Many who attended the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting on June 14-15 in Phoenix, Ariz., expressed trepidation before the event. Controversies over biblical inerrancy, church funding and bureaucracy, and the proper vision for growth and missions threatened to tear apart the largest of all American Protestant denominations. The meeting took place against a backdrop of dispiriting news: Baptisms in 2010 had plunged 5 percent from the previous year, reaching their lowest level since 1948. Total membership and average worship attendance were also slightly down. Many aging SBC congregations have failed to reach the growing minority communities around them.
Those who expected hostilities at the annual meeting, however, were delighted at the outbreak of peace and productivity. Ed Stetzer, President of LifeWay research, told me "the most important development is one that did not develop-controversy or division." According to most in attendance, the Southern Baptist leadership minimized denominational infighting while making progress on multiple fronts: finding common ground between the conservative and less-conservative wings, directing more resources to missions and church planting, and placing a greater emphasis on outreach to non-Anglo communities. The atmosphere was less like the contentious meetings of old, said Stetzer, and more like a "missions festival."
Progress on ethnic inclusion was noteworthy. For the first time ever, Southern Baptists voted an African-American to the position of first vice president, and the executive committee approved a measure holding congregations accountable to reach out to minorities in their community. One member of the work group that recommended the measure remembered with tears when the Baptist church he attended in college forbade him to bring African-Americans to services.
Also gaining great SBC support: an expression of "profound disappointment" that the publishers of the 2011 New International Version (NIV) of the Bible favored gender-neutral translation, and a request that Southern Baptist bookstores keep the new version off their bookshelves.
The NIV is the best-selling version of the Bible in English, but when its publisher, Zondervan, began to move toward a gender-inclusive translation philosophy, conservative scholars such as Wayne Grudem opposed the trend, and the SBC itself condemned it in resolutions in 1997 and 2002. Zondervan's first gender-neutral effort, Today's New International Version (TNIV), appeared in full in 2005 but was so mired in controversy that it never gained currency. The 2011 version retracts some of the TNIV's gender-inclusive renderings, including many of the most controversial, but in the end retains 75 percent of them.
The 2011 version uses the NIV name, and Zondervan does not plan to continue publishing the original NIV. The SBC resolutions committee did not submit a resolution concerning the matter, but Tim Overton, pastor of Halteman Village Baptist Church in Muncie, Ind., asked the Convention to speak to the issue: "We don't have the luxury of not speaking to this important issue." The resolution, which states the new NIV "alters the meaning of hundreds of verses, most significantly by erasing gender-specific details which appear in the original language," passed with overwhelming support.