At the close of the California Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting a couple weeks ago, Dr. Walter Price gave a wake-up call to our convention which I’ve dubbed “The Titanic Sermon.” He was gracious in tone, but gave a very strong and necessary warning to our state convention.
These issues are not unique to California, but other state conventions will no doubt be watching to see how we respond. The Great Commission Resurgence Task Force is already hard at work researching and developing proposals for our national convention. I pray California will lead the way in initiating state and associational reform.
Dr. Price has courageously laid the issue out on the table and pleaded for a conversation to rethink cooperation in the 21st century. Will we seize this opportunity and circumvent the approaching disaster?
by Walter Price
November 11, 2009
I love the Southern Baptist Convention…. Sometime around the middle of January, 1947, I attended Harrisburg Baptist Church in Tupelo, Mississippi, for the first time. I was born nine months later. Yes, I was a Sunbeam. Now, your age, will determine your reaction to that statement. Some will rejoice. Others will stifle a yawn. But in the words of Ulysses Everett McGill: I am bona fide (as a Southern Baptist).
I love the California Southern Baptist Convention….Through the ministry of a CSBC church this life-long Baptist boy was truly converted by the grace of our glorious God. The majority of my adult life has been as a part of the CSBC. I am a California Southern Baptist.
I love my Association….I’ve had some world class DOM’s in the Inland Empire Southern Baptist Association, brothers whom I love and deeply respect.
I love the California Baptist Foundation….Through the ministry of the CBF helping our folks with their wills and trusts over $3.5 million has been committed to Kingdom work through the FITP Church in Beaumont.
I love California Baptist University….Cut me I bleed blue and gold; I consider myself a walk-on alumnus. Three of my five children have degrees from this school. God willing the fourth will this year and Omega will next year.
I’ve said all that because it’s important that you know from whence I come. I am fully aware that some, perhaps many, will not like what I have to say today. I can’t help that. But I do not say it as an outsider. I have simply prayed for God to help me say what needs to be said and to say it with a humble and gracious spirit.
TEXT: 1 Cor 3:1-9
[He then asked people to sit down as he called out their age group. By the time he reached age 40, only about a dozen were still standing.]
In his challenging new book on spiritual disciplines entitled Soul Shaping, Jim Wilson tells the story of how the loss of one little key to a lock was a major contributor to the sinking of the Titanic. “Historical accounts say his superiors reassigned second officer David Blair, the owner of the key, to another ship at the last moment. In his haste to leave the ship, Blair forgot to give the key to Charles Lightoller, his replacement. Because Lightoller didn’t have the key, he couldn’t open the locker that held the ship’s binoculars. Without the binoculars, lookouts in the crow’s nest had to rely on their unaided eyesight to scan the horizon for dangers. Because they didn’t see the iceberg in time, they couldn’t warn the captain of the impending danger.” (Jim Wilson, Soul Shaping, p. 24)
So far in this convention you have heard some wonderful heart-warming reports of great ministry taking place. I am deeply grateful. In every way I affirm all that God is currently doing through us. But that is not my purpose today. Today I want to try to be somewhat prophetic. Our situation as a state convention is critical and we are partying on the Lido Deck. This is one man’s meager attempt to get out the binoculars.
Please hear my heart. I am not here today to claim the demise of the CSBC. It hasn’t happened…yet. What I am here to say is, ‘There’s an iceberg off the starboard bow and we better wake up.’
What is the iceberg? You already know. You saw it yourselves when I asked you to stand by age groups. The time has come for someone to sound the alarm. I do not purport to speak for the younger generation. They are eloquent in speaking for themselves. But the signs that I see are not encouraging. For all intents and purposes, except for a very few exceptions, we have lost those in their 20’s and 30’s.
If that statement causes you to react against them from under your gray hair, you are way off the mark. These young Baptists are passionate for the Kingdom of God. They are passionate to see people from every tribe and tongue and nation gather round the throne and worship our Holy God. Theirs is not a youthful rebellion. For them it is a matter of (and this is my word not theirs) stewardship. Is this convention the way that God wants me to invest my life, my time, my energy, my resources? I’m afraid many of them are finding little reason to answer in the affirmative.
That doesn’t mean they don’t want to cooperate. They love the way we do missions, real missions, not the labeling of anything that moves as missions. They love our cooperative approach to education. They long to stand alongside others in compassion and social justice ministries. But they don’t want to be a part of what to them appears to be a bloated, wasteful bureaucracy.
We have bemoaned the absence of the young crowd for years now. The discussion in the hallways, bookstore and exhibit area has often centered on this concern. We have said we need to get them involved. But what we have most often meant by that is we need to get them involved to do things the way we’ve always done them. I think I can safely say to you today, they are not interested.
Another very subtle nuance to what I hear from the next generation is the object of their focus. When they do discuss the future of what we are doing in a positive light; when they do offer insight and hope into how the ship might continue to sail, their primary interest is focused on the long term of the national SBC, not the State Convention. We should pay attention.
Here is my prediction: First, without radical transformation soon, within 15-20 years (optimistically) the CSBC will be either extinct or impotent. We will be, at best, a loosely knit convention of various ethnic associations. I am in no way being critical of ethnic associations. They are already here and are doing wonderful things for the Kingdom. If anything, we should learn a lesson from them regarding our Baptist polity, and that is that it’s okay to have an Association based on something other than geography.
