The revolution Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson wrought reached its culmination last week, in the (ever-so-quiet) changing of Baptists’ name. We are “Great Commission Baptists” now.
If you didn’t get the memo, don’t be surprised. A name-change was not popular with many Baptists, holding tightly to tradition as people are prone to do, and to sell it, Baptist leaders called it “a descriptor”, something individuals and churches may voluntarily use like a D/B/A. The legal name “Southern Baptist Convention” remains, and indeed, not one speaker deviated from traditional terminology even after the historic vote, all the way to the closing of the annual meeting.
But it is what it is. The camel’s nose is under the tent, the future is here. And it’s a bright one.
Unlike “Southern”, “Great Commission” Baptist is a globally inclusive mission statement, not a regionally closed and divisive delimiter. This is of immediate assistance to missionaries and church planters (not to mention existing churches, state conventions, colleges and seminaries) from Los Angeles to Lansing, New York to Nevada, Boston to Barrow. If this bit of new ink opens the ears and heart of even one lost soul, it’s worth all the new stationary Nashville can buy.
The new term finally abandons the tinged racial overtones of a denomination founded on adherence to slavery and in too many cases at the forefront of segregation. At the same time, it announces who we are and what we’re about better than any elevator pitch. Are we in Brooklyn to love the lost? Yes, all of them, without exception. And once you’re with us, you know exactly what your marching orders are as a new believer.
It is the perfect exclamation point for our “Great Commission Resurgence” of late. In the past three years, Baptists have wholeheartedly shredded their traditional bureaucracies and budgets, pouring countless new dollars into global missions and North American church planting even when that meant selling off state headquarters buildings, restructuring and sometimes firing staff, and asking – in a recession – local churches to dig deeper, just to stay even at home. Southern state conventions slashed their percentage of the Cooperative Program “take” from as much as 70% down to 50%, so that 50% could go further up the chain: the International Missions Board, the North American Mission Board, the seminaries and so forth. Mission-field states responded in-kind: frontier Nevada even voted to go from a 78-22 split to 50-50 in one great bound.
Their sacrifice has not been in vain. Already, just this year, there has been a 27% upsurge in North American church planting, and NAMB has announced concrete plans to plant 13,500 new churches between today and 2022 (the Convention currently has 45,000 local congregations). 51% of all Cooperative Program funds at the national level now go to international missions, and 51% of all NAMB funds now go to church planting.
This was always the ultimate goal of the Conservative Resurgence. The lost cannot be saved by dead neo-orthodoxy, but only by the regenerative grace of the risen Christ. Spending thirty years first winning and then consolidating that revolution was time well spent: Baptists today are stewards of six Bible-believing seminaries turning out men well trained in actual, practical evangelism and personal discipleship. The controversies of another era are buried for Baptists, even while they continue to smother most of America’s historic denominations.
But that Resurgence was always foundational, or more precisely, was always about restoring the foundations. And no one was cheering the new developments more than Pressler and Patterson, honored by their former foot soldiers at this New Orleans convention at historic Café Du Monde, birthplace of the Conservative Resurgence, with a crowd-amazing chorus of “Victory in Jesus!” filling Jackson Square. This is what they were working for all along.
There’s no time to waste. A cursory glance at American culture demonstrates that – from Hollywood to the abortion holocaust to Barack Obama’s war on the First Amendment – as does declining membership in nearly every denomination. America produces the most money for missions and the most men called to ministry and the mission field: that alone would make its survival as an even somewhat Christian nation vital. And the number of churches in America has dropped from 17 for every 10,000 people in 1950 to just 11 today.
Or to put that another way, if Baptists believe they have anything at all special to say about the Gospel to the world, they must confront this: there are 16 million Baptists, but over 312 million Americans. And while our denomination remains largely rural, 80% of Americans live in cities, 75% of which are unevangelized. In Miami, Florida 98% are categorized “unchurched”.
Do we care about them or don’t we? And would their knowing Christ make a difference or wouldn’t it?
Last week, Southern, er, Great Commission Baptists once again said yes. The name change may seem cosmetic to some, optional to others. But it is the valedictory of thirty-three years of work, sweat and tears; and with God’s blessing, it may well represent the turning point, the beginning of an American transformation surpassing the Great Awakenings of old.