Last week it was announced that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has dropped in numbers of baptisms and membership. While some have attempted to offer up reasons as to why and potential solutions (many of which have been good), what ahs been far more typical is the SBC response. Either a person will sit in denial and say that this is simply a trend or he’ll offer up more methods and programs. Sadly, the solution for the SBC is incredibly easy, yet impossibly difficult.
Before going into a solution, however, it would probably be best to understand the problem. To provide a spoiler for the article, while I acknowledge that the problem and solution is theological (and existential), I do not go the way of Brian McLaren or the Emergent movement in asking the SBC to reconsider or rethink some of its core tenets, but rather implore the leaders to become more traditional, more orthodox, and more true to the original faith.
Why the SBC is Declining
The reason the SBC is declining is the same reason that mainline churches have declined for all these years; they’re irrelevant, though the SBC is irrelevant for different reasons. I am not suggesting that the SBC should be seeking relevance either, but instead differentiating two types of relevance. The pursuit of relevance is a dangerous one, one where we wish to fit into the culture. We can think of that kid who just doesn’t fit in, but wants to, and so he tries his hardest to fit in. That kind of relevance is a negative kind of relevance.
The SBC is irrelevant in that it’s simply unnoticed in a positive manner. After all, in seeking out solutions for the economy, in looking on how to help the poor, when attempting to decide what environmental policies we as a nation should pursue, how many Southern Baptists are consulted? Now some might argue that this is merely symptomatic of a secular worldview, but this apologetic is quickly turned back on them when we ask how we got there in the first place. Though we can chase this line of thinking for a while, ultimately it becomes a problem of the SBC, and the Church in general, not living or acting in a manner befitting to Christ.
For the SBC the problem of being irrelevant begins with them being a primarily method-driven and program-driven denomination. Lectures on how to grow a church, success in missions, and the like are often backed up with stats, figures, pie charts, and graphs all showing how a certain method or program can achieve the goal set forth. Every problem seems to have a program assigned to it. As the advertisement for Blackberry is, “Yeah, there’s an app for that,” the advertisement for the SBC seems to be “Yeah, there’s a program for that.”
In short, we’re irrelevant because we’re too practical. In pursuing relevance we have become irrelevant because we found very practical ways to be relevant, but as it turns out Christianity and practicality don’t mix very well. We have pastors who look like modern-day billionaire CEOs; we have Mark Cubans in the pulpit, wearing their t-shirts and jeans and using the lingo of the day. They teach a message for the masses and tone it down in order to be relevant to their audiences.
In other instances we have niche churches. We have churches that cater to the young and therefore play music that appeals to them. We have churches that cater to the traditionalist and therefore they play the hymns. We have biker churches, surfer churches, cowboy churches, and the list goes on. As any marketing director will tell you, these churches are extremely successful in displaying gains in their niche market. But therein lies the problem.
If a company wants to market their product in a city they have to look to the demographics of that city and essentially alienate certain aspects of the city in their marketing. So they’re marketing widgets, which 20-35 year olds love, but 50 year olds hate. Well, they’re not going to advertise these widgets in a retirement community, rather they’ll advertise them near a college campus, which of course will alienate part of the population, but will achieve their goal.
Since the Gospel is universal it cannot, by its very nature, operate in the same fashion. Anytime our spread of the Gospel results in alienation, that is, in refusing to give the Gospel to people because they fall outside of our targeted marketing group, then we are not presenting the Gospel. Thus, in becoming practical we’ve become irrelevant.
The problem for the SBC and the cause of its decline, however, goes much deeper than having programs and methods; it also extends into how the majority of its members and leaders live. The old adage “actions speak louder than words” is absolutely true. A person can spend years saying the same thing, but if one thing he does contradicts it then all those years of speaking are unwound. Likewise, if our actions back up what we say then our words have life. As it is, the SBC says quite a bit, but it lacks the action to back up those words.
While no one should expect any congregation to be perfect, the problem for the SBC extends well beyond the pew and goes to the pulpit. Having spent time in an SBC seminary, I can say that the SBC simply hasn’t caught on to the fact that there’s a giant dissonance between what is taught in the classroom and what occurs in the real world. Consider the following:
We’re a denomination that puts an emphasis on preaching methods, but not on how to reach the poor. We require our seminarians to agree that the Bible is inspired and infallible, but don’t require the same out of their own lives. We’d rather rip each other apart on whether or not God chose us or we chose God than help eradicate the world’s ills.
