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A conversation with Bart Barber - S11.E6

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WORLD Radio - A conversation with Bart Barber - S11.E6

SBC leadership at a crossroads


Photo credit: Photo from sbcthisweek.com

 WS: Well, Bart Barber, welcome to the program. I really appreciate you spending a few minutes with me. And I wanted to just talk to you about your goal, your vision, your plans for the SBC. You know, in your new leadership role, you have already said that you want to return the SBC to its rural roots. At least that's the way you were quoted in the some of the media accounts, I want you to either affirm or deny that and say what you mean by that. And I've also heard your election called a victory for those who want to see true reform, especially related to sexual abuse cases within the church. So how does that hit you as a characterization of your election?

BB: I'll agree in part and disagree in part. I'm not really trying to return the Southern Baptist Convention to its rural roots. I think the Southern Baptist Convention already has a strong rural character to it. And I'm obviously someone who's more rural than urban in a lot of ways. And I think some people have seen it as a return to the rural roots of the Southern Baptist Convention. But my agenda is forced to follow neither a rural agenda nor urban agenda, but for us to just be faithful to God and share the gospel with people all around the world. With regard to the idea about it being a victory for reform, especially with regard to sexual abuse, yes, I absolutely hope that that's the case. It's my desire for us to do the right thing, both in terms of preventing sexual abuse, and in responding properly to occasions when sexual abuse may happen within our churches. I think that's the desire of the preponderance of churches and messengers in the Southern Baptist Convention, as evidenced by the fact that at our annual meeting, for several years in a row now, the messenger has every time this has come to a ballot have overwhelmingly affirm this goal and have asserted themselves to make it happen.

WS: Well, I don't want to get too much into the weeds of church polity. But I do want to note that the Southern Baptist Convention has what church historians sometimes call a congregational polity, the autonomy of the local church, as opposed to, you know, a Presbyterian or a Episcopal polity, those are kind of often described as the three forms of church governance. And of course, we've seen sex abuse in the Catholic Church, which has an, you know, an Episcopal form of polity. But I do wonder if having a congregational form of polity produces or creates special challenges for someone like you wanting to bring reform system wide, because one of the hallmarks of congregational polity, and the SBC historically has been, you know, the autonomy of the local church? In other words, you're going to be limited in what you can tell people to do and what you can tell congregations to do. Is that fair and accurate or not?

BB: Let me say, first of all, that if you didn't want to get into the weeds of polity, you invited the wrong person to study and write about it. But I'll try my best to constrain myself and my response. I'll just say that, you know, it would only pose a problem if we thought that there was a substantial number of churches in the Southern Baptist Convention who were opposed to the idea of preventing sexual abuse and responding appropriately, where sexual abuse may occur. And I think all the evidence points to the contrary, when you see that our congregational polity, our voting polity, is actually what is producing and driving the reform that's going on in the Southern Baptist Convention. The fact is that the Southern Baptist Convention exists to assist our churches, not to direct or reign over our churches, but to assist them. And I think there are a lot of churches, mine would be one of them, who would say we've always wanted to prevent clergy sexual abuse, volunteer sexual abuse, any kind of abuse happening in the context of our churches, we haven't always known exactly how. And a lot of the things that we point to in terms of best practices today are things I never heard about in seminary, but I only found out about those afterwards. And so the Southern Baptist Convention, the role of the Southern Baptist Convention is not that we're going to be dragging churches kicking and screaming across the line of preventing abuse that they never wanted to go to. But instead, what the convention can do best is to help churches who want to prevent and respond well to abuse to know what the very best practices are because predators, sexual predators, are targeting every kind of church and every kind of institution in our society. We see these problems in the military and the public schools and USA Gymnastics, in Hollywood and Washington. Everywhere that you look, you find people struggling to restrain and keep out and prevent the abuse of these abusers. When they start when predators study us to try to come into our churches, they see different vulnerabilities that may see when they look at the Catholic Church. And so our job in assisting the churches is to understand what our special vulnerabilities are, and to be on guard at those doors to make sure that we prevent abuse.

