Corporate Church, Consumer Membership

The business of church statistics and research seems to be expanding in recent years.  Apparently, churches and denominations are willing to spend an increasing share of their budget money to find a way to increase their attendance and subsequently their budget from contributions in the collection plate.  Many of the posts show up on social media, linked by friends of mine who are pastors or denominational staffers trying to make a point.  There are a few who are able to crunch theoretical numbers and write articles to convince us that what is a genuine drop off in the attendance and membership of Protestant and now Evangelical Christian churches isn’t really a drop off, just a shift in the way we look at statistics.  Others are pretty honest in identifying the problem, but not very Biblical in providing a solution.  And that’s at least part of what I believe is one of the root causes of the problem in the first place.

A church may be able to grow numerically by employing some principles of modern American corporate business.  But that’s not going to generate evangelistic, “Kingdom growth.”  For that, you need to turn to the Bible.

In 2010, my wife and I relocated because of a job offer I received.  We were both raised in Southern Baptist churches but this job involved working for an institution that belonged to a different denomination and while they didn’t require us to join one of their churches, the area where we moved did not offer the kinds of church choices that we experienced in the South.  In fact, there was only one SBC church in the county where we moved and it wasn’t geographically situated in a place that made it possible for us to consider regular membership.  What we prayed for was that God would lead us to a church where our spiritual gifts would be needed and used.

The first church we visited identified itself as a “community church” by name.  It was what I would call a fairly typical non-denominational, Evangelical church.  I noticed, to my wife’s amusement, that they borrowed heavily from Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area.  Well, I’d been to a couple of their small-group conferences and recognized some of the “branding” concepts.  The pastor was a “series preacher,” each series was 12 sermons in length, each organized around a specific theme.  On Sunday morning, the ushers, church staff and the pastor were all wearing yellow T-shirts with the sermon series logo and title on the front, and there was a stage setting on the platform that had a backdrop with props that matched the logo and color theme.  There was video equipment to record each sermon (not the worship beforehand, though) and in the foyer, there was a counter where you could sign up for a series of church events, and purchase the video from the previous week.  You could also buy the study guide.

The building was mostly sanctuary and offices, the auditorium doubled as a fellowship hall and the few classrooms were for preschoolers and the nursery.  The Bible teaching ministry took place during the week in small groups in homes.  The one we went to had about 20 adults present.  There was a 20 minute video of the pastor, in his theme “T”, elaborating on a couple of the points of his sermon.  There was about a 20 minute question and answer time.  The group leader played the video of the pastor asking a question then paused,  There was some discussion and a couple of people answered, then the video came back on and the pastor told us the correct answer to the question.  Refreshments were served afterward.  Oh, the group leader also wore the yellow theme t-shirt.

Think that’s branding overdone?  Think again.  That’s a pretty common experience for most Evangelical Christians who attend a mega-church, or even a mid-sized non-denominational church like this one.  Satellite churches are also becoming more common and not just multiple locations of a local church.  We visited one during this same period of time when, following the worship time, a large screen dropped down during the “prayer time” and we watched a satellite feed of the pastor preaching at a different location.  We were in Pennsylvania.  He was in Georgia.  And I understand that people in half a dozen different states were tuned in at the same time.  That’s where the collection was sent.

That kind of “branding” does attract people.  Mostly, it attracts people who are looking for a church that will serve them, help them meet their needs with some inspiration and motivation on Sunday, provide something for their children to do and maybe get them marginally involved in a weeknight group around coffee and sandwiches and a twenty minute mid-week motivational boost video.  From what can be observed by the statisticians and researchers, it is attracting a lot of marginal members out of existing churches into the larger ones, because a larger gathering produces a large enough offering to pay for the smorgasbord of services provided to keep the people who have been attracted to the church.  It’s designed to appeal to people who are already familiar with church and who are attracted to all of the offerings of a big church.  All they experience in their smaller congregation are persistent requests to serve and an amateur praise band made up of volunteers, or perhaps just a piano and an organ and a “song director.”

