Something was nibbling away at me over the past couple of weeks, ever since I wrote about this topic originally, but it’s really come to a head lately. And it has to do with the 2022 Annual Report of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Why did the denomination’s leaders seem so weirdly reluctant to announce that it was finally out this summer? And why aren’t they talking about it, even now?
To find the answer, I plunged into the Annual Report itself. I might have found some answers to those questions, too. They’re not answers that make the SBC look really good. Then again, precious little does these days.
The SBC’s 2022 Annual Report reveals a denomination roiled in internal conflict and completely incapable of fulfilling even the most important of their stated goals. But it gets even worse than that. And we’re going to explore the extent of that unholy mess together.
(If you’re wondering where their metrics are, they’re on p. 122. Search for the word “baptisms” and you’ll soon find it. That’s how I find it on all of their Annual Reports. Interestingly, this year the word “baptisms” appears only eleven times in the entire document. Expanding the search to “baptism” gets us a total of 25 mentions. By contrast, “discipleship” appears 80 times. I’m not sure what this all means yet, but it feels like it means something.)
(This post first appeared on Patreon on 9/27/2022. If you’d like early access, please consider becoming a patron!)
Searching for the 2022 Annual Report at the SBC’s own news site
Usually, when an Annual Report drops, all kinds of Christians write all kinds of commentary on it. There’s this flurry of articles, especially about whatever declines the denomination has faced in the past year.
By now, it goes without saying that there will be declines. The SBC has been in decline for many, many years. As a result, many of those analyses will not only downplay the bad metrics but also seek to put as good a face as possible on whatever meager good news the denomination’s apologists can scrape out of that muck.
Each year, the spectacle begins with the announcement that the report’s available. Usually, that happens by late July.
But this year, the weeks crawled past without any sign of the SBC’s newest, shyest little cub. I’d check their home website’s archive of Annual Reports every so often. That’s where I’d always found previous Annual Reports in previous years. But it didn’t appear this time.
Finally, in desperation, I simply googled for it.
Finding the 2022 Annual Report, at last
When I did that, I finally found this news piece on their official propaganda site, Baptist Press. By then, it’d been out for weeks.
Y’all, even in that article we didn’t even get a direct link to the report. Instead, the post’s writer directed people to the Resources tab of their home site, sbc.net, telling interested SBC-watchers to search for its link from there. It was the most unbelievably kludgy announcement I’ve ever encountered for an Annual Report.
And it still has not appeared on their archive site yet. Nor has it gotten any discussion on Baptist Press.
It feels like the SBC’s leaders would really rather everyone just forget that they even produced a 2022 Annual Report.
To me, this feels significant. Some of them like to say that the SBC itself only exists, as a formal entity, during its Annual Meetings. If that’s true, then the SBC’s Annual Reports are records of the SBC as a formal entity during the only real time that it even exists.
And this year, nobody in the SBC seems to want to talk about that report.
A logo that belies a whole lot of covert goals: Is Jesus really “the center of it all”?
This year, it’s easy to find SBC leaders who complain that focusing on the denomination’s huge sex-abuse scandal will distract from “the mission.” When huge, dealbreaking bad news erupts about the SBC, we can count on SBC leaders to try to drill down on “the mission.” It’s just a distraction tactic, and an increasingly timeworn one at that.
When evangelicals say “the mission,” they mean recruitment to their flavor of Christianity. The Christianese holds true here. In the run-up to their 2022 Annual Meeting, the SBC was trying to remind their members and pastors alike that they were supposed to be focused on recruitment. Their logo even played into that reminder:
This year’s dark-horse candidate, Robin Hadaway, played right along with it. At least I can’t really blame Hadaway for being a bit of a dupe. He’s the protege of a big-name missionary, so his attempt to sway the voters went along these lines: “Hey! Everyone! Look over here! I’m a missionary who wants to push recruitment hard!” He got a pathetically small share of the votes, however, at 4.97%. Everyone else focused on the faction warfare.
But all these reminders might as well have been the fine print on a mobile app’s terms of service agreement. The denomination as a whole wasn’t having it. They were looking instead at the sheer spectacle of down-to-the-wire faction warfare and endless psychodrama, all playing in real-time on the various stages of their 2022 Annual Meeting.
If “Jesus” was the center of the 2022 Annual Report, it’s hard to see how
Christians themselves tend to hold both stated, official goals and unstated, covert goals. These are often at odds, even contradictory and mutually exclusive.