WS: You know, the famous organizational development leadership guru, Peter Drucker was supposed to have said this, I don't think he actually said I think historically, we've determined that he didn't really say it. But he said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Again, I don't think Peter Drucker actually ever said that, but he's been credited with that saying. So I guess my question for you, Bart, is you said that you think that the culture of the SPLC is that they want to do the right thing, they want justice for victims. And I'll accept that at face value. But I think that, you know, we also have to acknowledge that the history tells us that there is at least a, you know, a strain of people who don't want that. I mean, you know, the fact that there is a sexual abuse scandal in the church suggests that the culture of the SBC or at least, you know, there are places within the SBC, historically, where, you know, sexual abuse was allowed to thrive. Usually, you'll get a second term, however, your predecessor Ed Litton didn't get a second term. And so my question is, in one year, or in two years, can you provide? or can any person provide the kind of leadership, the kind of forward thinking strategy? Because this is not a problem you're gonna solve in days or weeks, it's going to be a months, multi year long commitment to justice, and, you know, for victims. Can you provide that kind of leadership having only a one or a two year term? Will the culture ultimately eat you for breakfast?

BB: Well, I would say, first of all, the messengers demanded that I appoint and abuse reform implementation task force, which I've done, and they have an open ended term. So after I'm no longer president of the SBC, these people have appointed will still be at work on the task of implementing reforms to prevent sexual abuse within our churches. The second thing that I would say is, in some cases, you're right, there are certainly been people within the SBC who have committed acts of abuse. And so there's one group of people, they're the abusers themselves who are working against, you know what we're trying to do. But the culture doesn't support them, or they wouldn't have to hide what they're doing. They, they have to pretend that they're not what they are, in order to try to accomplish this.

There's also been if you look far enough, back in the past, I've talked about churches needing to know what the right thing is to do. You know, I sit astride at the age of 52, I set kind of a stride two generations, the generation that comes up behind me, the one that came up in front of me, the generation behind me over shares everything, we have to take a picture of what we ate for breakfast and put it on Instagram, to feel validated as people, the culture that goes ahead of me, valued privacy, and sometimes when churches encountered instances of abuse in the 50s, or the 40s, they legitimately thought that the best way they could help the victim was to try to keep anybody from knowing about this - in some cases. People find out there'll be scandals, shame, who's going to marry you, whatever else, we now know that that's the worst possible thing that you can do. And I think that recognition that responding in that way, doesn't protect the reputation, the church doesn't protect the life of the victim, and enables an abuser to be able to move from one place to another and continue to offend. I think that's been proven to be so clear on the record, that that way of thinking is on the way out if it's not completely out already. And so some of what's happened culturally to facilitate abuse has just been ignorance and misunderstanding, not nefarious intent to shelter or protect or spread abuse. And so because I think that the culture, the SBC, has recognized that and has moved away from those false, erroneous ideas, I think, actually, we're gonna have very little in the way of roadblocks or hindrances for our implementation task force to accomplish what they need to do.

WS: Yeah, Bart, I'd like to pivot in our conversation if I could, and maybe move a little bit away from sexual abuse and talk about some of the other challenges that you face. One of the things that we're seeing in our culture, not just within the SBC is is a greater skepticism, apprehension about institutions generally. So there's that sort of cultural phenomenon happening right now. Within the SBC. We, you know, we've seen a situation where, you know, for 50 years, 60 years more of the SBC was on sort of an on broken growth rate. They were planting churches they were growing. And now I think, you know, probably 20 or 25 years ago, there was a kind of a moment of truth about maybe padding the roles that some churches were reporting membership that was maybe 'evangelastic', shall we say, rather than, rather than a reflection of true evangelism, and there's been some, you know, there was a day of reckoning and some cleanup there. And that caused a little bit of a flattening in the in the rolls. But, but I think it's fair to say that the church, generally the Christian church, generally in this country, but the SBC in particular, is facing some challenges to growth, that we're seeing a decline we're seeing, you know, the rise of the 'nones' as it's been called this tendency towards disaffiliation. I think you would agree with me that those are real cultural tendencies, and how are you going to deal with those? How are you going to address these.