Church growth by evangelism takes a little more than theme t-shirts, a flashy stage setting with appropriate lighting and a paid praise team.  It takes looking into the scripture to become familiar with the message of salvation, become familiar with things like the Holy Spirit’s conviction of sin and how to be supportive and be used by God to “draw the net” when someone falls under it.  It requires making and building relationships with people who aren’t in your Tuesday night Bible study-Pastor video watching group and maintaining those relationships whether you get a response or not.  It requires understanding and patience instead of judgement and condemnation.  It requires a regular prayer life, a connection to the Holy Spirit, and growing in knowledge and wisdom from continuous study of the scripture.  It requires you to let God be God and take the lead and sensitivity to know when to follow.

I grew up in a small Southern Baptist church in a small town in Arizona.  The church was formed in 1954 when a nearby military base was re-activated and a group of people transplanted by job or military service from somewhere in the South and another group from Texas who moved when a natural gas compressor plant opened up, started a Baptist church there.  It’s never been a congregation of more than 120 people, though through outreach and evangelism it has become less made up of transplanted southerners and more reflective of the local population which, typical of a growing community in Arizona, is from everywhere.  Their “branding” is typical Baptist church of the 70’s.  The worship music is led by a 70 year old lady with an absolutely beautiful voice accompanied by a piano and organ.  They have upgraded the sanctuary since I was in the youth group, replacing metal folding chairs with second-hand pews purchased from another church somewhere, carpeted the tile floor and the platform and replaced the baptistery curtains, though the painting of a creek flowing down from the mountains by a local artist is still there.  They sing hymns and a couple of choruses.  They pass a plate and take an offering.  There is a choir special before the sermon.  The last time I was there for a service, there were 12 people in the choir and about 100 in the congregation.  They had Sunday School classes “for all ages” at 9:45 a.m.  They baptized five people in this service, all adults.  According to their annual profile, their membership is 221 and they baptized 20 people last year.

Collectively, if you did the research, you’d find that most of the evangelism taking place across the spectrum of Evangelical Christianity in this country is happening in churches that are branded just like this one.




Another Baptist Battle at a University

SBU Trustees Affirm Dismissal of Professor

A theology professor at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, a school affiliated with the Missouri Baptist Convention, was fired in November of 2018.  Media reports about the firing seem to indicate that the professor was fired because he failed to follow the university’s written policy and was engaging in activity aimed at getting other professors in the Courts Redford School of Theology at the university fired.

The professor who was fired was apparently gathering information about what other professors were teaching in their classes and then passing that information along directly to officials of the Missouri Baptist Convention.  The allegations contend that he was attempting to prove that other professors in the theology school were not teaching in accord with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 version which both the university and the Missouri Baptist Convention have adopted as a confession of faith.  He was fired because the written policy of the university states that the administration of the school, the university president and any provosts who are part of that office, is responsible for handling those kinds of issues and the recourse for grievance beyond that is an appeal to the school’s trustees.  And that’s where it must end.

As I look at the convention’s governing documents, the trustees of each of its entities, including its educational institutions, are the final layer of authority when it comes to all matters pertaining to the university.  The convention does have a share of control.  It can pass a non-binding resolution with recommendations to the trustees about how to handle a problem that comes to their attention and it is the body that elects the university’s trustees on a rotating schedule every year.  It does not have the authority or ability to issue directives.  By transmitting information uncovered in his classroom investigation directly to state convention officials, the professor was violating university and convention policy.  So the university president fired him.  The trustees met for five hours in December going over all of the evidence and unanimously approved the president’s actions.  And of course, it’s a Southern Baptist organization so while that should have been the end of it, and it is highly likely that it is as far as the professor is concerned, it turns out it is only the beginning of a much bigger controversy.

Surprised?  You shouldn’t be.  This is standard operating procedure among Southern Baptists, the geographic location is incidental.

Here’s the problem.