Secondly, without radical transformation, the Cooperative Program, as we know it, will no longer be a viable tool for cooperative Kingdom work. Some will accuse me of criticizing the Cooperative Program. They will be incorrect. I am deeply indebted to the Cooperative Program for many things in my own life. I love the genius of the Cooperative Program. But my indebtedness to and love for the method is not the issue. The issue is whether those who are coming behind us believe that this is the best way to use their time and resources. If they do not, it will die a natural death and it probably won’t be slow in the greater scheme of things.
What’s At Stake?
Let’s remind ourselves what is at stake? Evangelism/Missions: We live in a state with almost forty million people who are more un-evangelized than many other countries even in the 10/40 Window. With only twenty-one hundred churches we desperately need to work together to increase our witness.
Education: Also, we own one of the greatest Christian universities in the world. We must be ever diligent to maintain CBU as a distinctly Christian university, confessional in its nature, with a biblical worldview. I love the fact that our university identifies itself as a Great Commission University. But, lest we ever forget, the Great Commission is about the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And I for one, to my last breath, will strive to keep it true to its calling.
Compassion: Disaster relief; concern for the poor and hurting; these are the kinds of areas where so much more can be accomplished as a community of churches rather than individually. In each of these areas I would suggest that our focus needs to be less on what the state convention can do for our churches and more on what our churches, together, can accomplish through cooperation.
How should we respond? First, some wrong ways. In Isaiah 39:1-8 we have the unbelievably selfish story of Hezekiah. When the representatives of the King of Babylon came to offer gifts to him he took them into his treasure house and throughout the land and showed them all that he possessed. Isaiah came and asked him what on earth he had done. Then he prophesied that everything Hezekiah had, everything he had shown them, would be taken to Babylon along with his own sons who would become eunuchs there. Listen to Hezekiah’s response: “The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days.”
Some in my generation seem to have the myopic attitude of Hezekiah. Just don’t inconvenience me. Let someone worry about it when I’m gone. The CSBC has worked great for a long time. Don’t worry, it’s fine. Legend has it that’s what was said about the Titanic, even after striking the iceberg.
Another wrong response: Sadly, there are those in our national SBC who are already publicly positioning themselves to oppose the report of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force, without even knowing what the report will say. Indeed, it hasn’t even been agreed upon or written yet.
Often our polity is at one and the same time our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. It is strength when the various autonomous entities work hand-in-hand for the good of the Kingdom of God. But it becomes a deep weakness when cooperation devolves into competition, togetherness into turf protection and synergy into selfishness.
I’d like to paraphrase my text from 1 Corinthians 3:
1 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.
2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready,
3 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?
4 For when one says, “I am of the National Convention,” and another, “I am of the State Convention,” and another, “I am of the Association,” and another, “I am of the Executive Board,” and another, “I am of the Foundation,” and another, “I am of the University,” are you not being merely human?
5 What then are all these, Servants through which the churches do kingdom work as the Lord has assigned to each.
We are all Southern Baptists. And please don’t respond with another tired joke about Baptist bickering. The time has long since passed for us to be ashamed of that reputation. That’s one of the main reasons the younger group has no interest in showing up at these conventions.
We do not need a new program or new slogan. Slogans can be effective rallying cries. Programs can be useful tools. Slogans and programs might have their day once again. But now is the time for transformation. We desperately need the guidance of the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom. My prayer is that God will do that. I do not presume to know the mind of the Lord. I can only hope and pray that He is not finished with us yet.
A New Way of Cooperation
On October 2, 2006, the unthinkable happened. “Charles Carl Roberts IV carried his guns and his rage into an Amish schoolhouse near Nickel Mines, PA. Five schoolgirls died that day, and five others were seriously wounded.” (Amish Grace, Kraybill et al, p. xi)
In the aftermath of that horrendous event there was talk of the school children and, indeed, the entire Amish community finding what psychologists call a “new normal.” When there is a catastrophic crisis nothing will ever be the same. The situation demands a new normal.
That’s what I’m proposing today–a new way to do cooperation. We must find a new normal. If we do not become pro-active in this endeavor, the crisis is coming, the iceberg is dead ahead. It’s not a question of if it comes but rather when.
In the aftermath of the sinking of the Titanic some very disturbing facts came to light. Perhaps the most significant was that the ship was not designed to withstand the rupture of the watertight compartments below deck. From the moment the problem became known, the designers of the ship knew it was doomed. It will not be enough for us to simply change course to avoid the iceberg. We need nothing less than a redesigning of the ship
What is that new normal? What is the new way of cooperation? I wish I knew. I wish someone else knew. But I have yet to talk to anyone who seems to have the answer. What I am crying for is the conversation. I’ve tried to begin it this year. Every time I’ve had the opportunity to address one of our entities I’ve said the same things I’m saying today in abbreviated form.
We need the right people in place to lead the discussion and we need to bring the right participants to the table for the most profitable input. All of us need to be willing to see radical change. On a larger scale than just us California Southern Baptists we need to find a way to transform the entire fleet, that means national, state and associational, not just our ship. But again, our autonomous polity will probably prevent that from ever happening.
Recently, I had the privilege of sitting down with two different groups of young pastors in their 20’s and 30’s. To say that I was deeply impressed by their hearts and their insight is to make a gross understatement. But there was one particular moment in one of those meetings that stands out to me. I want to leave you with this thought.
I asked the question: “If everyone in a position of any kind of leadership in our state convention age 50 and older dropped dead today, what would happen?”
For a few moments there was an intense silence. Then one of the young men said very quietly, “Well, I guess we’d have to start over.” To which another responded, in an almost anguished tone, “If we wanted to.” And they all nodded their heads.
I beg you. Let’s give them a reason to want to.