BCE’s significant constituency growth and increased visibility in the public square necessitates a restating of our mission and methodology.
Since bcE*byte’s launch at the end of March 2000, BCE’s e-mail database has grown 140 percent. A host of new church leaders hear weekly from BCE. Most have applauded our efforts. Some have raised questions about our selection of articles.
For example, a few questioned why we wrote about the SBC’s investment wealth. They argued the issue had nothing to do with ethics, apparently overlooking the New Testament’s moral teaching about building bigger barns. From this experience, we learned we need to make clearer the ethical connection.
For the most part, however, we hear a steady word of thanks from pastors who say our material helps them almost weekly. We also hear gratitude from laity who appreciate the way we frame issues.
With our fast-approaching 10th anniversary, we feel a need to reintroduce BCE to readers of bcE*byte.
For the past nine years, we have followed five guiding stars. We have talked about them occasionally. But mostly we have pursued our founding vision and worked hard at our mission without explaining our mission and method.
Here is a brief overview of BCE’s approach.
First, BCE is proactive, not reactive.
BCE began with an understanding that Southern Baptists were an anti-everything people. Historically, most Southern Baptists were anti-alcohol, anti-pornography, anti-gambling, anti-dancing, anti-civil rights and anti-science. Many Southern Baptists were anti-abortion, anti-sex education, anti-public education and anti-women. A few Southern Baptists were anti-war, anti-hunger and anti-death penalty.
From the most progressive to the most conservative quarters, Southern Baptists framed issues in terms of an anti-everything approach. BCE believed that the anti-everything framework had worn so thin that the predictable Baptist witness in the public square was increasingly, and rightly, ignored. BCE determined to reframe issues in a proactive and positive way.
BCE has focused on what it means to be pro-health, not anti-alcohol; pro-family, not anti-abortion and anti-pornography; pro-peacemaking, not anti-war; pro-women and people of color, not anti-discrimination; pro-poor people, not anti-hunger.
Second, BCE recognizes the centrality of congregations and congregational leaders in the mission of character formation and social change.
BCE has focused on congregations at the very time the SBC’s moral concerns agency has been shifting swiftly toward partisan political action. Congress, the courts and crass political alignment have become the primary strategy for the SBC’s pursuit of a moral agenda.
BCE remains convinced of the centrality of congregations, as well as the necessity to critique religious and secular politics.
Third, BCE provides an educational and analytical approach, not a pontifical and dogmatic approach.
When BCE was announced, the head of the SBC’s moral concerns agency said, “I don’t think there is any confusion over who speaks for the majority of Southern Baptists on ethics in the year of our Lord 1991 . . . It is not the Baptist Center for Ethics. It is the Christian Life Commission.”
BCE would neither presume to speak for Southern Baptists nor want to. Instead, BCE has sought to speak to all Baptists.
BCE’s desire is to analyze moral arguments and to outfit congregational leaders with ways to think and to talk about issues.
Fourth, BCE favors innovation, instead of excavation of the old ways.
When BCE was launched, some moderate Baptists wanted BCE to use old blueprints. A few retired moderates had a sense of entitlement to run the ethics agenda. Still others wanted BCE to be the ideological mirror-image of the new SBC moral concerns agency. BCE went another way.
The old, ethics blueprints differed from BCE’s. The old blueprints had an elitist design. Staff members with Ph.D. degrees decided what resources churches needed and expected churches would use them. BCE, on the other hand, has relied on focus groups, surveys, interviews and sociological studies to shape the issues addressed and the material produced. The old approach presumed to know; the new approach prefers to listen.
Another difference related to educational strategy. The old blueprints had a weighty individualism. The new blueprints were more communitarian. The old CLC produced pamphlets and urged churches to have pamphlet racks. The expectation was that an individual would read a pamphlet and experience a change of heart and mind. BCE’s approach is to produce resources used in small groups, such as Sunday School classes, where group discussion deepens understanding and encourages group accountability.
BCE readily acknowledges this new approach is made possible by a shift in ethos. In the new age of choice and without program assignments, BCE has freedom to produce ethics-related material for Sunday School.
Fifth, BCE understands that in the emerging 24/7 society new approaches are needed to address ethics.
BCE knows a “McNugget” ethics approach is needed in the Information Age. With increasing numbers of dual-income families, a glut of information and time-starved lives, congregational leaders are hard-pressed to plow through dense academic material, much less wordy journal articles.
BCE digests information, summarizes reports, condenses moral arguments and reviews resources for congregational leaders. At the same time, BCE recommends and provides thorough reports and academic studies.
BCE is about new ways of doing ethics. It is not about abandoning the ancient Baptist ways. We hold high a christo-centric commitment. We cling to the priesthood of all believers, the autonomy of the local church, the moral responsibility and accountability of communities of faith, and the separation of church and state. We also strive for and encourage the prophethood of all believers.
As we journey into a new year, travel with us. Let us know when we have pleased you and when we have disappointed you. We are convinced that both praise and criticism will help us produce more useful resources for congregational leaders.
Always know, however, that our intent is to be a boisterous voice for ethics.
Robert M. Parham is BCE’s executive director.