Can a soft-hearted president solve the Southern Baptist trust problem?
(RNS) – The Southern Baptist Convention is having trouble with a capital T – and that represents trust.
The lack of confidence was palpable at the recent SBC annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, where local church messengers often called Baptist leaders out of the meeting room.
âWhen it comes to confidence in leadership, that’s one thing that came out loud,â said James Pittman, pastor of New Hope Community Church in Palatine, Ill., In an interview. telephone to Religion News Service after the annual meeting. “There is no trust.”
RELATED: Ed Litton, a pastor known for racial reconciliation, is the surprise winner of the president of SBC
The SBC leadership has been pushed back in recent months by a statement against critical race theory made by the presidents of six SBC seminars, costing the support of prominent black pastors, as well as its slowness in bringing abuses under control. sex listed in a 2020 Houston Chronicle Report.
These controversies were exacerbated by two high-profile departures – that of influential Bible studies teacher Beth Moore, who disagreed with SBC leaders’ attachment to former President Donald Trump, and the denomination chief ethicist Russell Moore. The latter, who is unrelated to Beth Moore, was a champion of sexual abuse survivors, and in a leaked letter weeks before the annual meeting, he criticized management for silencing him.
All of these internal pressures are occurring against a backdrop of broader decline: the SBC has lost more than 2 million members since 2006.
The person charged with helping move the convention forward is a soft-spoken Mobile, Alabama pastor, Ed Litton, best known for his work on racial reconciliation. Litton was elected president of the SBC in a hotly contested election, winning the second round over Georgian Pastor Mike Stone.
Stone is one of the founders of the Conservative Baptist Network, which argues that the convention has gone “liberal” and “woke up.” His share of the presidential vote shows that many grassroots members share the concern of the CBN.
Litton rejects these claims but said he wants to work with all Southern Baptists to “iron out our differences.”
“I want to be clear that my goal is to build bridges and not walls,” he said at his first press conference.
Doing this will take a lot of work.
Litton was candid about the challenges the SBC face in an interview two days after being selected. Dressed in jeans and a sports coat, he described himself as a local church pastor who primarily deals with people’s real-life issues, rather than a faith-based influencer.
âThere are people who fly at a level of 40,000 feet – they see everything,â he said. “I’m a harvest ragpicker.”
He said he had faith in the people at SBC, who he said love Jesus and want to love their neighbors. Right after his election, he said that outgoing president JD Greear, a pastor at a mega-church in North Carolina, told him he would be “blown away” by the kindness of people to him, especially the members. ordinary church.
Yet, he said, he knows there will be problems trying to help the Southern Baptists continue to work together. It is not an easy task.
Despite being the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with approximately 14 million members, the SBC is a remarkably flat organization: Southern Baptists often say that the denomination’s headquarters are the local church. .
As they cooperate on missions, evangelism, disaster relief, education and other ministries – all of this cooperation is voluntary, and often subject to debate.
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Nathan Finn, a Baptist historian who is provost at the University of North Greenville in South Carolina, said the recent annual meeting was an example of the SBC’s long history of insider-outsider battles. And for the most part, insiders lost in Nashville, he said.
Messengers from local churches have quashed SBC leaders on several occasions, including over an investigation into how the denomination’s executive committee treated survivors of sexual abuse and dealt with allegations of abuse. The executive committee wanted to oversee the investigations. The messengers had none of that.
âI think the Southern Baptists have said loud and clear that our leaders are denominational servants and we intend to hold our denominational servants accountable,â said Finn.
Despite Litton’s victory over Stone, Finn does not see the conservative Baptist network or other critics of current SBC leaders disappear. “There is this perpetual tension over, why are we cooperating and who do we trust to navigate the ship,” he said.
Pittman, the pastor of New Hope Church, left Nashville unsure whether his congregation could stay in the SBC.
âI don’t see a way forward with the convention,â he said, adding that he and other New Hope leaders would meet soon to decide what to do next.
New Hope, founded in the 1950s as the First Baptist Church of Palatine, has been part of the SBC for almost seven decades. When Pittman arrived in 2014, the church had a handful of older members and was on the verge of closing.
âWe hardly ran into anyone,â he said. “We stayed and said, let’s see what God will do with it.”
New Hope has grown in recent years from a predominantly white congregation to a diverse church. He said church members were concerned about critical race theory and its effects on SBC. Pittman, who is black, is also wary of the CRT, calling it a âdifferent gospelâ that blames people on the color of their skin.
Pittman, a first-time attendee at the annual meeting, was disappointed that the messengers didn’t specifically reject the CRT. He felt that Southern Baptist leaders did not always follow their own rules. His church, he said, cannot partner with an organization whose leaders do this.
Evan Stewart, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, said the SBC reflects a larger trend in public distrust of religious institutions.
In recent decades, he said, confidence in organized religion has plummeted, according to the General Social Survey. In the 1970s and 1980s, he said, about 30% of Americans had great faith in organized religion. Today that figure has fallen to around 20%, he said.
“It’s hard to say if this decline is from people saying ‘I have no faith in organized religion’ or people saying ‘I’m just a little more tempered in my confidence,'” he said. declared.
RELATED: Russell Moore leaves SBC management but convention issues remain
For his part, Litton said Southern Baptists must decide whether they want to work together despite their differences.
“I think the Southern Baptists must be asking themselves, or the Baptists of the Great Commission must be asking themselves, do we really want to glorify God by cooperating?” he said, using another name for the Southern Baptists.
To cooperate, he said, they will need to exercise what he called their “muscles of compassion” by loving their neighbors. He said the Southern Baptists are known for their theology but neglected this part of the faith.
Litton told Religion News Service that he is ready for the challenge ahead. But he knows things could go wrong, and he fears his North Mobile church may not be ready for the criticism he will face. âI feel the need to prepare them for social media,â he said. “I don’t think they have any idea what’s to come.”
Southern Baptists, he said, are to be “tender to those who suffer and merciful, merciful to those in need of the gospel.”
Being tender, in Litton’s eyes, is not a sign of weakness. His approach to ministry, especially in recent years, has been shaped by personal tragedy. His first wife, Tammy, was killed in a car crash after 25 years of marriage.
His death shook him. Litton said God was with him during his grief and the experience of grief made him stronger and more empathetic towards others. (In a twist of fate, Litton played a pastor who comforts a grieving father whose daughter was killed in a car crash in the 2011 Christian film “Courageous.”)
This experience, he suggests, will give him what it takes to restore confidence in the SBC.
âI’ve always been told as a pastor that I have empathy,â he said. “But the reality of the pain means I have credibility.”