Do you know how many people the Southern Baptist Convention baptized last year?
I am guessing that in this knowledgeable, astute group, most know the correct answer.
Churches baptize. Conventions don’t. We are a convention of independent churches who fellowship and cooperate to do Great Commission work together. The work that matters most in our convention does not take place in Nashville or Alpharetta or Richmond but in churches across North America. Our churches – big and little, old and new, traditionalist and trendy, young and hip or old and stodgy – that is where the rubber hits the road for Southern Baptists. The SBC doesn’t start churches or lead people to Christ or baptize people. Churches do that.
That is not to denigrate the work of our entities – they play an important role. But their role is not to do the work of the local church but to be a resource for the church, to organize and compile information to help those churches and to coordinate, promote, and publicize the work of Southern Baptists. The seminaries train church leaders in theology and practice. The IMB organizes the joint worldwide mission effort of Southern Baptist Churches. NAMB helps local churches start churches. LifeWay provides materials for those churches. The ERLC is designed to educate those churches about current issues. And, of course, the wonderful folks at the Executive Committee encourage everyone and labor to keep the partnership of our churches functioning well.
Our entities and national organizations have an important role to play, but the intent has always been that the work of the SBC would be carried on by local churches working in their communities to reach out to their neighbors with the life-transforming message of Jesus Christ.
It is no secret that the SBC is not functioning at maximum efficiency these days. If statistical measures matter at all, things are not going well. Our decades-long decline has transitioned from a slowing growth rate through the plateau phase to a significant statistical decline, and if trends continue we could be looking at a numerical freefall.
We know there’s a problem and we know it needs to be fixed. So, what do we do? We reorganize the entities, move money around, appoint task forces, and do studies. In recent years there has grown a denominational orthodoxy that has said that the answer is to slowly defund local ministries so that we can get more money into the national ministries.
Once, NAMB funded associational missionaries (DOMs) in New Work areas and focused their church planting efforts through the state conventions and local associations. After the GCR, the partnerships with state conventions were tested, but the funding of associational missionaries was abandoned completely. Here in Iowa, some of our associations have essentially disbanded because without the help of a NAMB-funded DOM, we simply could not keep things going. The association here in Northwest Iowa exists in name only.
State conventions have been pushed to cut their ministries to the core so that they could send more money to the national SBC and get more money into missions. Some behind the GCR accused the state conventions of being “bloated bureaucracies” and great pressure was put on them to “trim the fat” so that more money could go to missions.
This is a noble desire. There is nothing nobler that we do than our cooperative mission efforts through the International Mission Board. Anything that gets an extra dollar into world missions is a good thing as far as I am concerned.
But I am increasingly bothered by the strategy of Southern Baptists in fixing our problems. I am coming to believe that there is a serious flaw in our approach and that some of our well-meaning efforts at fixing the SBC’s statistical doldrums – done with the best of intentions – may actually be misdirected and counter-productive.
The problems of the SBC are local church problems. The declining baptism rate doesn’t happen because of editorial decisions by LifeWay on what to publish! NAMB can start a bazillion churches but unless our local churches are healthy we are not going to see a reversal of fortunes. Research from the international research journal “Duh” indicates that baptisms are down in the SBC because CHURCHES are not baptizing people! Churches are not winning as many people to Christ.
The problems in the SBC occur in our pulpits and our pews, not primarily in our entities.
But even though our problems are local the “fixes” we have attempted have been largely national. We are attempting denominational tweaks to fix church problems. It won’t work.
The interactions of SBC churches and entities are complicated and defy easy analysis. For every point I make I know there is a reasonable counterpoint. But I am observing a nationalization trend in the SBC that is not helpful.
We have seen this in interactions with some of the national entities. I do not want to be specific here because the point of this post is not to pick fights. But in our work here in Iowa (and I think our experience is not unique) there used to be much more of a sense of a partnership between the national SBC, the state convention, and the local association. In the last few years, we saw a shift. Things were dictated at the national level and the state convention had less and less input. Local associations were almost entirely ignored and at times, treated disdainfully.
(Note: I should say that when the Pastors’ Conference thing arose, I resigned from the admin team and the Executive Board of my state convention, so I have not been involved in the last 18 months or so.)
But it has been my observation that money and power are being shifted away from local and state ministries and toward national (and international) ministries. I do not think that is going to work. The SBC is not hierarchical – the power rests in the churches, not the structure. Our problems are in our churches and the solutions must be local solutions not national!
