With a decline in baptisms and membership in Southern Baptist Churches for the third consecutive year, many are asking the question, “Where is everyone going?” Some suggest that the strong leaders of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s are dying without a strong legacy behind them to take the reigns. Others suggest 20 something’s do not really care and are leaving to pursue something different or nothing at all. Another explanation is that these churches see no need in denominational affiliation and choose to pull out of the SBC in order to become non-denominational.
Over the past few weeks, I have been thinking through some of the issues regarding why pastors might desire to depart from our denomination. After reading about the recent departure from the SBC of Blogger Ben Cole as well as having an extended conversation with a South Carolina pastor about why his church is thinking about leaving the SBC, I began taking notes on exactly what the reasoning for such a departure might be. Here are some of the points this pastor made about why they are seeking to depart from the Southern Baptist Convention:
(1) Cooperative Program Giving – One concern we all share is Cooperative Program Giving. When a church gives to the cooperative program, a large portion (some as much as 67%) stays within the state convention to which the money is given. This is a very large portion for a state with hundreds (some even thousands) of churches to keep. This means only 33% is actually being passed on to the SBC. The original idea of CP allocation was to divide the proceeds from churches 50/50 between the SBC and the state conventions, but only two state conventions do at present (the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia). The average split is 64/36. This is an issue within the SBC that certainly needs to be addressed, so that more money gets in the hands of missionaries and church planters. However, one answer to this objection is that churches can designate their gifts and more are opting to do so.
(2) Too Political – Some would argue that our denomination is “too political”. Some would see ours as a denomination of pastors who desire power and glory for themselves rather than for God. Some may accuse us of arguing and fighting over issues that do not matter while there are real people in the world who are hurting and dying without Jesus. The honest response is, yes we are political. I would argue that any organization whether denominational or non-denominational is political. Short of the new heavens and the new earth, wherever two or three are gathered, there will always be political systems of some kind with all their flaws and quirks. Politics is not necessarily a bad thing, but it must be carried out with a purpose that serves and honors God.
(3) “Baptist” as a Stumbling Block – There is no doubt that the name “Baptist” can be a stumbling block. Just like every family tree, there are some rough branches in the Baptist family tree. Throughout the middle to latter part of the 20th Century there was a deep seed of “hell, fire, and brimstone” preaching. This coined a new term called “Bible-Thumping”. In our culture today, the word Baptist is directly tied to this term. The name “Baptist” is also tied to words like “conservative” and “fundamentalist” which have garnered more and more hostility in recent years. As our culture moves more and more leftward, “Baptists” have received increasing criticism because we are seen as out of the mainstream. Frank Page argues that Baptists have been known more in recent years for “what we’re against” than “what we’re for.”
(4) “Program” driven, not “People” Driven – Some would suggest that Baptist churches are heavily program driven and not as people driven as they should be. This may be true in some cases, but in most cases it is false. Programs are put in place in order to reach people for the gospel, disciple them, and make them more like Christ. If a program does not have one of these three goals in mind it has no place in the Great Commission of the Church.
I think many of us can agree that each of these critiques can be true to some degree (some more than others). I do not believe, however, that any of them are grounds for a departure. I personally do not believe that any church should leave the SBC unless necessarily removed due to doctrinal or biblical infidelity.
Here are some reasons why we believe it is inconsistent for some churches to leave the SBC:
(1) Many of the departing churches have been planted by “mother” churches within the SBC, typically in partnership with the State Conventions. This means that real tithe dollars given by Baptist pew-sitters are being used to start churches of like-faith and practice. A decision not to remain in the SBC would be a slap in the face to a “mother” church and the state convention that invested their resources. Some would call this “taking the money and running”.
(2) Many of the pastors contemplating departure received their theological education from one of our six Southern Baptist Seminaries. These men had their ministry training funded by the Cooperative Program (once again, by the tithe dollars of the many faithful Baptists who have given sacrificially so that our denomination might have qualified pastors to lead our churches). The pastor who receives this benefit from Southern Baptist tithe dollars only to later depart has received a cheaper education thanks to Southern Baptists.
This is not to say that there are never legitimate reasons to leave a denomination, state convention, or network, regardless of the benefits you have received from them in the past. Certainly issues of doctrinal infidelity would be reasons to cease to cooperate with a denomination or convention. In the SBC, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 is a good confession that sets out minimal doctrinal guidelines around which churches can cooperate together. If the convention moves away from this, then a church might want to leave. Most churches are not leaving over issues of doctrine; rather they are leaving over issues of pragmatic effectiveness. Certainly churches are free to cooperate denominationally as long as they feel that this united effort increases effectiveness in church planting and missions. If they believe that cooperation has become ineffective, then they might consider leaving. What might be considered a little disingenuous is using the effectiveness of denominationalism to get your church started and then leaving once you are established.
The real question we need to ask is what can we do as a convention to ensure that more pastors and churches remain in the SBC and cooperate together to reach the nations? What can the convention do to demonstrate to those contemplating a departure that cooperation is the most effective way to do church planting, missions, and other tasks God has called us to do? Only that demonstration will cause churches to stay. Here are some suggestions:
(1) Admit our Failures: As Southern Baptists, we have neither the best history nor the worst. We have not always done things most correctly or effectively. We must admit, however, that we have done many things well. The name “Baptist” may invoke negative connotations, but the next generation of Baptist leaders has the opportunity to put a new taste in people’s mouths. By admitting our failures, we show humility and allow people to see real pastors who want to serve a real Jesus.
(2) Work Together to Fix Problems: As Southern Baptists, we need to work together to look at the problems within our denomination, come up with solutions, and work to fix the issues that are hindering us from being more effective for the Kingdom.
(3) Establish Good Doctrine: We must remain faithful to the Word of God. The Bible must be our guide and we must not stray from it. This starts when every pastor has a firm grip on what is being taught within his congregation. We are grateful for the work of the Conservative Resurgence to recover doctrinal fidelity and pray that it’s outworking would be seen in all our agencies and churches.
(4) Provide Discussion: We must always have an avenue for discussion on issues that arise. Having open lines of communication within our denomination will allow us to be more effective together. We must always be developing new ways to articulate issues and/or creative ideas that are biblically sound and effective for the work of the Kingdom.
(5) Celebrate Churches that are Attempting Gospel Ministry: While there is a great tradition that has been passed down in our denomination, we must always remember that all cultures are not like ours. We must always be about the advance of the Gospel. Churches have the right to try things that are not sinful or contradictory to scripture in order to reach the lost for Christ. We must look to different generations and cultures to see what is effective in reaching people and doing church. As Ed Stetzer has lamented, we often criticize North American pastors for doing the same things we teach our international missionaries to do, contextualization. This means being culturally relevant in order to win some to Christ.
This post is intended to provoke discussion on why some churches want to leave the SBC and hopefully speak to reasons they should stay. We at Baptist 21 intend to do a series of blogs soon mapping out our thoughts on greater cooperation among younger Southern Baptists. Our hope is that none would leave, and all would learn from each other and cooperate together to reach the world for King Jesus.
J.D. Greear – “Being Young and Southern Baptist?”
Dr. Stetzer’s from 2007 SBC: “Come Over and Help Us”