Saving the SBC Ship – Part 3

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In Parts 1 and 2 of this series I’ve demonstrated that the SBC ship has taken on a great deal of water and is riding low in the sea. Every metric used to chart Great Commission effectiveness has trended sharply downward, especially since the Great Commission Resurgence recommendations were adopted at the SBC in Orlando in 2010. My sources for data are the SBC Annuals which can be accessed online through SBC.net. You can access Parts 1 and 2 of “Saving the SBC Ship” through the following links, which I highly recommend if you’ve not yet read them.

https://randyadams.org/2020/03/03/saving-the-sbc-ship-part-1/
https://randyadams.org/2020/03/05/saving-the-sbc-ship-part-2/

Since publishing those articles I’ve received pushback from leaders at the North American Mission Board (NAMB). More than pushback, and in spite of our growth in baptisms, churches, and CP giving from the churches in the Northwest, and even growth in Annie and Lottie giving, they informed me and our leadership at the Northwest Baptist Convention (NWBC) on March 9 that they will end our joint-funding agreement for evangelism and church planting, and will stop virtually all funding through the NWBC as of September 30, 2021 (we will be able to “request” funds for certain evangelistic and church planting projects). Furthermore, they intend to place NAMB staff to work in the Northwest with no accountability to the NWBC. This has been done in other states as well. This will be interesting, to say the least, because we in the Northwest will not “walk away” from our mission field, the place where we live, and hand church planting in the Northwest to NAMB. We will have church planting staff that is fully funded by the NWBC. We hope that NAMB will reconsider “competing” with us in our own mission field by placing staff here. We value true partnership. But money withheld or given cannot and will not purchase my silence as it concerns the serious issues of decline facing the SBC.
Interestingly, NAMB has not refuted the data that comes from our official SBC Annuals. Nor have they offered a different interpretation of the data, other than to say that church plant reports prior to 2010 cannot be trusted because they are “fake numbers,” a term used from the platform of the SBC Annual Meeting.

Against the “fake numbers” argument, I offer three points. First, current church plant reports are the lowest we’ve seen in at least four decades. Were all prior NAMB leaders, and Home Mission Board leaders prior to the creation of NAMB, “cooking the books” with fake numbers? Is that scenario more likely than the fact that we have seen a steep decline in recent years?

Secondly, our most recent church plant numbers are about 400 below the number of church starts that were reported six and seven years ago when we were under the same leadership at NAMB. They are asserting that we are planting “higher quality” churches that will prove to be more durable. This has not been proven, merely asserted, and even if true it ignores the fundamental issue that we are starting far fewer churches and spending an extra $50 million dollars to do it!

Thirdly, the net increase in Baptist churches from 2000 to 2010 was 4,139 (2001 and 2011 SBC Annuals), and between 2011 and 2018 the net increase was 1,729. The net increase in Baptist churches has dropped significantly, demonstrating that we were adding more new churches in the first decade of the 21st Century. In 2018 we actually suffered a net decrease of 88 churches, and all indications are that we suffered a decrease in 2019 as well. This has so alarmed SBC leaders that we now have an effort to recruit non-SBC churches to affiliate with the SBC, with a goal of 400 affiliations each year, and we will begin counting new church campuses as churches (http://www.bpnews.net/54364/first-person-vision-2025-a-call-to-reach-every-person-for-jesus-christ). You will also note the “new” church planting goal is to start 750 churches each year. In 2010 that goal was 1,500. When that goal seemed out-of-reach the goal was dropped to 1,200 a few years later. Now the goal is down to 750 new church plants each year.

My suggestion to NAMB leadership was, and is, that if they believe the data I use is incorrect, or my interpretation of the data is wrong, they should make that argument. But it needs to be a fact-based argument, not one based on assertions that we should trust them and not trust those who came before them. Moreover, we have still not received an explanation as to why the church planting budget has increased from $23 million to $75 million in less than a decade, while we are planting far fewer churches and baptizing 100,000 fewer people, have slashed NAMB evangelism funding by about 65 percent, and total assets have increased by tens of millions of dollars in cash and property.

