Addressing Membership Decline in the SBC (pt. 3)

dwell2008edstetzerThis is part of a series of blogs written when this Tennessean article came out several months ago and due to the transition of our site, they were delayed in release. It has been so long that now the Stetzer article is no longer available at the Tennessean. It may be available but I was unable to find it. The two Stetzer articles that I will interact with are titled, “How to Stem the SBC Decline” and “The End of the Beginning.” You will find his quotes shaded. Part one and two of this series are available.

The SBC I care about is in decline. Yes, it’s part demographics (i.e., we’re historically rural and such regions are in numeric decline) and ultimately changes have to be made at a local church level. But many believe there are issues the convention can acknowledge and address to help turn around the decline. Denying the facts won’t help; nor will a theological left turn, but there are things that need to change to reverse the decline. When the news came out, some in the SBC stuck their heads a bit deeper in sand, saying, “We’re doing just fine, thank you!” They believe trying harder without change is best. Besides, they say, the SBC is not shrinking as fast as liberal denominations – which seems to me like bragging that our sunset is brighter than theirs.

Most of what I would propose for the future of the SBC Stetzer does for me. Stetzer is right on, in my humble opinion, the changes to stem the decline must come at the local church level. This is a challenge to pastors as they shape their congregation and to congregations as they follow to be on mission with God. The local body carries the authority of Christ’s promise of power; this is where the change and health most matter. It is certainly true that denying potential slide and certain need for re-evaluation for the future is misguided. It is also very true that a theological turn is absolutely not what we need or what the world needs. I will address more of that in a bit. We must want to be a vibrant denomination not for the sake of the SBC but for the sake of the lost and the glory of God. If he chooses someone else, so be it.

First and most importantly, the SBC must refocus on the gospel. The convention has become big, bureaucratic and distracted by so many things – from politics to boycotts to programs.

This is a great point; the gospel must define our local churches and our convention. All our thoughts, critiques, and plans must move through a grid of being gospel centered. This includes, whether or not we think through issues of contextualization and differing methodology, or even if we believe continuing in our traditions is the most gospel faithful. Either way we must ask, “is our current methodology, etc., gospel centered?”

Second, the SBC must address the continued loss of leaders… ethnic leadership remains mostly absent after decades of ethnic change in America. Yet, such change will require an openness to other approaches to church and ministry from different cultures and generations. The departure by the future leaders of our convention has led to fewer church plants, missionaries, and energetic pastors to lead our faltering churches.

The need for greater ethnic diversity and leadership is a call that must be heeded. The call for openness to other approaches is the real point and fits some of our purpose for Baptist21. Though we would not fully embrace all forms of church or even implement some of these methods in churches we might potentially lead, there are places for conversation and ideas. We must be humble as we seek to cooperate together for a cause greater than who does church right. The final sentence there is the key, let’s not limit the number of those that would go to the mission field or plant a church because they like music that’s a little louder or wear a different “Sunday best”.

I think there needs to be some caution in the context of leadership (as direction setters?) for the younger generation. I think that there is biblical warrant and practical wisdom in allowing older, wiser, proven men to have the leadership positions. On the other hand, though these younger men may not necessarily need leadership posts, their opinions and methods should be listened to and at the least not criticized as long as they do not violate scripture.

Finally, infighting must not define the SBC. If the focus of every SBC meeting is a new controversy to be debated, new parameters to be narrowed, and new issues to be fought, the trend toward decline will only accelerate…

This sentiment is a growing one, especially among those of the younger generations. It is not to say that there are not “some hills worth dying on”, but the “mounds” we choose to die on cause many to just shake their heads in disbelief. We at baptist21 think it is important to set the parameters of cooperation, but once those parameters are set it is time to put the weapons down and not die on that hill. We would affirm that the BFM2000 and our historic Baptist distinctives set the parameters of cooperation and within those bounds it is time to link arms and get on mission. If we do not we will continue to be labeled as “angry fundamentalist.”

The Conservative Resurgence failed to produce a Great Commission Resurgence. It restored our denomination’s value of Scripture but application is often absent, at least in the area of evangelism (The final three quotes are from a blog on entitled “The End of the Beginning”, but many of themes from the Tennessean Piece are found here).

The Conservative Resurgence has not been a failure, but if it fails to produce Great Commission work, it is certainly defective. One of the reasons I believe it has been successful is that I do not believe we would even be having these discussions as Southern Baptists if it were not for the work of the Resurgence and men like Paige Patterson. This Great Commission Resurgence should be the natural outflow of the Conservative Resurgence and there are hopeful signs that that is where we are headed. Let’s hope those that so loudly trumpeted and led the Conservative Resurgence will get whole-heartedly behind this new call for resurgence as well. Stetzer will address this in the next comment.

Now is the moment for us to hone our vision and take on a bigger battle-we must battle to build upon our Conservative Resurgence and make it a Great Commission Resurgence. If we don’t, why did we bother with the Conservative Resurgence in the first place?

If this renewal of doctrine is not turned into a renewal of mission then we are not being stewards of the time we have been given. The connection of the Conservative Resurgence and revival of missional fervor should go hand in hand. We now submit to the authority of the Word and now we must follow the greatest of commissions, the gospel to the ends of the earth. These two resurgences do not stand in opposition, one flows naturally out of the other. Ultimately, Stetzer cannot be more correct, if this fails to result in a Great Commission Resurgence we do not really believe in the authority of the Word, for we will not be following the call of our King.

Stetzer closes the older article with the call to again return to the gospel as the driving force for renewal. Here is what he said, “The temptation will be that the news of the day will result in a new denominational obsession to fix the problem with a new plan. It won’t work. Instead we must refocus on the Divine Obsession (Luke 15), the obsession with lost people.” I think Stetzer closes the thought of this post well. We will always decline if we are not rooted in gospel fidelity. We must get the gospel right, but right understanding of the gospel propels us on mission. This will look different in different contexts and cultures; we must be willing to explore these different methods while being full of gospel fidelity. This will lead to renewed churches, better church plants, and to more effective overseas missions. But this represents the best of what we have been historically and hopefully what we will be in the future. This is nothing new; we are Baptists, after all.