The future is a major topic of discussion in most churches these days.  Most of the discussion centers on what it will look like, or if, in their current form of existence, individual churches and denominations will even have much of one.  That we are on the cusp of some kind of paradigm shift in Christian expression and practice in our culture goes without saying.  What it will eventually look like, and how it will affect the institutions, churches, and denominational groupings of today, who can say?  There are as many opinions about that as there are people who are talking about it.

The natural tendency is to “do something.”  Baptists, especially those who have organized themselves into denominational layers and groupings, still push for the program approach.  The recent edition of Texas Baptist Committed’s newsletter contains an article by Bill Jones, the communications editor, regarding a joint effort with the BGCT, holding meetings around the state to inform people about the services offered by the BGCT and show people how they can get personally involved in supporting them.  That’s a reflection of the typical Baptist approach to such things for quite some time.  Perhaps, at some point in the past, it worked, which is why we keep doing it. 

The problem in the BGCT, which has led to the steady decline in Cooperative Program support, isn’t lack of information regarding its ministries, programs and entities.  The problem is that churches are leaving at a fairly steady rate, and have stopped contributing to the Cooperative Program through the BGCT when they departed.  The original strategy, organizing to protect the convention and its institutions from creeping “fundamentalism,” succeeded in preventing the trustee boards and convention committees from being “taken over” by those individuals from churches which were involved in the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence.  In the long run, however, the organization put in place to prevent those takeovers turned to using some of the same tactics they once criticized the fundamentalists for using, and became as entrenched a bureaucracy as they accused the fundamentalists of being. 

Failing to recognize that this really was a conflict involving different perspectives with regard to basic doctrinal beliefs, including the debate over the nature of scripture, BGCT leadership moved too far to the left of the doctrinal spectrum too soon, taking refuge among those who were the most vocal opponents of the Conservative Resurgence, but among those who were much further to the left than the vast majority of the rank and file of Texas Baptists.  Hence, even though “moderates” were able to hang on to control of the BGCT’s leadership, they have also presided over a steady stream of churches leaving the BGCT for the “rival” state convention, the SBTC, more than 2,000 to date, at a rate of about 50 per quarter including both dually and uniquely aligned churches. 

It’s not too hard to see what the future will look like at that rate.  Nor is it difficult to figure out that a series of statewide meetings will most likely not produce the desired results.

In another article in the same publication, Texas Baptists:  A Network, Not a Denomination, the author alludes to a post-denominational age, pointing out that “mainline denominations are losing people faster than they can count.”  That is true, though for American mainliners, it has been happening since the early 1960’s.  The main reason for it, in just about any honest evaluation, has been the liberal, leftward drift of denominational leadership.  Most mainline apologists and church researchers have provided some documentation of this, though most Baptists were made aware of it through the numbers of people from mainline churches who joined their ranks in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and even into the 90’s from mainline churches.  In the singles group in the megachurch to which I once belonged, the transfers accounted for perhaps as many as half of the baptisms, since the church’s policy required immersion upon joining if the prospective member had been sprinkled. 

Though our Baptist ancestors in America were most definitely non-credal, the fact of the matter is that they would not ever have imagined that any Baptist preacher would ever question the authority and veracity of the Bible, nor that any Baptist church would ever tolerate such questioning.  Nor is it hard to imagine their reaction if such teaching had emerged in their day.  The historical record is pretty clear on how Baptists responded to teachings that they viewed as “heresy.” 

I don’t think any of the well-thought-out, well reasoned, academically sound, emotionally pure solutions that we can come up with are going to help us resolve the problems that have brought us to the place where we now find ourselves.  No solution of human origin, from a series of state wide meetings to increase awareness, to taking the name Baptist off the church sign, to throwing out the organ and piano and adding drums, electric guitars and keyboards, will resolve the future for us.

