety of church practices and polities). Many cosmopolitans believe the only way for the SBC to grow more ethnically and geographically diverse is through the acceptance of major differences in the area of methodology and cultural practice. Most minority leaders in the SBC are cosmopolitan by default, because they have learned by necessity to be familiar with and at ease in different cultures.

Politics: Because of their emphasis on diversity of methods and culture-crossing, cosmopolitans are often socially conservative without being tightly tied to the Republican Party. They have chastened expectations of what political action will accomplish culturally, and so their focus often shifts to the pastoral implications of a secularizing society and their role in providing a prophetic counterpoint to the sexual revolution.

Church practice: Because cosmopolitans welcome a diversity of methods, they are unlikely to press for all or most Southern Baptist congregations to adopt certain practices. They may be teetotalers, but would not make their personal convictions on the consumption of alcohol a test of fellowship or partnership. They may be publicly patriotic, but would not necessarily recommend that all churches have similar services. They may engage in outreach events or door-to-door evangelism or altar calls at the end of a service, but would not look down on churches that do outreach or invitations differently. They may have Sunday school or small groups, but they would understand how churches in different communities or with little meeting space would be creative in finding other ways for smaller groups to meet. In short, they believe the convention is stronger when diversity and mission extend the boundaries of what was once considered “normal church practice” in the SBC.

Fears for the Future: The cosmopolitan worries that the SBC of the past has often been too insular, too narrow in its methodology, too focused on its own institutions, and unwilling to receive an infusion of fresh ideas from likeminded conservative evangelicals. In an age when traditional Christians are increasingly under fire for their views of theology and morality, the cosmopolitan believes we need an “all hands on deck” mentality, and that we should partner with, learn from, and even assist likeminded evangelicals. Many cosmopolitans fear the possibility of being held captive by cherished customs that are outdated, misguided, and a hindrance to the mission. A narrow focus on the denomination would lead us to expend energy on preserving a particular vision of Southern Baptist culture instead of reaching a rapidly changing world for Christ.

Conventional Culture

Now we turn to another culture in the SBC, which I describe as “conventional” because the root of that word ties the culture to the convention itself.

The conventional Southern Baptist sees the SBC as his or her denominational home, and thus the SBC should be celebrated and cherished for what it is and what it represents. Conventionals are glad to link arms with Baptists who share not only their convictions but also demonstrate appreciation for the distinctive contribution of these convictions to a particular Southern Baptist ethos, a culture worth preserving. Conventionals are unlikely to rank their loyalties as “Christian,” “evangelical” and “Southern Baptist.” They see their Baptist convictions to be so fundamental to their Christianity that it is impossible to rank these labels in some sort of hierarchy. As such, they love the SBC for the heritage it has delivered, for the culture it has created, and for the convictions it sustains.

Affinity: Conventionals reserve their greatest loyalty for the SBC. They recognize that you can’t love everyone the same. You love your immediate family more than your neighbors. You love your immediate neighborhood more than the neighbors across town, for example. Applying that insight to denominations, conventionals believe it is right and good to favor your own denomination above others, to cherish its particular customs and traditions and institutions as an expression of gratitude and loyalty. This does not mean conventionals take an adversarial posture toward other evangelical groups, but they do prioritize the SBC above all. They believe denominational boundaries are not stifling, but clarifying in the way they help narrow our focus of love and attention.

Heroes: Conventional preaching heroes are more likely to be from the SBC, whether in the present or from the recent past, not other conservative denominations. To be loyal to the SBC means to promote and celebrate fellow Southern Baptists wherever possible.

Theology: Conventionals today are more likely to resonate with the historic Sandy Creek stream of Baptist identity (a revivalistic stream) than the Charleston tradition (a more Calvinistic stream). As a counterpoint to a resurgence of Reformed theology among young Southern Baptists, a number of conventionals have signed a statement labeled “Traditionalist” in order to put forth a positive articulation of their soteriological views. Many conventionals do not fall squarely in the Traditionalist camp theologically. Some conventionals are Calvinist, but still agree with their Traditionalist friends on most SBC-related matters.

Diversity: Conventionals desire to see progress in racial and ethnic diversity in the SBC, and they believe the Baptist Faith and Message is a broad enough statement of faith to foster progress in that area. At the same time, many conventionals are concerned that a growing diversity in terms of theology and methodology will chip away at a sense of solidarity within the SBC and eventually weaken the denomination on its core doctrinal commitments.

Politics: Because of their emphasis on solidarity, conventionals are often socially conservative and also inclined to remain loyal to the Republican Party. They believe political influence is best wielded when the SBC is, in most cases, a unified voting bloc that can impact society for good. Pragmatic concessions in political involvement are necessary in order to achieve short-term and long-term gains.

Church practice: Just as conventionals are loyal to their denomination’s heritage, they are also likely to be publicly loyal regarding their national heritage, which leads many to hold patriotic services. They are also more likely to restart or maintain certain programs and practices (VBS, Sunday school, Training Union, RAs and GAs) because they are part of Southern Baptist culture and history. In general, conventionals do not have a problem with Southern Baptists who adopt more contemporary worship styles or different methods of outreach, but they consider their own practices as more genuinely Southern Baptist, and they believe it is best for other methodologies to remain outside the mainstream of SBC life and practice. They believe there are cultural and historic forms of “belonging” in the SBC that must be maintained if being Southern Baptist is going to really mean something. In short, they believe the convention is stronger when diversity in church practice is on the edges of SBC, not at the center, and not so frequently lifted up in leadership. Maintaining a core culture of norms and practices for the SBC is important for the convention to be strong.

