I do one thing most of the time. I teach and preach the Bible. That hardly qualifies me to analyze denominational structures and give insight on how to restructure them (or not) to face the challenges of the future. I have read through the Task Force Report, though I have not exegeted the document, parsed its verbs or performed word studies on it in the original languages as some have done.
My cursory reading, though, has left me somewhat conflicted about whether to support the report in Orlando or not. Two major factors go into my feelings.
1) The GCRTF Report is almost certainly bad news for Iowa.
I am an Iowa Baptist. Our work exists and is supported primarily through the cooperative agreement with NAMB that the reorganization will end by 2014. On that basis (among others), our Executive Director Jimmy Barrentine has opposed the Task Force Report. Iowa Baptist work – as it currently is constituted – would be in a lot of trouble if the cooperative agreement ends.
I am convinced that Iowa has the best executive director in the nation. Jimmy (yes, that’s what we call him) is a man of integrity and insight. He shepherded this state out of a huge mess when he came on board. I think the world of him and so, when he says he thinks the restructuring of NAMB is a bad idea, I take that seriously.
The state staff in Des Moines can hardly be accused of being a “bloated bureaucracy.” They truly attempt to live out the servant leader model. My director of missions, whose job would be in deep jeopardy if the NAMB cooperative agreements are ended covers an area bigger than some states. He oversees two associations that cover all of Western Iowa from Minnesota to Missouri. Let’s just say his car has a lot of miles! I was privileged to serve as President of the BCI for 2 and a half years and work closely with the men and women of the Baptist Convention of Iowa. They have a genuine desire to serve the kingdom and not just to preserve an institution.
I love Iowa Baptists. We have declared Iowa a “politics-free” zone and we do not get involved here in the battles that so often dominate old-line states. What a refreshing change that was for me when I moved here from Virginia.
So, I strongly desire to see the Baptist Convention of Iowa prosper. I have invested most of my adult life in Iowa Baptist work and I care about its future. There seems little doubt that the current proposals would throw Iowa Baptist work into a tizzy (at best).
2) Maybe, there is a better way.
On the other hand, when I came to Iowa in 1991, we had about 100 churches. Today, nearly 19 years later, we still have about 100 churches. Many churches have been planted. Many churches have died. But we are in essentially the same size we were 20 years ago. It can hardly be argued that what we have been doing the last 20 years has been a roaring success.
I do not believe that success in Iowa can be measured with the same statistical analysis that is often used in other places. I remember one DOM we hired who came in saying that he had a “system” he had used for successful church planting. It had worked everywhere and he assured us that it would work well here. Two years later he was packing his bags and flying south to beat the snow. His fool-proof system didn’t work in Iowa.
Iowans are a religious people. It is not the depraved pagan to whom we preach; it is the religious lost – those who have a form of godliness even if they have no idea about the true gospel of Jesus Christ. We had somewhere around 400 folks in worship yesterday. In Iowa, if you average more than 200 in worship, you are a mega-church. It is a different world than the south.
But, it is hard for us to make the argument that we should not restructure NAMB because it will threaten the great success we have been having as a state convention.
All that to say this: I have to wonder if there is a better way to do things than what we have been doing. I hate that the GCRTF realignments would throw my friends in Des Moines into confusion, but maybe on the other side, when the dust settles, we will be better off.
My Conclusion: So, even though the GCRTF recommendations are almost certain to be bad for Iowa, I am willing to consider them. I am open to the possibility that what is good for the Kingdom and for the gospel may make things hard on the good folks at the BCI. I am willing to consider that, but I am not convinced yet. I would make the following observations about the GCRTF report and its recommendations.
1) The fact that things are not going great in the SBC right now does not necessarily mean that the GCR changes will improve things.
It is hard to argue from the statistical evidence that everything is peachy-keen in the SBC. But that does not mean that the recommendations that the Task Force is making will improve things. Not all change is good change.
It seems to me that the burden of proof is on the Task Force to demonstrate clearly that the changes will improve things and that this is the best option for changes. I know that the report that was released was a preliminary report and that it was not meant to be comprehensive. Hopefully more details will come.
However, I am not planning to vote for a Pelosi-style report. She famously told the nation that the health-care bill should be passed so that we can find out what is in it. No, thank you. I am waiting for the Task Force to demonstrate clearly that their recommendations will change things for the better.
But I do not plan to buy a pig in a poke. I need to see a clear and convincing demonstration of the need for and the advisability of their recommendations.
2) NAMB and the SBC should remember that real work goes on outside the deep south or the major metropolitan areas of the United States.
The NAMB realignment will end the cooperative agreements and focus the work of NAMB primarily on the 100 largest population centers in America. I see the wisdom of that. However, none of those 100 cities is in Iowa. Essentially, the Task Force is recommending that NAMB ignore Iowa and states like it.
I can understand the reasoning. Iowa is hardly an important state in the Baptist world. We receive more than we give. I can understand why we might not be the highest priority. But there is real work going on here. There are lost people and spiritual needs and some good Baptist folks. I can understand why we might not be NAMB’s highest priority, but should we be totally ignored?
Just because we want to focus on the mega-cities does not mean that we have to ignore places like Iowa. Again, since the proposals have not been completely fleshed out, I am still not sure what the exact intent is.
3) The bottom line is important, but it is not everything.
Baptists have always had a tendency to measure blessing and success with numbers. We assume that big churches are better than small churches and that numerical growth is always positive and a sign of God’s blessing. Therefore, we sometimes tend to have a tendency toward an unhealthy pragmatism.
Paul promised that in the days to come people would gather around themselves preachers who would scratch what itches. Joel Osteen is building a huge church, but there are few of us who believe that his path of theological compromise is the right way to go.
We need to watch our numbers and be concerned about being plateaued in growth for several years. I’m not denying the reality of the numbers or their significance. But we must not think that numbers alone are what matters.
It is important that we as a denomination minister in ways and in places that do not necessarily bring a fantastic numerical return. We need to care about more than statistical returns.
4) You cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs.
The simple fact is that the GCR report, as currently constituted, will be disruptive to the Baptist Convention of Iowa; perhaps akin to an institutional tsunami. But that does not necessarily make it a bad thing. I will admit that there may be overall benefits to the Kingdom and to the work of Christ in this world that would justify the damage that might be done to state conventions and to the status quo of Baptist work.
If there is a greater good then I would be willing to vote to take the hit in Iowa. But, as I said above, they still have to prove that the benefits would be worth the disruption.
5) The natural tendency of bureaucracies is to protect the status-quo. That tendency must be rejected.
Baptist institutions are designed to serve God and glorify him. But they are still institutions and there is a natural tendency in human institutions to protect the status quo and to become more about advancing the institution. We have a tendency to define “good” as “what is good for this institution” and “bad” as “what makes our work more difficult.” This is a tendency that must be resisted.
I am undecided about how to vote this summer in Orlando. I just don’t know at this point. There seems to be ample evidence that if my only concern is the work done here in Iowa, I should probably vote no. The task force is recommending that we end the cooperative agreement which is our financial lifeline. And it is advocating a focus on major metropolitan areas – absent from the borders of our fine state.
But if the Task Force can present a compelling vision that demonstrates to my satisfaction that what is bad for the Baptist Convention of Iowa is good for the Kingdom of God, I am willing to listen. If they can show convincingly that voting against the interests of my state convention will help with the ministry of the gospel in the United States and Canada, I am willing to vote against my parochial interests.