If we are going to honestly look at the future, we need to give serious thought to some serious questions.  By and large, the young people who are being raised in our churches, and those of virtually every other denomination and faith tradition, including non-denominational, non-connectional churches, are not being shuffled around as they look for some place to fit.  They are simply leaving the church altogether.  In droves.  And so far, in spite of a few spots in a few places where a few churches have attracted some of the exiting droves, they are not coming back.  So the question that we need to be asking, which bears on the future is “Why?” 

The second question, perhaps the hardest one to ask, is not “What do we do about it?”  It is “Lord, what changes need to be made in my heart, in my life, in my church, in order for your Spirit to return?”

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About LS

I'm 56, happily married for 25 years, B.A., M.A., career educator with experience in education as a teacher and administrator, native Arizonan living in Pennsylvania, working on a PhD and a big fan of the Arizona Wildcats, mainly in football and basketball.

10 responses

  1. Ken Coffee says:

    Lee, I would be interested in where you got your statistics about the BGCT losing 60 churches a quarter. When I read that I contacted Clay Price, the Research Director at the BGC T. Here is his response: “It’s very hard to track details of church change at any given moment so I use our annual snapshot taken at each year’s ACP—the “official” counts that appear in our Annuals. Last year the BGCT saw the lowest number of dropped churches since 1996. From 2007 to 2008 we lost only 90 congregations: 65 disbanded, 18 left BGCT to align with SBTC, 5 withdrew (became Independent as best we know), and 2 merged. The 18 moving to SBTC was the smallest number we have seen since 1998 when SBTC was formed. For comparison, the BGCT lost 224 churches from 2006 to 2007: 124 disbanded, 71 aligned with SBTC, 10 withdrew, and 19 merged. From a positive perspective, the BGCT added 278 congregations in 2007 and 133 congregations in 2008. I have stats going back to 1995 if you need more detail. I have just finished an extensive look at church change in the BGCT. It is a remarkable tale—astounding in many ways.”

    Your otherwise insightful look is diminished a bit by utilizing dubious statistics.

  2. Ken Coffee says:

    Pardon the typo. I meant to type 50 curches a quarter.

  3. Lee says:

    Ken,
    My stats come from the SBTC’s quarterly report, which they publish in their paper, the Southern Baptist Texan. The numbers they list there correspond to the number of records which they list for affiliated churches on their website. I’ve watched this for a while, and the numbers continue to correspond. They are adding between 12 and 20 new church starts each quarter, and increasing their number of affiliated churches by between 55 and 70 churches. What other source would they have for new churches, except plants and BGCT churches?

    The BGCT records only account for churches which choose to uniquely align with the SBTC. Dually affiliated churches are still counted and included in the BGCT statistics, so it is likely that many of the churches the SBTC is picking up would be dual affiliates, though their CP gifts are likely reduced by splitting them between the two conventions. In light of recent events in the BGCT, with regard to new church plants, I have a little bit of trouble trusting their numbers.

    • Ken Coffee says:

      Lee, if you have trouble trusting BGCT numbers, you obviously do not know Clay Price. There is not a more honest researcher alive. His integrity is way beyond question, but you are essentially calling him a liar. You should get to know this great Christian gentleman.

      • Lee says:

        Clay Price only works with what’s been submitted. People in the Baptist Building counted and reported several hundred church plants in the Valley several years ago. They work with what they see on paper.

        I got my info from the SBTC’s quarterly report in the Southern Baptist Texan. Churches that are dually affiliated with both conventions would obviously not be dropped from the BGCT’s statistics, which accounts for the discrepancy.

        Looking at the CP giving tells the whole story. Over the last five years, the BGCT’s giving has dropped between 3 and 6% each year from the previous year’s total. Cumulatively, that’s a 25% decline in giving since 2000. This year, if current trends continue, BGCT churches will give approximately $38 million in CP gifts, compared to almost $52 million in 2000. That’s giving, not investment income. Comparatively, across the SBC, CP gifts are off about 2.5% from the record total, but up about 8% over what was given in 2000.

