A couple of weeks ago I shared with you my thoughts on the gospel and the SBC, and in light of those thoughts, I want to point you to what Ed Stetzer has just announced: the Southern Baptist Convention is in decline.
Now there any number of ways to spin this reality, and no doubt you are going to here about as many of them as there are caricatures of Calvinism (including it’s the Calvinists fault). Nevertheless, one factor that we should consider is that perhaps churches are seeking to be more responsible with their church membership, seeking to return to the historic Baptist marker of a regenerate church membership. Now, there is no way to tell on the surface that this indeed is the case, but if is, then the fact that membership is declining is not a lamentable thing, but rather a return to biblical faithfulness. And for this we should be glad.
But Stetzer makes three significant arguments I want to pass along as to why the SBC is in decline. He states:
1. We have to deal with the continued loss of SBC leaders.
As we have recently reported in Facts & Trends, we have witnessed a serious (and increasing) depopulation of young leaders at our convention. Also, ethnic leadership remains absent after decades of ethnic change in America. Vacant seats still exist at the SBC table for the ethnic and generational diversity that matches the America we are attempting to reach. The departure by the future leaders of our convention has led to fewer church plants, missionaries, and energetic pastors to lead our faltering churches. We must retain these leaders not because we need them for our churches. We need them to reach the lost whom our churches have yet to touched.
I have written about this in several places over the past year, including articles such as “Depopulating the Denomination” and “Together for the Church.” I have swam for the past four years in a seminary world and help facilitate a website that carries blogs of hundreds of seminary students. Rarely if ever do you hear of young leaders enthusiastic about the SBC. Rather, it is something they would prefer to simply not talk about. I don’t know what is worse for the future of the SBC: the exit strategy of potential future leaders of the SBC or the settled indifference and ambivalence of many young Southern Baptists when it comes to their future involvement. We have created a beast that, for many inheritors of the Conservative Resurgence, is quite an ugly thing, and the attractiveness of ministering in gospel-centered, mission-driven networks like Acts 29 or Sovereign Grace, seals the deal for them. At best the leading voices within the SBC who are the pioneering thinkers, missional practitioners, or exceptional churchmen and are on the fringes in the marginalized world that is the SBC Zion.
2. The infighting which defines so much of the SBC—its meetings, its churches, and its blogs.
It is public knowledge that we do not always settle our differences amicably. The national caricature once again colors many local scenes where First, Second, and even Third Baptist Churches exist in one town because of past infighting. Satan has used our incessant bickering over non-essentials to promote his last great mission on earth—to keep lost people lost.
Aside from my article on the gospel and SBC, you might also want to check out “Ecclesiological Foreclosure and the SBC” in which I discuss churches dying and closing their doors due to infighting and splits. Churches are dying and splitting all across our convention, for reasons which we sometimes do not want to admit. It is impossible to have church unity and gospel promotion when churches are fundamentally unhealthy and flawed in their DNA. For instance, if half the church bears no evidence of regeneration, then we are begging for fights and factions. We have opened the door to the world in our churches without calling for repentance from the worldliness therein and a covenant commitment to Christ and His church. Furthermore, we cannot truly have congregational polity when we have three times as many “inactive members” as we do regular attenders. We have all heard of those business meetings when a major decision is made and you have twice as many show up to vote than your Easter Sunday morning services! In any case, we would be fooling ourselves to think that the need for growth in the SBC can come without healthy churches, and as I will reveal in coming weeks, the most “successful” and fastest growing churches in the SBC are almost all unhealthy.
3. Our loss of focus on the Gospel.
I find it difficult to even say such a thing, but, I believe it to be true. We must recover a gospel centrality and cooperate in proclaiming that gospel locally and globally. David Dockery and Timothy George pointed the way with their helpful booklet, Building Bridges, in last year’s SBC messenger’s packet. They called for a unity around the Gospel, and the time grows increasingly urgent.
This is the heart of the issue, and I praise God for men like Danny Akin, David Dockery, Tom Ascol, and Timothy George in their passion for reorientation around the gospel. All the other things, such as young leaders leaving the SBC, churches splitting and dying, and so on are all symptoms to the problem. The problem is our poor stewardship, or the loss of, the gospel. Our evangelistic practices have been driven more by pragmatism, our church models by corporate America, and our Baptist identity has disappeared with an unprincipled embrace of novel spirituality and superficial theology. Our Cooperative Program, as good as it is, reflects our loss of focus on the gospel. The unhealthiness of our churches reflect the loss of focus on the gospel. The embarrassing state of worldliness of professing Christians reflect the loss of focus on the gospel. Our inability to come together with a common purpose and consensus reflect the loss of focus on the gospel. And those who have been so courageous to state that we have lost the gospel have been ostracized and criticized reveal that we deny the loss of the focus on the gospel.
On Reformation Day last year, I wrote something I entitled, From Resurgence to Re-formation to Reformation: A Generational Vision for a Denomination Halfly Reformed, and I believe that the handwriting on the wall provided by Stetzer should awaken us from our slumber. Tom Ascol, in the most recent edition of The Founders Journal, writes
“Despite all the good that was accomplished in the CR (Conservative Resurgence), Southern Baptist churches, on the whole, are no better off than they were before 1979. . . . The fact remains that, according to statistical analysis, SBC churches still have an overwhelmingly large percentage of members who give no evidence of spiritual life. At some point the question needs to be humbly yet forcefully asked, ‘What difference does it make if we have an inerrant Bible if we are not willing to believe what it teaches and do what it says?’”
Well, the question is being asked. Stetzer concludes his article:
The promise of the Conservative Resurgence was to reestablish our unwavering belief in the inerrancy of scripture. Once we had our theology in order we were supposed to reach the world—but that theological change has not birthed a missional fruit. 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?
May the answer to this question be found among broken and repentant hearts who are willing to give their lives for the glory of Christ, the beauty of His bride, and the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Let it be that “this one thing we do” to be a people who nothing except Christ and Him crucified, and in that confession, find our passion and focus for the future.