We discuss a lot of issues about what has gone wrong in the SBC. When I first started blogging, we were still experiencing minimal growth and we could argue that while we are not exactly in our halcyon days when the SBC was busting at the seams, we were not doing as badly as “those guys.” That bubble has burst. We’ve had nearly a decade of consistently poor statistical reports revealing declines in most of the numbers we care about. We’ve had systemic divisions over soteriological viewpoints and a host of other issues, scandals that rocked us to the core, and general denominational malaise. I doubt that there is anyone today that wants to argue that these are the golden days of the SBC.
And so we opine on social media. What can the SBC do to fix its problems? What can IMB do? What can NAMB do? What can the EC do? LifeWay, the ERLC, the seminaries – how can they contribute?
- Every year, just before the Annual Meeting, the ACP statistical report is released and all the sharp objects have to be hidden. We are a convention in statistical decline and there’s no way around that conclusion. What can the SBC do to reverse that reality?
- Once, it was considered standard for SBC churches to give at least 10% to missions through the CP. The national average was over that number, was it not? Now it hovers around 5% and the trend is not encouraging. I don’t have the latest figures but I believe this is pretty close to accurate.
- For the first time I remember, we had to significantly reduce our mission force overseas. We were well over 5000 missionaries, and now we hover, I believe, below 4000. Slipping CP giving has necessitated a smaller IMB missionary force.
- In the last year or so, the #metoo scandal that has been simmering for a decade or two boiled over onto the front pages. We had to come face to face with the fact that in our small churches and in megachurches, in schools and in entities, women and children had been used in unspeakable ways that should never happen in the Body of Christ and instead of ministering to the victims, Baptists often acted to protect the abusers.
- We read statistical studies that the majority of SBC churches are plateaued and declining, that thousands (tens of thousands?) go year after year after year without reaching anyone with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
- We have a plethora of problems in the SBC, enough to satisfy El Guapo. We have racial divisions that have plagued us since our genesis and while progress has been made, it is slow, unsatisfying, and resisted by many. We are divided and have seen a level of nastiness in some circles of the SBC that is contrary to Christ, grieves the Spirit of God and hinders our work. Look at our interactions on Twitter and wonder whether the Savior is pleased. I could continue to list problems, but I think it suffices to say we have no shortage of challenges.
We look to our denominational structure and ask, “What are you going to do about it?” How will they fix these problems? How will they repair our statistical decline, our CP malaise, our declining missionary force? Our president and his blue-ribbon Sexual Abuse Workgroup have been hard at work, but after all of the recent discussions, we are still searching for answers. How do we prevent abuse and minister to the abused? We wonder what the denomination is doing, where the solutions are, and why they have taken so long.
And we do look to the leaders of our entities and our convention to accomplish certain things.
- We ask our two main entities, IMB and NAMB, to coordinate a worldwide missions program. There have been financial restraints and leadership turnover at the IMB, but all in all, these two entities are still our flagships and the reasons we cooperate. Both have good leaders now and bright futures, we pray. But the challenges of ministering in this world are not going to get simpler. Almost 75% of our budget goes to these efforts.
- We have entrusted our seminaries with a theological system and expect them to provide a quality theological education to train our pastors and church leaders. We went through the Conservative Resurgence because we saw the theological drift occurring in our seminaries (some more than others) and even recently have been concerned by the goings on at some of the schools. But in the last decade, the perennial seat of dysfunction in Kansas City has become our fastest growing school, Southern has continued to be our flagship, Southeastern has forged a place of prominence and respect, and Golden Gate continues its work out west. Southwestern has just undergone a transition that was tumultuous, to say the least, but gives hope of a true renaissance. And New Orleans is now in a time of transition which we hope will lead to a prosperous future as well. We put roughly 23% of our budget into theological education, and in general, it is well spent.
