SBC 2015 Recap

I really enjoyed my time in Columbus this year at the SBC Annual Meeting. Here are six factors that made this the best convention I’ve attended. 

Ronnie Floyd’s Leadership
Last year (2014), I voted for Dennis Kim for SBC president. That wasn’t necessarily anything against Ronnie Floyd—I wanted to see us continue to celebrate our non-white Southern Baptists after electing Fred Luter the two conventions previous. All that to say I didn’t have much of an opinion of Ronnie Floyd one way or the other, positive or negative, before this year’s convention. 

Alan Cross’ article a few weeks ago alerted me to the fact that Floyd has been working hard toward racially diverse representation on the committee he was responsible for appointing, and possibly also keeping the issue in front of other committees and boards to ensure the issue was made a priority.

There was also a constant emphasis on prayer and unity as I heard Ronnie speak in his interview in the
SBC This Week podcast about two weeks before the convention. So for me there were positive indications before the annual meeting.

Those good signs proved to be only the beginning. Floyd gave a very good convention sermon and conducted the business of the convention well (even when he told me to stop speaking, another post soon on that incident). This convention was probably the most encouraging and enjoyable I’ve been to from a programming/schedule standpoint, and I think that was in large part due to the rearranged schedule Ronnie Floyd worked to put in place. The prayer time on Tuesday night was amazing. More on that below.

Schedule Adjustment
This year we consolidated similar types of reports and business together in the same session. I was skeptical this would make much of a difference in the actual convention experience. I was wrong about that. The activities of the day seemed to flow and make sense. The continuity was a welcome adjustment. The previously prevalent random “let’s stand up and sing a song now to kill a few minutes” wasn’t missed at all. Judging by the number of people still in the convention hall even at the end of some of the sessions, I’d say the change was a huge success with those attending. 

I think my only complaint with the schedule was that the seminary report time (all 6 back-to-back) seemed to drag on longer than my attention span was able to stay focused. But then the rather uncomfortable convention center chairs might have been to blame as much as the actual duration. Maybe a 3+3 format with something in the middle to break up the length of the report section, or something similar, could be considered next year.

Prayer Segment

The highlight of the convention schedule was the call to prayer segment on Tuesday night. I’ve heard good messages preached at the convention before, but this was the most powerful, extended worship element I’ve ever seen in the 5 conventions I’ve been to personally (and watched several online in that same time). And I mean by far. No competition. Dave Miller said he remembered a pretty powerful time back in the mid 80’s (about the time I was in kindergarten Happy sorry Dave) when Bellevue organized some banners to march in during a worship time, but that had only lasted a couple minutes. This was an extended time of worship and calling out to God. The time of prayer for racial reconciliation was amazing, as well as powerful times of prayer for the persecuted church and several other areas. 

Send NA Lunch
Another highlight of the convention, for me, was the Send North America/IMB lunch on Monday. Kevin Ezell and David Platt shared the stage and talked for something like 30-45 minutes. There was good information presented. The contrast between the two, with Ezell’s tendency to crack a joke about every other word, then Platt’s intensity (which he left only briefly to give a courtesy laugh to Kevin’s jokes) was classic. I think more than half the convention showed up for this lunch and I’m glad I wasn’t one of the few who missed it.

What would a SBC Annual Meeting be without getting to catch up with friends and meet new ones? I talked to so many people with such obvious love and joy in their lives because of Christ. I sat down at the Southern Lunch with a table full of people, most of whom I had never met, and within minutes we were talking like we had known each other for years and rejoicing in the work God is doing in each others’ lives and ministries. 

I met some people whose names you’d know from the stage. Each one impressed me (as much as you can tell in a 5 minute conversation or so) as being real and authentic, not walking around with an inflated sense of importance like some might expect. I got to have conversations with
Steve Gaines, Clint Pressley, Ronnie Floyd (briefly), and Kevin Smith (if I could name drop a little bit) and thoroughly enjoyed meeting each of them. In the exhibit hall, Steve Gaines called us over to pray with him for a young man who’s going with his family to Alaska to plant a church. It’s little stuff like that where I’m reminded that the pastors whose faces we see on stage and whose voices we’ve heard preach are real men who love God, people, and the work of ministry. They can be easy objects for criticism because of prominent roles (no one’s saying they’re perfect) but I believe each of them, as well as many others I didn’t meet are striving to serve Christ and I want to rejoice that God has blessed their ministries so tremendously. 

But it’s not mainly the stage personalities that encourage me about our convention. It’s the people I know from blogging & twitter, people I’ve met at previous conventions, people I’ve gone to church with in the past. Hanging out with the SBC Voices guys was awesome. I got to spend a lot of time with Gentry Hill, one of my former youth who’s now graduated from seminary and is now looking for a church to pastor, and who was an absolute lifesaver several times this week. (What a joy to see a former student ready to take on a full time ministry role?! Wow.) I want to go on but this section’s too long already. Too many great people to list and God greatly encouraged me this week through them.

