I’m sitting here, perusing the Baptist Press article regarding NAMB President Kevin Ezell’s goal of seeing 55,901 Southern Baptist congregations by the end of 2020. Especially telling is the closing paragraph of that article, which gives us this information:
Ezell said within the Southern Baptist Convention in 1900 in America, there was one SBC church for every 3,900 people. Today, there is one SBC church for every 6,700. In Mississippi, there is one SBC congregation for every 1,400 people. In Canada, there is one congregation for every 124,000; in New Jersey, one congregation for every 76,000; and in New York, only one SBC congregation for every 60,000. (www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=36411&ref=BPNews-RSSFeed1025, accessed October 25, 2011)
Now, the one criticism I would give that goal is I would prefer to see the word “Church” and not “congregation,” but that’s based on my own views of multi-site churches and local church autonomy, which are best dealt with another day. Instead, let’s take a look at that and see what needs to happen to get there.
A lot needs to happen. Ezell gives the standard ideas of planting more churches, spending more money, being more creative. He states that “we have to pull out all the stops.” So, here’s a crazy-talk idea for the SBC, our churches, our pastors, NAMB, and whoever wants to shred it as a terrible idea:
Given the ratio of congregations to people, we have an obvious drastic imbalance acrossNorth America. I doubt that anyone would suggest the way to balance the numbers is to reduce churches in the South—1 for every 1400 in Mississippi shows that there’s plenty of ground to reach down here, too. The solution is certainly to plant more churches, both inMississippi,New Jersey, andCanada. (New York, once they get rid of the Yankees 🙂 )
Here is my suggestion: find some way that is compatible with local church autonomy to re-allocate the ministerial staff and pastors that overpopulate the South. We have a shortage of churches but no shortage of ministerial personnel. While we could spend some time hashing through the resource expenditure that all of our specialty positions at big churches, I’ll focus on people like, well, me.
I’m the full-time pastor of a small, rural Southern Baptist Church. It’s a great group of folks that have, over the years, witnessed to their neighbors a multitude of times. And it’s a static community: there’s not much coming into town, only plenty of going. I prepare sermons, teach lessons, visit the occasional hospital, preach the occasional funeral, do the occasional wedding, and refer the occasional person to a licensed professional counselor. I also strive to reach the community, but “I ain’t from ’round here” yet, and it’s slow going. There’s much that I do, but little of it that couldn’t be done by church members if they knew what to do and how to do it.
In short, I’m almost superfluous. The church loves me, they’re glad I’m here, and they’re happy for me to spend my days studying, reading, writing, and deer hunting. But the reality is that I am spending my time doing what the men of this church could do just as well without me if they were willing. And I would hazard a guess that, based on anecdotes and life experiences, the same is true of more than just me.
We should set a goal that pastors in similar situations, as well as half the pastorally-eligible (read: those who are biblically qualified to preach) staff ministers at multi-staff churches, phase out of where they are in the next 5 years and relocated to unreached areas. Some could go international, but spread most acrossAmerica, where passports/visas/international travel isn’t an issue.
During the next 5 years, we should train our churches to self-replicate disciples and train up elders to teach in the church. Further, we prepare our churches to contribute 90% of what they have been spending on salaries to the direct church-planting/establishment budget at either NAMB or a target state convention. The remaining 10% would be redirected to the association, which would maintain a full-time Associational Missionary that would help provide continuing encouragement, crisis assistance, and training for the local churches that operate with volunteer leadership. These churches remain autonomous and congregational. They simply utilize a rotation of internal men to preach and teach, just as is done for Sunday School and whatever else within the church.
The reallocated pastors would serve to establish and strengthen church-plants in other areas. If those churches grow to a self-sustaining status, then the pastor would remain as he feels led. If the churches grow to the size of many current churches, the pastor works to train leadership and move to a new area.
Certainly. Impossible too.
But consider what you see in Titus: “For this cause I left thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every cit, as I had appointed thee” followed by “be diligent to come unto me.” (Titus 1:5,3:12) Further, what Acts and the Epistles seem to show of the early church is this: a small group of committed men spread the Gospel, raised up local leaders to handle the churches that grew up, and then moved on. The apostles and the next generation (Timothy, Titus) remained available to help and correct issues within the churches, but there is precious little in the Bible that indicates that all churches everywhere need full-time paid staff.
Why not reconsider the whole structure and system and find a way to make it work?
Certainly the autonomous nature of the local church is an issue in this, likewise ensuring appropriate pastoral care and seeking teaching of sound doctrine are a concern. Yet full-time pastors are no guarantee of these issues, are we?
We’re talking about reaching people that are going to hell, here, folks. Surely that’s more important than the preacher having time to parse every last Hebrew word in the sermon text, isn’t it? How many missionaries would this create in North American Southern Baptist work?
And yes, while I’m not certain that it will stick that the church I currently serve will stay with local leadership in the coming years, my personal efforts are related to this post. How it will look will be something you can ask in a few years, because right now a lot remains to be developed.