So then, how do we save the SBC ship? First, we must know the truth and we must not fear the truth. Knowing the truth requires transparency and accountability regarding finances and strategic decisions. Knowing the truth means knowing all the truth, the good, bad and ugly. Knowing the truth means we need to ask and answer hard questions. I have been told by some that exposing the truth will demotivate Southern Baptists mission giving. I strongly disagree. Truth, even hard truth, moves and motivates people to do more than they ever thought they could. However, I also believe that concealing the truth, burying the truth, ignoring the truth, and retaliating against those who ask hard questions and expose the truth will demotivate Southern Baptists like nothing we’ve ever seen. I believe we are in a struggle for the heart and soul of the SBC, and a part of this struggle is surfacing truth.

Second, we must rebuild trust. Trust requires truth, honesty and transparency. Trust requires mutual respect and valuing all cooperative mission partners. Weaponizing the mission dollars given by Southern Baptist by punishing and starving local associational and state mission partners who advance cooperative missions and the Cooperative Program is no way to build trust, nor is it a way to honor God. When I moved from being a local church pastor to a denominational leader, I soon learned that establishing trust and respect amongst a convention of pastors and churches was much different than doing so in my church. Pastors lead people whom they look in the eye every week, speaking God’s Word into their hearts, calling them by name when they see them on the street, and praying with them before surgery. In denominational leadership trust is mostly earned in ways that are less personal. Trust is earned through transparency, integrity, forthrightness, and competence, among other things. We have a crisis of trust in SBC life and we must restore it if we are to save the ship.

Third, we need to return to New Testament missiology, which is organic, grassroots and bottom-up, with strategic decisions made by those closest to the mission field. The Apostle Paul was commissioned and sent by the church in Antioch, but they did not micromanage him. They unleashed him and released him as he was led by the Holy Spirit to evangelize the lost and gather them into churches. Antioch prayed for Paul and supported Paul, but they did not seek to control Paul and dictate his work. Everywhere in the world where the church is growing, from China to Africa to the United States of America up until the past couple of decades, the growth of the church has been organic. Top-down control from national headquarters has never worked and it never will. This doesn’t mean that some great things aren’t happening. Of course they are! God is at work. He always is! But when you look to the broad scope of the SBC, the picture is not pretty. We must restore biblical missiology to our mission strategy.

We need to return to the time when Southern Baptists believed that every church matters, not just churches deemed “significant” based on size of attendance or budget. If a local church is the Body of Christ, purchased with the blood of Christ, that church matters, and that pastor matters, and the widow with her mite matters, and maybe she matters more. We need to return to cooperation, not competition; partnership, not power plays; and respect for all, not a “respecter of persons.”

I believe our future is bright if we do these things. If we rebuild our convention on a foundation of truth, and rebuild trust, God can bless us in great measure. But we cannot presume growing our Great Commission advance if we continue down our present path. Tragically, ships do sink, even big ones.

Randy Adams
Executive Director-Treasurer
Northwest Baptist Convention

Great Commission Advance through the Northwest Baptist Convention

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Yesterday I released a series of messages on social media that contain factual information detailing the decline of Southern Baptist’s Great Commission impact. You can check my Facebook or Twitter to see those messages. I will release a future article that will go into greater detail.

Today I want to briefly share what the Northwest Baptist Convention (NWBC) is doing to help our churches advance the Great Commission. You see, I believe in a cooperative, systematic approach to evangelism and advancing the Great Commission. While it is the local church that does the biblical work of sharing the gospel, preaching the Word, raising up the missionaries, teaching tithing and stewardship principles, the local Baptist Association and State and National Conventions have played an important role in developing a cooperative system of training and sending and developing resources, among other things.

First, when I arrived in the Northwest in 2013 I promised our churches that the NWBC would provide evangelism resources to every affiliated church, without charge, so that every church, from the smallest to the largest, could equip their people to share the gospel and deploy them to actually do it. The reason we can provide the resources at no cost is because our churches have already paid for them through the Cooperative Program and our NWBC Mission Offering. When I was in Oklahoma I led Oklahoma Baptists to do the same, with my team developing the My316 evangelism materials. We have continued to use these materials in the Northwest, and other state conventions have used them too. However, the NWBC also provides other evangelism tools. In fact, we will pay the bill for any biblical evangelism training resource that a church chooses to use.

