Great article by Nathan Finn.
Check out his blog at: http://nathanafinn.wordpress.com/2008/04/25/does-the-sbc-have-a-future/
With much online fanfare, Ed Stetzer has published a study by LifeWay Research that shows that the SBC is in numeric decline. Many of us knew that this study was in the works. I suspect most engaged Southern Baptists already knew what’s happening in the SBC, even if there were no study to substantiate it. The various factions in the SBC blogosphere have responded pretty much like I expected them to respond. Some will claim that the SBC is already hopelessly lost and all but suggest we should all move on (or at least get rid of Paige Patterson, Al Mohler, or whomever they hate this week). Others will attempt to discredit the study by ignoring the facts and continuing to delude themselves into thinking that the SBC is fundamentally healthy. Don’t buy either approach. We are unhealthy and declining. Rapidly. But there’s still hope.
Some have wondered if perhaps our numeric decline is related to a recovery of regenerate church membership. At the risk of being rude, I have to keep from laughing out loud at the suggestion. Our numbers would really decline if we were honest about our statistics! But at least we could talk about our churches and baptisms without breaking the ninth commandment, even if it meant admitting that Southern Baptists are not “THE LARGEST PROTESTANT DENOMINATION IN AMERICA” (insert collective strut here). As I have been saying for four years, don’t buy the statistics that claim we baptize 350,000 people a year. Those stats are bloated because of toddler baptisms, “rebaptisms” of tender-conscienced souls who are casualties of a tacky revivalism, and the immersion of new church members who have come to our churches from other types of churches that do not share our baptismal convictions. If we annually baptize 75,000 lost people over the age of 12 who are not already attending our churches’ activities, I would be shocked. We are far less evangelistic than you think we are, but too proud (and pragmatic) to admit it.
Others have questioned whether we are really losing so many younger SBC pastors and other leaders. I have heard this question raised in several forums. I suppose it depends upon one’s perspective. It is within the realm of possibility that in some places in our Southern Baptist Zion there are scads of 20 and 30-somethings who are fired up about the SBC and are committed to ministering in a convention context. It’s possible. But I sure don’t know many. It’s all I can do to convince my friends and students that the SBC is not a waste of their time and money. Most of these folks like our mission boards. They also tend to like one or more of our seminaries. But they cannot stand the flavor of the convention, so they leave for other groups. Some folks say “good riddance.” I grieve. Some will complain that students especially are benefitting from CP funds only so they can snub the convention after they graduate, surely a worthy complaint. Unfortunately, the folks who complain the loudest seem to be the same guys who are unwilling to ask why so many students feel compelled to do what they do.
Some have suggested that Southern Baptists have not lost the gospel. Normally what they mean is that their church has not lost the gospel, which may or may not be true. I suspect that most of our pastors really believe the gospel. Unfortunately, many of them don’t preach it. Sometimes they actually preach sub-Christian sermons that are really just baptized versions of moralism, New Age spirituality, or especially self-help platitudes. I have heard gospel-less sermons in chapel services at all of our seminaries, either live or online. I have heard gospel-less sermons at our pastor’s conferences and evangelism conferences, either live or through other media. I have heard gospel-less sermons in our churches. And yes, I have heard many of them at the SBC annual meeting itself. Maybe these men are just taking it for granted that their audiences already understand the gospel and so they don’t have to articulate it. Maybe. But I know this much: a sermon that does not include the gospel is not a Christian sermon, no matter who preaches it. Some will object that they must be preaching the gospel because their church is growing. And that’s what scares me the most. If you are one of those guys out there who think Southern Baptists as a rule are cool on the gospel (and I know you’re out there because you gripe at me every time I raise this issue), you will likely make lots of friends in the SBC for defending our gospel street cred. But you will also be complicit in our decline.
Moderates were right about at least one thing: they predicted conservative Southern Baptists would be so used to fighting after the 1980s that they would turn on each other after all the moderates are gone. What I actually think is going on is that we are creating “new” moderates by attacking, often in the most un-Christlike and intellectually dishonest ways, those who disagree with us. It happens to complimentarians who do not agree with everything CBMW says. It happens to Calvinists who dare to rock the boat by talking about doctrinal issues that are not ecclesiologically motivated. It happens to “continuationist” Southern Baptists who accept the ongoing validity of the spiritual gifts. It happens to Southern Baptists who break from the party line (but not the majority line, I daresay) on issues like the terms of communion and the validity of some alien immerisons. It happens to conservative Southern Baptists who break with the convention’s very public love affair with the Religious Right by suggesting there may be more “social” issues to engage than just abortion and the homosexual agenda. And it for sure happens to Southern Baptists who do not buy the tortured exegesis that argues that drinking alcohol is inherently sinful. And before you accuse me of being one of those crypto-moderates who really hates the SBC, let me say loud and clear I am a very conservative complimentarian, I am an ecclesiologically minded Calvinist, I am not a “continuationist,” I believe in closed communion and reject alien immerison, I am a political conservative, even a religio-political conservative, and I would be a teetotaler even if I had no affiliation whatsoever with a Southern Baptist institution. I just don’t think you have to agree with me to be a “good” Southern Baptist. I don’t even think you have to agree with me to be a Southern Baptist “leader,” whatever that means.
So does the SBC have a future. It depends upon what you mean by “future.” I suspect the name will be used by some Baptists until Christ comes back. I also think the people called Southern Baptists will always have denominational entities that they financially support. So in one sense, I remain confident that Southern Baptists are here to stay. But if by “future” one means a vital existence in God’s economy, I have my doubts. Collectively, I fear we are too insular, too sectarian, too pugnacious, too “Southern”, too reactionary, too pragmatic, and for sure too proud to have any real future. I hope I’m wrong. I pray that I am not the very things I accuse the convention of embodying, though I suspect I am at times. I hope the SBC does have a future, mostly because we had a great–though imperfect–past. I love who we were. I struggle with who we are. I am very fearful of who we will become. But I know that God does not need us and that His purposes will go forward even if we are left behind. Perhaps if enough of us admitted that–publicly–in a resolution–that included the word repentance–and was more than words–God may still have much good for us yet.
To try and end this unplanned blog post on a positive note, I want to tell you about an exciting book being published next month by B&H. David Dockery has written Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal, which will be available for the very low price of $9.99 because LifeWay thinks you should read this book. It has garnered endorsements from many of the men whom I consider to be the wisest among us. I hope you will read Dockery’s book. I hope you will not give up on the SBC or, even worse, attempt to conform the SBC to your own image. I hope you will pray for every person who is a position of influence in the SBC. I hope you will pray that we recover the gospel and quit acting like we can do missions, cooperate together, engage the culture, educate future pastors, or have a healthy ecclesiology without it. Our hope is not in the Cooperative Program. Our hope is not in Calvinism. Our hope is not in Landmarkism. Our hope is not in inerrancy. Our hope is not in better statistics. Our hope is not in a program. Our hope is not in convincing all those young guys to stick around. Our hope is in the good news of all that God has done through Jesus Christ to bring redemption the world that He so loved. I just pray that Southern Baptists will continue to be relevant in that world.