How big is your church?
Small? Medium-sized? Large? Mega?
How many baptisms? How much money do you take in? How much money do you give? How much money do you give to the Cooperative Program? How many were in church last Sunday? What kind of impact are your making? How many have you led to Christ? How hard are you working? What are the results? The measurables? How effective is your leadership?
We did everything “right.” Why didn’t we see the same success as the church down the street? Why are they “stealing” our people? Who do they think they are? They’re just growing because the preacher waters down the gospel. We’re staying pure. But, why did my friends leave my church to go to THAT church? Maybe we need to change?
We need to reach people for Christ. We used to have kids here, but now we don’t. We need to reach young people so they can help the church be strong. We need “good families” who will work, serve, and give. Why don’t they work and serve like we did? We need a better pastor. A younger pastor. An older pastor. We need to grow. But, not that way. Not too much. Not too little.
I want a church that is good for me and my family. We need a church that reaches families. That reaches people like me. That reaches people in the community, but not too much. Not too fast. But, big and like before. Like years ago. But, for the future. Like I like. But, like my kids will want to come. And the grandkids. And, everybody. But, like I like.
And, we all need to do everything through the Cooperative Program and our State Conventions and entities. But, we’re not changing those. And, they aren’t doing anything different. But, we still need to work through them. Or, we need to do our own thing.
Why isn’t this working? Why have Southern Baptists lost 1.1 million members since 2010 when the majority of our churches are in the fastest growing, most populous region of the country, the US South? What can we do to grow? How do we have revival? Maybe our current struggles will finally be the springboard to the revival we need so we can get back to what we once were?
All of these questions are related to a deeper question: How do we get our power back? While we talk about good things, our motives can easily be more focused on self-preservation than loving people sacrificially.
These are all things I’ve heard A LOT over the past 15-20 years in ministry across the country with Southern Baptists and other evangelicals. People say it and they see nothing wrong with it. It all makes sense. The great danger in “ministry” is that we can talk about evangelism, church growth, revival, church effectiveness, ministry, leadership, and church planting without ever having an ounce of love for people or desire for Christ. It can all just be social maintenance for ourselves. It can be arranging church, our own lives, our finances, and our politics so we protect, promote, and preserve our own “way of life.” And, a desire for power and control is at the root of it.
I’ve been pushing hard over the past few years for greater ethnic and racial diversity in SBC leadership. Writing, speaking, submitting motions and resolutions, recruiting candidates … all kinds of things. My friend Brent Hobbs and I have started the SBC Leadership Diversity Initiative to provide a user-friendly way for people to nominate ethnically diverse leaders for trustees and other committees. When I heard that 67 of 69 trustee nominees this year were white, I was really disappointed because I really want to see access to leadership expand to all Southern Baptists. Lots of discussion erupted over why this happened. Some were claiming that racism was still alive and well in the SBC. Others, in defense, were saying that the issue was just that those nominating were not aware of who others were nominating and they just nominated who they knew. The problem, it was said, was a lack of relationships.
But, I think the problem is deeper. I think that we often nominate leaders based on who we think will preserve the status quo, keep our hard-fought gains from being lost, protect us from our enemies, and be loyal to “us” and the institution. That all makes sense and is a normal motivation on a human/tribal level, but when those are the things we think about, and we only have confidence in people we know, we end up nominating leaders that we believe will promote, protect, and defend our own agendas and perspective. Choosing almost all white people for leadership doesn’t necessarily mean that we are racists. It might just mean that we have confidence in people who are “like us” and whom we’ve known well for long periods of time. Again, that makes sense from a human level. But, it is all totally contrary to the Mission of God. And, that perspective leads to death.