Now to be fair, the seminaries have been working on this problem by hiring more professors with a true heart for the world. Sadly, however, it seems that it’s simply not taking with the students; they’re rather debate over who wrote the book of Hebrews than live the precepts put forth in that same book. We have pastors who tell their congregation how abortion is wrong, how homosexual marriages are dangerous to our society, and how we should pray for our troops, but won’t chastise them for neglecting the poor, for abandoning the widows, or for withholding food from the hungry. For many pastors, such sermons would result in being fired. Thus, for all the positive change that is occurring in the seminaries, the congregations are still light-years behind.
An Impractical and Idealistic Solution for a Practical Problem
When I say my solution is impractical or idealistic, I mean that it’s impossible. It can never be achieved. It can never be fully enacted. It will always have flaws. So why work for it? I turn around and ask, why not?
God calls on us to be holy as He is holy, which is simply impossible. We can’t be holy like God is holy, but we’re to strive towards it. That’s the whole point of placing an ideal as your goal; even if you don’t reach it, you’re still a lot better off than you were. Thus, our goals should be impossible, we should have a 0% chance of achieving them, that if we do, when we do, we’ll know that it wasn’t by any work of our own, but instead by the Spirit who lives in us.
Now, the above isn’t to say that we should sit around and wait for the Spirit to work. We should be working towards the ideal, but we should also recognize that methods and programs place parameters around the ideal, which limits how the ideal can be achieved. So what is the ideal towards which we should strive?
The ideal of the Christian faith is two-fold and hierarchical, yet tied together. Jesus stated the ideal when He said,
And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)
For the Christian, all of life boils down to loving God and loving others. That’s the entire direction of Christianity. We could say, “It’s to display God’s glory” or “to enjoy Him fully,” but all of this simply falls under the greatest commandment. The end goal of Christianity isn’t the “Great Commission” because even this falls under the two commandments. The end goal of Christians is to love God with their entire being and to love their neighbors as themselves. Under such an ideal we should realize that more is involved than just missions and evangelism.
Many in the SBC leadership have commented on how the congregation at large is seemingly apathetic if not outright opposed to missions (both domestic and foreign). I have experienced this in my own life, where my church was questioned by some of the members on why we would “waste money” helping support a church in Mexico. But this attitude isn’t caused by a lack of proper programs, but is indicative of a larger spiritual problem. Namely, it’s indicative of a people who have lost sight of the Christian ideal.
If one is close to Christ, how can one be apathetic about Christ? Growing in faith naturally leads to growing in works; if our congregations aren’t growing in works, they aren’t growing in faith. Thus, programs don’t solve the problem of apathy, but only begin to exist once the problem of apathy has been overcome.
We should overcome the apathy prevalent in the SBC by emphasizing the things Christ taught us to emphasize. How this is carried out is beyond me and I don’t think there can be a universal method or program. After all, how we display our love to a person living on the Upper West Side of New York City is going to be completely different from how we display our love to someone living in Harlem. Thus, there isn’t a program or method to enacting the ideal, there is just the ideal.
But we can know what to emphasize, as follows:
– Love your God…
In loving God, Christ emphasizes three aspects of our humanity, which composes our entire being.
1) Emphasis on the intellect –
The intellect is an area that the SBC has neglected for quite some time. I began to recognize this when speaking to a seminarian that could explain to me all the great evangelism methods he planned on using as well as why expository teaching was important, but couldn’t tell me a thing about the Trinity other than, “It’s an important belief.” He’s a pastor now.
In our churches we need to emphasize the Trinity and the Incarnation as central doctrines. Too many members in the SBC either don’t see the Trinity as important or don’t understand the doctrine of the Trinity. This is a travesty, for how can we properly understand our role in life or our own salvation if we don’t understand (though not comprehend) the God it comes from?
The best way to recover our knowledge about the central aspects of our faith is found in the Church Fathers. While this is a scary notion, there simply are no greater teachers. This will require people to engage their faith intellectually, but that’s a good thing; if we’re to love God with all our minds, then we should each push our intellectual limits in the pursuit of God. For some that will be further than others, and this is where grace is needed in the church, but we also shouldn’t be afraid to go over people’s heads a few times a year. Sometimes that’s a good thing.
2) Emphasis on the heart –
We need to have discipleship in order to increase our love for God and to help reflect what Christ has done for us. The more mature in the faith need to be helping the younger in the faith. Not in a Sunday School or “small group” setting, but in an actual friendship or mentorship where all members are involved. After all, we are a family, and even the biggest of families don’t break into “small groups” to get to know one another or help each other. They may do so on occasion, but overall they act as one organic unit. There is no reason the local church should not do the same.
