My dissertation probably reveals a lot about trends in my thinking. I took a century-old Baptist squabble and sought to explain how I think societal trends in the culture at large were the driving force behind the controversy. It’s not that I’m a soft-sciences pragmatist. Quite the opposite: I’m a (sometimes bombastic) theologue who regrets that culture so frequently drives the church.
So, amid everyone’s analysis of recent votes, missionary policies, and the leadership profiles of Jerry Rankin, Tom Elliff, and David Platt, I’m sitting here thinking that something much broader and less personal is the true driving factor behind the reduction of staff at the IMB.
Let’s cut to the chase: Church members expect churches to compete for their “business,” and spending to fund other people to do missionary work is, if a factor at all, not much of one in that competitive decision. That, I think, is the largest factor at work today in Southern Baptist missionary funding.
Why Is The Situation More Competitive?
Americans are moving out of rural areas and into densely-packed urban areas. The distance that people can reasonably drive to church on Sunday morning is only marginally affected by this trend (traffic can be a little worse in the city, although not usually so bad on Sunday mornings). The number of churches within that reasonable driving radius, however, explodes when a person moves from a rural village to an urban center. If you live in Gun Barrel City, TX, there are five churches affiliated with the SBTC within five miles of you. If you live in Dallas, TX, there are forty.
There’s also a difference in the nature of those churches. The five churches in Gun Barrel City are likely each unique, but the variations in size, style, and budget are probably somewhat constrained by the comparative homogeneity of the culture out of which they spring. But in Dallas, there’s everything you can imagine, from megachurches to house churches and with a wide variety of approaches to music, polity, and demographics (and even language!).
So, the population migration from Gun Barrel City to Dallas creates a more competitive situation for churches.
How Do Churches Respond to Competition?
All free churches everywhere in America tend to respond to competition by making the case to local Christians as to why they should choose to attend their congregation rather than another congregation. Major factors affecting the choice people make for a church home? Preaching, music, programming for children, and opportunities for the development of friendships are significant factors. Missions giving? Not so much. Mature believers will care about missions (and in my opinion, the more mature they are, the more they will care about it), but even a lot of seasoned believers are going to choose the church that equips them through the preaching ministry or gives better leadership to their children over the church that does those things poorly but gives sacrificially to fund missionaries.
To survive these days, your church has to have a web site. That’s a concept that would be inscrutable to your great-grandparents. And a web site costs money.
A church can improve its odds at having great preaching, great music, and good programming by spending money on those things. A good salary helps to recruit and retain strong ministerial talent. Should that matter? No. Does it? Yes. And once you get that talent on the field, they need a budget for spending to put their talents to work. Having spent some time with Eskridge and Noll, I’m prepared to reject as fallacious the equation “More Money, More Ministry,” but that there is a correlation between more money and more people (both in revenue and in expenditures, although not 1:1) is beyond refutation.
So, some churches in these urban areas have diverted missionary spending (as a percentage of budget) toward local expenditures that attract and retain congregants. Those who did so succeeded in attracting and retaining congregants. Those who consequently were losing congregants took note. Rather quickly we went from “song leaders” to paid music pastors and a panoply of staff positions. The trend went beyond the urban centers to touch even moderately sized towns. After a couple of generations, most Southern Baptists were attending multi-staff churches, and a surprising number of them were in something new called a megachurch.
Two generations earlier, for a Southern Baptist church in a village to give 5% through the Cooperative Program would be ho-hum. Today for a megachurch to give 5% counts as breathtakingly generous. And, indeed, the dollar amount of money represented in a 5% CP commitment from a megachurch is breathtaking. The churches who commit to that kind of giving are making real sacrifices to do so, because they are also trying to survive in that competitive urban environment that I described above (unless they can find a way to make missionary giving a marketing point). But no matter how much that dollar figure turns out to be, if it represents the pooling together of the gifts of people who once populated a hundred small churches giving 10%, then that enormous gift actually amounts to a net loss for the missionary agencies receiving the funding.
So, the net effect of Southern Baptist migration into cities has been the collection of more people into fewer churches that keep more of their gifts for local ministries and forward less of their gifts to worldwide missions.
I’ll go out on a limb here: I think the population migration is going to turn around before this century is ended. Expanding Internet access is going to make it easier to decentralize both work and entertainment. Wherever you pack more people, prices are going to rise for housing and staples. I think people are eventually going to want their children to know what a tree is. Also, a discernible trend toward urban violence has begun. Technological advances are making it a little cheaper for smaller churches to have a web site, a video podcast, and a cutting-edge worship service.
But even while people pack more densely into the urban centers, an opportunity exists for pastors to make things like Cooperative Program support an item that they tout in inviting members into their fellowships. Maybe we all ought to put something about our level of missionary support prominently on our church web sites? Perhaps we can use marketing to motivate a race to the top rather than a race to the bottom in terms of Cooperative Program support among Southern Baptists?
In any event, we would all do well to factor into our discussions about personalities and policies some sort of a nod to the fact that these men and women are, to some degree, being carried along by the floodwaters of major societal trends—trends over which 10,000 “little guys” may have more power than does any solitary “great man.” That’s my belief, and that’s why I’m trying to use my little bit of influence to convince local churches to place a greater priority upon support of the Cooperative Program.