How Mark Driscoll Became Controversial in the Southern Baptist Convention

John ArmstrongSouthern Baptists

2009 LOVELOUD_FINAL 1 Christianity Today reported in their August issue that Mark Driscoll, well-known pastor of a mega-church in Seattle, created quite a stir at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) this year. The flash point was the “Great Commission Resurgence” (GCN), a group of Baptists who believe the convention needs to change if it is reach real non-Christians in the coming generation.

Most outsiders know that the SBC began a battle about the Bible some thirty years ago. That battle energized Baptists in a unique way. I am not impressed that it did them a lot of real good in the end. Conservative commentators say that this first battle was about the Bible. Some now believe that a new battle is growing in the SBC and this one is about the church. GCR says that by 2050 the SBC will lose half its members unless changes are made in the coming years. Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, says “Southern Baptist decline isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of math.” Southern Baptists are getting older and having fewer children. Second, they are mostly white while the nation is becoming increasingly multi-ethnic. Southern Baptists are growing, says Stetzer, by “methodological consensus.” I think he is right on target. Stetzer is a true friend to those who want to do serious evangelism but the old guard will likely never hear him. My guess is that Ed had a lot to do with Mark's being invited.

I grew up a Southern Baptist and understand this church culture fairly well, or so I think. While every congregation is legitimately autonomous 99% of the congregations have traditionally had a methodological core that could be counted on when you went from one church to the next. If you went to a Southern Baptist congregation you knew what to expect. This is no longer the case. Michael Spencer, known as the iMonk because of his great ministry online, said, “The idea of a tee totaling, suit-wearing, hymn-singing, chicken-eating, gospel-quartet version of the SBC is the Titanic.” Spencer is stating the obvious but many Southern Baptists do not seem to hear it. Like so many cultural Christians they seem tone deaf when it comes to understanding their own deafness. Will Hall, editor of the Baptist Press, says the SBC needs a minor course correction but no big changes. His comment seems to sum it up: “I hate to use these terms, but you can’t reach people if there isn’t a market.” Hall says the real problem is that Southern Baptist churches are still located in rural areas and their lack of evangelistic fervor is about location as much as anything else. I wonder where this man actually lives and doubt he has done any serious demographics at all. He surely has very little grasp of mission in the best sense of the word. But Hall is not alone. The president of the SBC’s executive committee, Morris Chapman, and the president of the North American Mission Board both have failed to take any serious interest in the GCR. Chapman even says that moving away from SBC methodology is dangerous. He calls it “cultural compromise.” Again, this would be utterly amazing if you came from somewhere else and heard about this debate for the first time. But for Southern Baptists this is the grist that will make for more conflict.

Mark D When I read that Driscoll spoke at the convention I was stunned. I think I know why he was invited but I could have easily predicted the response that he got would be very mixed. The “methodology” Baptists will never welcome Mark Driscoll. Instead, they will focus on his risqué language and his open acceptance of drinking alcohol, a taboo that older Southern Baptists will likely never drop until their generation dies off. Outsiders do not understand this stuff at all. For cultural Baptists drinking alcohol is akin to a blatant attack on the very life and soul of the SBC. This is serious stuff for these folks.

The convention so reacted to Mark Driscoll's preaching ministry that they passed five different resolutions aimed at him. I know Mark and my guess is that he got a certain pleasure from this political reaction since his goal is to help people grasp the missional nature of the church. He cares very little for the approval of conventions and conventionality. His passion is to reach people with the gospel. One of the motions against him asks that the SBC ban any future speaker who drinks and swears. What a delightful message that sends to the neediest of those among the younger generation.

The obvious fact here is easy to miss. Denominations, at least as we know them, are dying. Even the SBC is in the first throes of institutional death. For sure, the churches of the SBC will not all die. In fact, some will grow and prosper. But the denominational form we know as SBC will change or slowly die. The future for denominations, liberal and conservative, is very bleak. I am not alarmed by this at all. I think this could actually be the first wave of a new movement in mission that we have needed for several decades. Those groups that adjust will have a future and those that do not will march toward death decade-by-decade.