Along the same lines of growing in love for God with all our heart, our sermons and songs should reflect on this. Rather than making them “me” focused or focused on what Christ has done for “me,” sometimes it would be good simply to preach about how great God is without ever mentioning the anthropocentric implications. Or perhaps we could have music that praises God for who He is and not what He has done or who He is to us. Not that we shouldn’t recognize what He has done for us, but merely that this shouldn’t be our central focus.
3) Emphasis on the soul –
In order to develop the soul we need to develop more purposeful prayer lives. We need to be seeking God on a daily basis and asking Him what He would have us to do in this life. Beyond all of this, however, we need to just reflect on who He is. Silence is sometimes the greatest sound for a believer, because it allows us to contemplate God and nothing else.
In developing the soul, those in the SBC should not be afraid to seek aspects outside of the denomination that bring spiritual nourishment. We shouldn’t ban speaking in tongues or any other form of worship. Rather, if this is how a person expresses God, so long as it’s not heretical then what are we to say? God is infinite, so there are an infinite number of ways to grow in Him; it would do us well to recognize this.
– Love your neighbor…
In loving our neighbor, I can think of four main categories that “neighbor” would fall under:
1) Those within the local church –
Most SBC churches in America tend to have a middle class congregation, meaning that there aren’t a lot of members who can throw money around, especially in this economy. But what we lack in money we can generally make up for in action. Thus, when we see a member is suffering, if we cannot come up with the funds to help the member we can usually think of something else or do something else to help.
The fact is, in many churches that tend to be more upper-middle class, that any member should need to go on welfare is a shame for the church. If a member has gone on welfare or food stamps, yet the church could afford a multi-million dollar building, then the church has experienced shame. The only way the church could avoid shame is if they helped the member who is struggling financially or if they offered the help and were turned down; if they are not aware of the financial struggle, it is generally due to the fact that people simply aren’t involved in one another’s lives (see Emphasis on the Heart to see why this is wrong).
But caring for one another goes well beyond taking care of those who struggle financially. While we should help pay for doctor’s bills, groceries, and the like (assuming we attend a church that can afford to do this), we should also help one another through difficult times. Consider what Paul wrote in Romans 12:9-21 –
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In other words we should be willing to serve one another and submit to one another’s needs. Too often in the church we see backstabbing or power-hungry people harming others to get their way. We see churches split because a few members wanted to get back at one another. But to “love thy neighbor as thyself” as our central ideal, such actions simply cannot occur.
When a member wrongs you, forgive that member if it’s not a grievous harm. Certainly action must be taken if it continues, but such action should follow Scripture (Matthew 18:15-19). If you see a member is caught in sin, show compassion and attempt to offer help to that member rather than using it as an ace card in order to help you get your way.
After all, if the ultimate act of love is sacrificial (John 15:13) and the world will know we belong to Christ by the love we have for one another (John 13:34-35), then we must constantly sacrifice to the needs of others. Don’t like the style of music played during the service? Ask yourself, does such music help the more immature members? If so, then play along. A girl in the youth group is pregnant? Then, if necessary, take her in and help her along with her pregnancy and if need be, enlist the help of other members to help take care of her and her child after the child is born. In all that we do, we should serve one another, because in serving one another the world will know that we truly belong to Christ.
2) Those within the local community –
The love we have for one another should spill over into our local community, though in different ways. First and foremost, we should help those within the church. After this, we should help our local community in whatever way we can.
We must provide shelter to those who need it, food for the hungry, and so on. Church members that own their own businesses should seek to give jobs to those that need them most (and are qualified). We should stop charging money to do funerals, especially for those on the outside, for we don’t’ want to make money off other people’s grief. We need to help people stand on their own, help them find jobs, but if they are incapable of doing so (due to age or deformity) then we are to help those people.
We must take in battered wives, we must help pregnant teens, we must help those who are homeless, and the list goes on. As James wrote, true religion is found in helping the widows and orphans while still following the ethos of God (James 1:27). In short, we are servants to the hopeless, to the oppressed, to those in need, no matter what cultural context we find ourselves in.
3) Those within the nation –
We should never just stop with the local church, but should also have a national vision as well (no matter what nation we find ourselves in). The very first thing SBC members, and Christians in general, should understand is that we should never support or oppose any political party. Rather, we should do the work of Christ and support any legislation that helps further that work or helps those who are oppressed. For too long “conservative Christian” has been synonymous with “Republican,” which shouldn’t be the case as the Republicans have endorsed some actions that are unbecoming of a Christian (certain economic policies don’t exactly show support for loving one’s neighbor). The same is true for Democrats though (the support for abortion isn’t exactly displaying love for one’s neighbor).