The professor who was fired was fairly popular among a segment of the school’s alumni and current students, mainly conservatives who fully support the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.  Many of them, in coming to his defense, pointed to some of the same issues the professor was raising and which were the basis for his investigation that caused his firing, that there were things being taught in Biblical studies classes at Southwest Baptist University that were not in agreement with the BFM 2000, in spite of the fact that the whole faculty had attested to their agreement with it.  So it appears that this issue was raised initially to assist the professor with his defense to the administration and to the trustees.  It continues, outside the proper channels where it should be addressed, because this group of his defenders didn’t get the resolution they wanted, which was to have him restored to his position and to ensure that professors they claimed were not teaching in accord with the BFM 2000 remained under an investigative cloud and fired if possible.

There are social media sources where this group of SBU alumni have listed some of the specific professors whom they claim are not teaching in a way that is consistent with the required support for the BFM 2000 and they have listed some of the things they allege are being taught as proof of this.

The BFM does a good job of defining the doctrinal beliefs Southern Baptists consider essential to ministry and missions cooperation.  There isn’t anything in it with which I would disagree enough to require any explanation of my difference of opinion.  The fact that a majority of messengers at an annual meeting of Southern Baptists approved it is a testimony to its simplicity.  It leaves room for differing interpretation, in some cases a pretty wide latitude of interpretation.  The 2000 version removed the statement about Jesus being the :criterion by which all scripture is to be interpreted” and replaced it with a statement that points to Jesus as the focus of all scripture, which gives even more latitude for interpretation.  Clearly Calvinists and Non-Calvinists can agree on just about all of the content, and if you tend to be more Charismatic in your practice, you would still find it compatible with your theology.  You can agree with it and hold just about any view of eschatology.  It avoids doctrinal issues that tend to be divisive, leaving those up to the discretion of the church to decide.

I never attended any classes at Courts Redford School of Theology at SBU, although my wife went there for all four years of college and graduated with a B.S. in psychology.  So I can’t comment on the context of the professors’ statements or why some students, now alumni, would come to the conclusion that they were not consistent with the BFM.  I’ve seen the blogs and the social media posts from the critics of the professors whose teaching they claim is outside of the parameters of the doctrine defined by the BFM 2000.  If what they claim is an accurate description of what was being taught and how it was presented, I would agree that some of what they address, though by no means all, is not consistent with a traditional, relatively strict interpretation of the BFM 2000.  But there are other things they say are being taught that I would have difficulty claiming are counter to the BFM.  Some of the clarity issues lie with the critics and their explanation of what they claim is being taught at SBU.  And there are unanswered questions about the context of the professor’s statements.  Were they simply raising issues to prompt critical thinking or were they stating their personal beliefs and convictions?  Where do you draw the line on assumptions when you’re reading their claims?

Here’s where I have my doubts.  The President of SBU is a Southern Baptist and a theological conservative who is, IMHO, capable of making a determination based on the evidence that is presented to him as to whether a statement is consistent with the BFM 2000 or not.  From what I have read about him, I cannot see why he would be willing to allow doubts to be raised about the theological soundness of his university’s theology school that would undermine it in the minds of most Southern Baptists.  If he was presented sound, credible evidence that the professors in the Redford school were teaching the things I’ve read from its critics, I believe he would take action and fire those professors.

Many of the trustees on the SBU board are also alumni, covering a wide swath of the university’s recent history.  They sat in these classrooms with these professors and with the alumni who are now raising questions about the consistency of their teaching with the BFM 2000.  I recognize several of the names, some I know only by reputation, a few I’ve met personally, all are theological conservatives.  I find it difficult to believe that they’re serving on this trustee board, aware of these allegations that have been brought to them, but deciding not to do anything about them if they were true.  The Missouri Baptist Convention is one of the most conservative state conventions in the SBC and the system for vetting trustees is tight.  The nominating committee wouldn’t ever even mention a name if they weren’t sure of the person’s absolute commitment to a literal interpretation and application of the BFM.  And anyone who has been Southern Baptist for even a little while knows that the breadth and depth of the good ole boy network that influences committee and board nominations ensures that only those who are well connected and have a lot of influence ever see a trustee meeting as a member of the board.

