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: Continue reading