Martin E. Marty
Newspeople and commentators outside the South ordinarily pay little attention to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). They find little reason to notice this church body if they are geographically remote from, or see the SBC as remote from public affairs or ecumenical and interchurch activities.
They should find reason to care even insofar as mere statistics and size alone count. A demographic shocker to many: there are more Southern Baptists in the United States than there are Jews in the world. Only the number of Roman Catholics in America dwarfs the Southern Baptist population.
Through the middle of the last century Southern Baptists were becoming more noticeable and note-worthy in the eyes of others, often for negative reasons. Their policies were anti-civil rights for blacks, and most members vigorously supported segregation of races, in church and elsewhere.
Their first poppings-up in the “public religion” realm of concerns came in 1928 with their opposition to the presidential campaign of Catholic candidate Alfred Smith and their support of Prohibition. Their membership strongly favored religion in private life, but the public sphere was a different matter. Those who study the SBC up close know that these generalizations and stereotypes don’t fit all Baptists, but….
Today, despite their denominational prosperity, zeal, and media savvy, or because of their fear of many features of cultural change or their quest for power, a great reversal has occurred, and in many eyes, the SBC people are the most politically assertive among Protestant church memberships.
All this is background to our main topic this week: pay attention, we advise, to a traumatic change in the Convention. The most successful “sending-of-missionaries” body is suddenly having to say “missionaries, come home!” Stories of the sudden call-back of up to 800 missionaries might alert all who care about religious subjects or the state of civil society.
Why the drastic cutback? Some SBC leaders criticize the members for being selfish, materialistic, heartless to those who are and remain, in Baptist lingo, “without Christ.” Inevitably, there is back-biting and sniping against Baptist leadership in—hold on!—the IMB, NAMB, ERLC, GGBTS, SWBTS, SBTS, NOBTS, MWBTS, SBCExCm, “or any other entity or agency commissioned and owned” by the SBC responsible for providing funds.
It turns out that they have vastly over-spent from their resources, are now running out of church-owned property to sell, and have no choice but to shut down many operations.
Accounts abound of the sorrow, trauma, and sometimes bitterness evidenced by serious people who had responded to the missionary call and assumed that they and their children could count on spending life far from ‘home-base.” Who will take care of the needs of these mid- and late-career professionals and their dependents?
Those who have always opposed “foreign missions” as being colonialist or religiously imperial, will rejoice, as will those who have long resented the triumphalist swagger of many Southern Baptists, especially, among them, the formerly “non-political,” who are now hugely important to the Republican and right-wing bases, in culture wars and elsewhere.
This may also, however, be a time to assess some gains, as more and more Southern Baptists point to their missionary legacies in nations where now locally-supported missionary and humanitarian agencies will have to continue their work on their own and perhaps come up with chastened, reformed, newly focused endeavors wherever in the world they are.
At the very least, they will be providing one more set of reasons not to overlook the varieties of Southern Baptisthood.
Audi, Tamara. “Cash-Strapped Missionaries Get a New Calling: Home. Years of overspending to support Southern Baptist missionary work has led to budget crunch.” Wall Street Journal, October 25, 2015, U.S. http://www.wsj.com/articles/cash-strapped-missionaries-get-a-new-calling-home-1445765402?alg=y.
Smietana, Bob. “Southern Baptists Will Cut 600 to 800 Missionaries and Staff. David Platt: International Mission Board overspent $210 million over last 6 years.” Christianity Today, August 27, 2015, News. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/august-web-only/southern-baptists-will-cut-800-missionaries-imb-david-platt.html.
Rivers, Tess. “Returning missionaries grateful for help from Southern Baptists.” imbConnecting, October 19, 2015. http://www.imb.org/updates/storyview-4298.aspx#.VjaXIVwuz5d.
“SBC Entities.” International Mission Board: Meet Southern Baptists. Accessed November 1, 2015. http://www.sbc.net/aboutus/entities/imb.asp.
Lumpkins, Peter. “Seminary president indicts Southern Baptists for funding shortfalls at International Mission Board.” SBC Tomorrow: reflections on all things Southern Baptist blog, September 9, 2015. http://peterlumpkins.typepad.com/peter_lumpkins/2015/09/seminary-president-indicts-southern-baptists-for-funding-shortfalls-at-international-mission-board.html.
Image: Poster created by Grace Baptist Church of Kankakee, Illinois, for its 2015 Annual Missions Conference (creative commons license).
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
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