The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) exists for one grand purpose – to advance the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. I am allowing my name to be entered into nomination for the presidency of the SBC because I believe that we need a clear change in direction in order to fulfill our God-given mission and reverse our present course of decline in every key measurement of Great Commission advance.
I grew up in the small town of Whitefish, Montana. There was no Southern Baptist church in my hometown, but when I attended college in Butte, Montana I met a group from the Baptist Student Union (BSU). They reached out to me and it changed my life. By my senior year I was the BSU Director. I was paid a whopping $50 per month to plan the weekly meetings, teach the Bible study, and build a strategy to reach our campus for Christ. It was a wonderful year in which several students came to Christ and we doubled our weekly attendance. Through that experience God called me to preach, and, after receiving my degree in petroleum engineering, my wife and I moved to Fort Worth, Texas to attend Southwestern Seminary.
I reflect on my BSU experience with gratitude that Southern Baptists cooperate to reach the world for Christ. There was no other Christian group on my college campus – only Southern Baptists – and from that I learned that we must cooperate if we are to accomplish big things, particularly big things in out-of-the-way places.
The growth of Southern Baptists was one of the most important religious developments of the 20th Century. With fewer than 2 million members in the year 1900, Southern Baptists experienced annual growth for more than a century, peaking at 16.3 million members in 2006. The International Mission Board grew to a force of 5,600 missionaries serving throughout the world. A network of over 1,100 local Associations and 42 State Conventions was established to serve more than 45,000 churches and their cooperative mission work. The North American Mission Board (formerly Home Mission Board) largely worked through State Conventions and Associations to assist in church starting, evangelism, mission education, disaster relief, and other missions ministries. Added to these, six Southern Baptist seminaries and dozens of colleges and universities with ties to State Conventions were established to train pastors, missionaries, educators, medical personnel, business persons and others. The numerical and institutional strength of Southern Baptists, coupled with prosperity and religious freedom in the United States, enabled the growth of one of the most potent global missionary forces in Christian history.
While Southern Baptists retain considerable ability to impact the world for Christ, we are currently experiencing our greatest challenge. After waging a decades-long battle for the Bible, we are in danger of losing the war we were founded to fight, that of advancing the Great Commission by making disciples and rescuing the captives of the evil one. In the 2010 SBC Annual Meeting in Orlando, FL, messengers narrowly adopted the “Great Commission Resurgence Report,” with the assurance that these recommendations would lead to an evangelistic “resurgence.” What has happened in the decade since? Increasing levels of decline. A clear-headed assessment of Southern Baptist mission efforts reveals the steepest decline in evangelistic effectiveness in our 175-year history. In the past decade baptisms have fallen to a 75-year low, with the last four years being the lowest four years since 1947. New church starts have plummeted over 50 percent in the past decade to at least a 40-year low, with the last four years being the lowest four years in decades, and this while the church planting budget grew from $22 million to $75 million in less than 10 years. Some suggest that church plant numbers prior to 2010 cannot be trusted. Please note, however, that the SBC was experiencing a net increase of a few hundred churches per year in the first decade of the 21st century, and in 2018 we experienced a net decrease of 379 churches and church-type missions. A declining net increase in total churches over the last several years, including our current net decrease in the number of SBC churches, demonstrates a significant decrease in the number of new churches being started.
Other indicators of decline include 1,900 fewer IMB missionaries, 1.5 million fewer church members, and about 15 percent fewer in weekly worship attendance (over 850,000 persons). Cooperative Program (CP) giving, as a percent of the church budget, has continued to decline and is now less than half of what it was in the 1980s. These trends demonstrate that the Great Commission Resurgence has not produced the results for which we had hoped. Sadly, we are experiencing a Great Commission Regression. Leaders must confront these hard realities in order to make necessary changes.
I understand that some think we should not engage in denominational discourse about our present situation. Some believe that the hard realities of our current condition should not be discussed openly because it puts focus on the “negative.” If we do not honestly confront issues others will do so, including those who do not love the SBC like we do. Christians must be able to engage in honest discourse, speaking the truth in love.