        I do not understand the “bury our head in the sand” routine when it comes to the BGCT. The drain of churches to the other state convention is a serious problem that needs to be acknowledged and addressed, instead of this “yipee, only 18 churches completely abandoned our convention and mission to join the other convention this year!” The fact that another state convention has formed, and has become one of the largest state conventions cooperating with the SBC in just a decade of existence, mainly because of the sheer number of BGCT churches that have either dually affiliated or completely switched is an indication of gigantic problems and major dysfunction within the BGCT’s leadership. If major adjustments are not made, the BGCT will eventually shrink down to the handful of churches that support TBC and CBF. It will be hard to sustain nine colleges and a military academy, and a whole load of partnership ministries with CBF and BWA on what’s left.

  4. Chuck says:

    My church wrote Dr. Wade just before his retirement, informing him of our change from dual-affiliation to unique SBTC affiliation, but it was never acknowledged, and I continue to see us listed in the contribution reports–$0 to Cooperative Program where had once been a top-10 giving church.

    So, I wouldn’t place too much faith in Dallas’ church count either.

  5. Colby Evans says:

    The BGCT added 278 congregations in 2007, but just 133 in 2008. Big difference there. Perhaps a little hangover from all those church plants in the Valley? My uncle’s church, Dixie Drive in Houston, is still counted in BGCT stats, but they are uniquely aligned with the SBTC. I’m sure the record keeping is a nightmare for both groups. One thing Baptists can lay claim to their credit is the numbers game. But you’re right about the future. If Baptist leaders are going to continue to try to figure out what they can do to keep their younger people from leaving the churches, and continue to try to solve those problems on their own, they have no future.

  6. Colby Evans says:

    Actually, I didn’t necessarily want to turn the conversation in the direction of whether or not the BGCT is accurate in its reflection of lost churches.

    “Why?” is exactly the right question to ask regarding the loss of young people raised in the church. As a young person raised in the church, I can answer that question from my perspective. Churches have become so consumer oriented that their programming and ministry aimed at children and youth is exactly for that purpose–consumer orientation. Churches have essentially become religious amusement parks, with high dollar programs and expensive props designed to “get them to come” and when we are in our teenage years, “keep them coming.” At least, the megachurches with the megabucks to buy all the props and staff all the programs do this. As we transition from youth to adulthood, we expect the same treatment. The expectation of us, in turn, is for us to show up with some regularity, purchase the display of religious products and services offered in the book-video-music arena so that the high profile, high dollar entertainers a.k.a. pastors and church leaders can be compensated in the manner to which they feel entitled, and do some free advertising for them among those who are still, for whatever reason, committed to the churches where real ministry is taking place, and real service opportunities are present. Every now and then, for prestige publicity, we want some of our more prominent members, namely those who can afford it and enough of them so that the pastor can go as leader and get his trip paid for, to go to some exotic location on a “mission trip” to give the impression that something ministry wise is actually happening in the church. And of course, we are useful as long as we can write checks to help pay for the pile of expensive toys and trips, and underwrite the prominent, celebrity pastor’s undertakings.

    It’s no wonder 85% of the young people who were raised in church and active in their youth group during high school are gone by the time they finish college. There is nothing of substance or spiritual challenge being offered.

  7. Ernie says:

    Not all existing churches that are joinging with the SBTC are coming from the BGCT. I do believe a large majority probably are but in our area we are also seeing some BMA churches affiliating with SBC, SBTC and our local association. While state wide this is probably a small number it would still impact the totals.

  8. Lee says:

    I didn’t realize that individual BMA churches were affiliating with the SBTC. I had heard that they were working out some kind of agreement, or perhaps even a merger, between the two groups and I know the SBTC has some kind of relationship with Jacksonville College. If individual BMA congregations are joining the SBTC, then that would skew the statistics, though it doesn’t explain why the BGCT continues to see annual drop offs from previous year’s CP giving.

    And Baptists getting together is a good thing.