- We have the EC to coordinate and administrate our work, the ERLC to advise us on moral issues and to speak to those issues in the world. We have LifeWay to produce materials to assist our churches.
- At our Annual Meeting, we adopt resolutions, pass motions, hold elections, and do other important things. What we do at the meeting matters.
Our entities exist to serve churches and seek to do it. Sometimes, they do it well and sometimes they need to improve. Sometimes, our Annual Meetings accomplish great things (I thought last year’s was particularly effective), and sometimes they are less so. But the work of our entities will never solve the problems of our convention. The Executive Committee can do some good things, but it can never reverse our statistical decline. Our seminaries can seek constantly to be more effective in accomplishing their task of training future leaders for our churches, but they cannot solve the issues that plague us. Paul Chitwood and Kevin Ezell can work hard and work well, and we will see people won to Christ, our missions force increase, and churches planted. But they cannot reverse our decline.
The Southern Baptist Convention is a fellowship of autonomous churches who partner to do missions together. Our problems exist primarily at the local church level and the solutions are local church solutions.
I am not absolving the SBC of responsibility. Our entities need to improve and do better in every way they can. They need to adjust and strategize and reinvent themselves and do whatever it takes to serve the churches of the SBC. But our problems are not convention problems they are church problems and they will be solved at the church level, not the convention level.
1. The SBC baptized the SAME number of people this year that it baptized last year. ZERO. It baptizes no one. Churches baptize people (or don’t). Mark Tolbert of the Caskey Center shared with me the results of a stunning study that had been done recently to figure out why people were not responding to the Gospel in Baptist churches. Guess what? The simple fact is that many churches do not bother to evangelize their communities and the vast majority of “Christians” today do not ever tell anyone about faith in Jesus.
Can I share something with you? If no one tells people about the saving grace of Jesus, people are unlikely to get saved. (We can argue over the efficacy of the invitation, but if you don’t actually tell people about Jesus’ saving grace, that is not acceptable – Calvinist, Arminian, or anything in between.)
2. How do we fix the trend of churches giving less to the Cooperative Program? Well, it is both complicated and simple. I do not have an easy solution to motivate churches to give more, but the solution is for my church to increase its mission percentage. My small to medium-sized church increases its percentage, and yours does, and another and another, and suddenly the CP is up!
The EC can promote CP giving and the other entities can provide an excellence that people desire to invest in, but the solution is at my local church.
3. What about abuse? Others can debate the idea of a national database, and people can criticize autonomy all they want, but the fact is that churches are autonomous. The SBC can create any program it wants, any database it desires, but it is up to my local church to decide to enact policies and follow them when the time comes. We did that about a decade ago, without being told to do so by the convention. Of course, schools and entities have to have policies and procedures and follow them, and there are things our convention can do – I support that. But ultimately, the solution is a local church solution. Will my church act to protect the abused or the abuser? Will we keep our policies up to date and follow them? Will we act to protect our reputation or to minister to those who have been injured? Those are local church decisions that the SBC cannot make for us.
It is odd that a convention of small-government conservatives often looks to the “federal” SBC for solutions to all of our problems. We should know better. Our polity is not an excuse, it is a conviction. Look, I am not pointing fingers, I am making a confession. (I really hope none of my people read this!) My church was once a growing church that has been through some rough times. I will not give a rundown of the issues at our church, but it is badly in need of “revitalization” – something I’ve been trying to do for years.
My only point is that the solution for the problems of the SBC rests not in Nashville or Richmond or Alpharetta or Ft. Worth or Louisville or, frankly, in any of the nearly 200 megachurches across our convention. It rests in churches like mine. We need to reach people, baptize people, increase our giving, and be more focused every day on the mission. I write at this blog to influence the SBC, but the most important thing I can do to affect the future of the SBC is to pastor my church well and to be God’s tool in revitalizing them!
The problems of the SBC are local church problems and the solutions are local church solutions. The SBC cannot fix these problems. God working in my church can!