As I Went Down to the River to Pray

Mark Coppenger

Calling Baptists Back to “That Good Old Way”

You’re likely familiar with the baptism scene in O Brother, Where Art Thou? It begins with Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar fussing with each other over a meal of gopher when they’re interrupted by the sight and sound of scores of white-robed people walking solemnly through the woods. These folks are headed down to their baptism by immersion (filmed at Alligator Lake near Vicksburg). As they make their way toward the water, they quietly sing the traditional “Down to the River to Pray,” with stanzas inviting brothers, mothers, and fathers to join them.

That song and scene came to mind recently when I was considering the decline in Southern Baptist membership—three million since 2010, with a million and a half coming in the last three years. A Gospel Coalition piece suggests three contributing social trends that may help account for this decline: 1) a loss of trust in institutions of every sort; 2) an aging population; and 3) the proliferation of both “nones” (those with no religious affiliation) and “nons” (those choosing non-denominational churches). While these forces are at play, I submit that our anxious reaction to them, and other cultural developments, is the major factor in our slippage. And, indeed, the proliferation of nones and nons may well be the result rather than the cause of our decline in certain ways.  

Denominational Convection Points

After seven years of college teaching, I sensed God’s leading to prepare for the pastorate. So, in 1981, we sold our house and headed for SWBTS. This was two years after Adrian Rogers was elected SBC president, marking the ascent of the conservative resurgence.

Soon after arriving in Fort Worth, I read a piece by a grumpy historian from another of our seminaries, an essay addressing the question of what in the world was going on in the denomination. As I recall, he said that E. Y. Mullins (president of SBTS, the SBC, and the BWA) told Southern Baptists what to think (or what they thought) for the first half of the twentieth century; Herschel Hobbs (Pastor of FBC Oklahoma City, SBC president, radio voice of the Baptist Hour, and head of the 1963 BF&M committee) served that role in the third quarter of last century; and now (lamentably in his estimation), big church “fundamentalist” pastors such as Adrian Rogers and Bailey Smith had moved into this influential role. 

Little did I know that a decade after reading this analysis, I’d become the SBC Executive Committee’s vice president for public relations (1991-1995) and tasked with spreading the good word about the denomination—whether the culture thought the news was good or not. And, indeed, our clippings service told us that we were less than adored.

On a typical day, we’d get a bundle of fifteen photocopied articles noting, with varying degrees of dismay, our denomination’s public image as we took issue with Freemasonry’s oaths, excluded churches that affirm homosexuality, said that Jews needed evangelizing, estimated (county by county) the number of Americans going to hell, opposed the abortion-enabling Roe v. Wade decision, and opposed the Lee v. Weisman ruling (declaring a rabbi’s middle-school benediction illicit on First Amendment grounds since it contained such toxic sentences as “O God, we are grateful to You for having endowed us with the capacity for learning which we have celebrated on this joyous commencement”).

Now, there were some exceptions to the discontent. The world appreciated our disaster relief work and had some good things to say about such members as Billy Graham and Joe Gibbs. Still, we were, by and large, leprous to the elites. But we kept sharing the Gospel, planting churches, and growing on into the next century.

The Social Experiment: A Sociological, Merchandising Turn

When I was a grad student at Vanderbilt, I was stopped on the sidewalk by a med school representative with a clipboard in hand. He was enlisting guinea pigs for experiments, and he offered me two options. The first involved their running a wire from my leg up into my liver, with a $300 payoff. The second meant consuming a lot of yogurt over six weeks, with weekly blood tests. The payout for this one was only $100, but my wife could participate for the same amount.

For us, those were big bucks in 1974. So, we signed on. The doctor in charge had been studying the Masai tribesmen and had noted their low cholesterol levels. He wondered if it was somehow connected with their consumption of fermented cow’s milk, so he enlisted a dozen of us to drink (not eat) up to a half gallon a day of something we mixed up on our stoves using live cultures. It was gross, and a couple of participants withdrew in angry tears. But we stuck with it and got our stipends. Turns out the theory was a bust, but we gave it a shot.

