Southern Baptists should slow down?

When I broke into mainstream religion writing about 1980, one of the leaders of Religion Newswriters Association was Louis Moore of the Houston Chronicle, which during that era had one of America's dominant religion sections. I met Moore when I was a Baylor University undergraduate, in part because we was a Baylor alum and, thus, we shared a mentor -- the legendary journalism professor David McHam. Moore worked in the mainstream as a religion-beat specialist and then went into newspaper management.

Eventually, his strong Southern Baptist ties and credentials kicked in and he became a national level press-office executive for the nation's second largest religious group, working first in public affairs and then in foreign missions. Today he runs a small publishing house called Hannibal Books.

Moore has always been the kind of guy who speaks his mind, as demonstrated in "Witness to the Truth," his recent memoir about his life on both sides of the reporter's notebook. Click here if you want to read my Scripps Howard News Service column about his views on secrecy and candor in the halls of Southern Baptist power, both among "moderates" and conservatives.

All of this is to say that, on his own blog, Moore has shared his thoughts on the sad situation down in Haiti. Suffice it to say, he understands that -- since Southern Baptist congregations are free to do just about whatever they want to -- the ability of the convention's official International Mission Board to control the situation was limited.

However, that does not mean that there are no lessons that can be learned here. After sharing an anecdote about a similar train wreck that once happened in North Korea, Moore writes:

Southern Baptist leaders quickly note that what happened in Haiti was the work of individuals from an autonomous, independent congregation. You can almost hear them throwing in the disclaimer "overzealous." Technically correct, these leaders act shocked and bewildered over the situation. For political as well as legal reasons, they are trying to stay aloof from the embarrassing circumstances while offering compassionate prayers for the 10 people and their families.

Nevertheless, someone needs to ask the central question here -- Are denominational leaders truly innocent and non-culpable in this and other situations? The policy of the SBC is for volunteer mission groups from autonomous, independent congregations to go worldwide to witness to any and every people group in the world -- and they truly mean to every people group in every country in the world, with no exceptions. This has been the policy of the SBC for at least 15 years. SBC leaders over and over preach the need for presenting the gospel to every people group on the planet.

The natural corollary of that dogma is that people are going. Individual Southern Baptists from autonomous, independent congregations are streaming overseas at ever-increasing numbers. Denominational leaders are not even sure how many are going; they just know large numbers are heeding their pleas. The question is, are Southern Baptist leaders truly preparing these hoards for the inevitable conflicts and difficulties volunteers such as the Idahoans ... encountered?

And, for Moore, what is the bottom line? Remember that these words are coming from a very outspoken and very conservative evangelical:

Now is the time for SBC leaders to step forward and to take responsibility for their actions in preaching the message of "go" but not providing the proper training to keep missteps such as the ones in Haiti from happening. Better yet, some ranking SBC leader, who has been preaching the "go" message, ought to step up to the plate and volunteer to be imprisoned in the place of the 10 people now being held in that country.

By all means, read it all.

Photo: From a slide show featured on the home page of the SBC's International Mission Board. Members of Shiloh Baptist Church in Port-au-Prince ask for prayers as they gather outside what's left of their church building. Four church leaders, including the pastor, Bienne Lamerique, were killed in the quake.

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