Encouraging Work of Entities
The reason we all get together every year is because of the cooperative work we do through our mission boards, seminaries, LifeWay, ERLC, and others. I said it on twitter during the week and I’ll say it again here, we have tremendous leadership in each of these entities and they are doing amazing work— work that deserves to be supported with prayer, CP giving, and our encouragement for these organizations. NAMB and LifeWay are doing the best work they’ve done in years. Our IMB has always done excellent work and Platt is leading them to even greater effectiveness and focus on partnering with local churches. I can’t think of a better spokesman for us on public policy and ethics issues today than Russell Moore and his team at the ERLC. The seminaries continue to do well. And hey, GuideStone has good insurance & retirement too.

My first annual meeting was in 2005. Back then there were some bright spots but there were also some things that frustrated me with the state of the SBC. Since that time, my support of the CP has moved from feeling almost obligatory to enthusiastic as I see the direction we’re going and the unity with which we’re traveling there. Attendance has ticked up the past two years, and recent reports showed a slight increase in current year CP giving. Both indicators could mean nothing, but they could also show a slightly renewed interest in our cooperative work as a convention. I pray that’s what we’re seeing because I think it would reward well the hard work that’s been put in to get our convention moving in its current, encouraging direction. 

Great meeting, Columbus 2015. Maybe St. Louis can be even better. 

I’ve Heard LifeWay’s Critics and I’m Not Convinced. Here’s Why.

(Note: this is a post that originally appeared at SBC Voices. I wrote it while in Columbus at the convention and didn't have my laptop with me. Dave Miller was kind enough to post it for me there. You should look there if you want to follow the interaction in the comments section.)

Over the past year, there’s been a small but constant stream of criticism in SBC social media about certain books available in LifeWay stores. A few titles and authors are brought up frequently as evidence that LifeWay leadership must not care about sound doctrine or that they care about money more than biblical faithfulness. I reject those characterizations and you should too.

Everyone agrees there should be a line drawn determining what books LifeWay should sell. The issue for us today is how tightly that line needs to be drawn to our own views, preferences, and opinions.

It would be easy for any theologically aware believer to go into a Christian bookstore and find titles we disagree with. Disagreements would fit a wide range—some big, some small. Some doctrinal, some practical. Some important, some minor. No matter where the line is drawn, people will always be able to find titles that are just inside that boundary line and say, “But why is
this book here? If you cared about truth, certainly this book wouldn’t be on your shelf!”

LifeWay’s critics want Lifeway to function as a theological gatekeeper in a way Southern Baptists have never agreed it should function. Yes, we all agree there are boundary lines. But as someone who considers myself theologically educated and discerning, I am aware that if I personally drew the boundary lines, I would have a tendency to draw them too narrowly and mirroring my own views & preferences. LifeWay’s critics have consistently shown a lack of self-awareness in this area.

Here are a number of problematic assumptions and unwarranted jumps in logic that LifeWay’s critics make. These form the foundation of why I reject their conclusions and their methods.
  1. LifeWay cannot be seen as endorsing the viewpoint or contents of all the books they sell. Two books advocating different viewpoints may sit beside one another on the same shelf. Which is the endorsed LifeWay position? Sometimes stocking a book might mean nothing more than the work is a prominent example of a viewpoint we would disagree with. Let’s take an egregious example. Should LifeWay sell the Book of Mormon? Initially almost everyone would say no. But what about people who are interested in apologetics and studying other religions? Might there not be a place in a Christian bookstore for books that compare the beliefs of different world religions? Along with that copies of the books or writings of those religions? As far as I know LifeWay doesn’t have such a section and doesn’t sell the Book of Mormon. At the end of the day, I think that’s the best decision. But I hope my example goes to show that a product selection policy might (should be) much more than simply agree/disagree.
  2. The fact that I care about sound doctrine does not necessarily mean I only sell books I agree with. Mohler’s theological triage is an important concept here. We have to make decision about what issues are going to be that would cause us to include or exclude certain works. But I think most people who are involved here know that determination shouldn’t be left to the self-appointed theological watchdogs. The people who love patrolling (controlling) what readers have access to are not the ones I want making those kinds of decisions.
  3. It’s not clear to me that LifeWay needs to play the role of arbiter on close calls. What about books that fall on the borderline? A critic may list a book as out of bounds but other theologically educated believers might see it as acceptable. I myself have a category for books that I wouldn’t personally recommend but see no problem with having them available for people who want them. The critics seem to have no such category.
  4. The critics ever-narrowing set of parameters that may never be satisfied. Those who criticize in this area have shown to be implacable. LifeWay has removed a number of books over the years because of concerns expressed through various avenues. One of the critics’ favorite targets was recently removed. I didn’t see a single one of them express appreciation for the decision. It was a battle won (in their own minds, their criticism actually had little, if anything to do with the book’s removal) and they were on to the next title. Their list is long and I’ve seen nothing to make me think they would ever be satisfied. At least nothing short of letting them go through a LifeWay store and overturn book racks of their own choosing.
  5. LifeWay leadership has demonstrated through years of faithful writing & service that they place a high priority on biblical truth & faithfulness. I’m particularly thinking of Thom Rainer and Ed Stetzer here, who often bear the brunt of this kind of criticism. (As if their main role is retail product selection anyway.) Both of these guys have served Southern Baptists well and faithfully for years. They’ve stressed the importance of sound doctrine in each of their ministries. A long list of others at LifeWay should be included here too. The idea that the folks at LifeWay are sitting around board tables in Nashville rubbing their hands together and laughing evil laughs at all the money they can make off selling bad theology would be a laughable caracature if it weren’t asserted so regularly by LifeWay’s critics. It doesn’t make sense.
The critics say they’re planning to force LifeWay to address these issues on the floor at this year’s SBC Annual Meeting in Columbus. That’s why I wrote this. Because I have heard them and I disagree—with both the content of their arguments and their strong arm tactics. I’m confident everyone in the convention hall will see through this (threatened) childish tantrum for what it is.