BB: So I think there are a number of factors that lead to the demographic and statistical shifts that you're talking about, you've identified some of them. Another one that's worth noting is that I grew up in a small Southern Baptist church where my grandmother had six kids, her sister had 12, cousin of theirs had 12. This was all just within one local church. Evangelicals don't reproduce at the rate that we once did. And that's another factor that we can document statistically, across our country. What keeps our country's population afloat is immigration. And so I think there's a hopeful note for Southern Baptists in the fact that we're consistently recognized as the most ethnically diverse family of churches in the United States. And the Southern Baptist Convention is probably going to continue to change toward a denomination that's more reflective of the actual demographic makeup of two year olds in our country today. But the other thing that I would say about that, as someone who got a PhD in church history is that I took an entire class called The History of Spiritual Awakenings that chronicled, from colonial times up there today, the history of the United States as a pendulum swinging between disinterest in religion and Christianity in general, specifically, Christianity, and then times of spiritual awakening and revival in terms of the numbers of conversions, interests in church, new kinds of churches, denominations birthed out of the first Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening in the United States, you have the student revivals took place, the 1940s, right in the middle of that, of that growth timeframe you're talking about, the Jesus movement at the end of the 1960s. And so I think that one way of looking at that is to say that the gospel works, that if we'll be faithful, periods of harvest tend to come cyclically. And I think the reason for that is just because there's an emptiness found in running away from the spiritual side of yourself that ultimately, after people dabble that for a while, the 'nones' want to be something because they wind up finding that nothing's not all that fulfilling. And so I'm a, I'm a long term optimist for the health of churches in the United States of America, and for the Southern Baptist Convention as well.

WS: Well, I get that and appreciate that. And it's, of course, biblical, right, the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. So we know that that you know, as the old saying goes, I've read the last page in the Bible and God wins. Right? So so let's just stipulate for the record that that's true. I if I could drill down on that just a little bit Bart, though, are you seeing signs of that now?

BB: Oh, no, I'm praying for that. Do I see God still at work? Yeah, I see churches that are growing in the Southern Baptist Convention. Yeah, I do. I also see a lot of churches that are shrinking, stagnating, having serious problems, getting the Gospel across the line. I ran a few Twitter Polls not long ago, in which I asked people, which one do you think is harder. And in each one, I put the option of motivating your church to share the gospel, and contrasted against something else: getting people to vote in a particular way in an election, getting people to volunteer to teach middle school Sunday school, or to tithe or whatever else. And in every one of those polls, they wound up saying that the hardest thing to do was motivate people to share the gospel. I know that's not a scientific measure of whether it actually is harder to get people to do that in their churches. But it is a pretty good measure of how church leaders think about the difficulty of motive people, motivating people to share the gospel. I worry that we've discouraged ourselves out of it before we even try and that there's a need for us to overcome some of our fears and worries about sharing the gospel and just be more faithful to do it. I think it's a winning plan. And I think it works for people. I believe that if the Southern Baptist Convention doesn't do that God will raise up somebody else who will.

WS: Well, you know, just again, to stay on this topic for a moment longer. You know, one of the other challenges that the church faces is not just sharing the gospel and bringing people into the household of faith, but also, you know, raising them up to full maturity in the faith as well. I mean, after all, the Great Commission doesn't say go and make converts, it says, Go and make disciples. And even where we see the church growing in the mega church movement in this country, or in the maybe the Pentecostal movement in places like Brazil, Central America and Africa, we are also seeing the growth of call. So we're seeing the growth of charlatan preachers. prosperity gospel, you know, seems to be in some parts of the world, the dominant expression of evangelicalism. And again, I know you're a student of church history. And you've mentioned the first Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening, a lot of church historians say that the difference between the two is that you had solid theology in the first Great Awakening and you had Charles Finney. And then the second Great Awakening, which, you know, maybe his theology was a bit suspect. So do you have any thoughts about that? I mean, not only just growing the church in terms of new converts, but grounding the church on the, on the true gospel on a biblical message?

