The Crisis of Decline in the SBC – Why?

Standard

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

Standard

default

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

Trust and Partnership – A Recovery Program for the SBC

Standard

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.