Those of you in the business world are likely following the housing bust where the market is at its lowest in years. Americans who have purchased homes at “teaser rates” have expired only to find themselves unable to afford the higher rates forcing foreclosure. Last week while I was in Florida, it was a common site to find a house in almost every neighborhood with tall grass, overgrown shrubs, and a sign posted on the front yard. Americans more than ever are buying more than they can afford, hoping that in the end, the promised income would meet the financial demands they have created.
On the flight back to Atlanta, I sat next to a gentleman who works for Remax in Richmond, Virginia, and we talked in great detail about the housing market and foreclosure. For someone looking to buy a home in the next year or so, this upcoming season in the housing market is the perfect time to buy. You see, the bust of those who have bought high and forced to sell low afford others the opportunity to buy low and sometime hopefully sell high. Makes sense to me. But I am not as concerned about the state of the houses in America as much as I am the houses of worship in the Southern Baptist Convention. We have businessmen and reporters who are readily prepared to share about the failures of the housing market, but who is willing to speak to the massive reality of ecclesiological foreclosure in the SBC?
Just this past week a researcher state that close to 4,000 churches close their doors every year. In the SBC, it has long been reported that nine out of ten churches are not seeing any conversion growth, and this during the church growth movement. One in four SBC churches did not baptize a single person last year. In the past two years in the SBC where there has been a significant push to baptize a million people each year, in those same two years we have seen a decline in baptisms. What does all this mean for us today? I take it to mean that we are experiencing ecclesiological foreclosure – and nobody is talking about it.
Now we can all speculate as to why this is taking place before our eyes, and I will perhaps bring some of that up in another article this week. But take for example, my home state of Alabama. Bob Terry, editor of The Alabama Baptist, recently lamented that Alabama Baptist start somewhere around 30 churches each year. Then he goes on to state,
Unfortunately few of these are purposeful, intentional church starts. Most of them result from church fights and church splits. So common is the practice of starting new churches through church splits that jokes are often made about church fights being the Baptist plan for church growth. . . . Much of what we call our ‘church growth strategy’ may be of the devil rather than of God. That good has come out of some of the messes Baptist have created through church fights and church splits only attests to the fact that God works in all things for good to those who love the Lord, just as Romans 8:28 affirms. Still our overall history in church starts is something to confess, not something to celebrate.
While I agree with Terry that this woeful state merits heart-wrenching confession, we need to repent of this “church growth” strategy before our churches die. It might just be that when the Boomer generation passes, if they don’t reach out to their succeeding generation of Southern Baptists, their churches will die with them. And I am afraid that some would rather die than change.
I do believe there is an intrinsic relationship between the foreclosures taking place in homes and the foreclosures taking places in churches. Families who purchased homes with the short term satisfaction have ended up long-term regret with greater percentages of their overall income being spent on their increasing mortgage rates. Is all that house necessary or justifiable? Probably not, but hey, we are in America, and that’s what Americans do.
Let’s look at the average financial situation of an SBC church. Most churches with paid staff have that portion of their budget to amount to 50-60% of their annual budget. I remember hearing of churches justifying the addition of another staff person for every 100-150 church members to stay within that target percentage. Not only is added staff tailored to the church growth movement, so is the building of additional buildings. Let’s just say that another 15% is for maintenance, grounds, office equipment, etc., and another 15% for debt retirement or future building projects. Of course, we cannot leave our LifeWay Sunday School material and other ministry resources used from children all the way to senior adults. I would put that at another 10%. Do you see how all this adds up? Leaving out the Cooperative Program, church planting efforts, and missions, this typical church has 90-100% of all its annual budget already spent! Like the family who invested in way too much house with too little money, SBC churches have financially structured themselves with the same mentality, only at a larger level. Therefore, money is spent out of necessity, not so much out of priority. Missions, church planting, and evangelism are accessories which, when push comes to shove, are discarded because of being in survival mode.
I know of churches in every town I have lived in that this is not a hypothetical situation. And these are churches who are not liberal, rejoice in the Conservative Resurgence, believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, and preach out of the KJV version of the Bible. When churches have invested 75% or more of their budget in staff and debt retirement/building projects, it is a situation of our own making, a crisis where we are culpable. The short-term successes of building projects leave long-term slavish debts, much like the teaser interest rates only later come to compound to an insurmountable financial obstacle.
But there is good news. In the same way that this next year is a great time to buy a new home in the housing market, this is also a great time to plant new churches and re-plant old churches in the SBC. Both are needed. Ecclesiological foreclosure can be prevented, but we must be willing to change the way things are being done which I talk more of in my next article. My heart grieves when churches fail, falter, and die. I love the local church. I believe in the local church. And the ecclesiological foreclosure is an opportunity to wipe the tears out of our eyes and catch a glimpse of the glory of Christ in the church and be free from the pragmatism and professionalism that has paralyzed us for so long. Programs cannot fix foreclosure. We need the breath of God on these dry bones that they may live. May God once again do that in this generation.