These declines make clear that the SBC Ship is floundering and requires serious attention. Bright spots do exist and many churches are thriving. Church planting in some regions, such as the Northwest where I serve, is doing quite well. It seems the IMB is poised to rebuild our international missions force, for which we are most grateful. But the SBC cooperative mission’s ship has taken on a lot of water. Let me tell you why I believe this has happened and continues to happen.
First, the shift from overwhelming support, and practice, of Cooperative Program missions was eroded by creating the category of “Great Commission Giving.” If you review the records, promoters of Great Commission Giving largely came from churches whose Cooperative Program (CP) giving was far below that of the average SBC church as a percentage of their budgets. Many SBC leaders could not say “imitate me” when it came to CP giving because if the typical Baptist church imitated the churches of many SBC leaders we would have “gone out of business.” This was/is a huge problem.
Southern Baptists have long believed in the “missions system” that included local Associations, State Conventions, and the SBC Entities (particularly the mission boards and the seminaries that train our pastors and missionaries). Historically, we believed the missions system produced better Great Commission effectiveness than simply “picking and choosing” which part of the system you wanted to support. I wrote about this in 2015 (https://randyadams.org/2015/09/13/do-as-i-do-the-big-issue-for-our-baptist-family/).
Although we can debate whether the creation of Great Commission Giving caused the erosion of CP mission giving, the fact that CP has declined by 34 percent since the 2010 SBC Annual Report is beyond debate. Actual dollars given have declined by 11 percent, but because the dollar purchased more in 2010 than it does in 2020, our CP missions support is 34 percent less in terms of purchasing power. That is real and serious decline, and I believe it was greatly aided by the shift toward Great Commission Giving. Certainly, those promoting Great Commission Giving, as well as urging State Conventions to keep less CP dollars and forward more to the SBC, with the “ideal” of a 50/50 split, claimed this would result in more mission dollars given through CP and SBC causes. However, the opposite has occurred. Fewer dollars are being given through the SBC mission system.
I’ll talk more about solutions in Part 3 of this series next week but will briefly say here that we need to choose leaders with proven track-records of CP support. Furthermore, we must include more Baptists in choosing our leaders through remote-access voting. In a future article I will articulate a plan on how to make remote voting work at the SBC Annual Meeting.
Second, the shift from mission strategies in which local leaders (pastors, associational and state leaders) are primary decision makers, to a top-down approach in which decisions are largely dictated from national leaders, was a catastrophic mistake. I believe the large decline in baptisms and church starts is partly the result of moving to a top-down approach.
This shift to a top-down approach was absolutely intended by the GCR Task Force. I quote from their report: “We call for the leadership of the North American Mission Board to budget for a national strategy that will mobilize Southern Baptists in a great effort to reach North America with the Gospel and plant thriving, reproducing churches. We encourage NAMB to set a goal of phasing out all Cooperative Agreements within seven years, and to establish a new pattern of strategic partnership with the state conventions.” For a complete copy of the GCR go to: http://www.baptist2baptist.net/PDF/PenetratingTheLostness.pdf.
This “national strategy” has nearly eliminated the voice of Associations and State Conventions outside the South. It has greatly lessened work in the South, as well. But in most of the non-South this included eliminating funding for associations, most evangelism personnel, Baptist Collegiate Ministry, and has even reduced funding for church planting missionaries. I believe the huge drop we’ve seen in church plants, a 50-percent drop, despite increasing the church planting budget by more than $50 million dollars, is due to nationalizing our strategy and limiting the input of local leaders.
Think of it this way. What if the Federal Government dictated from Washington D.C. how we educate children in all 50 states, thus eliminating the control of the local school boards? Does Washington D.C. know what’s best for schools in Spokane, WA or Augusta, GA or Jacksonville, FL? No, they don’t. And, by the way, the local community may make a bad decision, but they live with the decision they make. And they have greater incentive to get things right, and correct course when they’re wrong, because their own kids are in those schools. I see a similar principle at work in the evangelism and mission strategies of Southern Baptists. Top-down national strategies that do not give deference to local leadership are doomed to fail. Some are unhappy that I am saying publically that the GCR actually led to a Great Commission Regression, but no one has argued that the GCR worked based on the data.
In Part 3 of this series I’ll offer practical steps the SBC can take to better advance the Great Commission. In light of that, I’ll leave you with the final statement in the 2010 GCR report, and it’s one with which I totally agree. The report concludes by saying we must “Commit to a continuous process of denominational review in order to ensure maximum implementation of the Great Commission.” As we approach the 10-year anniversary of the GCR it’s time to “review” and steer the SBC ship in a new direction.
Northwest Baptist Convention