As I survey what’s happened to Southern Baptists in recent years, I can’t help but think about that experiment. Our leaders saw what was happening in other tribes and theorized that if we went to school on sociological trends and upped our merchandising game, we’d become more winsome to the culture. Barriers would fall, pathways open, and we could grow the SBC and gain more respect from the world. Win-win, right?

I started to notice this charm offensive/defensive in the 1990s when, at the urging of urban adepts, we passed a resolution lamenting, repudiating, apologizing for, and beseeching forgiveness for racist offenses present at our founding (150 years earlier), through the years, and up to the present day. We also fielded a new batch of name-change proposals, urging us to substitute “International,” “Agape,” “Cooperative,” or something equally gratifying in place of the old, stigmatized “Southern.” Better to be high-speed and low-drag when presenting ourselves to the world.

In this vein, the Swedish Baptists (BGC) led the way by renaming themselves “Converge” (no kidding), and my NAMB orientation to SBC church planting included the counsel that we consider avoiding “Baptist” in the title. Not surprisingly, we began to see sister churches going with “Mosaic,” “Bridge,” and such. Why turn off Chicagoland prospects with unsavory denominational signals? That marketing counsel seems a bit dated now, doesn’t it, what with Chicagoans, Californians, and New Yorkers flocking South for a better life? In 2024, “Southern” is becoming a magnet label.

My concern today is that we’ve gotten things out of whack in acting as though diplomacy were as powerful as, if not more powerful than, the plain presentation of the gospel in evangelizing.  Or in supposing that lack of finesse is what vitiates evangelism and that there was gain to be found in downplaying Gospel offense (talk of sin and depravity, damnation, hell, repentance, and the call to holiness) as you focus fetchingly on the therapeutic benefits available to anxious and broken people. Cool it with the “two-edged sword” and stick to the “balm in Gilead.” Yes, of course, ours is a gospel of grace, but as we read in James 4, God’s uplifting involves our antecedent misery over the evil in our hearts and deeds.

But things go awry when we twist or muffle the whole counsel of God as we try to “make the sale” or “disarm the culture,” whether through “pronoun courtesy” for men who “identify as women”; granting indulgences to those who assure us they’ll not do gay as long as they may maintain, as Christians, that they are gay; ingratiating ourselves to the corrupt BLM movement; and groveling linguistically before those who traffic in wokeness, honoring the conceits of its sensitivity thuggery, e.g., “safe spaces,” “illicit appropriations,” and “trigger warnings.”

Hopped up on tenderness, we’re easily duped by the mendacious, toxic deliverances of critical race theory. We tack toward the siren songs of DEI and ESG, oblivious to the biblical red flags. Progressives sing the wonders of feminism, the unalloyed evils of colonization, and the humble charms of cultural relativism and woe to us if we don’t dance along. Cancellation looms at every turn, even at the hands of fellow believers.

Unfortunately, many of our current SBC leaders seem to have fallen for the blandishments and proffered payoffs of this culture, such as enrollment enhancement, medals for enlightened shepherding, and a seat at the high table. Many count genuflection before the ranks of critics (“just humbly listening”) as the Christlike posture.  

Paradoxically, the more one humbles himself before the woke masters, the grander one feels. Virtue-signaling becomes virtue-self-anointing, entitling one to be the agent of “hope and change,” thankful to have moved on beyond the callous, repellant brethren of days past (and days present). And, so, they’re able to transcend the venerable understandings and ways of the denomination, bypassing the old cooperative arrangements between associational, state, and national bodies, scolding the majority of voters for their unholy presidential preference while glorifying an unholy leader (worse, a “reverend”) of the civil rights movement, and running roughshod over our polity to tax one congregation for the sins of another.

To be sure, those of us with job assignments (trusteeship, agency leadership) during the conservative resurgence made some sweeping, crunching changes. We released professors who denied biblical miracle accounts, pulled funds from a liberal overseas seminary, and replaced enthusiasts for the Roe decision with opponents of the same. But we worked with a mandate from the messengers to clean house and to “make the SBC great again.” That mandate was a grassroots affair, arising from the dismay of congregants astonished at the mission drift and theological slippage in our various entities.

