Thom Rainer posted an article last week called “When Great Churches Fail.” It was an intriguing examination of once great churches that had lost their grip an begun to struggle and dwindle. He identified three key elements that seem to be common elements in these declines.
Hubris. The word means pride or excessive self-confidence. Here it refers to church leaders who have seen great days at their churches, and who are convinced that their churches are the models for others to emulate. They talk about the methods they used, instead of the biblical principles and passions behind the methods. Since theirs was such an effective church in the past, the leaders see little need to do things differently today.
Denial. It’s a characteristic of church leaders of fallen churches. They simply don’t want to face the facts. The church is not as evangelistic as it once was. People are not growing in the Word as in the past. Expectations are lower, and so is morale.
Nostalgia. Most churches have a period in their history that stands out above others. But some churches still live in that period though it’s long past. Nostalgia is fine if it is simply the act of fond memories. Nostalgia is sinful if it keeps the church from moving forward in Great Commission obedience.
In Iowa, our definitions are different. A Southern Baptist church in Iowa that runs more than 200 on Sunday is a megachurch by our standards. If a church goes over 100, the Hallelujah Chorus rings out across the state. We are a small group. But we have seen plenty of churches that once were great (by Iowa standards) and have since either folded completely or are paddling hard just to keep their heads above water. And these three items – hubris, denial and nostalgia – are often evident. We become enamored of our own supposed greatness, we deny the existence of problems and we focus on the past instead of facing the future.
I wonder if some of these same problems are markers of the current life of the SBC.
Hubris: I love the SBC, but can there be doubt that at time we have been self-important and arrogant at times? I have been in strategy meetings where we talk about “unentered counties” which have no Baptist church as if there is no gospel presence there. In Iowa, there are some counties with some great Evangelical Free, or Baptist churches of other stripes, or independent Bible churches that have a strong g0spel presence.
We are not the only boat fishing in the lake and we may not even be the best. We must realize that while God has done much through us as a convention, we may not have quite the place in the Kingdom that we have imagined.
Denial: I heard this one often in the early days of the reform movement in the SBC. There’s nothing wrong here. We are a good convention an all is well. Then, the numbers started to turn.
A cancer patient often feels healthy long after the disease starts to spread through the body. Often, symptoms are ignored or misunderstood until it is too late. The SBC may be exhibiting some signs of spiritual disease even though we are still vibrant in many ways. We are so splintered and divided it is hard for me to see a future of missions partnership. As the needs in the world grow greater, individual Baptists are keeping more and more of their money for themselves and investing less and less in the Kingdom. And churches are investing less and less into missions efforts. An inward focus is one of the first signs of a dying church – if its about us its not about Christ, is it?
The SBC is not dead, but I think there are some real problems we would do well not to ignore.
Nostalgia: Oh, those good old days. I remember hearing one man talk about his athletic career. “The older I get, the better I used to be!” I think the future of the SBC is threatened by the obsessive nostalgia of many in the SBC.
To hear some people talk, all we have to do to solve our problems is to go backwards to the good old days and to do things the way we used to do them in the 50s and 60s – the SBC’s days of glory. I’m all for looking back at the early church and trying, as best we can, to replicate the way things were done in that church, but I think that our obsessive looking back 50 years is an unhealthy nostalgia.
The world has changed. Attitudes and morals have changed. Our culture is very different than it was in my childhood days. If we insist on looking back, we will not go forward. God is infinitely creative and is not dependent on the same old strategies and programs. Every program the SBC had in those good old days that worked was once someone’s innovative idea. Who is to say that those old ways from the old days were the last creative innovations God would ever have?
We preach a very old message – and that should never change. Our doctrine should not change with the changing times. But our methods, our strategies and our approaches to engage this culture with the eternal gospel must be ever-open to change.
You can’t walk forward with your head always looking behind.
There is a rack of ribs at Texas Roadhouse that is calling to me. So, you can share your thoughts on this as you will. But I think that there is a real danger that the SBC could follow the course of once-great churches that have lost ground and become a once-great denomination.
What say you?