The above link is to an article on a blog written by Les Puryear, a pastor in Lewisville, North Carolina who is probably one of the most pro-active advocates for small churches that Southern Baptists have. You’ve probably never heard of him, and that’s probably because he pastors a small church, one with fewer than 500 people in attendance on any given Sunday morning, in a small town. The work he does is just as important as the work of any other pastor or church leader, regardless of the size of their church, but we live in a culture that measures success by standards other than those found in the Bible. Yes, even in the church we do that. And that’s exactly why someone like Les has come up with this initiative.
Something like 83% of the churches that are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention fall into the “small” category, while over 70% of the denominational leadership comes from churches that are outside that category, including an inordinate number of individuals who lead what we have come to call “megachurches.” Depending on whose standard you use to measure it, these are churches with more than 1,500 people present in their regular worship services on any given Sunday. The leaders of these churches are highly visible due to the size of their congregation and the ability that they have to expand their ministry through the media. They have the financial resources not only to make sure that their pastors and leaders are present in the convention meetings where decisions are made, but also to use when a little bit of influence needs to be applied to move a particular agenda in their direction.
Small church pastors and leaders are at a distinct disadvantage in the SBC system as it is currently set up. They don’t get the name recognition necessary to get votes at a convention. Many churches simply do not have the resources to pay for their pastor and his wife to attend a convention, especially when it is at some distance from their community, or when it is in some overpriced location. As a result, though their churches provide the lion’s share of the Cooperative Program contributions, and contain the bulk of the total membership of convention-affiliated churches, they are generally left out of the loop when it comes to denominational leadership.
This isn’t a new problem in the SBC. In his memoir on the SBC’s conservative resurgence, Grady Cothen unwittingly documents the narrowness and exclusivity of the pre-1979 convention leadership, consisting mostly of pastors and leaders from the mid-sized congregations in the cities and suburbs, and the “First Baptist” churches in larger towns. Cothen whines about individuals who had, in his perspective, “paid their dues” and were entitled to be nominated, including his own wife, but were passed over, even after only serving one of the traditional two terms because they were not aligned with the conservatives. Few of those individuals were from the smaller churches of the convention.
The real question here is not whether a “Majority Initiative” to increase the representation of smaller churches in the denominational leadership can succeed. The current system (if you can call it that) in place for choosing SBC leadership, a narrow, cliquish, exclusive way of doing business where a small fraction of individuals from fewer than 10% of the churches choose all of the institutional trustees, executive board and officers fits well in choosing leadership based on who you know rather than what you can do, has been designed to thwart attempts to change it. What we wouldn’t tolerate in government, we celebrate and perpetuate as Baptists, an oligarchy of the elite, most of whom lead without even thinking about any other constituency in the denomination except those who think like they do. It is not possible to change it, and as a result of that, it is not possible for very many individuals from smaller churches to become involved in it.
The real question is what kind of differences would be visible in the SBC if smaller churches were proportionately represented among the convention’s leadership.
I think the SBC would not be recognizeable in comparsion to what it is today if that were the case.
It would be much more efficient, better organized, less cumbersome, less bureaucratic, more responsive, and better equipped for ministry. Its’ problem solving ability would be more creative and more effective. The approach taken toward denominational initiatives would be less “top down,” with far more workable solutions and suggestions available to address the issues than we have now. There would not be individuals who rotated from board to board, committee to committee, as long as they could pull strings and keep themselves in the “loop,” and the end result of that would be a flood of fresh ideas and fresh thinking.
Change will come to the SBC. The current generation of leadership is most likely within a decade of leaving this world for their eternal home, and they are not being replaced nearly as quickly as they are departing. Considering the median age of convention attendees, and church members in general, the departures are bound to accelerate, as the replacements continue to decline. The day when that trend can no longer be reversed will probably come sooner than we think.
In the meantime, a “Majority Initiative” is a good idea.