When those Christians are also dysfunctional authoritarians by nature, then contradiction and mutual exclusivity become assured and inevitable. After all, such Christians must square an impossible circle: a religion of love, mercy, forgiveness, and peace that becomes a weapon wielded by controlling, cruel, vindictive, and cowardly zealots who ache for power but can’t find it in the real world.
In Christianity, though, dysfunctional authoritarians find happy fields full of unwitting prey. Those fields contain very little in the way of oversight or accountability. Abusers can even find themselves under powerful protection, all aimed at keeping their secret behavior from reaching the public’s awareness.
The 2022 Annual Report might declare all it likes that “Jesus” is “the center of it all.” That’s merely a stated ideal. The unstated one is simpler and far better supported by the evidence we have at hand:
Winner takes all.
BAPTISTS, START YOUR ENGINES
In that brief span of time when I was an SBC-ling myself, I once saw a funny religious cartoon. A pastor stands at the pulpit, his gaze cast toward the back of the room. He tells his congregation, “It’s 11:45. Baptists, start your engines.” (The cartoon referred to Baptists’ traditional dislike of long sermons and lengthy services.)
It’s the punchline that comes to mind now when I read through the 2022 Annual Report.
On page 56 of that report, #16 on the “Proceedings” section invites attendees (called “Messengers”) to bring forth new motions and business for the denomination to consider.
The first of those new motions, #17 asks for a “Forensic Audit of the North American Mission Board.”
Then, #18 asks “To Disclose Executive Salaries of All Entities of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
After #19, which gets deemed an invalid motion, #20 resumes the faction warfare: “To Ask the Executive Committee to Cease Using Executive Sessions.” Likewise, #21 asks “To Create a Transparent Vetting Process for Trustees of the Executive Committee.”
So far, we’ve seen mostly attacks on the Old Guard, which largely controls the Executive Committee (which, in turn, sets budgets for SBC subgroups like NAMB). But #22 attacks the Pretend Progressives by asking for an amendment to the SBC Constitution that would kick out “any church that affirms women as pastors.”
And so on and so forth, it goes like this.
Not one of those new motions even comes close to affirming “Jesus” as “the center of it all,” much less “the mission” —unless of course we count #39, which asks the SBC to boycott all things Disney (again). I reckon that one could go either way.
The bulletins they put out during the Annual Meeting aren’t much better. I notice that this one highlights a motion to kick Saddleback Church out of the denomination because its pastor is dangerously friendly to the idea of female pastors.
(By this shall all men know that you are Baptists, to borrow an old Neil Carter quip.)
The 2022 Annual Report resolutions try desperately to steer the Titanic back around the iceberg
Once all those motions get finished, we find the SBC’s new resolutions starting on page 61. The first of these deals with “the mission field in rural America.” The SBC’s leaders want SBC-lings to see the pastors of small rural churches as actual missionaries. That actually sounds like “the mission,” at least.
Resolution 2 condemns Prosperity Gospel teachings, which is nice. But it can’t possibly deter SBC-lings from pursuing it, because evangelicalism itself is built upon the same rails as that pernicious magical-thinking system.
Resolution 3 condemns Russia for starting a war in Ukraine. Then, the writers of this resolution say they will totally be praying for Jesus to magically end that war and make everything okay again. Yes, I’m sure he’ll get right on that, SBC-lings.
The 4th Resolution condemns forced conversions in Native American and First Nations lands. No word on the coercive conversions that Southern Baptists push everywhere else they can. Also, the only reason the SBC doesn’t show up in the May 2022 report about those abuses is that Southern Baptists weren’t really involved in those government projects at all. Their denomination had barely even gotten started when the worst of it was happening.
Resolutions 5 and 6 (on p. 93 and 95) deal with sex abuse. On p. 97, Resolution 7 gloats about the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Resolution 8 is just blahblah about properly indoctrinating children before ickie evil heathens can do it, but it does have some scary implications given evangelicals’ growing desperation to indoctrinate Gen Z before it’s too late. Finally, Resolution 9 just praises the city of Anaheim for hosting the convention.
So they’re sorta-hit 1 ball after what, 50 swings? I’m not a baseball person, but that sure doesn’t sound like a fantastic batting average to me.