Second, we provide evangelism workshops and training every year. Our Annual Meeting always includes workshops on evangelism, and we sometimes do them at other times too. Our Pastor Cluster groups make evangelism a key part of their monthly meetings.

Third, the NWBC established an IMB partnership with East Asia that launched in 2015. In addition to dozens of churches sending teams to work with missionaries, volunteers from the Northwest have staffed several major IMB retreats. These have been coordinated by our NWBC staff. For example, in 2016 we sent 163 people from 32 NWBC churches to minister to our missionaries and their children in a huge training conference. In 2019 we sent 113 people from 23 churches to do the same. We have also staffed smaller IMB East Asia retreats, sending up to 50 people from multiple churches. We do this because we believe in Acts 1:8 missions. Our churches could not do these big retreats and partnerships without leadership from both the NWBC and IMB. That’s part of the “mission system” Southern Baptists have established. Additionally, I have personally preached in 9 IMB retreats and conferences, going back to 1993 in Pakistan. Every church and convention I have served in has been heavily involved in missions, both locally and globally. The result of which has been increased support of missions, both in financial giving and in sending missionaries to the field. Three Northwesterners were commissioned by the IMB just last November.

Fourth, the NWBC has a strong and growing commitment to church planting, in partnership with NAMB. I believe in partnership and cooperation and it grieves me deeply that we do not cooperate like we once did. The NWBC is the only State Convention that remains in a jointly-funded partnership with NAMB. We do this because we believe in what NAMB and the NWBC can do together. Churches young and old need local partners, the Southern Baptist system, which historically was highly relational and local, with national partners primarily supporting the local denominational partners. I believe in that system. I believe in local partnerships strategy and methods that are driven and developed as locally as possible. In my experience, locally driven strategies better mobilize local churches than top-down strategies.

This is a fairly brief summary, but I hope it gives you some idea of our commitment to actually do things that help our churches advance the Great Commission. Is it working? Yes. Not like we want it to work. I always want more and am never quite satisfied with what we are achieving. But since I came to the NWBC in 2013 baptisms have increased, mission giving has increased (Cooperative Program and the mission offerings), church plant numbers have increased, and the net number of churches has increased by more than ten percent (60 more churches at last count). As always, I am happy to address questions and provide clarification or additional information. It is a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest!

Randy Adams
Executive Director-Treasurer
Northwest Baptist Convention

A Heart for Pomeroy

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Recently I preached at FBC, Orofino, ID, population, 3,142. Orofino is a beautiful town on the Clearwater River, a few miles upriver from where the “Lewis and Clark Expedition” camped and made the five canoes in which they travelled all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Church members are currently seeking God’s man to serve as their pastor.

While in Orofino, a person made an offhand comment about a former Director of Missions having “a heart for Pomeroy.” Apparently he wanted to get a church started in the little town of Pomeroy, but it never happened. Pomeroy is in Washington State, 75 miles west of Orofino, with a population of 1,388. It is the only town in Garfield County. An internet search shows seven churches in Pomeroy, none of which are affiliated with the Northwest Baptist Convention.

But it was the phrase, “a heart for Pomeroy” that struck me. The phrase captured my attention because I have driven through Pomeroy many times “on my way” to another place, but I’ve never stopped in Pomeroy. It’s an attractive little town, but as many times as I’ve driven through it, I have not stopped, nor have I developed “a heart for Pomeroy.” I have thought about the fact that we have no church there. I have wondered if the churches that are there provide a faithful gospel witness in that town, but I’ve thought the same about dozens of other towns I drive through on my way to someplace else. It’s impossible to truly have a “heart” for dozens, or hundreds, of specific communities spread across thousands of miles of roads in the Northwest.

No, I don’t have a “heart for Pomeroy,” certainly not like that Director of Missions had many years ago. What’s more, I don’t personally know a person who has a “heart for Pomeroy,” at least none of which I’m aware.