BB: Well, first of all, I think your historical observations are accurate. The first Great Awakening produced Baptists and Methodists the Second Great Awakening, produced Mormons and Millerites. And yet also, some people who wound up being Baptist or Methodist certainly had some impact upon establishing non cultic denominations as well. I think we face great challenges in that regard, honestly. And I think that's exemplified by the fact that churches that once upon a time, probably got maybe a six hour bite out of the schedule of people who are really faithful in their churches now might get one or two. And the degree to which time is spent more with a coach or a device or Cable News Network or something like that, rather than in your local church being discipled. I think those are trends that we're gonna have to turn around if we're going to see solid discipleship take place within our churches. The good news is I see a lot of people who are very interested in that, who are writing about that - JT English, who served on the committee on resolutions with me this year at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, is someone who's producing some really good information about whole church discipleship that I think can be helpful, but I think you've really put your finger on something that I may be more worried about than I am the evangelism piece of it. And I think that's something we need to focus our attention on.

WS: Yeah. Well, Bart Barber, we've talked about a couple of things here to two great challenges that you faced in the church. One is the clergy or the sexual abuse scandal, not just clergy, but volunteer laypeople, as well as sexual abuse scandal. And also, you know, the kind of the the overall slide in membership, not just in the SBC, but in general, the rise of the 'nones', the disaffiliation, the lower level of confidence that that Americans have in institutions of all kinds. Is there anything else are there? Is there a third or a fourth or a fifth area of concern that you in your new leadership role as President plan to take on and make a focus?

BB: Well, I'll tell you, I, this is something I need to address in myself, as well as everyone else. And that is the degree to which, rather than the fruit of the Spirit dominating the way we interact with people, we seem to be discipled more by secular political moods of the moment, and just also by kind of societal norms. It really makes it challenging for something like the Southern Baptist Convention to exist to be healthy, when our favorite thing to do is to respond to someone's tweet by saying, you know, sick burn, to bring in the fire, you know, with a, what we're applauding is the idea that you've that you've conquered someone and debate online, when you know, instead, I think what we ought to be doing is reasoning together, seeking to persuade, looking to exemplify and celebrate something that that's full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. Right? So because that's scripture too, it's in there, and it's sufficient. It's something that we ought to be seeking to follow and model in our own lives. And I think we've all seen, not just plenty of occasions where we don't live up to that - that worries me less, every area of Christian discipleship scenario where we fail sometimes. But the degree to which we celebrate are not living up to that concerns me is something I'm trying to change. Yeah.

WS: Well, I know you're a fairly young man, you've probably got many, many years of ministry head but I think it's also fair to say that in your current role, probably two years And in that role and it is, it is likely that whenever it is that someone is writing your obituary, one of the early lines in your obituary will be that he was president of the SBC. And so this is going to be a big part of your legacy these next two years, what do you hope to accomplish during these two years? What do you hope, when that day comes when we're you know, when we are standing over your grave, what do you want him to say about your two years as tenure of the nation's largest Protestant denomination?

BB: First of all, I hope they say a whole lot less about that than they say about my service as a pastor, my faithfulness as a husband, my work as a father and a son. I'm far more concerned about those things. However, I've pointed some people have misunderstood this when I pointed to EY Mullins, Edgar Young Mullins, was president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the 1920s, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the early part of the previous century. I disagree with some things that EY Mullins believed theologically. And even some of the things we do agree on, I would argue for them on a different basis than he did. But EY Mullins, I thought did a great job as President of the SBC because he came into the SBC at a time when there was division and controversy. And when he left out of the presidency of the SBC, we had the Baptist Faith and Message, we had the Cooperative Program. These are two things that have been hallmarks of the SBC since that time, and by helping the Southern Baptist Convention to resolve some issues through those two mechanisms, he was able to lead to conflict resolution and to help Southern Baptist Convention be healthier when he left. And so, you know, the greatest accomplishment, I think, that I hope what they say about me is that his two year term was up, and then the next guy that came presided over a more unified, healthier Southern Baptist Convention, and didn't face some of the same struggles and battles that he faced when he was in office.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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