The Southern Baptist Convention: A Denomination (Continuing) in its Decline
The SBC declined again this year in both membership and baptisms. You can read the news story here. There is some encouraging news about missions giving, but the membership and baptism declines are disturbing.
All one has to do is to look at the age of the messengers, the 50 year trend, and the current state of the convention to see things are not going well. The Conservative Resurgence restored and focused us on essential beliefs but did not deliver a Great Commission passion.
The churches of the Southern Baptist Convention have been home to me for all of my adult life. Southern Baptists are my spiritual family. I love our family. But our family is not feeling well today.
Today, LifeWay released the 2008 statistics from the Annual Church Profile. The ACP is our way of measuring how SBC churches are doing in a collective sense. We are a people who like to measure-- everything from baptisms to the collective value of congregational property. For good or bad, we have always been a people of numbers.
But today we are facing a set of numbers to which we are not accustomed. Last year, I said we "peaked" in our membership. This year, I believe that our tipping point continues to tip. Unless things change, we are about to enter a time when we grow accustomed to decline and think back to the good ol' days of growth.
On April 28, 2008, I posted a graph of our membership numbers beginning in 1950 on my blog and said, "our year-to-year growth has been in a constant trended decline, not for one year, but for decades--this is not a one year blip, this is a 50 year trend."
In that reference, I was speaking of the 2007 numbers with a "statistical warning" for us to heed. Today, I bid you an uneasy welcome to continued and ongoing trend of membership decline. Any hope for a "blip" has been crushed by reality. With fewer baptisms and a declining membership, the trends point to several years of decline in our future, save for God's intervention on our behalf.
We are a denomination in decline, at least in our membership and definitely in our evangelism and baptisms. The most rational decision now is to acknowledge its reality so we might deal with its consequences and discover solutions for our churches.
But, as we are Baptists, my fear is the proverbial witch hunt that will try to find who or what is to blame. Will straw men be erected; will new battle lines will be drawn?
I hope not. There are bigger issues and we need to face some facts: we face a culture turning its back toward us, a declining and aging membership, and young leaders who are choosing other partnerships.
Last year, some leaders tried to ignore the facts and buried their heads a bit deeper in the sand. Some skeptics of the ACP data from last year said it was simply a figment of someone's imagination. Well... that figment is looking more and more like our future.
Do these facts reflect upon our culture, churches, pastors, members, or the denomination? My check mark will have to be on "all of the above." And it reflects on me and my failures as well.
Is the culture getting worse? Sure it is. But we should be the ones giving a reason for our hope rather than hoping for a reason.
Do we have chronically dysfunctional churches in our denomination? Sure, but everyone has the one crazy uncle that comes to the family reunion.
Are pastors shirking their responsibilities? Some, but I generally believe in the trustworthiness of those in vocational ministry. They get beat up by plenty of others and I will not join the pile on.
Is it a lazy membership that is the root of the decline? The multitude who act more like spectators at a show than ambassadors of the kingdom certainly share the blame. But I genuinely love those in my own congregation and hope for the best in all believers.
So what do we do? There will be lots of answers provided in the coming days. And, it will be worth your and my time to listen and learn from others.
And, of course (and on cue), some will call for Southern Baptists to turn leftward theologically as the solution to our decline. And, I will wonder out loud-- does anyone read statistics? As I have written before, a left turn does not stem decline, it accelerates it.
So what do we do?
We cannot simply mandate how churches, pastors, and believers live. Our theological convictions of the priesthood of all believers and local autonomy of the church lead us to allow each church to heed God's will on their own. But on a denominational level, I believe we need to heed the words sounding from numerous places in the convention for a Great Commission Resurgence.
Our situation would be much worse if we did not have the Conservative Resurgence, but a Conservative Resurgence without a Great Commission Resurgence is an exercise in belief without action.
I believe this must be our wake-up call. Again. If not, there will be plenty more days like this in the coming years.
Last year, I quoted from Christ's message to the church at Sardis in Revelation 3:
I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you."
We have been lulled into evangelistic complacency and missional inaction. We fought and won a battle over the Bible but are now struggling live it out through cooperation, collaborative missions, and personal evangelism. As Chuck Kelley has explained, Southern Baptists have become the new Methodists (no offense to my Methodist readers, please).
I am grieved, but I also see opportunity if we can ignore the responses that are soon to follow explaining how it is all going fine and we just don't need to worry. Those in charge know what to do to fix it. Instead, I think we need to see this as the bad news it is but also an opportunity to change.
It is an opportunity for discovering a regenerate church membership living on mission.
It is an open door to pray for God's reviving of the church.
It is the motivation for a Great Commission Resurgence for all Christians, in the hearts of pastors, through a church planting renaissance, and in our denominational structure.
But change does not come easy for us. For that matter, it does not come easy for me. To illustrate and conclude, let me tell you something funny about myself-- I have oddly-shaped feet. They are too wide in the middle to wear normal shoes. So, years ago I found a brand of shoe that fits and it is all I wear. Because they are hard to find and replace, I will literally wear out the soles of my shoes before buying new ones. My clue is normally a cold puddle of water accidentally stepped in. But the sting of the freezing water rushing over my toes usually motivates me to buy new shoes. Finding new shoes is a pain. It costs me time and resources. And I don't like those pains in my life. I don't like the pain of change.
Here is the principle: People do not change until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change. And, neither do denominations...
So let me ask you a simple question: Are we hurting enough to make the changes we need?
If you are interested, here is the post I wrote a year ago. Neither my opinion (or the situation) has changed much.
Let me encourage you to answer a question in the comments below: What is the needed change and do you have hope that change is coming?