And as this issue gets more attention, other SBU alumni are stepping up and saying that these charges are inaccurate representations of the Redford school faculty.  They claim that while some of these issues were discussed in some classes, none of the professors ever claimed them as compatible with their own position.  A good teacher will not always tie up the package with a neat ribbon for their students, they will challenge them to use the scripture as a measuring rod for truth and do some critical thinking and let them figure it out.  The BFM 2000 doesn’t always close the box and tie the ribbon either.  You can be in complete agreement with it and still find plenty of things to fight over with fellow Southern Baptists.

This is a frequent occurrence among Southern Baptists, almost a standard M.O.  Part of the problem is that many Southern Baptists haven’t really figured out whether the role of their institutions of higher learning is to disseminate and teach what the people in the pew, or more accurately, the messengers at the convention, think they ought to be teaching, which is nothing more than indoctrination, or whether the process of education involves teaching students how the knowledge and skills they learn in the classroom becomes true wisdom.  That involves a process through which they develop critical thinking skills and are able to discern truth for themselves through understanding the process of illumination of the scripture by the Holy Spirit.  If they’re just told “this is what you must believe,” they’ll never be able to discern how to come to that conclusion themselves.  And in this case, the BFM 2000 is a bigger box in which to think than the one imposed by many of the professor’s critics.


Things Human Wisdom and Reason Can’t Resolve

Halfway around the world, while those of us in the Western Hemisphere were still sleeping, a tragedy unfolded among the Christians of Sri Lanka that is unthinkable and unimaginable.  In what was clearly a planned and coordinated attack, over 200 people were killed in a series of bomb blasts that primarily targeted worshippers in Christian churches.  Hotels in the capital city that are prominent with tourists were also targeted.  The majority of deaths occurred in the churches, most of which were filled with worshippers celebrating Easter.

It’s hard to put feelings into words when it comes to events like this.  It’s a nauseating, sickening feeling, a combination of sadness and anger.  It brings on a defeated feeling, the realization that there is genuine evil in the world that intends to accomplish its ends, whatever those might be.  Helplessness, too, is part of the experience.  It’s a senseless tragedy and while our instincts push us to “do something,” there’s really nothing we can do except put ourselves in a position to help those who must endure its aftermath.

Yes, Sri Lanka is half a world away, a small island nation off the coast of India but those things shouldn’t matter.  Yet, few of us in this country will experience the same kind of impact from this as we would if it happened here.  There will be ways to send money and of course, many people are praying for those who are left to deal with the tragedy but time will cause this event to fade into the background of many, many similar tragic events that happen in our world all the time.  This is one that we are able to know about.  There are many instances of persecution and tragedy among Christians in many places in the world that we never hear about.

It has become quickly apparent that this was not just the work of a local militant terrorist group.  It took the kind of planning and technical sophistication that requires more resources than a local organization could come up with.  Suspicion is that this is the work of either Al Qaeda or an ISIS connected group.  Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country with a large Hindu minority and relatively small groups of Muslims and Christians.  Over 85% of the Christians are Catholic.  It has a history of sectarian, religious violence, but it doesn’t appear that there was anything going on that would have triggered something like this.

It’s easy to jump to conclusions that this was caused by Islamic terrorists, a guess that is certainly plausible and which fits with the way groups like Al Qaeda have operated.  The ISIS groups, now that they have been pushed to the fringes in Syria and Iraq and no longer control the territory they once claimed, have also operated their insurgency like this.  It’s also easy to collectively paint all Muslims with the terrorist brush.  There are over a billion Muslims in the world.  The radicalized terror groups number less than a quarter million total, including many people who have been pressured or forced into compliance.