That causes me to ask two questions. First, “Is there a person who has a heart for Pomeroy?” Second, “Is it important that someone has a heart for Pomeroy?” The answer to the first question is, I don’t know if there is a missionary/pastor/lover-of-Jesus who has a heart for Pomeroy, but if there is it’s probably someone who lives there, or near there, and who feels a deep sense of responsibility to reach that town for Christ. If there is one living person who has a heart for Pomeroy, it’s someone who knows that little town, or has someone they love living there, and they don’t want the one they love to be left without a faithful gospel witness. If there is a person alive with a heart for Pomeroy, it’s a person who has prayed for Pomeroy, and as they prayed names and faces came to mind.

Now for the second question, “Is it important that some living person has a heart for Pomeroy?” I believe the answer is yes. And if the answer is yes, who will that person be? Most likely it will be someone who feels responsible for Pomeroy, spiritually responsible, like the Director of Missions did. It may be someone who grew up there, or has family there. It will be someone who believes that every person deserves to have a gospel witness. If a person has a heart for Pomeroy, it will be a person deeply burdened that every child in the town has someone praying for them and sharing Christ with them. It will be someone who believes that every human being is made in the image of God, and thus every person is valuable and someone for whom Christ died, and that every person for whom Christ died has a basic right to know who Jesus is and what He did for them.

Every community needs people who love Jesus who also “have a heart” for their community. The tragedy, as I see it, is that we have far fewer people than we once did who are tasked with the responsibility to see that every town, and neighborhood, and people group, have a church ministering to them. There was a time, only a decade ago, when virtually every county in America had a Southern Baptist missionary working full-time to reach that county. In many places, like where I serve in the Northwest, a missionary might be assigned four or more counties. Still, there was at least one person in that part of the world who was responsible to “have a heart” for the people there.

We still have missionaries assigned to certain areas, but not as many, and they are assigned to vastly bigger territories. We can discuss and debate the strategic choices which were made, and are being made, that brought us to these reduced numbers. But it is probably more helpful to explore the question, “What do we do now?” The answer, I think, is that we need “average Christian people” (is there such a thing?) to invest themselves in Kingdom service, asking God to “give them a heart” for their city, for their people, and for their neighbors.

There aren’t enough “professional clergy” (a worse term than “average Christian”), or called-out missionaries, to assign to every community. We need more, many more, farmers and teachers and homemakers and business people who have “a heart for Pomeroy” and a heart for your town. Will you be one of those?

Travelling to Orofino and driving through Pomeroy was important for me, as was following the trail of those first explorers and being reminded of their do-whatever-it-takes mentality. It was that pioneering, overcoming spirit that brought people out west. And when you join a pioneering spirit to the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life, you have a heart that God can use to bless a city.

An Encouraging Word about God’s Work in the Northwest

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In a world where tragedy, scandal, and politics dominate the news, sometimes you need to hear a good, refreshing word. With that in mind, I want to share some of the really good things that have been happening in the Northwest.

As I write, 28 are gathered in our Northwest Baptist Convention (NWBC) building, learning how to serve churches as “transitional pastors.” These are men who’ve spent their lives as pastors, and now they will continue to serve churches that are seeking their next pastor. These men are lifelong learners and in ministry lifelong learning is the “fountain of youth.” It keeps you relevant, effective, and vigorous. Helping church prepare for the next pastor, and find a good pastor, is probably the most important and helpful thing we can do for a church.

This spring a preaching conference served 40 pastors, followed by another on reaching and caring for people (Count the Cost), with about the same number attending. “Count the Cost” is something you’ll be hearing more about as it will help any church regardless of size, location, ethnicity or language. We’ve also had 128 attend children’s ministry and VBS training this spring. Our annual Women’s Summit had 302 women, by far our largest attendance ever. One person told me that she brought a friend who was a Buddhist and she gave her life to Christ at the Women’s Summit!

Our annual Youth Conference had 440 in attendance, with 12 professions of faith. Our NWBC youth ministry leader, Lance Logue, invited two boys playing basketball to join the conference. They said they weren’t there for the conference, but he told them they were welcome to attend. They did, and both boys prayed to receive Christ!

