Addressing the Membership Decline in the SBC (part 1)

newspaper1This article was ready nearly a month ago, closer to the time these articles were released in the Tennessean, but because of the site transition they were postponed. I now offer these thoughts, though a bit late.
Recently, the Tennessean carried a series of articles about the declining membership of the Southern Baptist Convention. Three articles of note were written along with a few snippets from readers of the newspaper. All of these addressed the issue of how the SBC is declining and how this can be remedied. I will list some of the quotes from each of these articles (they will appear in italics) and I will interact with them. I hope through my interactions to affirm some of the positives and to critique some of the negatives of these articles. Finally, I hope in my remarks to give somewhat of a less than expert analysis of what I think the SBC should focus on based on the writings and ideas of these writers and others that I have been influenced by along the way. The first article is by the editors of the Tennessean. The second article is by a more liberal Baptist named Robert Parham. The third article represents the reader’s opinions and the final article is by Dr. Ed Stetzer. I will give some concluding thoughts at the end of this blog, but I hope to be clear that I do not have all the answers. I do, however, believe that renewal in the SBC is to be done at the local church level. We must empower those churches that are doing this well now and help them to plant as many churches as they can that possess their church DNA. I think that will be a great start in the revitalization of the SBC, because as with the best of the Baptist tradition it all happens at the local Church level and it all involves missions.

Modern Evangelism Takes Real Commitment
By editors of the Tennessean

“God’s Plan for Sharing,” or GPS… The plan, as explained at the convention’s annual meeting, was to spread the gospel throughout the United States and Canada by 2020, which would, in turn, revitalize church membership.

This is an ambitious plan by the North American Mission Board (I believe that a vibrant future in the SBC will involve a vibrant church planting network) that has already been written about twice in the Tennessean.

“Every Southern Baptist would, in effect, be called upon to be an evangelist.”

We know that all who are members in the church are called upon to be evangelists. This should be nothing new. We are called to be missional. And obviously church growth relies on the members of churches sharing the gospel with their neighbors, co-workers, and friends. It is unfortunate that we need a program to tell us the importance of this, this shows a deeper problem, and this must be remedied at the local church level by pastors and members. The “GPS” plan is in part trying to accomplish this.

“In taking this approach, the predominantly white SBC acknowledges that the population is becoming more diverse, and it hopes to make inroads with ethnic minorities. But the GPS mission has come under fire from within the SBC because it appears to have little or no tangible support, according to a recent Tennessean report. While the SBC Web site says that $500,000 was spent on GPS in 2008, and that $1 million will be spent in 2009, there is no money committed to God’s Plan for Sharing in the $130 million 2009 budget for the North American Mission Board, which supervises GPS.”

I think that we must understand this strategy plan is very ambitious, but we must not see dollars and programs as our driving force. The great thing about this program is that it seeks to engage evangelism at a grassroots level and seeks to empower churches to do evangelism. This fits with the best of the Baptist tradition and the New Testament in that it views the primacy of the church in evangelism and the primacy of the local church as autonomous. Some issues with GPS are that not all members share their faith, we at the local level of the church need to be challenging our people to be on mission with God. Even most pastors do not share the gospel. The greatest evangelistic tool is the church. Instead of passing out information to churches that are struggling to baptize any, lets cooperate with churches that are doing this well, that show they are on mission with God and help them plant churches with their DNA all over the world and throughout North America. That will truly be a better plan of being missional in your zip code.  I have to say I agree with this comment from another blog “Unlike previous national evangelism campaigns, GPS is not a one-year or five-year emphasis. It also differs because the process of development has not been a top-down approach, but rather a grass-roots effort.” (Written by Geoff Hammond president of the North American Mission Board).

“It’s also possible that younger generations of Southern Baptists do not see evangelism as a major part of their faith.”

If this is so, which it’s hard to determine, this must be radically altered. But I think many of the younger generation, especially those that feel a call to ministry, there is an increase in the hopes to be missional. In fact, I am surprised more and more in the classes I attend how many guys want to church plant and that is a blessing for the future.

In the end, the title of the editor’s article is right, modern evangelism takes real commitment. They at least in part get it right, but they place too much emphasis on the need for money, if we are to reverse decline in the SBC it takes a real commitment from our people and our churches. The kind of commitment they espouse is financial, but scripture is clear, more than money, we need to be on Mission with Our King and seek to make His name known in our community, city, state, country, and world. This will carry a financial commitment, but more than this, it will carry a commitment for members to love the lost. It will take the commitment to be the community of God in the community in which they live. It will take commitment to reach out to those that don’t look the same as us. It will take a myriad of commitments, but what sums them up is a call for our pastors and members to challenge and push one another to be missional. They must challenge and push one another to plant churches and call one another to resurgence in taking the Greatest of Commissions seriously at the local church level (in an evangelism/discipleship that springs from a vibrant local body), and then we may see the reversal for which we hope.