Lifeway, valiantly pretending that SBC-lings care about evangelism
Ever seen one of those cartoons with a character desperately trying to paddle a canoe in the wrong direction? That’s what the Lifeway Christian Resources section looks like to me. While the rest of the SBC squabbles over which faction will rule the denomination, here’s Lifeway’s leaders doing their damndest to look like they’re serving all those SBC-lings who care deeply about evangelism.
Their section begins on page 181 and it’s all done in very well-obscured language that indicates that Southern Baptists still don’t want to make sales pitches to their neighbors and friends. Check this out:
We are intentionally designing our new line of NextGen curriculum to be used by churches we don’t currently serve. The goal is to design an experience that will help churches engage those in their neighborhoods who are far from God, many of whom have little or no background in the faith or may have had no exposure to church.
Right after that, they tell us about Lifeway-run summer camps. At these camps, they claim to have recruited 1400 kids and young adults. Also of interest, they claim that their 88k campers donated “nearly half a million dollars in offerings” to the SBC’s two missionary subgroups, North American Mission Board (NAMB) and the International Mission Board (IMB). For that math to work, each camper would need to donate between $5 and $6 to Lifeway. But if these shindigs are anything like grown-up churches, most attendees don’t donate anything at all.
To me, it just seems predatory to ask kids and teens to donate to anything, but I wonder how many did it out of joy and how many felt obligated.
(Incidentally, this is also exactly why I left the SBC myself as a teenager. I didn’t have a job, so I didn’t think tithing rules applied to me. But the pastor of the SBC megachurch I attended thought differently, I soon learned through his sermons. After I’d been gone a month or so, the church’s response was to send me pre-printed, pre-addressed tithe envelopes so I could send money even if I wasn’t attending. Seeing them just floored me.)
Lifeway is just doing all this stuff to encourage evangelism, and I wonder how that’s going to work when it collides with SBC-lings’ consistent rejection of all attempts to get them to evangelize.
Come meet the new boss, same as the old boss, literally
Maybe one of the most eye-popping moments in the entire 2022 Annual Report comes from the NAMB section.
After all the trash-talking I’ve done NAMB, after all the trash-talking NAMB’s enemies have done to it, nothing prepared me for this next bit. You can find it on page 201:
Johnny Hunt is leading our evangelism team to serve Southern Baptists in greater ways than ever before.
Wait just a goddamned minute.
The former president of the SBC? The guy who stands accused of assaulting a woman in 2010? Who claimed, in turn, that they’d just had a consensual romp? Who then tried to silence his victim and her husband through various means?
That Johnny Hunt?
Yes. That Johnny Hunt.
After that scandal blew over without reaching headlines nationwide, Hunt hopped back into a church pulpit, then catapulted from there to become the Senior Vice-President of Evangelism and Leadership over at NAMB around 2018. As of 2022, apparently, he’s still there.
“It really is all about the Gospel,” gushes Kevin Ezell, the President of NAMB.
Yes, it very obviously is. Yep yep. Nothing but the Gospel. And protecting one’s cronies from the consequences of their own behavior. (Is there even really a difference, to these folks?)
“The mission” and “the center of it all” look a lot more like control of the SBC and even America itself
It’s really hard to see anything in the 2022 Annual Report that actually cares about “the mission” of recruitment, nor about Jesus as “the center of it all.”
What it looks like instead is a very sordid bit of crony-driven faction warfare occurring right under a false surface veneer of Jesus-osity. It really sounds like things are coming to a head lately, too. This could well turn into a schism the likes of the Conservative Resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s. In that schism, which was a response to the growing number of female pastors in SBC churches, the SBC lost almost 2000 member churches and fell under the sway of Calvinists—the most toxic, dysfunctional, evil-hearted, and authoritarian evangelicals around.
Who even knows what might happen now, with the stakes so much higher than they were decades ago? With the SBC earning so much more money, even in its decline? With all that power up for grabs?
In a lot of ways, though, I reckon we can be relieved about all of this. An SBC that’s fighting this hard with itself is one that will do a lot less splash damage to others. Let them focus on their unstated and covert goals. Money and time are both finite and non-renewable resources. Spend them in one place, and there’s that much less of each to spend elsewhere—like, for example, and I’m just throwin’ this out there, on sneaking into public schools to try to indoctrinate captive-audience students with terroristic fear tactics, all without their parents’ knowledge or permission.
(Guess what’s on my to-do list?)
As reality shows go, the SBC is on a slow burn to its final act. I can’t wait to see it.
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