Repentance and Reorientation: SBC in Decline

Tim Brister —  April 23, 2008 — 23 Comments

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.

Stetzer writes,

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.

Stetzer comments,

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.

Again Stetzer,

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.

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  • A church I know and love went from its decades-old “5,000+ members” to under 2,000 in less then 2 years through new leadership that is light years away from being “Founders” in soteriology. Just decided to get the integrity thing in order. How many churches of that size would it take doing such things to give the denomination a downturn in “membership”. If only 100, that is a “loss” of 300,000 in two years. They still have 4-5X the membership as their Easter Sunday attendance, but 4-5 is a lot better than 12-15X.

  • Timmy,

    A look at the meeting of our national convention, with its business-like attitude and political agendas, tells us much about the SBC. Why would young leaders want to attend? When great theological/pastoral conferences exist such as Desiring God and T4G, I can’t imagine spending the time and energy to actually attend the national convention.

    i realize the convention only meets for a few days each summer, but what happens there gives us a great picture of where the focus of convention leadership lies. When politics and infighting rule the day, I don’t see how the SBC can head anywhere but down.

    On the other hand, it is exciting to hear about some churches turning back to the doctrines of grace, genuine membership, and church discipline. I just wonder whether or not these churches will even bother being actively involved in a convention that has gone so awry.


  • Kyle Barrett


    Thanks for you thoughts bro. I wonder if one of the motivating factors for the exit of young pastors from the SBC is a ‘greener grass’ mentality. Church is messy, regardless of whether it’s an Acts 29, Sovereign Grace, or SBC church. My concern is that some guys leave under the guise of greater fruitfulness in another network/denomination when in fact they just aren’t willing to love Southern Baptist’s enough to tell them the truth and show them a better way. I’m not saying the end all be all of ministry is pastoring an SBC church. I am saying that as long as God allows the SBC a ministry we who have benefited from Southern Baptists should do everything we can to make it a fruitful and faithful group of believers.


  • Great to meet you at T4G Timmy and thank you for all the work putting BOB on. I think that both articles by Stetzer, the one you reference and this one on evangelism, are in my opinion very closely related.

    There is a basic fundamental paradigm difference that exists and I think that is what is central here. There are a lot of issues attached with the paradigms but at the heart of it I believe is how you view the spreading of the Gospel and what the most Bibically faithful way to do that is.

    Just my thoughts.

  • How much of this decline is cultural? While the SBC has some issues, I think church membership in general is said to be declining, so this may be just part of modern American Christianity.

    (Note, I’m not talking about attendence per se. Many don’t want to be “members” of a church, and many avoid denominational churches entirely.)

  • I wonder how long it will take the old guard to claim this is a good thing. They’ll say it’s because we’re becoming more pure and theologically sound. When they continually play the “God-card” it’s hard to convince them that something is wrong.

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  • You almost had to expect this with the way that those who hold to Gospel-rich theology (Calvinist one might say) are lambasted. To me, the more they (non-Calvinists) point fingers, the more it says their way just isn’t working and they are worried. Maybe, but doubtful, a true desire to read and study the scripture to know God, and His will, will come from this.

  • D. Taylor Benton

    As one that went to the greener grass as Kyle B. put it,

    honestly, it pains me to still see the arguing and politicizing and power struggles that I still see not even being in the SBC anymore. I did leave and go to SGM, and I know no church is perfect, and there is always areas to grow, but honestly when the foundation of the church is built on regenerate church membership and there is an immediate expectation of participation and faithfulness to the church…you would be amazed what that does…. when you don’t have to worry about going into the church office worrying about the confrontation that daily lies in front of you because there are pastors on staff that don’t believe what you believe and in that most of your work and their work is undermined because of the conflicts, that is no way to minister, and unfortunately that is a microcosm of the SBC right now.

    I didn’t leave because the grass was greener, actually i left because SGM was willing to call their grass brown and dead when it is brown and dead….not to spray paint the grass green and then get in a debate about what type of paint to use when spraying the grass…I have grown up in the SBC and still have brothers and fathers that are pastors in the SBC, and I pray for them and all my friends from SBTS and all the people I know that are still apart of the SBC….but until the SBC gets it’s house in order, the ministry of the SBC as a whole will continue to be hindered and setback by its problems….

    by His grace and for His glory….

