The face of American Christianity has undergone significant change in the past four decades. Well, to tell you the truth, it is always undergoing change, whether we acknowledge it or not. But the structure of the church as it exists in the United States is changing, and the effect of the change is very likely one of the main reasons for articles such as those I referenced here discussing the state of financial affairs of major denominations and their related organizations.
The first article is written by Dr. David Lowrie, president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, a body that primarily relates to the Southern Baptist Convention, and pastor of the First Baptist Church in El Paso, Texas. The second is from SBC Life, a publication of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. I point to these two groups in particular, because I am familiar with both of them as an ordained minister and staff member of a congregation affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and recently departed from the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
Both the BGCT and the SBC have faced financial challenges in recent years. Depending on gifts from local churches through the Cooperative Program, both conventions have experienced a decline in that revenue stream, and as you can see from the articles, leaders lay the blame primarily at the feet of the economic recession that we’ve been experiencing in this country now for going on four years. The article in the SBC publication doesn’t even mention the post-denominational factor, and Dr. Lowrie, while focusing on the recession, only mentions that in passing. Yet the post-denominational culture that has developed among Christians in the United States is probably a significant reason for the drop off in financial support that denominational organizations like the BGCT and the SBC receive.
Personally, I think the downward trend in giving in the BGCT is more complicated than a simple acknowledgement of the recession and a tip of the hat to post-denominationalism. Dr. Lowrie is a nice guy, he loves the BGCT, and he’s trying to be positive and upbeat about an issue that is anything but positive or upbeat. But the severity of the decline in BGCT receipts from churches, averaging well over 8% per year for half a decade now, is related much more to internal problems in the state convention itself than it is to the economy or post-denominationalism. The formation of a second state Baptist convention in Texas a decade ago, over theological controversy and the way BGCT leaders handled it, led to the eventual departure of more than 1,000 churches and the dual affiliation of about 700 more. But the remaining congregations are not exclusively supportive of the BGCT’s leadership of recent years, and the current drop off in funding is most likely a direct result of that factor, more than anything else. The current BGCT budget drop off is, I am certain, the result of congregations within the convention itself which are not happy with its relationship to the Southern Baptist Convention and the low level of financial support it passes along through the Cooperative Program. Nor are they happy about partnerships that the BGCT’s leadership has made with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist World Alliance, both groups that are seen by more conservative church members as being too far to the left theologically. Many of these congregations are designating their mission giving to Southern Baptist causes on the national level, and cutting their BGCT contribution to avoid financing these partnerships, among other things. Considering that Texas has been fairly well insulated from the depth of the recession, at least according to conservative media reports, I would say that 85 to 90% of the decline in funding to the BGCT is directly related to denominational politics and not to post-denominational factors or the recession.
Economic recovery is taking place as we speak, the economy is growing, slowly, and the private sector is once again beginning to produce jobs. Southern Baptists, and all other denominationally-affiliated churches will eventually have to come to grips with how to handle the effects of post-denominational thinking when it comes to their finances. How will this get resolved? Both the BGCT and the SBC have commissioned task forces to come up with solutions, the BGCT’s “Future Focus Committee” was launched in 2007 at a convention gathering in Amarillo, and delivered a final report in Houston last year, and the SBC’s Great Commission Resurgence Task Force delivered their report in Orlando in June. Both initiatives reflected the fact that something needs to be done, but both groups characteristically demonstrated a lack of knowledge of an effective solution and a lack of a grasp of the reality of the situation.
The reality of the situation is that if you look inside a typical Southern Baptist church, whether it is in Texas or anywhere else, you are most likely going to find a group that is very heavy on the senior adult end, where denominational understanding and loyalty is high, and very light on the younger end, because most of those under 40 have been turned off by the infighting, politics, and doctrinal “fine tuning” that has gone on over the years, and they’re not interested in participating in that, or going to the endless meetings where the time is wasted in discussing it. Nor are they all that concerned with making certain that their church has established its doctrinal identity as being superior and more accurate than all others. They are concerned about their family members, about their own spiritual condition in Jesus, and about connecting with, and being transformed by the Holy Spirit, and they are also concerned about discovering and doing God’s will. They expect their local church to help them in all of these things.
So, what are some things that organizations like the BGCT and the SBC can do to prepare for what is inevitably going to happen?
1. The BGCT needs to resolve the leadership and control issues that are pushing churches away from convention support and causing them to find ways to redirect their financial contributions to the unified mission giving plan. The tight, narrow group that has controlled the BGCT is not representative of the majority constituency in the convention.
2. Downsize executive offices, headquarters and budgets. If missions and theological education are the priority, then expenses can be cut everywhere else. How many programs have become outdated that can be eliminated? Instead of inventing and promoting programs from the denominational level, while churches are moving away from a programmed approach to ministry, executive positions should be eliminated and denominational “programs” allowed to die in favor of a more streamlined, network approach. In addition to that, hiring practices need to be adjusted to bring people in who are effective, and not just because their good friend knew they needed to leave their church and found them a job, or created one for them.
3. Alternative streams of revenue need to be located. How many state conventions occupy prime real estate? I can’t think of a state convention in which I’ve served a church, or very many associations for that matter, that haven’t engaged in some kind of construction or renovation of their facilities in recent years. That’s costly and unnecessary, especially when we have a lot of declining churches that own buildings with a lot of empty space that they are never going to fill again.
4. Get with it. These study teams and task forces need to be up on what is working, and why. Normally, though, the denominational political structure abhors anything that it didn’t come up with itself, and there are always people willing to sit around and critique and find fault with churches and movements that are more effective in reaching people for Christ than they are. How many people under 40 were on the Future Focus Committee of the BGCT? Of the GCRTF of the SBC? There’s part of the problem.
As much as some of our denominational leadership wants to think so, Southern Baptists are not on a holy island of their own. Others are doing kingdom work, and many of them are doing it more effectively. We need to learn from them, not be critical of them.