Fears for the Future: Conventionals worry that, in an anti-institutional age, some Baptists pay insufficient attention to the boundary edges of the denomination. They believe that watering down Baptist identity will be corrosive to the convention. They resist the tendency to constantly introduce new cultural norms into the convention, especially when these come from leaders they see as having an elitist or condescending tone. The broadening of Baptist identity will weaken the meaning of Southern Baptist Convention and shrink the sources of solidarity that are and will be necessary if we are to continue to fund the greatest mission force in the world. Conventionals believe that the SBC will be best served in the future with a younger generation that knows its roots and that appreciates the special nature of the culture they have inherited. For this reason, many conventionals are concerned when new Southern Baptist churches appear generically evangelical or do not make clear their Baptist identity. Some conventionals are also concerned about churches that are dually aligned with other denominations or networks, because they see them as benefiting from the institutional strength of the SBC without feeling an obligation to reciprocate with loyalty or love.

Answering Objections

Southern Baptists often resist labels (and I do, too!), so you may read this post and feel like the two cultures I’ve described are too confining, that you do not belong exclusively to one or the other. You’re probably right. I recognize that people are most likely to be on a spectrum, and the closer you are to the middle, the more you will find yourselves in groups where the cultures overlap. Some of you may find you identify best with one culture while still resonating with certain aspects of the other. My desire in laying out general descriptions of these cultures is to clarify where pressure points show up, not to pit Baptists against each other.

Some may object to my categorization because it may seem at first to pit “rural” against “urban” or “small” against “large” churches. I do not think such a conclusion is warranted. Small church plants outside of the South are more likely to be cosmopolitan, while larger established churches in the South are more likely to be conventional. Meanwhile, some large Southern Baptist churches may fit the cosmopolitan label, while smaller, rural churches may be more conventional. Complicating matters is the fact that the SBC is predominantly a convention of small churches (less than 200 in membership), while most Southern Baptists on any given Sunday worship at larger churches (more than 200)! Further complicating the situation is when some pastors feel part of the cosmopolitan culture, while the movers and shakers in their congregation are decidedly conventional. Controversy ensues when the pastor is unable to cross that cultural divide and serve his people well. (When theology is a large part of the division, we see churches that divide over Calvinism.)

Others may object to my claim that some of our divisions are not theological, but cultural. For some on both sides of the Calvinist debate, the heart of our divide is soteriological, and flowing from that soteriological divide comes differences in practice (revivals, altar calls, and so on). I do not deny that there are theological differences at play, but I do not believe they are the primary source of contention. Consider the fact that these theological differences have been, at varying degrees, present in Southern Baptist life since the time of our founding. Consider also the fact that many non-Calvinistic conventionals mention their willingness to share the pulpit with certain kinds of Calvinists (those who are more culturally conventional than cosmopolitan). Consider also the fact that many past heroes admired by conventionals (E. Y. Mullins or W. A. Criswell) would have been too Calvinistic to sign the Traditionalist statement, and yet in church practice and ethos, they fit into the conventional culture more than the cosmopolitan. All that to say, differences over soteriology are real and enduring, but the primary difference is cultural.

Others may object to my categorization by saying that the fundamental problem in the SBC is not cultural, but political. “It’s all about politics and power,” some say, and then advocate for a greater balance of power among leaders and institutions.

  • Cosmopolitans with this perspective worry about the temptation to prioritize the maintenance of the Convention above the Great Commission. They fear the tendency of being too narrow, of policing the convention’s borders.
  • Conventionals with this perspective worry that the choices of some Baptists may betray the SBC’s heritage. They fear the possibility of leaders who display insufficient loyalty to the denomination taking advantage of the system and structures that were built and paid for by people more in line with the conventional culture.

Still others might say that the fundamental problem in the SBC is one of sin and selfishness. I agree that sin and selfishness shows up in both cultures. For cosmopolitans, it can manifest itself in elitism and arrogance, a kind of condescension that comes with seeing oneself as “enlightened” over against uneducated, simple-minded Baptists who haven’t studied the issues. For conventionals, it can manifest itself in resentment and bitterness, a kind of acrimony that comes with seeing oneself as a “common sense Baptist” over against elitist, out-of-touch leaders whose power is undeserved. But even if everyone in both cultures were to be blameless in this regard, I still believe the differences would remain. The two cultures are still there, and they are not the result of sin.

For the Future

So, where do we go from here?

I do not have a list of action points that follow from this analysis, but I hope this article will help us to be more aware of how these two cultures are in cooperation and conflict in the SBC, so that we can avoid speaking over or past one another and truly hear the hearts of our brothers and sisters who may fall on various points in the cosmopolitan / conventional spectrum.

Where there is sin (either in the form of arrogance or bitterness), we must repent.

Where there is confusion, we should seek clarity.

It is unlikely that either of these cultures in the SBC will disappear any time soon, which means these rivers will likely flow over the rocks of controversy for the foreseeable future. But my hope is that in our shared desire to strengthen the SBC, we should look for ways to move our conversations upstream, to partner together in ways that lift up the best from both cultures so that the streams will stay together and not diverge. We need leaders who will exemplify the best of these cultures and who will do their best to represent Southern Baptists from all over this spectrum. Lord willing, future generations of people who are saved as the result of our missionary efforts will bless us for our efforts.