  • This is an important discussion I think we all need to be having, and I am encouraged to see the likes of Danny Akin, Mark Devine, Tom Ascol, Alvin Reid, and many more speaking out. Unfortunately for me, I am strapped to a really tight schedule for the next couple of days–I have to find a house for us by Saturday! Yikes. I did get to share the gospel with one of the Senior Vice Presidents of Bank of America who sat next to me on the way to Charlotte from Louisville. I told her I had a 9:30 appointment with a local BOA in the morning, hoping she might lend me a little help. Nope. Oh well.

    Anyway, I think the issue of *health* needs to be addressed before we can address the issue of *growth.* We are putting the cart before the horse. If we want churches to grow, we must first diagnose the problem and apply the measures needed to recover biblical faithfulness and healthiness. Before we can be fruitful, we must be faithful. Why should we expect God to bless our efforts when we have ignored what he has revealed in his Word?

    In the meantime, I am still trying to get my mind around the figure $10.2 billion which was what Southern Baptists gave last year. That’s 10,200,000,000.00. In one year. That is simply staggering.

  • Scott,

    I think your point will be proven in the days to come. I don’t know how many large churches are seeking to return integrity to church membership, but I have talked to some pastors of large churches who are currently in the process of developing a way of doing it soon.


    That’s right. In San Aton, convention planners were expecting in excess of 12,000 messengers. Under 9,000 showed up (8,618 to be exact) representing only 3,500 of the 44,000+ churches of the SBC, roughly 8%. If in any organization that more than 9 out of 10 people do not participate in the biggest event/meeting of the year, I would be doing more than scratching my head.

    Southern Baptists are making choices regarding where they are going to invest their time and energy, and many are preferring to go to conferences or events that address matters most important to them, whether that is church planting, church reformation, theological development, etc. I will be looking intently from afar to see how many young people are in Indy this year.

  • Kyle,

    In general, I agree with you brother. I think in our corner of the SBC world, however, there are many who have new roots or shallow roots when it comes to the SBC. Just this week I had lunch with a fellow seminarian hoping to minister in the SBC context who knew very little if anything regarding SBC life. In some ways, that is a good thing. In other ways, it is bad, because it may not take much for them to turn their back and look elsewhere.

    This is a difficult issue. I mean, consider what Packer and his partners are going through with the Church of England up in Canada. Or how about the Puritans in the 17th century? Or even Luther and his hope to remain within the RCC? And is it not true that we would not be where we are today if there were not some breaks that results in a new vision, a new call for reform, and a new commitment to biblical Christianity? I don’t know. But I do think there are some things that history can teach us. I hope we are listening.

    I have been Southern Baptist all my life. It’s all I really know, but for many young Southern Baptists, it is much different. They become Southern Baptist because they like the IMB and want to serve as a missionary where they don’t have to raise support, or they like the seminaries and want the tuition break. But if their commitment isn’t more than pragmatic driven, then I would not be surprised to see them stick around.

    Even still, I think some are asking the question whether it is worth it, that is, to give themselves (time and energy) in their youth to the cause of reviving and reforming churches in the SBC. Does Acts 29 do a better job planting churches than NAMB? Absolutely. Does SGM work together around the gospel and are more unified in their vision than SBC churches? No doubt. Are people asking why we cannot be better stewards with God’s money than the way the Cooperate Program money is spent? I think so.

    So with all that said, I see both sides of the equation. It would be interesting to be able to have an open forum discussion on this topic. Not a scheduled one with a platform and suit-and-tie where people feel guarded and reserved in their feelings, but a coffee shop kind of discussion where people can speak from the heart.

  • Mark,

    It was great to meet you too brother. Yeah, I agree. My concern is that we will rush into another “million more” campaign with a band-aid approach. I’m asking, “Is there a surgeon in the house?” Holla.


    The numbers in SBC sky-rocketed from the 1950’s onward. It was a time of revivalism, crusades, surges in evangelicalism, and little attention paid to the local church. The culture was such that it was easy to be a member of the church. Church discipline had disappeared. Church covenants were a faded memory. Conversion had become reduced to a prayer, and evangelism was synonymous with walking down an aisle.