Muslims are also persecuted and we should have the same feelings about the 49 who were murdered during prayers in their mosques in New Zealand a few weeks ago.  I doubt that many of us (Americans, Christians) had the same reaction to that event that we did to yesterday’s news.  I won’t second guess anyone’s motives but I’ve seen enough evidence in posts on social media to conclude that there are many who consider that shooting a just retaliation for whatever Islamic terror groups have done recently.  That’s not a perspective consistent with a Christian response, though it is being characterized that way by those who make the posts.  They’re wrong.

The United States is clearly not immune to religious violence of the same kind, as recent events in Sutherland Springs, Texas; Antioch, Tennessee and Charleston, South Carolina demonstrate.  And just last year, the murder of 11 people inside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh spread the violence to the Jewish community in America.  Each time something like this happens, the questions come up.  Why?  How can we stop this?

We can’t.

You’ve seen the bumper stickers that use symbols of the different world religions to spell out the word “coexist.”  I get the point and understand the reasoning behind it.  But in spite of our best efforts and intentions, human intellect is not a strong enough force to bring about “coexisting.”  There is no point to which human reason can default when determining the value of human life, or to generate the kind of respect for it that allows for differences of opinion, whether they are political, religious or cultural.  The kind of prejudice that brings about evil and hatred enough to decide that ending someone else’s life is a deed done for the sake of righteousness is also a product of the human intellect.  It is a cycle that human reasoning cannot escape.  It will continue, along with all of the other injustice that we see or that is invisible to us, because we live in a fallen world and there is no power that can change it, except for the power of God alone.

We can avoid being contributors to the problem.

American Christians seem to have a very difficult time tolerating each other, much less showing the unity that comes from the love of God through Christ to the world.  I can’t keep track of the number of times I’ve heard Christians point out the faults and wrongs of different churches and denominations.  I’ve heard that stuff from pulpits and Sunday School classes, college and seminary professors and pastors.  We used to sing an old chorus at camp, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” a song consistent with the scripture.  It’s a characteristic the Apostle John repeats multiple times in his epistle, written to a church living out its faith in a pagan environment.  We won’t stop religious persecution, either that aimed at Christians or at other specific religious groups.  But we can determine how we are seen.  Having the love of God within is a visible sign of the filling of the Holy Spirit.

So we are called to “coexist.”  That doesn’t mean we endorse false teachings.  It just means that we show real love to people who have been caught up in them.




Where are they going?

A couple of summers ago, I was in the Washington, DC area on business, and stayed over the weekend just to relax and unwind.  As I usually do when out of town, I located a church to visit for worship on Sunday.  I hadn’t bee in a Southern Baptist church for a while, because my career has led me to work for institutions belonging to other denominations since 2010 and I moved up north, where there aren’t a lot of SBC congregations.  I picked an easy-to-get-to church in Northern Virginia, looked up the worship time on their website and headed out.

At some point in its history, this particular church had to have been a relatively large congregation.  Their auditorium, wrapped inside a very imposing, red-brick structure with webbed, frosted windows, white columns and a steeple over the door, would probably seat close to 1,200 and had a U-shaped balcony.  There were people sitting up there, even though there were fewer than 250 people in the service.  There were maybe a dozen or so people in the choir, in a loft that could have easily accommodated 100.  Most of the congregation were people who appeared to be in their 70’s and 80’s.  There were some children scattered around, about 10 went forward for the children’s sermon and there were a few adults that didn’t look to be quite that old.

There was an educational building attached to the auditorium, three floors, brick, traditional looking and also a gymnasium or multi-purpose facility in a metal building next to it.  I parked in one lot right behind the building and had to walk through the educational building to get to the auditorium, the parking lot could have held 300 vehicles, and there was another one across the residential street in the back that was completely empty.