In April we had 247 gather for our annual NWBC Church Planter’s Retreat. This included 58 pastors, 45 wives, and over 100 of their kids. Twenty-two volunteers taught the VBS curriculum to the kids. Languages represented among these church planters included English, Spanish, Korean, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Romanian and Mandarin. And we had four new churches launch on Easter Sunday!

What about Disaster Relief? In April 140 DR volunteers attended a two-day training event, preparing for wherever they might be deployed. If you have a disaster in your area, know that we have people ready to serve. DR chaplains have been called upon in school shootings and other traumatic events.

You are providing all types of leadership training and resources by supporting missions through the Cooperative Program. When people are trained, you are providing the training through the NWBC. When Disaster Relief volunteers are deployed, you are sending them through the commitment of your church to invest in a cooperative mission’s strategy. At our church planting retreat, I told all of our church planters that every cooperating NWBC church is investing in them through Cooperative Program missions giving (and through the Northwest Impact Mission Offering).

I know I’m giving you a lot of numbers, but these numbers represent people, and most of these numbers represent people trained for ministry in our churches – your church! Is it making a difference? Yes! According to our Annual Church Profile information, worship attendance increased in our NWBC churches to 33,433 in 2018, up from 29,412 in 2017. Small group attendance increase to 20,406, up from 18,455 in 2017. Total baptisms reported by our churches were 1,742. This number is down from 1,954 the previous year, but the general trend over five years is up. That said, we must make sharing the gospel a top priority and it is our commitment to help you by providing resources and training yearly.

One final word: please pray for the 115 people from 26 of our NWBC churches who will serve hundreds of IMB missionaries and their children in Asia this coming July.

I hope this brief report encourages you as it does me. It is a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest!

Chinese Baptist Church, Seattle, a Missions Success Story

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Recently Paula and I attended Chinese Southern Baptist Church (CSBC) in Seattle where we joined them in celebrating 35 years of ministry. Founded by returning missionaries to China in 1984, Pastor Andrew Ng has led the church for more than 30 years. The church was formed by reaching Cantonese speaking people, most coming from Hong Kong. On this day, they baptized six new believers and also had the blessing of recognizing the very first person baptized when the church was founded 35 years ago.

CSBC represents the best of missions in the Northwest. Not only do they continue to reach people for Christ, this church which was begun through the Cooperative Program (CP) giving of Northwest and SBC churches, is now a leader in CP mission giving themselves. They also participate in the Northwest Baptist Convention partnership with our international missionaries (IMB) in Asia.

Of particular interest is that Chinese Southern Baptist Church now has an English language ministry that is larger than its Cantonese ministry. Of the six baptized the Sunday we were there, four worship with the English language congregation and two with the Cantonese congregation. Pastor Matthew Zwitt has led the English language ministry for eight years. Under the wise leadership of Pastor Ng, the church came to understand that as it ages, and the children grow, English would become the preferred language of second and third generation immigrants. Also, an English language ministry has enabled them to reach people beyond the Chinese community. We met people from Vietnam, Japan, China, Taiwan, Macao and the United States, worshiping together in English. Pastor Zwitt speaks only English, with no Cantonese ability. Still, he has learned that culture is broader than language, and he has learned to thrive in a majority Chinese-culture church.

CSBC is successfully transitioning into an English language majority church, which is what most of our immigrant churches must do to remain vibrant and effective into the future. The experience of CSBC is not unique. The Northwest has Korean, Russian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Romanian, Burmese and Spanish majority churches that have strong English-language ministries. In one Vietnamese church, the pastor preaches in both languages, moving back and forth, seemingly without effort, from one language to the next. Most churches have separate worship services for English. One church worships in English, but has small groups in multiple Asian languages. They are taking various approaches, but in their own way, our immigrant churches are seeking to reach people, including their own children, with the message of Jesus Christ.

Sometimes we wonder what our mission efforts accomplish. Missionary work is never easy, but assessment is aided by time, even a lifetime, and by remembering that God has been writing its story all along.