In contrast, today’s mandates are more typically top-down. Elites served up Resolution 9 in 2019 to an uncomprehending body of messengers and then squelched massive grass-roots opposition two years later (our first post-COVID meeting) by fielding a lame resolution, lacking the edge of specificity. In its defense, the committee chairman warned us patronizingly, “The world is watching,” raising the specter that they might not like us if we denounced critical race theory.

Continuing from this lofty perch, NAMB slapped down state convention leaders who didn’t toe their line, even casting them as subordinates. Our leaders also cultivated the #MeToo hysteria to upend our polity and, contrary to sound legal counsel, to open our denominational coffers to the aggrieved (some of them bogus) and the purveyors of grievance—all of this in response to a hostile newspaper’s report that, over twenty years, 263 of the 28 million Southern Baptists had been sex offenders (28 million is roughly equal to the population of Texas in 2020, a year in which the state contained over 100,000 registered sex offenders). Our percentage of alleged incidence was strikingly small, but our leaders counseled expensive denominational shame and ignored carefully researched attempts to address the slander.

When Paul wrote, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some (1 Corinthians 9:22b), it was not meant to be taken as the theme verse for our overreach in efforts to ingratiate ourselves to the world. He also wrote, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16). The power lies in the gospel, and not in our winsomeness, urbanity, or charisma, though bridge-building can have its place within the bounds of truth, candor, and integrity.

In witnessing to Jewish neighbors on the North Shore of Chicago, I’d sometimes quote some Hebrew scripture (learned in seminary) and mention that we’d named our daughter “Chesed” (“covenant love” and “lovingkindness”). But I never suggested that they could do without faith in Christ. Also, the Gospel summary printed on the back of my business card noted that Jesus came from “the line of David,” but I never gave the impression that Davidic ethnicity provided a leg up on salvation.

Back in the 1970s, “Faith Popcorn” (born Faith Plotkin) left her advertising job to launch a trend-spotting firm, making a ton of money advising everybody from Coca-Cola to the U.S. Postal Service on how to shape their planning. For instance, in 1981, she coined the term “cocooning” (the impulse to stay inside when the outside gets too tough and scary, which led to turning the home into a nest)—catnip to corporations and publishers. She’s still at it, identifying “99 Lives” (the tendency to spread oneself thin through multiple roles) and “Down-Aging” (nostalgia-based marketing, such as adding PBJ sandwiches to a restaurant menu). Cool stuff.

But, like Krispy Kreme, deadly if your ecclesiastical diet centers on the sugar highs of cultural savvy. If you neglect the broccoli of “come out and be separate” (1 Corinthians 6:14-18) and a glad identification with “the offscouring/scum/dregs of the earth” (1 Corinthians 4:13), then watch out!

I was astonished to hear that one influential Southern Baptist college professor had told another influential Southern Baptist college professor to cool it with the “young earth” stuff since it made us look like rubes and undermined our apologetic efforts. Just recently, I read a popular young Evangelical minister essentially saying that his “sincere belief is that the church’s witness and unity is better served by allowing for a localized flood,” despite the plain teaching of the Bible that it was a global phenomenon. He, too, said, in effect, “The world is watching!” But who cares so much that the world is watching? Aren’t we supposed to be an affront to the world—not by design but by the biblical positions we take?

Back in the 1990s, I was asked to deliver a home missions message in support of the SBC’s Annie Armstrong offering. At lunch with the pastor, an acquaintance from my college days, I asked how he’d launched his relatively new church in the suburbs of a big Southern city. He said that they went door-to-door in the neighborhood and asked people who didn’t go to church why they didn’t. The main answer was, “You’re always asking for money.” So, he chose not to mention the need to support the church’s mission financially or to grow in stewardship. In effect, this treated key sayings of Jesus as if they were kryptonite, leading us to caution, “Don’t touch them or you’ll be damaged” or “You’d better engineer spins and workarounds to make them palatable to the lost and backslidden.”

