The Crisis of Decline in the SBC – Why?

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New issues and crises seem to arise weekly in the SBC. Southern Baptist leaders need to respond to current issues and crises, but the mission strategy of the SBC must be shaped by future-focused thinking. What we do today will determine who we will be in 2040. If trends continue the SBC of 2040 will be a fraction of what it is today.

The following charts show that the SBC is in crisis. The Cooperative Program has declined almost $80 million from its peak, despite strong growth in the U.S. economy (see Figure 1). Baptisms have declined to levels not seen since 1938 (see Figure 2). Perhaps most surprising is what has happened in church planting. Though NAMB has increased its church planting budget from $23 million to $75 million, total church plants have declined to less than half the number of a decade ago, and NAMB’s cost per church plant has exploded (see Figures 3, 4 and 5).

The critical question is not, “Is the SBC declining?” Decline is irrefutable. The critical question is “Why?” The answer to this question seems clear when you consider the strategic change made at the SBC Annual Meeting in 2010. Concerned about a more modest decline in baptisms, Southern Baptists formed the Great Commission Task Force, whose recommendations were adopted at the Annual Meeting of the SBC in 2010. Those recommendations were largely implemented by one agency of the SBC – the North American Mission Board (NAMB).

Under the leadership of Kevin Ezell, who was elected President of NAMB in September 2010, NAMB began a process of withdrawing from partnerships with State Conventions and adopted a more unilateral, top-down, nationalistic approach to missions, especially in church planting. NAMB slashed evangelism funding by about 65 percent, shed nearly all evangelism personnel, and eliminated funding for evangelism personnel in associations, state conventions, college campuses, and other places. At the same time, NAMB more than tripled the church planting budget, an increase of over $50 million annually, while nearly eliminating partnership with State Conventions in the starting of churches. This severe reduction of partnership has been devastating as new church starts have plummeted to less than half the number of a decade ago. NAMB’s approach changed from that of partnering with state conventions, and funding through state conventions, who then partner with local associations and churches, to setting up its own, autonomous church planting system in non-south state conventions, and greatly reducing work in the south.

When the current NAMB president began, he requested that he not be evaluated as to NAMB’s effectiveness for 10 years. He believed there would be a resurgence in church planting and evangelistic effectiveness. Alas, the opposite has happened. Initially the NAMB President said NAMB would lead in starting 1,500 churches each year. Then he decreased the goal to 1,200 church plants each year. In February 2020 he announced that the goal was further reduced to 750 church plants each year. In 2019 we recorded the lowest number of new church starts in our lifetimes – 552. The lowest years of the last half century in new church starts are the last four years, and this despite spending three times the money.

One might think that individual church planters are receiving three times as much money, but that is not the case. The church planting budget is funding the purchase of houses for use by a select few church planters (and others). There are also many pastors receiving funding as NAMB ambassadors, mobilizers, coaches, spousal support, etc. An independent forensic financial audit could help identify NAMB property holdings, paid consultants and contractors, and recipients of special grants, among other things. NAMB has reduced spending through state conventions by $50 million each year, maybe more than that (this is a rough estimate). How is this money being spent? The way dollars are allocated for missions in North America has undergone an enormous change in the last decade. With the accompanying decline in mission effectiveness, this bears scrutiny.

These charts reflect the fruit of diminished partnership and little trust between NAMB leadership and many state conventions. I believe this is the primary reason we have experienced steep decline. Southern Baptists were built on cooperation and partnership to advance the Great Commission. Concerning our work in North America, little partnership remains. One retired state convention executive director from a south state said, “Partnership is dead in the SBC,” referring to what NAMB has done. Much more could be said about this, and numerous examples could be given, to support the premise that lack of trust and partnership are the primary reasons for decline in the SBC.

The SBC took the wrong road in 2010 with the GCR and the new NAMB. It’s been said that you can’t turn back the clock, but that is the wrong metaphor for the SBC. We have taken the wrong road, so we must turn back and take the right road. The right road is local autonomy of cooperative missions. The right road is a bottom-up missiology, not a top-down mission strategy imposed by a handful of elite national leaders. Attempts to control cooperative work in North America, and dictate from NAMB headquarters, have failed. We must return to the cooperative mission strategy that made Southern Baptists a great missionary people.

Randy Adams, Ph.D.
Executive Director-Treasurer

Giving the SBC Back

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The way to turn the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and expand its global mission efforts, is to give it back to those who built it. The phrase “take back the ship” has been used by some who have attempted to change the direction of the SBC. For better or worse, some of these efforts succeeded while others failed. However, the best and only long-term solution to unite and “save the ship” of the SBC is to give it back to those who built the ship.

Common convictions, while necessary for unity, are not enough to mobilize a people to advance the Great Commission together. As a pastor, and now leader of a State Convention with hundreds of churches, I have learned that increasing participation builds unity. Pastors work with volunteers, and State Executive Directors do as well. Volunteers can choose to participate, or they can opt out. The choice is often made based on whether they’re included in the process, and whether leaders are transparent and accountable in how they go about the ministry.