2018 A Year of Kingdom Growth in the Northwest

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Twenty-nine new Northwest Baptist (NWBC) churches and a fifth consecutive annual increase in Cooperative Program (CP) missions giving mark continued growth in the mission of NWBC churches. Additionally, the Northwest Impact Missions Offering recorded the largest annual increase in decades, totaling $136,691, or $39,837 above the 2017 offering of $96,854. Growth in numbers of churches and missions giving doesn’t tell us all we need to know about our spiritual health, but they are indicators that our Kingdom footprint in the Northwest is expanding.

First, consider these facts about the 29 new churches (including new church plants, affiliates and campuses). Thirteen new churches are in Oregon and 16 are in Washington. About half of these churches are in the Portland and Seattle metro areas, and half are in other cities and towns. The size of the communities range from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands. Two of the 29 churches worship in the Arabic language, one in Russian, one in Zomi, another in Cambodian, five in Spanish, one in Korean, another in Vietnamese, and 17 in English. That’s new churches in eight different languages, all in one year!

How does this happen? The same way it did in the First Century. Some planted, others watered, and God gave the increase. It takes churches, pastors, and missionaries, all working together, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to see the Kingdom advance, and especially cross-cultural, multi-linguistic, Kingdom advance. We need the SBC system of seminaries and mission agencies; we need churches, associations and conventions, all working together, each doing their part, to effectively and consistently penetrate lostness in the Northwest.

Great Commission work is never accomplished by “me and Jesus and no other.” It’s always Jesus and me and many others. Paul had Barnabas and Timothy and Silas, but he also had the Church at Antioch, later joined by churches in Philippi and Ephesus and many others.

Second, CP missions giving in 2018 totaled $2,849,089, for an increase of $35,863 over 2017. With CP missions decreasing nationally, it is remarkable that we have experienced five consecutive years of growth in the Northwest. This, together with significant growth in our Northwest Impact Mission Offering, puts us in a strong position as we train leaders, start and strengthen churches, and do missions, including Disaster Relief missions, in 2019.

Speaking of missions, please pray about joining your fellow Northwest Baptists in sending a team of 130 people to Asia in July 2019. We will minister to hundreds of our overseas workers and their children. More information about this mission opportunity is included elsewhere in the Witness. Paula and I will be there, as will others from throughout the Northwest. In 2016 we sent 163 from 32 churches, so I’m confident we can do this by God’s grace and through faith in Him.

This is an opportunity for rejoicing, Northwest Baptists, and for giving God praise and glory for the great things He has done. Together we see God working mightily in our day, this good day He has given to us.

Trust and Partnership – A Recovery Program for the SBC

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The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) needs a recovery program.  Followers of Jesus, including those who lead, are not exempt from addiction to power, money, and sex, and we have been reminded of this with jarring frequency over the past few weeks and months.  Deep wounds caused by multiple failures are now festering from infection.  Added to the more public matters is a sick hubris that has caused some to weaponize money and leadership, intentionally hurting others, certain that they are smarter, wiser, or better than “them.”  Much of the focus has been on the resignation of leaders and the firing of a seminary president, and rightly so, but perhaps worse than the headlines is our deficit of trust and partnership that has grown as large as the national debt.  Although trust and partnership have been eroded in multiple ways, the serious erosion of cooperation and trust between the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and denominational partners has led to a collapse in the numbers of churches started and the number of new believers baptized.

Many think that we are in the midst of a church planting boom in the SBC.  We are not.  In the past two years we have tallied the lowest number of new church starts in decades, reaching a new low of 691 throughout North America in 2017.  Moreover, new church plant numbers the past seven years are far below the seven years prior, while the church planting budget is 350 percent higher than it was in 2010!  The truth is we are experiencing a colossal collapse in the number of new church plants while spending far more money from the NAMB budget.  The primary reason that Southern Baptists are planting half as many churches as we were ten years ago is because the North American Mission Board (NAMB) has greatly reduced its cooperation with state and regional conventions in favor of a top-down approach in which NAMB mostly controls church planting outside of the south, and in which NAMB has greatly reduced funding for church planting in the south.