I would offer the following observations.
1. I have not said that there are no problems at the national level. Those need to be dealt with. When the SBC began to drift theologically, we had to deal with that. There are national problems that must be dealt with nationally. But baptism and stewardship are not national problems, they are local problems. The solutions will be local solutions. We must disabuse ourselves of the idea that these task forces, reorganizations, and national initiatives are somehow going to fix things. Spiritual problems need spiritual fixes. Church problems need church fixes.
2. I am a strong supporter of our worldwide missions program and believe that every effort should be made to get more money into the work of the two mission boards of the SBC that cover our world, and in the proportion they now receive. I am happy for every increased dollar that goes into missions.
But the IMB and NAMB are not all of the SBC and if we do things that harm local ministries to fund the national ministries, it might end up hurting us in the long run.
3. In a recent conversation, a friend who is devoted to SBC life shared a shocking idea with me. He has a deep knowledge of the workings of the SBC and was originally a strong proponent of the 50-50 goal that has become denominational orthodoxy now for state conventions. After a careful examination, he has reversed his position and now believes that the 50-50 split is damaging our convention, not helping it. It sounds great – more money for missions. But to do that, we have cut state missions and sometimes devalued associational missions, both of which have a history of adding to the vitality of Southern Baptist life and to national and international missions.
He stated that statistics show that the SBC functioned most effectively when the states kept over 60% of the pie.
When I first heard him say that, I thought he was only remembering the glory days when CP money was rolling in like a flood. The time when the pie was a lot bigger. But he gave me some statistical information that backed up his thesis. According to him, it is true in the fat years and the lean years. Throughout our history, the state/national split has been about the same, in the 60/40 range. State mission work is struggling to do more with less and things have hardly improved dramatically at the national level.
So, ought we not ask ourselves, is diminishing state and local ministry to fund national SBC ministries strategically helpful or is it hurting more than helping?
4. The GCR came out swinging against state conventions, calling them “bloated bureaucracies” and the choice was set between being missional or defending the status quo.
I talked to a man who was deeply offended at the “bloated bureaucracies” comment back then, and I asked him if it was true or false. He readily admitted that there were several of the larger state conventions that badly needed some organizational reform and probably fit the accusation.
All human institutions tend to become bloated bureaucracies if they are not managed carefully. I am not writing to defend all that was (or is) going on in state conventions or associations. But is it possible that a better strategy than gutting associational and state missions might have been to reform them? Were there paper pushers and desk-sitters in state offices who were not giving the effort they should, or were incompetent? I am sure. And some of these states had colleges, retirement homes, and other such ties that drained money and may or may not have been effective in ministry.
If there were state conventions that were not doing their job particularly well (and I’m not arguing that, I’m just admitting it might have been true) that is not a reason to abandon state missions, is it?
5. I will admit that I’ve never valued the work of associations greatly. The ones that I have been part of have largely been about having meetings and maintaining programs. I have enjoyed fellowship with other pastors but I have not seen associations that were effective in ministry. I have wondered if associations have lost their value in an internet-connected world.
But according to some of my friends, there are associations that have great missional value. They strategize to start churches. They hold one another accountable theologically. They join to serve their communities together.
If I understand Baptist history correctly, the association used to be far more important than the national convention in Baptist life. In our nationalized SBC, we value the national organization as most important, the state convention as next, and see the association as less important. Would it be better if we reversed that? Could it be that devaluing associations, weakening state conventions, and increasing the power of the national SBC entities is part of our problem?
- We are a convention of churches and the problems in our convention are problems in our churches. Everything we do must be geared toward helping churches. Since most of the churches have fewer than 500 on a Sunday morning, we need to quit gearing everything toward megachurches and do more to help the kind of churches that struggle.
- Perhaps we should seek to put the best and the brightest in local associational ministry and even seek to fund local associations. They are, well, local. They have contact with the local churches and are better situated to help with local problems – if there is capable leadership.
- Maybe we ought to rethink the wisdom of defunding state missions. Each state convention ought to seek to operate as efficiently as it can, and if there is fat, then for heaven’s sake, trim it! But the fact that some state missions has been done poorly doesn’t mean state missions have no value. Reform them instead of gutting them.
Let me say again that I realize that every point I made has a counterpoint. In reality, I am trying to offer a counterpoint to the denominational orthodoxy that has developed and been accepted almost universally. Let’s think about it and talk about it.