Although we are in the midst of a great challenge, there is also immense opportunity. If we recommit to the purpose for which we were birthed – advancing the Great Commission – and couple that with a missiology that empowers those closest to the field of ministry, we can return to an upward path once again. With this in mind, please join me in affirming seven commitments that will strengthen the impact of Southern Baptists for the cause of the Lord Jesus Christ. For the brutal facts to become blessed realities in the years to come, we must:
1. Prioritize the Mission – The SBC was founded to advance the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. Our primary mission must not be compromised by intra-convention politics or pet projects. Secondary issues are not unimportant, and must be addressed at times, but Southern Baptists were founded to advance the mission, not a political agenda.
2. Determine to Cooperate – No single entity or group can accomplish the mission themselves. We must respect and recognize the value that every church, each association and state convention, the Woman’s Missionary Union, Baptist college ministries, and SBC entities bring to the table. People cooperate to the extent of their inclusion and we must start cooperating again. It is a matter of integrity that denominational leaders give strong evidence of cooperation. This includes an impeccable track record of Cooperative Program support which is the primary means by which Southern Baptists fund Great Commission work.
3. Value Every Church – The local church is the body of Christ purchased with the blood of Christ. Whatever its size, the sphere of influence and potential impact of any church is broader than what we can see in a weekend gathering. As such, every cooperating SBC church should be valued, and strategies to increase the engagement of all churches in SBC life must be employed, including use of technology to enable remote access to voting at the Annual Meeting of the SBC. We should not be satisfied with how few of our churches participate in the Annual SBC Meeting. Cooperating SBC churches must not be disenfranchised from participation in the decision-making process because they cannot afford to travel to annual meeting locations.
4. Listen to the Field – Local churches, followed by associations and then state conventions, are closest to the ministry field. Our national SBC agencies should support and work through local and state convention partners, who have local knowledge and for whom the work is most personal because it concerns the eternal destiny of their closest neighbors. There are regional differences within our nation, and within regions there are vast differences from one community to another. Knowing the particulars of a community, as discerned through prayer and local knowledge, is essential to making disciples for Christ and shepherding believers.
5. Operate in the Light – The SBC should be the toughest place to hide corruption, abuse, and poor stewardship, operating at the highest level of integrity and accountability. We must eliminate organizational tools, structures and processes that help hide wrongdoing and abuse. The SBC and its entities should end the use of, and recall, all remaining Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs). We must not hide corruption and we will not protect predators at the cost of harming victims. There must be transparency in how we make decisions and how we spend money. Records should be open. Property purchases and ownership should be disclosed and records made available. Annual audits of entities should be open and accessible to Southern Baptist constituents. If we choose to operate in the light, we will maximize the trust and goodwill that are essential to maximizing the Great Commission cooperation of Southern Baptists. Transparency and frank communication regarding challenges and opportunities will build trust and unity in the SBC.
6. Speak Truth – We must love our neighbors and we must speak the truth. There are many lies that are told by the world, and these must be countered by the truth found in God’s Word. Just, righteous leadership engages culture with biblical truth and values, not social or political theories.
7. Believe and Obey God’s Word – We must not compromise obedience to God’s Word in word or deed. The Baptist Faith and Message expresses the biblical beliefs and convictions of Southern Baptists, and it provides the theological parameters within which Southern Baptists work together.
These seven commitments reflect the activity, beliefs and behaviors that made Southern Baptists the missionary force that has taken the gospel of Jesus Christ to tens of millions of persons throughout North America and to the world beyond. Southern Baptists can experience a future brighter than our past, but that is not inevitable. It requires that we put the mission first. It means we must rebuild trust and cooperate in a more complete way. We must love God supremely, and love our neighbor as we love ourselves, with hearts set ablaze by the Holy Spirit. God does not need Southern Baptists to accomplish His mission, but if we are to enjoy God’s favor and remain useful to Him, we must plead for the blessing and smile of our almighty, ever-merciful God. Southern Baptists need nothing more than God. He alone has the power to transform our lives and equip us for His mission.
As we prepare to return to Orlando for the SBC in 2020, these are my seven commitments to you. The challenges that face our convention are too big for any one of us to handle alone. However, through open and honest dialog concerning the challenges that face our convention, we can grow the trust and goodwill which will unite us and maximize our efforts to advance the Great Commission.
Like many of you, I am forever indebted and grateful to Southern Baptists and the missionaries we have sent, including those sent to the small city of Butte, Montana. Thank you Southern Baptists!
Northwest Baptist Convention