Add to this the fact that NAMB has slashed evangelism funding to about one third of what it was ten years ago.  In 2010 NAMB had an evangelism staff of 52 people, organized into six teams, in addition to hundreds of state convention jointly-funded positions.  In 2018 there are only two people in evangelism (a leader and his assistant) listed on NAMB’s website, and the one evangelism leader is also the pastor of a church with attendance over 1,000.  This is especially striking when you learn that NAMB currently lists 30 staff doing marketing and event planning!  At the state convention level, NAMB has also slashed evangelism funding for personnel, so that we have a fraction of the national evangelism leaders and far fewer evangelism implementers at the associational and state level.

Evangelism funding was reduced because, NAMB argued, the best way to do evangelism is to start new churches.  While that can be debated, there is no debate that evangelistic funding from NAMB was intended to serve all 47,000 SBC affiliated churches, while church planting funding focuses only on church plants.  Most evangelism is done by established churches because that’s where the vast majority of our people worship – common sense!  But we are experiencing a disastrous drop in the number of new believers following Jesus in baptism.  Baptisms have plummeted to a level not seen in more than 70 years.  In 2015 we dropped below 300,000 baptisms for the first time since 1947, and in 2017 a total of 254,122 persons were baptized.  This is a drop of 24 percent from 2011 when 333,000 were baptized.  There is almost no living memory of a time Southern Baptists baptized so few.  As seen in the chart below, we are currently experiencing the steepest decline in baptisms in recorded SBC history (source is the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, Vol. 1 No 2, Fall 2003 and SBC Annuals).

SBC-baptisms_1900-2017

The extreme reduction in cooperation between NAMB and state conventions, including the elimination of funding for hundreds of associational and state convention positions, has greatly reduced the ability of local Southern Baptist denominational entities (state conventions and local associations) to serve the needs of our churches, which is partly why we are experiencing serious decline (including a decline in Annual Church Profile reporting because of fewer associational and convention employees working to get the information).  In the Northwest Baptist Convention our convention staff is less than half the number that we were in 2009.  Believing the incendiary charge that state conventions were “bloated bureaucracies,” a handful of influential SBC leaders and influencers pushed for state conventions to give more cooperative dollars to the national SBC (a 50/50 split was called for), and NAMB reduced funding to state conventions at the same time.  These actions, and the accusations that were hurled toward state conventions, have done great damage to relationships, destroyed trust, and damaged our ability to start churches and engage in a cooperative evangelism effort.  Both church plant numbers and baptisms plummeted following the changes that began in 2010, which, ironically, was the year the Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) recommendations were adopted at the SBC in Orlando, FL, and in which the GCR called for “the phasing out of Cooperative Agreements” between NAMB and state conventions.  Unfortunately, no effective cooperative strategy has replaced the cooperative agreements, thus we have become less effective at planting churches and doing evangelism than we were prior to the GCR.  I’ve recently noticed that others, too, have recognized the need for recovery in the SBC, including those behind the Reform NAMB Now movement (www.reformnambnow.org).

Some think that talking openly and honestly about the fact of our decline, and the reasons for it, is “not helpful.”  Some fear that if Baptists are told the truth it will demotivate cooperative giving.  Apparently they weren’t taught the old Baptist axiom “trust the Lord and tell the people.”  Transparency is vital.  The truth of the matter is critical if we are to build and maintain trust.  Unity without truth enables bad behavior.  The people who support the work have a right to know the truth.  They deserve an honest reporting of our present condition, and an honest and open debate, even if some leaders find it unhelpful to themselves.

Some might also think that because our entities are governed by trustees elected at the annual meeting of the SBC that it is unnecessary and counterproductive to discuss these matters in a public forum.  But I believe that SBC trustees need to hear from rank-and-file, pew-sitting Baptists whose tithes are paying the bills.  “Brett and Brianna Baptist” should not be kept in-the-dark about the issues and how their Cooperative Program mission’s dollars are being spent.  Trustee boards operate best when the SBC constituency knows the issues and can discuss the issues with the trustees.  Trustees represent Southern Baptist people and Southern Baptist Churches.  They do not represent the entity on whose board they sit.  Therefore, trustees need to hear from an informed constituency.

