As thousands of members of the Southern Baptist Convention gathered in Nashville on Tuesday to determine the future of the nation’s largest and most powerful evangelical Christian denomination, the Rev. Dwight McKissic Sr. was about ready to consign the group to his past.
The 65-year-old Black pastor in Arlington, Texas, who has been affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention for over four decades, boycotted the group’s annual meeting in protest of its handling of racial justice issues, and invited more than a dozen Black pastors to his church to remotely watch delegates pick a new president.
“Who wins the election will tell me: Will this convention be 21st or 19th century? Will it be inclusive? Will it be racially diverse? Will it be misogynistic?” he said. “It will tell me whether it’s a convention I want to be a part of or don’t want to be a part of.”
By Tuesday evening, McKissic was overjoyed that more moderate voices within the Southern Baptist Convention had won: Ed Litton, an Alabama pastor who has pushed for racial reconciliation, narrowly beat Mike Stone, a Georgia pastor who has waged a war against “woke” elements in Baptist life and culture.
“God has spoken,” McKissic said. “Let the church say ‘Amen!’”
At a time when the nation is divided over how to handle social injustices, the Southern Baptist Convention was also facing a showdown on the direction of the evangelical movement, with key battles playing out Tuesday over racial justice, the role of women and how to handle accusations of sexual abuse within the church.
A moderate establishment wing of Southern Baptists seeks to welcome Black, Latino and Asian congregations into the fold, adopt a moderate approach on social justice issues, and tentatively uphold critical race theory, a concept that racism is structural and entrenched in modern society.
But a growing faction of ultra-conservative evangelicals believes Southern Baptists have drifted too far to the left on issues of race and gender, and seeks to counter what it views as a growing push to make Southern Baptists “woke.”
“This is a pivotal convention,” said Gregory Wills, a Southern Baptist historian and professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “There’s more polarization and conflict in the convention this year than there has been for at least 25 years.”
After months of controversy, more than 17,000 Southern Baptists registered for this year’s annual meeting — double the number that attended the 2019 gathering. On the eve of the convention, a wave of conservatives took to Twitter to declare their goal to #taketheship.
The struggle for the leadership of Southern Baptists comes as the leading evangelical denomination is losing members. Over the last 15 years, membership of the predominantly white group has declined from about 16 million to 14 million. But Black, Latino and Asian American churches have seen some growth, and many younger evangelicals, while conservative, are more liberal than their elders on issues such as same-sex marriage, immigration and the environment.
In the last year, thousands of churches in the Southern Baptist Convention have joined the Conservative Baptist Network, a new group of ultraconservatives that calls for a reboot of the denomination’s 1979 conservative resurgence.
Their critics warn that a lurch to the right risks splitting the evangelical movement and provoking an exodus of pastors. Instead, they argue, the group that aligned itself closely with former President Trump should seek to broaden Southern Baptists’ reach and step back from advancing an overtly Republican political agenda.
In a final address, outgoing President J.D. Greear said the convention members were at a crossroads: After rising up against liberalism, he said, they risked making the Pharisees’ mistake of clinging too much to tradition and conflating the traditions of men with the commands of God.
The convention, Greear said, should not create unnecessary obstacles for people who say they were sexually abused to seek justice, hiding behind legal smokescreens and nondisclosure agreements. While he said many Southern Baptist leaders view critical race theory as coming from “a worldview at odds with the gospel,” he railed against those who expended more energy decrying it than “lamenting the devastating consequences of years of racial bigotry and discrimination.”
“At our core, we are not the party of the elephant or the donkey,” Greear told delegates, who are known as “messengers.” “We are the people of the lamb.”
Already, a slew of pastors has parted ways with the denomination.
In May, Russell Moore, president of the group’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and a regular Trump critic, abruptly resigned. A few weeks later, letters were leaked in which he described a “crisis for the Southern Baptist Convention” and railed against the mishandling of sexual abuse accusations and the “blatant, gutter-level racism that has been expressed to me behind closed doors.”
In March, Beth Moore, a prominent white evangelical teacher and author (no relation to Russell Moore), said in an interview that she could “no longer identify with Southern Baptists.”
At the end of last year, the pastors of two predominantly Black megachurches — Charlie Dates of Chicago’s Progressive Baptist Church and Ralph D. West of the Church Without Walls in Houston — left the organization after six white Southern Baptist seminary presidents issued a statement declaring that critical race theory and intersectionality are “incompatible” with the Baptist faith.
“I think they’re tone-deaf,” McKissic said of the Conservative Baptist Network. “America’s telling us, ‘We want inclusion; we want diversity. We want empowerment for all of God’s people’ … They want to take the Southern Baptist Convention back to the days of the Confederacy.”
Many pastors say the convention has yet to fully grapple with its long record of racism.
Founded before the Civil War when Southern Baptists split with Northern Baptists over the issue of slavery, the convention did not apologize for its support of slavery until 1995, when it resolved to “unwaveringly denounce racism” as “deplorable sin.”
Since then, there have been a few milestones. After electing its first Black president in 2012, the convention resolved to push for more Black leaders in the church, and decry “every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy, as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
In 2019, the convention affirmed that critical race theory could be a useful analytical tool “subordinate to Scripture” — a move that led to a backlash from ultraconservative pastors.
On Tuesday afternoon, delegates passed an update: a resolution upholding Southern Baptists’ 1995 apology for slavery and rejecting “any theory or worldview” that denies that racial discrimination is rooted in sin. Conservatives complained that the resolution does did not mention critical race theory, but McKissic was happy that it passed.
“We are Bible people,” he said. “It didn’t have to mention critical race theory.”
All of Tuesday’s candidates for president of the Southern Baptist Convention were white. While all are conservative in the sense that they are antiabortion and against same-sex marriage, they differ on how to achieve racial reconciliation and navigate sexual abuse allegations in the church.
Stone, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, Ga., was endorsed by the Conservative Baptist Network. He warned that worldly ideologies and philosophies were making inroads into Southern Baptist life.
“Our Lord isn’t ‘woke,’” he told a Georgia congregation earlier this year.
In the initial presidential ballot, Stone received 36.5% of the vote, Litton 32.4%, and Albert Mohler, a high-profile theologian, podcaster and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky, 26.3%. Litton, who had the support of Fred Luter, the convention’s first and only Black president, eventually beat Stone in a runoff.
For many pastors, historian Wills said, the leadership election appeared to be a referendum on Trump’s approach to race relations and white supremacy. A victory for Stone, he said, would likely have led many to conclude that “Southern Baptists are not going to acknowledge that there is still a problem of racial injustice and racism in this nation.”
Watching from Texas, McKissic said it would be hard to have to break from the group that helped him spiritually and financially over the years to turn Cornerstone Baptist Church from a tiny congregation in his garage to a thriving congregation of more than 3,000.
Increasingly, he felt the relationship had become abusive. While convention leaders had talked for 25 years about diversifying, he said he had watched them, over and over, choose not to hire minority candidates.
Already, everyone in his church was ready to break from the denomination.
But after watching this year’s delegates take strong stands against racism and sexual abuse and for healing the nation, McKissic’s trust in the Southern Baptist Convention was restored.
“The decision they made today tells me the majority of their hearts are in the right place,” he said. “The convention made a decision about a future rather than about the past.”