The church was in a very nice and, from what I know about the D.C. metro area, very expensive neighborhood.  I gathered from the size of its facility and parking that it had a “heyday” at some point and was much larger, but there wasn’t any evidence to point to why it wasn’t having one now.  The worship leaned on the traditional side, but blended in some contemporary music, pretty up do date, actually, and the sermon, which was great, along with several other clues indicated this was a very conservative church from a theological perspective.  It would be interesting to know what happened.  Demographic change?  A fight and a split?  A megachurch locating nearby, or dropping a satellite campus in the area?

I didn’t ask.

But finding a church like that, just about anywhere in the SBC, would not be a rare thing these days.  They are everywhere.  Most of the churches I’ve belonged to or worshipped in for the past 30 years are exactly like that, with buildings that date back to their heyday and congregations made up of mostly 60 year olds and up taking up less than half of the available seating space on Sunday morning.

Changing demographics was partly responsible for the decline of the last SBC congregation to which I belonged, in Houston, Texas.  The neighborhood changed as the families who originally bought the homes built in the late 40’s and 50’s retired, passed away and sold out.  Property values initially dropped, and then soared as people who worked downtown discovered the easy-to-upgrade homes just 15 minutes from where most of them worked.  But the new people came from a generation that had not been nearly as evangelized as the older one had.  On top of that, a long-time pastor had an affair that was discovered, and at about that same time one of the large, downtown SBC congregations relocated to a site four miles away.  Attendance declined from nearly 1,000 to less than 200 in about two and a half decades.  There were a few bump-ups here and there, but nothing to change the pattern.  The remaining 150 people or so just sold the parking lot across the street because the “rainy day” has arrived.

The total membership of the church remained fairly high, however.  In 2010, it was just over 1,000 with an average worship attendance of just under 200.  Going through the roll, it would have been impossible to find more than 300 of them.  The stark difference between the number of members on the roll and the number of rear-ends in the pews is the main reason why membership in the SBC, which has been rapidly declining over the past decade, is 15 million, while there are fewer than 6 million reported to be in attendance on a regular basis each week.  And if that’s the case, then from a numerical standpoint, if that’s how you’re measuring growth, the SBC is not likely to reverse a deepening decline that set in a decade ago.

The fact is that the collective attendance of churches in the SBC hasn’t been growing for longer than the membership has been declining.  Attendance has fluctuated between 5.5 and 6.2 million since the late 1960’s.  Baptisms started declining in the late 70’s.  Enrollment of youth ages 12-17 in Sunday School dropped significantly after baby boomers reached adulthood.  So while the current statistical trends have been showing up for about a decade, the SBC was already headed this direction for at least two decades prior.  So the numerical strength of the “Nation’s largest Protestant denomination” here in the 21st century is about 5 million when it comes to members dedicated enough to attend church on Sunday.

There is little that can be done on a denominational level to stop the slide.  The SBC has tried with programs, emphases, slogans, brow beating and ignoring the problem for years.  It’s had a few notable megachurches spring up and grow over the years, but most of them are growing in attendance by pulling regularly attending members out of smaller churches that lose their viability.  There are too many factors, most of them things which are invisibly happening in the community around individual churches, for a denominational emphasis or slogan or campaign to reverse the membership decline.

To answer the question that is posed as the title of this blog, “Where are they going?” the answer, in my humble opinion, is that most of them are just dropping out.

The dynamic that builds a church and holds it together is the Holy Spirit.  God’s presence, through the spirit, must be active in a local church so that the revival that he brings can happen.  Churches that are spiritually awake and spiritually aware will grow through the baptistery.  And as long as they stay connected, they grow, numerically but also spiritually.  I’ve seen it.  It was happening in the church I grew up in when I was young.  Our pastor did not have a dynamic personality nor was he an eloquent or exciting public speaker.  He was committed to his calling, loved the Lord, and had seen some genuine miracles on the mission field in Southeast Asia.  It was a small church, but our baptistery stayed busy, not just with children, and the church grew.  It was never a megachurch, and over time, people came and went, but it grew from 30 to over 100 in a decade.  And while I don’t believe that the spirit comes and leaves depending on who the pastor is, the church declined when he left because his successor depended more on his own preaching talent than he did on the Spirit.