I’ve seen it everywhere. A celebrity pastor neglects anti-fornication verses lest he offend the cohabiting-without-benefit-of-marriage couples in his urban flock. A Southern, small-town pastor refuses to address the epidemic of out-of-wedlock pregnancies since it would hurt and inflame the feelings of so many of his congregants. A county-seat pastor’s blessing of channel-surfing/serial-monogamy weddings, indifferent to biblical guidelines. A Gulf Coast church’s cancellation of their cult-study seminar when businessmen in the pews caught heat from their Mormon counterparts in the city.

So yes, the world has gotten into the church, even as we seek to ingratiate the church to a “watching world.” Gone are the days when the Apostle Paul would start a revival or a riot when he hit town. We’re more likely to follow the old British comedy routine with Alan Bennett’s sermon title, “My Brother Esau Is a Hairy Man, But I Am a Smooth Man.”

The Managerial Experiment

When I was interviewing Herschel Hobbs for a chapter in a book on theologians, he recounted an incident at an annual SBC meeting of old. Comments, motions, points of order, and such— good, bad, and indifferent—were flying off the floor through mics positioned in the hall. One arrogant grandee on the platform turned to another and observed that this was unseemly. The answer back was, “If you want the little dogs to hunt, you’ve got to let them bark.”  Well, our platform eminences seem to have retained the “little dogs” perspective while minimizing the indulgence of their barking. They’re more inclined to say, “Chill. We got this!” In this connection, we might revisit the Convention sermon in New Orleans, where the preacher slapped down the little dogs: “Maybe that the microphones weren’t working yesterday was a sign from the Lord that the last thing on earth that the world needs is for us to air our opinions, but we need to hear from God Almighty.” Well, shame on us pups.

They seem to forget that only one in ten thousand Southern Baptists is in the hall where our leaders are elected and platformed and that they are very likely to be there on an expense account, whether provided by an affluent church or an SBC agency. The leader’s job is to keep the lid on the restless resistance to CRT, #MeToo contortions, BLM sympathizing, etc., lest the “little dogs” rise up the way they did in the 1980s when van loads of nobodies who could only afford to stay for the presidential vote drove to Dallas, St. Louis, and Kansas City to bark and deliver a mandate: “Employ folks who’ll stand up for the inerrancy of Scripture!”

Today, they preach down to us, scolding us for voting for Trump; for failing to “just listen” to CRT/I crusaders; for mentioning Potiphar’s wife as a cautionary example in the #MeToo furor; for urging the release of the Covenant School shooter’s manifesto; for a lack of enthusiasm over DEI hires; for balking at top-down, imperious, missions priorities; for expressing opposition to porous borders and blanket amnesty for the “sojourners”; for suggesting it’s absurd for an honorable little donor church to pay for the sex-abuse negligence by a pastor a thousand miles away (which is like dunning Nashville United Way contributor Tractor Supply to pony up to cover the misbehavior of an employee at another United Way contributor, Publix, or vice versa).

It strikes me that we’ve become more adept at deploying the wisdom of the business world—with “best practices,” NDAs, market analyses, strategic branding, cultivation of the donor class, state-of-the-art IT, woke HR initiatives, golden parachutes, corporate perks and pay scales, careerism—than drawing on the example of revival-agents such a George Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards, Jeremiah Lanphier, Mordecai Ham, Vance Havner, and Junior Hill. In our slick professionalism, we’re mixing gasoline with diesel, and our denominational engine is sputtering, smoking, or clogging the filters meant to keep us working together.

When I became the PR VP for the Executive Committee in 1991, the “little dogs” of the Conservative Resurgence were taking a beating from the internal “swamp” and the external “orcs.” We were being called “bibliolatrists,” capital-F “Fundamentalists,” and such. During this time, I even felt the need to demonstrate to my fellow red-neck deplorables that we were on the right track theologically and that the denomination was admirable in its work in its many sectors.

