In a word, no. At least, most likely, no.
In an article which appeared in the June 18 edition of Belief, the religion section of the Houston Chronicle, Religion News Service writer Adelle Banks quotes SBC immediate past president Johnny Hunt regarding statistics which show the SBC is losing members and seeing the number of new converts through baptisms decline as well. Hunt was a proponent of the report presented by the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force, a group he appointed at last year’s annual meeting which was commissioned to come up with a plan to deal with the declining membership and evangelism numbers. Banks also referred to a speech made by outgoing executive committee president Morris Chapman, who was opposed to the report.
“I’m tired of having my membership in a convention that’s declining,” said Hunt. “I’m tired of not putting the priority in reaching teenagers for Jesus Christ. I’m tired of being hammered over and over again about money instead of the mission in Jesus’ name. Let’s get a compelling vision that people would want to give more money to.”
Give more money?
Most of the recommendations in the task force report which was approved after a rather heated and lengthy debate on the convention floor have to do with shuffling around the way financial resources are allocated through the Southern Baptist Convention’s unified funding plan, the Cooperative Program. The irony of messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, a group that has a solid reputation for the kind of conservative, secular politics that advocates for less government bureaucracy, and fewer tax dollars to feed it, determining that the answer to their own declining membership and baptism figures is a larger denominational bureacracy, and more money, isn’t lost on me. The whole report leans heavily on a belief that the solution to the SBC’s problems is a one-size-fits-all, top down, denominational program which will address the issues that have caused the decline in membership and evangelistic activity, and will get churches motivated to “do evangelism” and make it a priority. It is based on the faulty assumption that lack of proper evangelistic fervor in the churches is the problem, and that a small, denominational committee made up of agency executives, seminary presidents, laypeople, a couple of megachurch pastor’s wives and some megachurch pastors has the answers.
This isn’t something new. There have been several attempts to revive the baptism numbers in the SBC in recent years, including a round-the-country bus tour by former SBC president Bobby Welch, retired pastor from Daytona Beach, Florida, who thought he could preach the SBC out of the baptism doldrums. The publishing house, Lifeway, has put several resources on the market geared to getting the saints out of the pews and on the streets sharing their faith. There’s the F.A.I.T.H. plan, Crossover events in the SBC convention city prior to the annual meeting, you name it, there’s a plan for evangelism to go along with it. And still the baptisms and membership decline. That’s because our denominational leadership has their collective head buried in the sand with regard to what is really wrong, and has trouble coming to grips with the fact that a number of factors well beyond just a lack of evangelistic fervor among the churches are at work. There are as many reasons behind the statistical drop as there are individual churches. I can share a few of them.
One is simple demographics. A lot of Southern Baptist churches are in rural areas across the South, and the population in many of the communities where they are located is either shrinking, or the entire community is gone. Faithful members who have ties to a rural, community church might be willing to drive back to attend worship if it isn’t too far away, but it is hard to get new members to commit to make the drive when there are several other churches closer by that they can attend.
Consumerism and post denominationalism also play a role. Megachurches are generally less evangelistic than smaller congregations, when it comes to per-capita baptisms. They tend to draw people out of existing churches, the “low hanging fruit”, I call it, and into their church by attracting them to a smorgasbord of ministry programs designed to “meet their felt needs.” So surrounding churches shrink, but not all of the people go to the megachurch. Some just drop out when their old congregation shrinks to the point where it can’t compete any more, and others drift into non-denominational churches without giving the brand name a second thought.
The Acts 29/Emergent/Cell group type churches also pick up members, especially younger ones, from Baptist congregations. The attraction is the fact that most of these groups, while roundly criticized for being doctrinally loose or theologically unsound, actually resemble a Biblical model more closely than a larger church with buildings and a parking lot. These churches follow the pattern of worship that Paul laid down in I Corinthians, in which everyone has the opportunity to use their spiritual gifts in worship, because the worship is limited to a small group of people. Cultural differences have lead some SBC leaders to be caustic and vocal in their criticism, but this hasn’t stopped an exodus of young people from Southern Baptist, as well as other mainline Protestant and even Catholic churches.
A lot of younger people are educated enough, and spiritually savvy enough to see the hypocrisy in the fact that many SBC leaders and congregations are quite one-sided in their secular political views, and they drag these views into the church. When pastors and church leaders preach and teach with the objective being to convert their listeners to conservative politics and to convince them to vote for specific conservative candidates, they are alienating themselves from thousands of potential evangelistic prospects. Most young people are easily able to recognize that no political side or party has a corner on the family moral values market, and they are sharp enough to point out the glaring inconsistencies in it. Southern Baptists, by taking a very visible, pointed stand with regard to secular politics, alienate a large number of potential prospects for evangelism.
There is also a perception that Southern Baptists are more people of legalistic judgementalism than they are people of mercy and grace. Hebrews 4 speaks of having a great high priest who advocates on our behalf so that we can find mercy and grace to help in a time of need. The image that many SBC leaders have projected, however, is that they can’t be trusted to deliver mercy and grace in a time of need, but that they are more likely to beat someone over the head with a black leather Bible and pronounce judgement upon them in their time of need. The general response to that kind of attitude is, “No thanks!”
These are just a few things. And if you are honest in your evaluation, you know I’m right. I’m not saying we should compromise our convictions, far from it. If our convictions are really consistent with the scripture, and they have developed in accord with that, then we should be reflecting the beatitudes in our lives and evangelistic prospects would not be so turned off as to determine they aren’t going to listen. Southern Baptists have to become a people who reflect the character of Jesus, and who can lead people to the experience of mercy and grace that they need to live the life God has called them to live. Shuffling the cash and making new rules for the distribution of the Cooperative Program isn’t going to do much.