The pastor’s personal presence can attract a crowd.  That’s why we have most of our megachurches.  The celebrity status, preaching “style,” selection of content (and avoidance of content too), and media ability attract a crowd, mostly people who are already Christians and already in a smaller church.  Evangelism isn’t a big growth producer in most megachurches.  And if we honestly evaluate the trends that we are beginning to see manifest across the country megachurches of many denominations, and non-denominations, we see that when the founding pastor leaves, or the “heyday” pastor leaves, the church declines numerically.

There is not much left in our culture that pushes people through the doorway of the church.  The public education system teaches and reinforces secular humanism in every core subject.  And while it doesn’t consider itself a religion, it certainly replaces faith in the lives of those who don’t have a connection to God through the spirit.  That’s why attendance falls of in a church that’s not spirit-filled (and I’m not necessarily talking in Pentecostal language here) or spirit-led.  Attraction models can’t compete with a way of life that is totally oriented toward pleasing one’s self.  If God’s Holy Spirit showed up in most of our churches this week, it would not take long to fill all the seats and fill all the lives.



From a Distance…Looking at the Southern Baptist Convention

Having a Southern Baptist pedigree seems to be one of the main qualifications for serving anywhere in the denomination and along with that, commenting on occurrences within it.  Well, I have one.  An SBC pedigree, that is.  Raised in an SBC congregation in Arizona made up of mostly transplanted Southerners who preferred to start their own congregation rather than worship in one without the Lottie Moon, Annie Armstrong and Cooperative Program offerings, I’ve done Sunday School and worship, training union (yes it was called that when I started), missions education, youth group, and have degrees from a state convention related college and one of the six seminaries, Southwestern.  Almost a decade ago, I accepted a leadership position in an institution owned by another denomination and had to join one of their churches as a result.  Thus ended over 45 years of being a Southern Baptist, at least on the membership roll.  But I still have many friends, lots of connections and still occasionally participate with Southern Baptists in some of their programs and mission ventures.

So I have a Southern Baptist pedigree and I’m declaring myself qualified to comment.

The SBC has been dealing with a lot over the past decade.  The conservative resurgence, which started in 1979 warned that a continued slide down the slippery slope of liberalism would lead to decay and decline.  Membership and attendance growth since the resurgence leadership took control has always been sluggish and never reached the levels of the “glory days” of the 1950’s and 60’s, but over the past decade, the sluggish increases stopped and an actual drop in membership and attendance set in.  More than a million members have been subtracted from the total in about a decade, and the attendance has fallen by over half a million.  Obviously that is disconcerting to the denominational leadership, though the root cause of it has nothing to do with theology or doctrine, conservative or otherwise.

Some things happened in the SBC that were quite unexpected.  One of the key “architects” of the “Conservative Resurgence” was discovered to have been mishandling and covering up accusations of sexual assault on the campuses where he served as president.  The evidence to support the accusations was difficult to find because the records had not been properly handled and the end result of the situation was that a trustee board heavily stacked with his supporters over the years was forced to dismiss him and cut the cords on the golden parachute they were going to offer him to retire.  In the same time frame, the President of the Executive Committee stepped down, vaguely citing a personal issue, an indiscretion, as the reason.  And sexual abuse charges filed against the other “architect” of the resurgence brought more allegations of abuse that he had committed while serving as youth pastor of his former church.

Then the Houston Chronicle released a series of articles over the course of a week exposing clergy sexual abuse in the SBC along with the denomination’s difficulty in handling it by keeping the perpetrators from simply moving on to another church.  The scope of the problem is disappointingly large.  The inability of the denomination to handle it well, citing “local church autonomy” among the reasons why solutions won’t work, is a particularly nagging problem.  Many of the abusers are able to move on to other churches because there is no central location to report and house records of previous problems, or because in the way Southern Baptists go about doing business in some cases and locations, the abusers have individuals who are prominent and influential in denominational life shielding them from being exposed.