    The culture is slowly changing–a new culture that I believe wants to take the local church seriously. This is a culture that wants to be more careful about baptizing children under the age of 5, to evaluate prospective members with a little more concern for their souls, and to have the Word of God drive the church rather than the church growth methodologies.

    The dust has settled on the church growth strategies of yesteryear, and much of it has produced chaff instead of wheat. Just as Willow Creek. Better discipleship isn’t the answer. Better understanding of the gospel, I think, is.

  • Camel Rider,

    Well, I am praying for those in leadership and rallying around those who are displaying a commitment for the gospel more than political tie, who care more about the numbers that God counts than the numbers we tell reporters, who are building bridges rather than burning them. We more men who will do this. Let us pray for broken and contrite spirit to overwhelm our hearts!

    D. Taylor Benton,

    I hear you man. Regarding the SBC getting its house in order, I think that should be the order of business in Indy. Imagine what would happen if we all came together to approach the throne of God with repentant hearts and a spirit of fervor for the gospel?

    What God is doing among Sovereign Grace churches is truly a wonderful thing, and I am glad to see you blessed by the church you are serving in. Do continue to pray for the work going on in the SBC. I think many are discouraged, disillusioned, and at a loss. What now? Three straight years of decline in baptisms. Lowest since 1987. On and on. What now? I think how we answer that question, where we find our solutions, will be crucial for the future of the SBC.

  • Kyle Barrett

    I’m up for a roundtable. 🙂


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  • Just to clarify regarding my comment #1, the church I mentioned did NOT simply go through and hit the delete button on their database. They sent out letters, made phone calls, knocked on the doors of the “last known address”, etc., looking for these folks. Some were found to be members of other churches, some were deceased, some were out-of-state, some were not interested in church anymore, etc.

    I just wanted to say this lest anyone think I was implying that just going through a church roll and recklessly wiping off names is something responsible or good. These folks had at one time “joined a church”, so it is only right to go and find out where they are, both physically and spiritually.

  • Timmy, this is post helps me pray for those within the SBC. I am an independent. But I am praying for one of the SBC congregations, struggling in my hometown. The LDS Zion is keenly watching SBC Zion.

  • scratch the extra “is”

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  • Yep!! I see the decline every week in our youth ministry….. and another great church in the area split because the leadership decided to address and tackle the above problems….. the old guard (big givers) left….

    However, I think the issue is even deeper…. they say that up to 97% of people in our churches attend church, leave and not engage in ministry until next Sunday! 97% – that crazy!! People have adopted the ‘consumer’ mentality rather than living the personal ‘mission’ God has for every believer!! I think this needs to be tackled from the ground up….. inspiring people to live missional lives! Yes, its a leadership issue also…… but, I wonder if the change will come from grassroots??? Time will tell.

    As an fyi…. you may find this interesting, the ministry Im involved in…. we do a lot within the SBC and are looking to team up more with the IMB in the next month or so…. The GO Concert Its a concert tour which aims to inspire people to live missional lives – We just went live with this new tour two weeks ago…. Shane Claiborne, Todd Phillips and Bill Hybels all make an appearance at it via video with inspiring messages that we all have a “mission” and are responsible for living out the call of Christ. We hope to inspire more of that dormant 97% of the church to “wake up”. We’ll see how it goes! 🙂

    Anyways, just an FYI…. keep up the great work!


  • Did you fellows ever think that some from outside the SBC might be planning to bust it up, that they could be the explanation for so much divergence from th original theology, that some of their minions might be in the SBC to drive things to extremes where no one could abide such differences? Infiltration has a long and decided history in the Christian Faith. Think on it, and think on this: What happens to 10,000+ missionaries? Who stands to benefit from the bust up?

  • There is another aspect to this to be considered, one the enemy knows and fears, namely, that our fermenting fusses are but the preliminary noises of an approaching storm, a Great Awakening. Yes, there are promises in the Bible to the effect that this whole earth shall be full of His knowledge and glory as the waters cover the sea, and the honor of that lies in the winning of the world to Christ by Gospel believes being willing to suffer until the cows come home. Nothing is ever easy, especially the best of all. Remember, we have never seen th Gospel in its glorious power as our ancestors and predecessors saw in 1741 and 1801, when it transformed Portestantism from a Gospel recovery movement, contentious, combative, conflicted, into a mission bent on persuading the whole earth ith paradoxical truths passionately proclaimed and practiced.