With the above in mind, we should support any policies that we see as furthering the cause of Christ. While some of these policies may incite debate amongst believers (such as universal healthcare), others are seemingly absolutely right or wrong (again, abortion is absolutely wrong). In all that we do, grace and love should go before us in all that we do and regardless of what the government decides we should continue on in the work of Christ.
Finally, and most importantly, we need to send those who are called to the areas of the country that need Christ’s love most (which is all areas). If we establish churches that follow the first two rules of loving one’s neighbor, then we can begin to see positive change in our nation. We need to spread the Gospel, both by word and deed.
4) Those within the world –
Finally, in loving our neighbor we must look to the global community. Since the foreigner is my neighbor I must always remember that I’m a Christian first and an American second. Since I have more in common with a believer from China than I do my boss who is nonreligious, I must never put my country first when it comes to international engagements, nor should I be quick to support my nation in war (after all, war involves the taking of persons, persons who are made in the image of God). This isn’t to say we should be pacifists, but we should be as close to pacifism as we can get.
We should also work against the ills of the world. We should work hard to bring an end to human trafficking, both in helping private organizations and by supporting legislation that brings an end to it. Even more, we should be willing to take care of those who have been trafficked in, offering them a safe haven from all that they’ve faced. Along the same lines, we need to speak out against the international slave trade that is helping to keep our economy going. When clothes are produced in forced labor factories, or is done on the backs of workers who barely make a living, we must exploit such products and shame the companies into changing their policies. Even more, we should put pressure on our own government to penalize companies that profit from such slave (or near slave) labor.
Yet, most importantly, we need to send Christians into the areas of the world that need it the most (which is all). When we establish churches that take care of each other, that look out for the local community, and that strive to know God both in orthodoxy and orthopraxy, we can begin to help end suffering in those parts of the world. When our local churches here in America hear about how their brothers in a far away land are thirsty, I they are truly Christ followers then they will be compelled to find a way to get water to our family. In all, we should love one another and love those in the world and seek to bring them the love of Christ both in our words and our actions.
A Final Thought
In all of the above, notice how I have not put forth a practical solution to the problems. The reason is we don’t need a practical solution. We need to recognize the ideal and strive towards the ideal, but how we strive towards that ideal will change depending on where in the country or the world we are located. What may work in Detroit won’t always work in Dallas. So while we are bound to be orthodox in our teachings and our ideals, we are free to choose how we will achieve both.
Yet, though there is much freedom, there are two things that must change in the SBC if we are to eradicate these universal programs or methods. First, we must stop caring about the numbers. This is a hard thing for many people in the SBC as numbers have been used as a barometer for success; even this article is written due to the fact that the number of baptisms has slipped. Yet, we put too much of an emphasis on the numbers. In fact, let me come clean and state that my solution wasn’t to increase baptisms, but to become a more godly denomination.
The numbers mean nothing in terms of the ideal. How do we know if we love God? A church that is growing isn’t necessarily indicative of a healthy church, just as a shrinking church doesn’t automatically mean the church is unhealthy. Thus, the numbers are quite irrelevant. So long as we love God with our entire being, we are succeeding. So long as we love our neighbors as ourselves, we are succeeding. Thus, true success isn’t found in a number, but rather in how we live.
The second thing that needs to happen is we need to start caring about the person. Too often in the SBC life we’ve seen people as means to an end rather than an end in and of themselves. What I mean is, we see people as a means to grow our church, as a means to make our membership higher, as a means to “increase the kingdom of God.” But that’s not how Christ viewed people. If we go by the numbers, Christ was the worst evangelist of His time. Instead, He cared for the person and recognized that the person is valuable no matter what. Befriend people and help them, even if they never accept Christ. Befriend them because they are a human, not because you have a motive.
I think of the numerous stories about Francis Schaeffer and how he looked to the person as an end rather than a means. One of my favorite stories about him is the time he was late to a speaking engagement for thousands of Christians. The aids looked all over for him but couldn’t find him. Finally, they found him back at his hotel, speaking to the maid, learning about her life, and presenting Christ to her. For Schaeffer, thousands of people could wait because he saw an individual in front of him. We should all have similar attitudes.
Church growth or decline doesn’t tell us a thing about the health of a church; it may something in some cases, but there’s always a real symptom we can point to. The solution, likewise, isn’t to increase our numbers or to see a rise in baptisms, but instead to increase our love for God and for one another.
The SBC is a shrinking denomination, but it’s been spiritually shrinking for a while. Rather than come up with methods and programs to increase our numbers and thus perpetuate a façade, we should instead be honest with ourselves and begin to pursue Christ, no matter what the cost.