So, perhaps Southern Baptists are ready for some change.  Or perhaps not.

The last convention gathering in June of 2018 was surprising in many ways.  Yes, they finally got around to electing J.D. Greear, a North Carolina pastor, as President after his graciousness caused a long wait.  The messengers overwhelmingly voted down the final vestiges of influence attempted by the resurgence architects, or at least one of them, in affirming the decisions made by the trustees at the seminary he once led.  Although it still seems like it is mandatory to preface any discussion about denominational politics with a statement about the necessity of the Conservative Resurgence, it also seemed that messengers were weary of the influence peddling, favor granting, king-making, glad handing and “above the rules” manner which some leaders conducted themselves and cast some overwhelming votes making that clear.

But those who sit on the trustee boards don’t seem to reflect the current mood of the convention.  Greear’s choices brought in new faces and reflected the kind of diversity of gender, culture and racial background that exists in the SBC.  The executive searches haven’t reached out any further than the walls of their own rooms, choosing individuals who have served on several boards and committees over people who actually worked at the institution or agency and served it “in the field” so to speak.  And the hopes of many Southern Baptists, reflected in blogs and other public comments, that at least one of the executive positions would go to a person who is a member of a minority group does not seem to be materializing.  The search committees seem to prefer picking the members of their own boards, or others who have rotated on and off several.

I don’t think rotating from trustee board to trustee board necessarily qualifies someone to serve as executive director of a Baptist agency or institution.  The SBC is a large denomination where the churches offer a wide variety of ministry experience that would qualify most individuals for service in a denominational institution or agency.  There are individuals who have worked for these agencies and institutions, like Lifeway for example, who are more experienced and loyal than someone who has never worked there, or who doesn’t really have that kind of experience.  Dr. Greenway, at Southwestern, was a good choice because he is coming from another institution of similar size and scope and because the previous leadership at Southwestern precluded choosing someone he had hired for the job.  But even Dr. Greenway was an “insider” when it comes to committees and trustee boards.

All of the SBC’s institutions and agencies are affected by a downward cycle of cooperative program giving caused by the drop in church membership and attendance.  But the search committees aren’t looking anywhere for people who can bring some insight and fresh vision, they are only looking inside the same rooms where they’ve been for a long time.  Selecting leaders from inside the same circles where the same ideas have been running convention agencies and institutions seems counterproductive to me.  From the outside, it looks like friends helping friends and that’s not a good image for a Christian denomination to have.

Just this week, it was announced that Dr. Ronnie Floyd would become the President of the Executive Board of the SBC.  Dr. Floyd has served on at least three key boards or committees of the SBC, has pastored a two-location megachurch since 1986 and served two terms as president of the SBC.  He’s been a name mentioned in association with the “conservative resurgence” since it started. He is typical of the other choices made by the executive board for this position since they originally gave it to Morris Chapman.  From a career track perspective, his qualifications line up, though at 64, there will be limits as to how long he will be able to serve.

I don’t know how much influence positions like this have on church membership and attendance in a denomination as large as the SBC, in all likelihood, not much.  But while it seems that convention messengers are ready for some change in the way things are done, this choice represents keeping things the same.  The age of the other selections made so far may be inconsequential, or it may be a sign that the younger generation of Southern Baptist leaders isn’t attracted to or interested in executive leadership in denominational institutions and that might be a sign of a paradigm shift.  If the committees continue to select traditional, older candidates who also happen to be white male southerners, it could be a sign that they are either not interested in making changes which will attract younger people into their ranks, or that there may not be very many younger people out there who are interested in joining these ranks.  The failure to give much in the way of consideration to individuals of other racial and ethnic backgrounds may signify the same thing, that they are leaving because they are not included, or that they just don’t exist within the SBC in the numbers that are perceived.

And that’s not really good news for a denomination that has lost a million members and half a million in attendance in less than a decade.