Ed Litton, the outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention, challenged members of the nation's largest Protestant denomination Tuesday to show compassion to the diverse communities in which they live to better minister to people who need them the most.
In a sermon he called "The Gut Punch" at the denomination's annual meeting in Anaheim, California, Litton suggested that the denomination, which has been struggling with declining baptisms, could very well discover a lack of compassion could be the force behind those numbers.
In 2020, the denomination lost more than 400,000 members and set a new record for the single-year decline amid the coronavirus pandemic and a bitter culture war.
"We may yet discover as Southern Baptists that our declining baptisms is really due to the fact that our churches and our people have become separated from the heart of their communities. We've got isolated from the pain and suffering that lives all around us. We've learned to turn an eye away from it, to think that's somebody else's issue," Litton said. "It builds a lack of compassion for one another."
"No wonder we challenge them to go reach the lost and they don't know the lost," he continued. "Unfortunately, we're making headlines in the Southern Baptist Convention … not because we are considered compassionate. And this year, I've not heard a single person say about us, 'Oh, how they love one another.'"
Litton warned that if Southern Baptists don't allow themselves to feel true compassion for others, they will become indifferent to their suffering.
"Some of you are battered and bruised, worn out as a result of either a sinful condition or sinful behavior of others," he said. "You feel ripped apart. When you see suffering, what does it do to you? If we are not moved to action, we will become indifferent, and I know what it's like to be indifferent."
The leader of Redemption Church in Mobile, Alabama, recalled how he felt when his wife, Tammy, died in a tragic car accident about 15 years ago. He described the experience as a "gut punch" and said that when people experience challenges, it's easy for them to feel compassion for themselves.
"Whatever it is we often say in those moments, our hearts were broken. But actually, it wasn't from the heart that we felt it. We felt it in the gut, and it's visceral. It's a deep inward feeling rather than intellectual. We think of a gut punch when we receive bad news," he said.
"I learned this from my own suffering and my own challenges in life that I tended to hear other people's bad news and I thought what I had was compassion. In fact, I would immediately think what would I do in a situation like that and what I determined is, we all naturally are compassionate with ourselves."
Litton argued that compassion was the hallmark of Jesus' ministry because when He "looked at you and He looked at me and He looked at the world that we live in, He felt a gut punch."
The preacher contends that Southern Baptists will have to show compassion for people affected by the Supreme Court's eventual ruling on abortion.
A leaked draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito published by Politico suggests that Supreme Court justices could likely strike down the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. The leaked draft is not final.
"Let me make this statement very clear. When Roe ends, our work begins as Southern Baptists," he said to applause.
"The work of loving people — because girls will still get pregnant and guys will still be irresponsible. And we must love them in the name of Jesus. Help them. Strengthen them. Lead them to Christ. Teach them the truth and save lives," he said. "Jesus' gut punch was He saw something, He said something, and He did something. That's his pattern. It needs to be our pattern too when we see something."
He urged the crowd not to look away from things that make them uncomfortable, such as the ongoing sex abuse scandal in the denomination.
A Guidepost Solutions investigation recently found the denomination's leadership mishandled sexual abuse allegations, mistreated victims and advocates, engaged in an abusive pattern of intimidation and repeatedly resisted reforms aimed at making their churches safer to avoid liability.
"This has been the painful part of this year as Southern Baptists. This is our gut punch because we didn't want to see what we saw," Litton said. "But once we see it, we need to feel it. There's no doubt in my mind when you read the report, you felt a gut punch. And we must do something, not out of anger and vindictiveness, but we must do what is right and just in the eyes of our God."