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

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