Unity and vibrancy in our SBC mission efforts will grow when we give back the SBC ship to those who built it.

“And who built the ship?” you ask.

We need to give the Convention back to the churches, small, medium and large; back to churches rural, town, suburban and city who have faithfully and generously built our Convention through faithful Bible teaching and generous support of missions through the Cooperative Program. We need to give the Convention back to the pew, back to Bob and Betty Baptist, and to Britney, Alex and Briana Baptist, too. We need to give it back to the people who love their neighbor and minister to the sick and send missionaries to the nations because they take seriously the command to obey Jesus’ teaching.

We need to give the Convention back to those whose heroes are missionaries and not Christian celebrities. We need to give the Convention back to widows who tithe from their Social Security because they love Jesus, love their church, love their pastor, and they love their missionaries.

We need to give the Convention back to deacons who pray for their pastor and serve alongside him. We need to give the Convention back to Sunday school teachers and door greeters and the women of the WMU, and all the others who make our Convention of churches work. Let’s give the convention back to the shepherds who love their flock, do the marrying and burying, evangelize the lost, preach the Bible because they believe the Bible, and model a life of joy and gratitude to their community. We need to give the Convention back to those who weep over sin, including their own, and who welcome the repentant sinner.

How do we give the Convention back?

We do it by valuing every church and every person in every church. Respecters of persons cannot lead the SBC to honor God and rebuild a witness to our nation. How do we give the Convention back? We do it primarily through transparency, accountability and broadened involvement through remote access voting at the annual meeting of the SBC.

Transparency is vital if we are to give the Convention back to those who built and continue to sustain it. Entities must open their financial records and provide detailed financial reports, not summaries which fail to disclose crucial information. When tens of millions of dollars are spent to purchase property, provide grants to certain churches, pay monthly stipends to certain pastors, and the details of these expenditures are known to only to a few, it creates the conditions for dividing not unifying. Many financial details are not disclosed to the Trustees charged with oversight. They should be disclosed to every Cooperative Program supporting Southern Baptist pastor and church.

Transparency means that habitual use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) should be discontinued. NDAs are used to suppress speech and information that might be critical, or revealing, of the practices of an institution or entity. NDAs are often used to keep information from being revealed that might embarrass someone or something. Although we don’t use them in the Northwest Baptist Convention, in SBC life they are used by churches, conventions, seminaries and SBC Entities. While NDAs have limited application in Baptist life, they are too often used as part of standard-operating-procedure and this should be stopped.

Regarding transparency, the SBC made an expansive strategic change in the 2010 Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) recommendation, yet the minutes of the committee meetings, which would reveal important details and discussions, have been sealed for all of these years and won’t be unsealed for many years to come. Why should this important information be kept from Southern Baptists? Shouldn’t we operate in the light? Is there some information that should only be accessible to a select few of Baptists, but not provided to the everyday pastor or layperson? According to the numbers, the GCR has actually been a Great Commission Regression, and I think it would be helpful for Southern Baptists to know the details of the internal debate. What concerns did the committee have? Where did the ideas originate and who argued for them and against them? The GCR served to weaken State Conventions and Associations (outside the South) and strengthen the national SBC. How was this debated? It’s been ten years and we still don’t know. It’s time to open the records. And it’s time to evaluate the GCR and re-calibrate (more about that in a future article).

Accountability. We give the Convention back to the pew, back to those who sustain Southern Baptist mission efforts, by enforcing accountability. Leaders must be held accountable for how we steward the ministry of the SBC and affiliated Conventions. Trustees should be trained by someone other than the entities they are selected to hold accountable. Accountability should include the performance of the Entity or Convention, stewardship of resources, Christian character, and, of course, faithfulness to our Lord and His Word. Holding leaders accountable is the chief responsibility of Trustee Boards, but building trust, and debunking conspiracy theories and rumors, is greatly aided when leaders hold themselves accountable to those who built and sustain the Convention.

Remote Access Voting. We give the Convention back by increasing involvement in the SBC through remote access voting. The last time remote voting was investigated by the SBC Executive Committee we were using dial-up. Ninety-two percent of our churches do not participate in the SBC Annual Meeting each year. The time has come to extend involvement to messengers from tens of thousands of churches, small and large. Involvement in making Convention decisions should not be restricted to those with the money to travel across the country to the Annual Meeting. Increasing involvement will build trust and support for Cooperative Program missions.

The SBC becomes stronger when we increase inclusion and empower each autonomous group, not when we centralize power and control. Today’s technology makes this completely doable.

I am allowing my name to be submitted to serve as President of the SBC because I believe we can unite the convention and save the ship. However, we need to do more than philosophize about the problems we face as a convention. We must discuss and find practical solutions to our problems. Offering practical solutions is what I am attempting to do.

