The latest numbers are in for Southern Baptists, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, and they’re not pretty. Released in advance of the convention’s annual meeting, which opens Tuesday in Phoenix, the report found that in 2010:
...baptisms fell by nearly 5 percent to their lowest number in 60 years (this marks the eighth time in 10 years SBC baptism numbers have plummeted);
…membership declined for the fourth straight year;
…worship attendance dropped nearly 2 percent.
…tithes and offerings slumped by $153 million;
…the number of missionaries through their International Mission Board plunged by 12%;
…though boasting a membership of over 16 million, actual attendance barely topped 6 million.
And all this despite an increase in the actual number of churches.
Like I said, it’s not a pretty picture.
“This is not a blip,” said Ed Stetzer, a denominational executive and leading Baptist pundit. “This is a trend. And the trend is one of decline.”
Leaders of the denomination were of one mind in regard to the nature of the problem and its solution: “I am convinced that we are doing many good things,” says Frank Page, current president of the SBC, “but will see this situation change only when the church and people of the SBC return Evangelism to the top priority of our Kingdom activities.” Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay, agreed, saying, “I pray that all of us will see the urgency of the moment. We must make the Great Commission the heart of all we do and say.”
Stetzer was more to the point: “Baptists love to talk about evangelism as long as someone else is doing it.”
Added to the obvious call to evangelism were such things as the importance of reaching the younger generation, attracting more minorities, and planting more new churches.
Sensing the challenge before the latest statistics made it so painfully obvious, last year the Southern Baptist Convention approved a major restructuring of their denomination, known as the Great Commission Resurgence, to try and designate more resources to outreach.
But there is something conspicuous by its absence. In all the talk of swinging the ax harder at the tree, there is very little talk about sharpening the ax.
The problem with most Southern Baptist churches isn’t their desire to see people come to Christ; it isn’t that the gospel is being diminished in its presentation. It isn’t even their amount of evangelistic energy.
It’s the way they are attempting to do it.
When there used to be one baptism for every 20 Southern Baptists, but now one baptism for every 40 members, you have a methodological breakdown. If you assume that Southern Baptists are as witnessing, inviting and praying as ever, then it would seem that what they are doing simply isn’t as effective as what they used to do.
Frank Page may have been more revealing than he intended when he said, “You can talk about having a vision all day long," he said. “But you have to show people how to put that vision into action."
And how you put vision into action is the one thing that must be ruthlessly evaluated in light of an ever-changing culture. The vision is timeless; the specifics of how best to implement that vision are time-bound.
Until Southern Baptists take their evangelistic commitments and wed them to new wineskins, they will simply be working harder and harder with ever decreasing results. The truth of the matter is that culture has changed dramatically, and typical denominational approaches to evangelism, ministry and organization are woefully out of touch. I’ve written about this at length in my book Rethinking the Church, and the rethinking really does need to be comprehensive, involving a rethinking of evangelism, discipleship, community, structure, ministry and more.
So why doesn’t this happen?
Because too many churches – and not just Southern Baptist churches – equate tradition with orthodoxy, confuse a method with the mission, and a program with a principle. This causes them to resist necessary changes in style, program and method. Further, they have given themselves over to spiritual narcissism, that state which sees the church existing to serve their needs as opposed to dying to itself in order to win the world.
Last October I wrote of a church that began offering an early “contemporary” service to great effect, which led the pastor to move toward making all of the services uniformly contemporary.
Or at least somewhat contemporary.
I’m not talking anything particularly edgy here. The robes, choirs, hand-bells, responsive readings….all were going to stay. I believe they wanted to add in a contemporary song or two, and maybe update the renditions of a hymn here and there, and perhaps experiment a bit with some new instruments – a guitar, for example, or drums.
You know, all of those Old Testament instruments.
And tame by most standards.
The pastor had prayed about it, reflected on it and studied up on it quite a bit. He had a long and trusted tenure of nearly two decades of caring for his people and teaching them faithfully from the Bible. He also knew that the church had not been growing for some time, and that younger folk were few and far between.
But a group within the church erupted. They determined to use parliamentary procedure and democratic rule to return the church to its original format. Specifically, they exercised a clause in the church’s constitution and by-laws which allowed them, with enough member support, to mandate a specially-called business meeting in order to put forward a specific motion for a congregational vote. They were successful, and so the church got ready to cast their vote on whether or not to force the pastor and staff to turn the 11 a.m. service back to a traditional format.
The pastor finally gave in, and said that he wouldn’t make the change. Or at least he wouldn’t make enough of a change for anyone to really notice.
And so the church has returned to a state of contentment: a state of declining numbers, increasing age, and rush toward certain death.
This isn’t about traditional vs. contemporary – not all things contemporary are best. But it is about a willingness to do what it takes to reach this world. It is about a spirit that dies to itself. It is about being turned outward instead of inward. It is about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a wayward son (Lk. 15), and how finding all three was about an all out search-and-rescue mission that involved doing whatever it takes at whatever cost necessary to the one searching.
I wish the SBC well. I hope the Great Commission Resurgence achieves its goals. I hope baptisms increase.
I also hope they see what will actually accomplish it.
James Emery White
“Decline in baptisms, increase in churches; ‘urgency of the moment’”, Russ Rankin, Baptist Press, June 10, 2011. Read online.
“Nation's largest Protestant group faces 'decline'”, Bob Smietana, The Tennessean/USA Today, June 12, 2011. Read online.
“Worship Wars…Really?”, James Emery White, churchandculture.org, October 2010. Read online.
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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