NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Southern Baptist Convention was so famously insular for so long that it earned its own joke about members believing they’re the only ones in heaven.
The nation’s largest Protestant denomination was known more for what, and often who, it rejected than what it included — with political warriors in the SBC leadership often alienating other religious groups and particularly the racial minorities in them.
But over the past decade that began to change:
Southern Baptists elected the denomination’s first African-American president, apologized for supporting slavery, apologized to Asians for the culturally offensive “Rickshaw Rally” vacation Bible school curriculum, reprimanded their former Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission chief Richard Land for racially charged remarks, and recognized that its regional-sounding brand has so much baggage that perhaps a name change was in order.
They began reaching out to other evangelical churches and to Roman Catholics on issues of common interest, a collaborative spirit that landed three Southern Baptists in top leadership roles at nondenominational evangelical universities.
Then last week at its annual convention the denomination seemed to confirm its shift toward both ecumenical work and racial reconciliation by taking the first step to joining the National Association of Evangelicals and, most notably, by repudiating the Confederate battle flag.
Taken together, these moves represent a significant pivot away from the conservative takeover that began in the 1970s and produced a string of hard-line leaders, said David Gushee, director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University and a columnist for Religion News Service.
Those leaders included the denomination’s president in 1980, Bailey Smith, who declared that God didn’t hear the prayers of Jews.
Gushee and others track the current shift back to the 2006 election of then-unknown Frank Page to the denomination’s presidency. Page represents a generation of Southern Baptist leadership less concerned with political victories and more impressed by leaders who are pastoral, plugged into the broader culture and manifesting biblical fruits of the spirit, Gushee said.
“I would say that leadership in the denomination seems to be passing to people who are still plenty conservative, but they are not mean on the whole,” he said. “They are cooperating with Catholics when they can and other evangelicals. They’re sensitive to the convention’s history on race and trying to get that right. And the Confederate flag discussion … was the next step forward there.”
Without the shift, Ed Stetzer said he may not have spent much of the last decade as director of the SBC-affiliated LifeWay Research or have been considered for the Wheaton College chair he’ll take starting July 1.
“The Southern Baptists were continuing to move to the right and erecting new arguments over secondary, tertiary issues,” Stetzer said in an interview leading up to the June 14-15 annual meeting.
“In 2006, they decided they were conservative enough. They said, ‘This is where we want to be’ — to the disappointment of a significant number of people who wanted to keep narrowing the parameters of cooperation.”
Stetzer, employed as a North American Mission Board missiologist at the time, said he was considering jobs outside the denomination. Page convinced him to stay and work together.
“In 2007, Frank asked me to preach at the convention. I told the crowd, ‘This is the only place I go where I feel young and thin,’” Stetzer said.
When he starts his job at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton — the flagship evangelical Christian college — Stetzer will be another Southern Baptist in a top role at a nondenominational institution.
The King’s College and Trinity International University both hired Southern Baptists to their presidencies in the last three years — increasing evidence of a decreasingly insular convention.
Page, then pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., said he didn’t seek the presidency and said he was so convinced he would not win that he barely had a platform to discuss as a convention worker guided him toward a post-election press conference. He handily beat two other candidates on the first ballot and went on to serve two terms.
“I assured people I was not trying to undo a conservative resurgence,” Page said. “People feared that. It took three decades to turn us back to a conservative direction. I said, ‘I’m an inerrantist, but not an angry one.’”
Developments since then, he said, have been ones he hoped for.
“Discontinuing the use of the Confederate battle flag — I could not take credit for that, but I hope that in some small way, I encouraged us toward this. We still have a lot to do,” said Page, who became CEO of the SBC Executive Committee two years after his two-term denominational presidency ended and still holds that seat.
Local churches can feel the effects of the denominational leadership shift, noted Mike Glenn, pastor of 10,000-member Brentwood Baptist Church in Tennessee. Glenn, a longtime friend of Page’s, said it’s likely the SBC executive’s ability to find one or two points he can agree upon with someone and then build from there has contributed.
“Several years ago, when we were so actively politically engaged, there were times when statements would be made by Southern Baptist leaders, and we would have to say, ‘They don’t represent us,’” Glenn said. “I think there was a sobering up about the realities of the political process. The Southern Baptist Convention had put a lot of eggs in the conservative Republican political system and got very little in return.”
(Not that Southern Baptists have exactly gone Democratic: the immediate past president of the SBC, Ronnie Floyd, and a longtime SBC leader, Richard Land, are on Donald Trump’s evangelical advisory board, and white evangelicals are still supporting Trump by a wide margin over Hillary Clinton, who continues to draw sharp criticism from many Southern Baptists.)
As for the denomination’s future goals, Glenn would like to see the convention mimic his church, doing more hands-on ministry to communities in need. “We have talked so much and done so little, nobody is listening to us anymore. Provide clinics and services in underserved areas. And then you’ll earn the right to speak.”
The denomination is continuing its outreach to other faiths. This month, the ERLC joined Catholics in a Capitol Hill briefing on anti-abortion issues, said Jeanne Mancini, the Catholic head of nonsectarian March for Life. She said her organization, seeing the potential for like-minded collaboration, long had sought ways to pair on public policy.
“We don’t typically get into theological conversations,” she said. “In terms of public policy, we’re working hand-in-glove, and I’ve never been offended by anything they’ve had to say.”
But while Southern Baptists may have a bigger tent these days, there are fewer members inside it.
Still the nation’s largest Protestant denomination with 15.3 million members, that total has decreased for nine straight years. Not only are members departing — 200,000 of them from 2014-15 — fewer are joining. Baptisms have decreased eight of the last 10 years.
Those inside and outside the denomination have different takes on the figures and their relationship, or lack of it, to Southern Baptists’ more culturally relevant approach.
Page, in a news release about the numbers, asked God to forgive a lack of diligence in evangelism. But, in his interview a week later, he said he was encouraged by the more than 18,000 men and women enrolled in Southern Baptist seminaries, a record high.
David Dockery, the president of Trinity International University, said the Page-led shift in approach made a positive difference despite the membership totals: “I don’t have data to support this statement, but while those numbers are a disappointment to all concerned, I think they would have been far greater without those efforts.”
The key is not stanching the flow of members out, Stetzer said, it’s evangelizing more new ones in, and that’s something he hopes to help all evangelicals do in his new role at Wheaton.
While Stetzer strongly identifies with being Southern Baptist — he converted as a young adult after being raised Catholic and becoming an Episcopalian — and sees the denomination’s value, he’s long been involved in a multidenominational, evangelical ministry in addition to his LifeWay job.
“Mainline denominations value ecumenical cooperation much higher as a symbolic representation of unity. For evangelicals, it’s more a unity of purpose than a display,” he said.
For Stetzer, as a Southern Baptist in an interdenominational setting, the key will be allowing racially and theologically diverse groups of evangelicals to collaborate without leaving their convictions at the door.
(Heidi Hall is an RNS correspondent based in Nashville.)