J.D. Greear has big intentions as he begins his presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention. He hopes to help the denomination step away from partisan politics and lean more on its bedrock mission of preaching the gospel and saving souls.
The first Generation X president of the nation’s largest Protestant body said he wants to focus more on what Southern Baptists embrace than what divides them.
“We have a lot of variety in our ranks when it comes to ethnicity and when it comes even to politics and age,” Greear, 45, told Religion News Service in an early July interview. “But what we’re unified around is gospel, gospel doctrine and gospel mission.”
How much the North Carolina megachurch pastor will succeed depends on how he responds to the challenge of the #MeToo movement that roiled the Southern Baptists’ annual meeting in June, as well as declining membership, historical ties to slavery and linkages with the Republican Party.
“He’s at a starting point where he’s saying to the denomination, one of the reasons that the culture is not listening to you the way they once did, particularly in the South, is that you have become so politicized as a denomination and in American politics,” said Bill Leonard, professor emeritus of Baptist studies at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.
“People are distancing themselves from you because it looks as if in order to choose Jesus, you have to choose the Republican Party.”
The day Vice President Mike Pence spoke to the SBC’s June meeting — a scheduled 15-minute time slot that became a 35-minute address, including a list of Trump administration accomplishments — Greear tweeted that it sent “a terribly mixed signal.” Weeks later, he remained concerned about the impression it could leave on observers.
“Right or wrong, a lot of our people of color are wondering: Is this what the SBC is about, that kind of white populism?” Greear told RNS. “There’s a place for that discussion, but it’s not in a convention of churches who come together to focus on the gospel and mission.”
While some of Greear’s Southern Baptist colleagues have made several trips to Washington to meet with the Trump administration, the new SBC president said he has made one. During his visit with aides to the president, he emphasized the administration’s need to “speak with clarity on our respect for people of different races and different cultural backgrounds.”
Despite appearing in a group photo outside the White House, Greear said he does not consider himself to belong to an ad hoc advisory council to the president.
“I was there to try to speak God’s word and say ‘thus says the Lord’ in places where it was asked of me,” said Greear, who has authored six books, including, “Not God Enough: Why Your Small God Leads to Big Problems.”
The Rev. Dwight McKissic, a black Arlington, Texas, pastor who was the original author of last year’s SBC resolution that ultimately condemned “alt-right white supremacy,” said Greear’s nonpolitical aims distinguish him from many SBC presidents who have been more committed to supporting the GOP. He considers Greear’s support of Kavanaugh, especially in light of conservative hopes about overturning Roe v. Wade, a “principled move” rather than a political one.
De-emphasizing politics in the denomination doesn’t mean that Greear won’t be “prophetic” when it comes to justice issues, McKissic said. “He’s expressing a desire for equality, empowerment, inclusion of women and different ethnic groups in SBC life.”
McKissic hopes that the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities serving on SBC agency trustee boards — who can hire and fire heads of seminaries and mission boards — will increase under Greear’s leadership after recent decreases. Statistics show undulating results in recent years: 16 percent in 2015; 25 percent in 2016; 14 percent in 2017; and 12.6 percent in 2018.
SOURCE: Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service