Former SBC Leader Declares Denomination in 'Free Fall'

Bob Allen


A former Southern Baptist Convention president warned of denominational decline in a national gathering of pastors. "We have reached a place that our spiritual forefathers feared," Jimmy Draper, former head of LifeWay Christian Resources, said Monday at the SBC Pastors Conference in Indianapolis.Draper served as SBC president in 1983 and 1984, the early years of a leadership dynasty commonly called the "conservative resurgence" that supporters claim saved the nation's second-largest faith group from declining into "liberalism."

But Draper, who went on to lead the denomination's publishing house for 15 years before retiring in 2006, said those reforms did nothing to make Southern Baptists more effective at reaching people with the gospel message.

"We are a strong, prominent denomination," Draper said. "We have great, creative, effective, excellent institutions. We have the finest resources, the finest materials, the greatest creativity, the finest technology that we've ever had."

Despite all that, Draper said, last year SBC churches reported the fewest baptisms since 1987.

"We need to admit that the problem with America today is not the government or the politicians," Draper said. "It is not Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or John McCain. It's not the senators or representatives. The problem is not the educational system or the economy. It's not the liberals or the abortionists. The problem lies with us."

"We conservatives claim to have the truth and we think we are rich in spiritual position and power, but yet we are cold, complacent, impotent and unattractive, and irrelevant to the world," Draper said. "I hate to say it, but we are not plateaued. We're not even just declining. We're in a free fall."

Draper said only three years since 1950 produced fewer than last year's 346,000 Southern Baptist baptisms.

"You know why we don't win the lost?" Draper asked. "Because we don't like them. They are different from us. We don't care for them. We have no real love for them."

"People just don't touch eternity when they are around us," Draper said. "We're too self-absorbed."

Meeting on the eve of the two-day Southern Baptist Convention that begins today, pastors also received a surprise visit from NFL football coach Tony Dungy, a Southern Baptist.

Dungy, a last-minute replacement for a scheduled speaker forced to cancel due to illness, was introduced by his pastor, Ken Whitten of Idlewild Baptist Church in Tampa, Fla. Dungy welcomed Southern Baptists to the city where he coached the Indianapolis Colts to win the Super Bowl in 2006.

Dungy said convening Baptists were "getting ready to do the same thing we're doing."

"We're in training camp right now," he said. "I just came from practice. We are kind of getting our new guys acclimated into our system. We're getting our veteran leadership ready to go, and letting those young guys see how we do it, and we're getting ready to go out at the end of July and start to get ourselves ready for this upcoming season.

"And I sense that this is what it's all about here--that we're coming together, we're kind of learning our mission, getting our fundamentals and getting ready to jump out in the world and go to work. And so I encourage you to do that, that we're all on the same team, we're going to work for the Lord, and Christ is going to honor what you do."

Jay Strack, a crusade evangelist from Orlando, Fla., closed the conference with a challenge to reach out to the "Millennials," those born roughly between 1982 and 1997.

One controversy dividing Southern Baptists is between traditionalists who oppose compromise at any cost and younger leaders who argue the SBC's doctrinaire stance and political infighting are making the denomination irrelevant to youth and young adults.

"It's not compromise to realize that we need to preach God's word to this generation," Strack said. "It's not about us," he said to Southern Baptists older than 50. "It's about the next generation."

"The iceberg is melting," Strack said. "There's a lot of gray hair in this room."

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.