Today, we’re asked to install and enable leaders who say we’re alarmingly racist, predatory, provincial, pharisaical, phobic, and patriarchal—leaders who’ll generate trustees counting us shamefully deluded in the voting booth and tragically misguided in calls for the abolition of abortion.

A Paradigm Shift Underway

Back in the 1970s, Thomas Kuhn introduced the notion of “paradigm shifts,” by which some theories were displaced by others after problems arose in the prevailing suppositions. On this model, Aristotle’s physics gave way to Newton’s; Copernicus introduced the heliocentric notion of the solar system; and continental drift/plate tectonics displaced the views of the “fixists.”  Old ways of seeing things became untenable, and something had to give.

We’re seeing it more and more on the national scene, where alarmed Americans are more nearly ready to vomit up the Obama/Biden approach. And I think we’re seeing it to some extent in the SBC, where, to put it more delicately, we’re approaching our elegant sufficiency with the Greear/Litton/Moore/Chandler/Platt agenda, one that is powered more by TGC and BigEva enthusiasms than by grassroots Southern Baptists.

Two striking occurrences signaled this shift at the New Orleans meeting—the expulsion of magisterial Saddleback for buying into the Scripture-twisting, egalitarian conceit and the overwhelming vote of approval for a bylaw honoring and securing this action. You could see the alarm in the eyes of five recent presidents who gathered at a mic, concerned that the pups might injure themselves and emphatic that we needed to study how we’re to apply the BF&M to others who might stray from its declarations.

To that, the answer is clear: If a future matter is sufficiently concerning, we can again highlight our stance in red with a new bylaw, protecting it from instant reversal in a single, subsequent meeting. Thus, we speak with extraordinary gravitas if and when the occasion arises.

Studying About That Good Old Way

Suppose now that there is growing skepticism over our sociological, merchandising, and managerial experiments. We’ve given it a shot, but we’re not so keen on where we find ourselves. Let me pitch in a suggestion, one that has filled my heart and mind from the first years of my pastoring. And so, I return to that baptism scene in O Brother for a theme.

By the time I felt the call to preach, I’d done my graduate work at Vanderbilt (epistemology dissertation on Wittgenstein), directed an NEH community-education project (human rights), taught for six years at Wheaton (philosophy of law, bioethics, symbolic logic, aesthetics, etc.), and read a paper at the APA (on quality in art)—so I was wired up for academic pursuits. You might think I’d want a bunch of new arcana in seminary. But no. I wanted to be a preacher man, and I got good prep at Southwestern.

Most providentially for me, Southern Baptists had a ton of material and programs I could take “off the rack,” including January Bible Study, Continuing Witness Training, Victory in Jesus Revival Plan Book, Equipping Center Modules on spiritual awakening and spiritual gifts, Solemn Assemblies, MasterLife discipleship training, One-Day Soul-Winning Workshop, Partnership Missions, the Baptist Hymnal, CrossOver in Convention cities, Survival Kit for New Christians, Associational M-Nights, and State Convention SALT Conferences.

I had three preps a week—sermons for Sunday morning and evening and a talk at Wednesday night prayer meeting around the supper table. I also had SS teachers’ meetings, Training Union, Ridgecrest and Glorieta, Stewardship Sunday with pledge cards and focus on the importance of tithing, RA’s and GA’s, graded choir practice, Christmas cantatas, monthly deacons’ meetings, VBS parades, monthly church business meetings, the Deacon Family Ministry Plan, the Cooperative Program, plus the AAEO and the LMCO, Monday pastors’ gatherings at the associational office, state youth assemblies, WMU, etc.

I saw it all and did it all.

You may call many of these things gratuitous and even toxic relics of an old-school context, but they were, on balance, powerfully fruitful. Of course, it was a lot. Some used to wisecrack that the patron saint of Southern Baptists was St. Vitus and that, with all the programming, when the Holy Spirit left one church, they didn’t notice for six weeks.  Still, with all the wear and tear, we didn’t hear nearly so much angst as expressed by young pastors today. It was gratifyingly immersive, with hurts and impositions not magnified by social media to service a great pity party.

