When I’m home during football season or a major soccer tournament, I feel bad for my parent’s cats. My involuntary reactions to the recent history of stalwart Alabama defensive stops, scorching Baylor touchdowns, and sublime USMNT goals have left them well-acquainted with the dark, safe hidden corners of the house and a likely elevated blood pressure. Is it a bit silly to react that strongly to a game being played hundreds, even thousands, of miles away which I can in no way influence? Of course. Does it feel good to get worked up, gnash my teeth, or celebrate? Absolutely. Because I have cast my lot with those colors and hope to see them succeed. While it is a very small way, yelling at the TV is still a way to participate in the success or failure of the larger whole.
I feel that way about the annual blood pressure exercises in blogs, pulpits, and meeting rooms that accompany the Southern Baptist Convention every summer. I’m a millennial and an unmarried young professional, groupings that often come up in the handwringing. So although there is already a great deal of volume, perhaps I can in my own small way participate and contribute because I hope for the success of the SBC, and more importantly the church universal. Therefore, from where I stand, here are four lessonsI hope my fellow Southern Baptists, regardless of station, will remember as SBC2014 comes to a close today and they return home to their local churches.
1) America is not Israel. And it never will be. Old Testament criticisms of Israel’s infidelity to God were aimed at Israel, the people of God. And yet we are drowning in leaders who use these verses to talk about America. I’ve loved a lot about Fred Luter’s presidency of the SBC, but even he unfortunately made the comparison between problems in America and the Kingdom of Israel. Through Christ, today all can join God’s people, the church; but until you are, you aren’t. Yes there are Christians in America, but doesn’t make America the church. Seeing America as Israel or using verses about Israel’s failings in criticizing America makes about as much sense as calling America “Russia” simply because Russians live here. If you want to preach verses condemning cheating on God by Israel, the people of God, use them to criticize the people of God, the church. And we’ve had our fair share of cheating, sadly.
2) Those outside the church aren’t our enemies. Christians are often offended when atheists describe Christians as dangers to society or when speakers and TV shows make easy jokes at our expense. Does it make you want to join the ranks of atheism or any other religion? Of course not. Then why do we do the same thing to non-Christians and react with surprise when they don’t come running into our churches? God created them and loves them just as much as you and I. Even if there is some vast atheist and LGBTQ conspiracy to destroy the church and burn America to the ground, we are to love them, period. If Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of the men who killed him while they were killing him, I’m pretty sure our neighbors should receive just as much love when they simply disagree with us. Let’s focus our energy on poverty, hatred, pain, loneliness, and death, for our struggle is not against flesh and blood.
3) Our churches are full of people who, at best, remember the famed Conservative Resurgence in the SBC as a dusty old war story. Amongst all the worry and consternation over my generation’s future and role in the SBC, it’s disappointing that there has been so little conversation on how the Conservative Resurgence affects my generation (for those who don’t know, this term describes a roughly decade-long movement beginning 35 years ago but originating earlier during which conservative elements in the SBC wrested control of the denomination’s major agencies). And that parenthetical proves my point. I’m just old enough that I remember the final shouting and aftermath. For years, the only thing I knew about the Conservative Resurgence and the SBC/CBF split was an alphabet soup of pain and suffering. Leaders ruined, families confused and hurt, regular Christians tired of attending church and seeing more fighting. I’ve been to seminary and thus have studied the history, but most my age haven’t. Many of them only remember the ugliness, forming a seemingly insurmountable turnoff to truly engaging a local Southern Baptist church. And our youth groups are almost 100% comprised of growing minds that don’t even know it happened. Living in the aftermath of world-altering conflict that no one remembers makes for a fun scifi movie but awful church life. We need to talk about the conflict, and not just in celebratory terms. We need to mourn the pain, even in the pain in those on the other side, even if we still think we’re right. We need to talk to young adults and youth about the history of the SBC, and not be afraid of questions. If we do this, we can turn the page on this chapter and move forward in a Christlike way. If not, we’re doomed to the same eternal jingoism and antagonism plaguing America’s major political parties.
4) A century from now, everyone who knows about our theological conflicts will probably laugh at them. If you’ve been to seminary, you’ve probably heard someone laugh at how ridiculous the fervency of ancient conflicts seems in hindsight. But in the end, they have been forgotten, relegating to dusty books and introductory seminary classes. If our youth are already forgetting the Conservative Resurgence, this trend will continue. I’m sure during every crisis it seemed like the very fate of the church hung in the balance, but despite our best efforts, the church goes on. Just like Jesus said it would. I know today it feels like today’s fights threaten our entire world, but the church will go on. This may sound dismissive and negative, but I mean it as an encouragement. The survival of the church doesn’t hinge upon your sermon, resolution offered at the SBC meeting, or political vote. The survival of the church hinges upon Jesus. In Him, find the freedom to struggle, wrestle, and dream as the Kingdom comes.
For most of us mere mortals, the closest we’ll ever get to major athletics is yelling at the TV. The great thing about being a Christian, particularly in the Baptist tradition, is that our role isn’t limited to such. The things we hope to see can should start with us. I hope, as they return home, that the messengers of this year’s SBC will be energized and ready to build the corner of the Kingdom granted to them. And I hope that those of us who hope the SBC remembers these four lessons will remember them and live them out as well. -Geoff Davidson