So, what can we do to build back trust and cooperation at all levels of the SBC?  First, we must be open and honest about our present condition and not suppress “negative information” out of fear that Baptists cannot handle the truth.  SBC entities need to present the reality of their situation and not merely provide reports that highlight the positives and conceal the challenges and failures.  State conventions and associations must do the same.  Acknowledging reality, and dealing with things as they really are, is where leadership begins.  God’s people can handle the truth.  What they cannot handle, and what they deeply resent, is the truth being concealed and covered up.

Second, building trust and cooperation requires selecting leaders who believe in the cooperative system, including the cooperative funding system that made the SBC the greatest missionary denomination we have ever known.  Southern Baptists have some pastors who are effective leaders for their church, but they are not effective leaders denominationally because they do not sufficiently believe in, or participate in, the Cooperative Program method of funding our ministry and the cooperative structure that we have established locally, statewide, and nationally.  Most Southern Baptists worship in churches of less than 200 on Sunday.  These churches give the most money to cooperative missions and they send the most missionaries.  They believe in, and practice, cooperative missions.  We need leaders who understand this and celebrate the cooperative efforts and sacrifices of these churches.  This doesn’t mean large-church pastors can’t lead the SBC – not at all!  But it does mean these pastors need to believe in the cooperative method of missions from which we have benefitted for 90 years.  If our missionary methods don’t capitalize on the combined strength of the 99 percent of our churches which have fewer than 1,000 on Sunday, we will continue to decline and fail to accomplish all that we could for the glory of God.  In 2017 Southern Baptist churches gave $475 million to missions through the Cooperative Program and $215 million through the two national mission offerings.  Those churches that strongly support the Cooperative Program need SBC leaders who do the same.  SBC leaders must be able to look pastors in the eye and say, “imitate me” regarding Cooperative Program giving.  If an SBC leader cannot do that, he’s like a pastor who implores his people to give generously while he gives miserly.

Third, we must return to a cooperative system between NAMB and state conventions that prioritizes a church planting and evangelism strategy that is formed and led mostly by those closest to the field of ministry.  How can leaders in Alpharetta, GA know what’s best for Syracuse or Chicago or Seattle or Anchorage, not to mention the thousands of smaller communities that are inevitably overlooked by everyone except those who actually live there?  This includes both church planting and evangelism strategies.  In the name of planting more churches NAMB has exploded the church planting budget and slashed the evangelism budget.  The result is far fewer churches being planted and a collapse in total baptisms.  I believe this decline in church plant numbers is largely the result of a top-down national strategy that has reduced missionary boots-on-the-ground, ignored the input and pleas of local leaders, and destroyed the trust we once enjoyed between national and state convention leaders.  It’s not working and the numbers tell the story.  Actually, the numbers tell part of the story.  The rest is told by the wreckage done to relationships and families in the implementation of this terribly flawed strategy.

Is the SBC still worthy of our support?  Absolutely.  We no longer have 5,600 international missionaries, but we still have 3,500 fully-funded missionaries and no other network of churches comes close to that number.  Presently we are not starting 1,200 to 1,500 churches each year, but no other network started the 691 churches that SBC churches did in 2017.  Can God rescue us and revive us and bless us once again?  Without question He can.  He’s done it many times before.  But it’s a fact that churches die, movements die, and denominations have died too.  It is not inevitable that we recover our former effectiveness, and it’s not even certain that we will survive for another generation.  God’s plan is certain.  He will prevail.  Of that we can be certain. But whether the SBC continues to play a leading role in His plan is yet to be determined.

For now, we need prayer and repentance.  We must execute a turnabout, spiritually, relationally, and strategically.  Good organization and strategy won’t move the heart of a holy God.  Only hearts directed toward Him, seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness, will bless God and cause His face to shine upon us.  If we do that individually, we’ll be all right, come what may.  As far as the SBC goes, a recovery program requires building trust, respect, and true partnership founded upon truth and acknowledging reality.  If we can do this, we can recover and experience vitality once again.