Brewton Parker Trustees & Interim President Make Things Right

I'm really glad to hear that C.B. Scott has been reinstated at Brewton Parker College. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the injustice of his firing and the surrounding circumstances. I had some strong words for the trustees of Brewton Parker then as well. And it's because of the strong words I wrote then that I want to say an equally encouraging word of thankfulness today.

I'm not sure of the details, but from the SBC Voices post, it sounds like the interim president, Dr. Charlie Bass did the right thing. I have to assume that some of the trustees who were not fully involved from the outset decided to become involved more directly. So the trustees,
post-resignation of trustee chairman Gary Campbell, are to be highly commended. It takes a lot of courage to reverse course and right a wrong in a situation like this. May the next chapter of Brewton Parker College be characterized by the kind of integrity and leadership we've seen over the last couple of days.

We're still waiting for an official press release from Brewton Parker College on Scott's reinstatement. I'm sure their Vice President of Communications is working on that as I type.


Injustice Reigns at a Georgia Baptist College

Secrecy, revenge, and non-disclosure agreements. Lawyers, threats, and a severance package offered as hush money. It sounds like the drama of a New York Times Best selling novel. But I’m not talking about fictional corporate greed and vengeance. This is life over the last month in the administration at a small Baptist college in Georgia. And this time, the victim is a man who lost his job because he stood up and wouldn’t be part of the charade.

Yesterday Southeast Georgia Today
released an article called “BPC VP Refuses to Resign, Fired” which shed light on what’s really been happening at Brewton Parker College. The former president, Ergun Caner, resigned last week after a tumultuous one year stay as president of the college. The evidence that’s come to light in the last 24 hours shows that there was a lot more to the story than what the initial press release indicated. Evidently Caner felt he needed help to “restore his credibility.” The SGT article also refers to an incident where 3 witnesses report Caner using inappropriate racial language (it’s unspecified what he was accused of saying). The racial epithet problem is not a new one for Caner, videos of him speaking earlier in his career show him on stage using poorly chosen phrases in failed attempts at humor. There’s no telling what stories are yet to come to light - but I’m told there are more. Caner came in surrounded in controversy. Instead of building bridges and earning trust, it sounds like he did the opposite.

But according to the PR department of BPC, everything was going great. For all I know, that’s still the story we’d all be believing if someone hadn’t stood up to the charade. Enter C. B. Scott, Vice President of Alumni, Advancement, and Church Relations at Brewton Parker College. With Scott refusing personal appeals of Caner to help continue to sweep the problems under the rug, Caner resigned. Caner’s supporters on the board of trustees saw C. B. Scott’s refusal as ultimate betrayal and were determined that he wouldn’t survive at BPC either.

Offered an “attractive severance package” if he would sign a non-disclosure agreement, Scott refused to act like there was nothing wrong. He could have looked the other way, taken the money, and reasoned to himself, “It’s all in the past, what difference does it make now anyway?” But thank God for his example — that underhanded dealing and wrongdoing ought not to be passed over for the sake of position, prestige, and money.

How much better would we be if there were a C. B. Scott at every Baptist College, entity, and institution? By God’s grace there are, no doubt, people with this kind of spine at many of them. And also by God’s grace there are many of these organizations who act with integrity without threat of their inner dealings being exposed — they have nothing to fear or hide. But we know better than to think this kind of stuff doesn’t happen just because these are supposed to be Baptist and Christian organizations. Colleges in Louisiana and now Georgia have garnered national attention because they’ve been run like a good ‘ole boys club rather than with humility and transparency. There’s no doubt there are others who haven’t received this kind of attention or have not yet come to light.

If every institution had at least one high-ranking person who said, “I don’t sign NDAs and I don’t sweep wrongdoing under the rug,” the lure of favors, power, and prestige at any cost might suddenly fade. Light makes darkness run. And the risk of being exposed would be too great to act without integrity. Is it too much to ask — that our brothers and sisters who have the privilege and responsibility of leading these organizations, funded by people who offer their trust along with their money, would act accord to the trust given them?

The trustees of Brewton Parker College ought to hang their heads in shame. At least the ones who saw to it that C. B. Scott would no longer be employed there as an act of retribution. Also the ones who allowed it without doing everything they could to stop it. Here was the answer to many of the problems in Southern Baptist culture… and you fired him.