The big thing for me was getting out beyond my comfort zone. Following the script, I would find myself cold-calling on doors with such questions as “Have you come to a place in your life that you know for certain that you have eternal life and that you will go to heaven when you die?” and “Suppose you were standing before God right now and he asked you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ What do you think you would say?” I asked such things of perfect strangers in Ogden, Utah, Metairie, Louisiana, Fishers, Indiana, and my own Arkansas “parish.” It’s been said that the hardest door to get through in witnessing is your own.  And I’m so grateful that Southern Baptists pushed me out that door.

Ah, but we’re told that these methods don’t work anymore. Are you sure? Have you tried them? What sort of New Testament criterion is that? Shall we apply it to preaching responsibly and pointedly, chapter by chapter, through John, Acts, or Romans? Suppose folks are less responsive today than they were in the 20th century? Do we now look for ways to up our game with something more enticing, or do we remain faithful to what we know we should be doing, whatever the reception? Isn’t the point rather to preserve and advance the biblical integrity of the Word, however awkward it might be to the “faithful” or to the world?

O Brother (Mothers, Fathers), Let’s Go Down, Come on Down

The O Brother song continues a call to kinfolks, “Let’s Go Down, Come on Down . . . in the River to Pray.” It recalls something Herschel Hobbs told me in our 1980s interview. He was upset about how some of the conservative resurgence was being rolled out, and I asked him how it should have been done. He responded, beginning with the days of his own powerful leadership:

“We heard protests. Not many at first, but we heard some protests. But we didn’t listen. I said we didn’t listen. I’m a party to it just like anybody else who was more or less in the thick of things. Then we heard more, but we still didn’t listen. After all, everything was going fine. The seminary enrollment was up. The Cooperative Program was up. Evangelism up. New churches and all. You know the old saying that if it’s working, don’t fix it.”

But, he continued, they came back to the leaders in the late 1970s, and it was too late for a smooth transition.

Well, today, we can’t begin to say that “everything is going fine.” Yes, the national culture has changed. Numbers can’t tell the whole story. Shrinkage may come from churches’ “purging their rolls” of non-attendees, or they may be having a “back-door revival” as albatrosses depart.

Or, we should note, a bunch of churches have left because they’re fed up with the wokeness.

On the other hand, big church growth may raise a red flag. As the atheist curmudgeon H. L. Mencken put it, “You can bring a dead whale into town on a flatbed car and draw a crowd.” And when we lived in Chicago, we’d hear of the “giant sucking sound” from Willow Creek as members from “mom and pop” churches around the city were drawn away to the cooler deliverances of this suburban behemoth.

Lots of factors are in play. Be that as it may, our decline is precipitous, and it’s worth asking if we need to “come on down” from wokeness and sweaty attempts at winsomeness to the world (punching right, hugging left), down to the good old way of New Testament deplorables who turned the world upside down.

  • Mark Coppenger

    Mark Coppenger is on the Advisory Board and serves as a Contributing Scholar at The Center for Baptist Leadership. He taught in either a full-time or adjunct capacity at Vanderbilt, Wheaton, Elmhurst, TIU, MBTS, and SBTS. After teaching three dozen different courses throughout his career, he retired from SBTS in 2019 as a Professor of Christian Philosophy and Ethics. He’s pastored a “legacy” church in Arkansas, planted a church in Illinois, and served as an interim pastor in Kentucky—a total of 17 years as senior pastor—and led SBC student ministry groups at Wheaton and Northwestern. He served in denominational posts in Indianapolis and Nashville, and he chaired the SBC Resolutions Committee in 1989. Mission trips have taken him to South America, Southeast Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, and both Western and Eastern Europe. He has a B.A. from Ouachita University, an M.Div. from SWBTS, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. He is an adjunct faculty member of The Institute for Public Theology at Founders Ministries. He posts regularly at