Southern Baptists have always been in conflict with ourselves. On the one hand, we have the person and work of Jesus, the gospel, mission, evangelism, God’s Word, loving God, and loving people. Those are real influences and are real things at work in our midst. But, the other side, with us from the beginning, manifests in getting our own way, dividing from others, disagreement, turf battles, self-protection, building platforms, triumphalism, pride, arrogance, rejecting any criticism, power plays, etc. It is right to say that the SBC was founded BOTH on a defense of the right to own slaves as a “way of life” as well as a desire to cooperate in mission. The desire to protect our “way of life” has remained with us, though it obviously manifests in different forms from in the past. And, the desire to engage in mission together remains with us as well. One, as Martin Luther would say, is a theology of glory meant to exalt and defend ourselves, while the other, is a theology of the Cross that throws ourselves upon Jesus as our only hope.
Southern Baptists are at a crossroads. That has been said ad nauseum. But, I hope that there will be no talk of “revival” or “our best days are ahead of us” at this time. I hope that we will stop with the triumphalism, the talk of evangelism just in the realm of numbers, and that we will put aside the clamoring for “ministry effectiveness.” All of that can be good if it comes from union with Christ and love for others, but it is deadly when it is rooted in a desire to be powerful and significant again. Only the reader can know what his/her motivation actually is. I accuse no one specifically. I can’t know individual hearts. But, I can see trends and these two competing forces are always at work. We desperately need to turn to Christ and to our neighbor in sacrificial love.
Matthew 16:24-26 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?
Philippians 2:3-4 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
As my friend, Pastor K. Marshall Williams says, what we need most is a Great Commandment Resurgence – a resurgence of love for God and neighbor that will transform us. We need to learn again, in humility, how to love God deeply and love our neighbor sacrificially. That means that we lay our lives down in love for others with no thought of how we will gain from it, no positioning for power, and no desire to increase our platform for future ministry effectiveness. We just love one other and others and even our enemies because Christ loved us first. We need to learn to lament. We must break our addiction to power, size, numbers, and grasping for influence and for a “seat at the table.” Doing this causes us to compromise our own lives for anyone who promises us access to power, no matter how compromised they themselves might be. We must forsake “the end justifies the means” theology and seek the true End, Jesus Christ. And, we must actually lay our lives down and love our neighbor, even if we utterly fail at building a great church or ministry or recapturing cultural power. We must love our neighbor and our enemy because we know that God loves them, they have inherent worth and value, and because we cannot imagine any other way to follow Jesus.
Southern Baptists have to stop living and ministering with strings attached. We have to stop trying to save our reputations and protect our “hard fought gains” and hoping that revival will come so we can quickly get to where we want to be. We need to stop idolizing the Conservative Resurgence as history and get on with living out the truth of God’s inerrant Word in how we treat the people that Jesus died for. We need to see women as co-heirs with Christ and as vital to the Mission of God being fulfilled. We need to see all people from every tribe, race, people, and tongue as essential and vital to us ALL being the church that Jesus died for – TOGETHER. Leadership needs to be defined by those who take the lesser seat, go outside the camp, and lay their lives down rather than who has the biggest ministry and platform and speaks at all the conferences. Dear God, does that grasping for power and platform need to end!
And, if we look around the room and we don’t see brothers and sisters from all backgrounds, walks of life, regions, and ethnicities, we need to grieve because it is a sign that we are not preaching or living the gospel of the Kingdom that calls all people to Christ and knits us all together in one body. And, if members of the body are missing, for whatever reason, we need to know that we are all weaker.
The Mission of God has to take precedence over preserving our own “way of life.” The Cross has to win out over a desire for glory. Love for God and neighbor has to be greater than our addiction to power so we can make a name for ourselves. This battle has raged within us since 1845. It has raged since the Garden of Eden. Fortunately, Jesus loves us enough to call us to Himself and He calls us to lay down our lives for Him who died for them and to compel us by love to go to them. May we listen.
The only thing that can break our addiction to worldly power is the Cross of Christ. We need Jesus. And, the right and good kind of power that we need comes from God as we die to ourselves and is to be used to build people up in their faith and strengthen them for the good work that God has prepared in advance for them to do. May that be our focus.