I would urge the various groups concerned about the SBC to host meetings in which conversation can occur. I am always glad to discuss the issues we face and the proposed solutions, especially with those who may disagree with me. Let’s discuss in venues open to our people, whether it is a video conference, livestream, or open forum. We can post them so that every concerned Southern Baptist can have access to the discussion.

Unity and vibrancy in accomplishing the mission will grow as we give the ship back to those who built it. My great hope and dream is that this Convention, which has been built and sustained for 175 years, can be given back to the Baptist faithful. The SBC ship was built to carry the good news of Jesus Christ to every person in every place. I believe that’s why God has blessed the SBC, and faithfulness to that great mission will bring continued blessing in the years to come.

Randy Adams
Executive Director-Treasurer
Northwest Baptist Convention

Shine the Light – Building Trust in a Scandal-Plagued World

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“Let us behave decently, as in the daytime” (Romans 13:13a).

We all know that sin thrives in darkness. “Nothing good happens after midnight,” parents warn their kids. But it’s not only physical darkness that provides a covering for sin. Governments, corporations, and even Christian ministries are prone to corruption and various forms of wrongdoing when they operate “in the dark.” What does it mean to operate in darkness if you’re a ministry organization? It means to function without transparency and accountability.

The Northwest Baptist Convention (NWBC), which I serve, has a Board of Directors, established by messengers from NWBC-affiliated churches at our annual meeting. I am accountable to these churches through the Board they have established. The NWBC is a ministry of the churches, established by the churches, so that together they can advance the Great Commission. As such, it is vital that the Executive Director and the NWBC staff maintain the trust and goodwill of our churches. How do we do that?

First, NWBC Executive Board members are trained to understand that their primary job is to hold the executive director and staff accountable to do what we have determined to do as a convention of churches. While I’m called to provide leadership to our convention ministries, I am accountable for how I lead. Sometimes board members in the Baptist world think their primary job is to represent the convention or entity to the churches, but that is not the way the trustee system is designed to work. At every level of Southern Baptist life, board members must represent the interest of the churches to the conventions and agencies. This requires proper training, and it requires that board members be reminded of their responsibility.

Second, the NWBC maintains transparency on the budget, income and expenses. We do this in six primary ways. First, the NWBC Board of Directors is involved in composing the budget and meets corporately to discuss and vote to recommend the budget to NWBC messengers at the annual meeting. Second, the annual budget is discussed and adopted by messengers at the annual meeting. Third, the full executive board receives monthly income and expense reports from the NWBC business manager. Fourth, the Cooperative Program contributions of every participating church is reported in each issue of the NWBC Witness. Fifth, salary structures for each NWBC staff position are adopted by the NWBC Board. Sixth, and importantly, specific budget information, including income and expenses, is available to any participating NWBC church and church member. For example, if a pastor or church member wants to know how much is spent in a ministry area, that information is provided.

Third, the NWBC has policies regarding sexual harassment and abuse, and we do not use nondisclosure agreements, or non-disparagement agreements (NDAs), to hide or cover-up abuse or immoral behavior. In fact, we do not use NDAs, period. No employee or former employee has been asked to sign any agreement that prevents them from speaking privately or publicly. Personally, I have never, in 36 years of ministry, asked a staff member to sign an NDA, nor have I ever signed one. Often money is used to entice a person to sign an NDA. In my opinion, this damages trust and goodwill because it lacks transparency and sends the message that something needs the “cover of darkness.”

Fourth, performance reports and long-term trends are provided and are available. Ministry organizations like to promote and provide good news. Of course we do! We all like good news. But the performance of organizations funded by the freewill gifts of God’s people should be made public and explained, whether the information is encouraging or not. Ministry methods and strategies must always be open for discussion. We don’t debate the veracity of Scripture, but interpretation and application are a different matter. Baptists believe we must advance the Great Commission, but how we best do that, and how well we are doing that, is something that requires continual discussion.

Transparency requires that every decision made, and every dollar spent, must be open to scrutiny. Secrecy erodes trust and trust is essential for an organization to thrive. This has always been true, but in a scandal-plagued world, where ministry leaders fail and fall frequently and publicly, it is essential that we go the extra mile, and then some, to protect our ministries, reputations, and, most importantly, the name of Christ.

I am grateful that the NWBC has enjoyed six continual years of growth in mission’s giving through the Cooperative Program, and that baptisms, church starts, and the number of affiliated churches have all grown as well. We now have more than 500 affiliated churches. Our East Asia partnership has proven highly successful as hundreds of Northwest Baptists have served in East Asia, and some have moved to East Asia to serve long-term. We do not take these Great Commission advances for granted. As servants and stewards of our Lord and His churches, trustworthiness is essential if we are to continue enjoying the confidence of God’s churches.