Saturday, May 17, 2008

IS THE SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION DECLINING?

The answer to the question raised in the title to this post is one being debated widely in the blog world. Whether the answer one gives is "yes" or "no" I read one of the better statements about our condition by a young SBC pastor in Middletown Delaware named David Phillips. Rather than clog the blogosphere with more words of my own, I decided to post his words and do so with his permission. Let me know what you think in the comment section if you wish. Thanks David.


"The Southern Baptist Convention appears to be in decline. I say appears because the “Bagdad Bob’s” of the SBC are poo-pooing recent membership numbers that demonstrate this is a stark reality. There has been a firestorm over this release, especially in the commentary provided by the head of Lifeway Research, Ed Stetzer. People at all levels of the convention leadership are exhibiting different reactions. Some are upset, while others are acknowledging reality, and still others are wondering why it took so long to get published.

Being a Southern Baptist, and pastoring a Southern Baptist Church in Delaware, I felt I needed to weigh in on this issue. I, in general, do not blog about SBC issues, but this is as much a missiological issue as it is a SBC issue. It should wake up not only the American church, but the SBC about the state of the church in this country.

I want to first address the importance of this decline in the SBC. For years, we have been told that the reason other denominations were in decline was the move toward liberal theology. I guess we were wrong, because it appears theology was not the factor. With the reality that the SBC likely has tipped and is on its way down, this is very disconcerting for many. This is especially distressing for the oligarchy leadership who think they own the SBC. The move toward conservative theology has produced the lowest evangelism rates and the tapering off of membership since before the takeover began. I am conservative in theology; however conservative theology alone does not move one toward evangelism. Thus the conservative resurgence did not lead to a Great Commission resurgence convention-wide.

Second, it demonstrates a fallacy within the Southern Baptist Convention. For some reason, we thought we were the last and only hope for America. We raised our voices with a triumphalism and arrogance that said, “Look at us! We know how to reach people.” We do not believe that we need to work with anyone else; we have it all figured out. Now we have to begin to eat crow. Rumor has it that a good beer or glass of wine makes it go down easier.

I also want to note what did not cause this decline.

1. We did not decline because churches are cleaning up their membership roles. A few may have jettisoned members they could not find in the past 15 years, but to say that enough of them did that to cause a decline in membership overall is silly.

2. We did not decline because we lost our Baptist identity. Some are raising this issue, namely that our great time of growth happened during a period when Landmarkism was a movement in parts of the SBC, though it was rejected in the early 1900’s. This teaching, which borders on heresy because it denies the use of the Old Testament and the New Testament teaching of the universal church, has arisen again. There is a neo-landmark resurgence in the SBC today with leaders like John Floyd and past and current IMB trustees as well as entities like Southwestern Seminary (Let us not forget that SWBTS is providing theological education for a Landmark Baptist College in Texas). The growth of the SBC and Landmarkism is neither correlation nor causation. It is more like chance or coincidence.

3. We did not decline due to statistical error or manipulation. These are numbers from the reporting tool Southern Baptist’s use. This was not a poll.

Here is why I think the Southern Baptist Convention is in decline. It is not exhaustive, just random thoughts from someone who interacts daily with people inside and outside the SBC.

1. We are not ordering our work around the mission of God. We are ordering everything around our identity. Southern Baptist have historically organized around the mission of God. Now those want to play in the game have to organize around a neo-landmark view of baptist identity according to some. Instead of jumping into the work of the kingdom there is fighting over what a Southern Baptist is. Again. Most pastors, especially young pastors, abhor this rhetoric and just want to see God’s kingdom built. As such, they are aligning themselves more with people outside the convention than within. Many are leading their churches away from the SBC. Many SBC trained pastors are starting churches not aligned with the SBC because of this.
And I’ve said many times in many places. Alan Hirsch has noted that when a denomination looses its missional focus, there has never been one to regain it. We have lost our missional focus. We lost it years ago. Apart from the sovereignty of God and the movement of the Holy Spirit in revival, we will continue this decline.

2. We have not acknowledged the post-christian, post-christendom culture that is the United States. For some reason we still assume that Christianity is the dominant worldview in the country. We preach as if it is, we share our faith as if it is, we run programs as if it is. But it is not the dominant worldview in the country. In fact, it is becoming more and more irrelevant because the church has become more and more irrelevant.

3. We do not understand the Gospel and do not know how to share it. The typical SBC’er only knows that the Gospel gets you into heaven and keeps you out of hell. If they share their faith, it comes through theologically questionable and simplistic presentations like FAITH. But the Gospel is so much more than that. The Gospel is about transforming every aspect of a person and culture. It brings wholeness, healing, and peace, and begins the journey back to the Garden, where man was in perfect relationship with God. It transforms cultures socially, politically, economically, and relationally. It is not just about getting out of hell.

4. We do not know how to provide community outside the church building walls. Recent research by our denomination also indicates that unchurched people don’t want to come to church. Southern Baptist do not know how to create third spaces, places to interact with unchurched or dechurched that are not in a church setting. Americans are some of the most lonely people in the world and are looking for good relationships. But we only want to create “Christian Alternatives” instead of good, family friendly, have-nothing-to-do-with-church-stuff places where people can connect relationally. We have not trained our people to do anything but invite people to church. This is something Jesus did that we do not know how to do.

5. We refuse to contextualize. The mosaic that is our culture requires us to communicate in different ways to different people. Southern Baptist do not do this, or in some cases find it biblically reprehensible to do this. The problem is that every part of our reality is constructed based on context, culture, experience, and sensory information. We either don’t believe that or we choose to ignore it. We must start where people are and move to the Gospel, not start with our view of the Gospel and force people to understand it on our terms.

6. We are running out our most creative and missional people. They are being rejected based on methodology. They are being nit-picked to death. They do not fall in lock step with the SBC oligarchy. They want to reach the world for Christ and they have the energy and creativity to do so and they are rejected. So why even bother? I know were it not for our local association and state convention, we would not be Southern Baptist anymore. Our people don’t care; in fact, the reality is that if most of them knew we were SBC before they got to the membership class, they would not have joined.

All of the above are things that can be changed.

But what really is needed in our convention is repentance. It is time for those with blood on their hands from the conservative resurgence to “man up” and confess the ungodliness, slander, and vilification they participated in. They need to repent and resign their positions. I agree that we must be true to the scriptures, but the labeling of conservative people as liberal was a sin. It is time to be confessed. Our denomination will go as its leadership goes, and until the leadership openly confess their sin as it relates to the conservative resurgence, our denomination will continue to decline.

It is time for the churches in our denomination to shut down programs and fall on their face in prayer, confession, and repentance, and to cry out for the salvation of those we know who are not Christ followers.

It is time to organize around the mission of God, not the mission of the SBC.

It is time for the SBC to begin acting like humble missionaries, not triumphalist culture warriors.

It is time for the SBC to put the Holy Spirit back into His proper place as the third person of the Trinity, and get the Bible out of that spot.

The last and only hope for America is not the SBC. It is the Holy Spirit sweeping through the hearts of people. Can Southern Baptists be part of that? Yes, if we are willing to do it God’s way, not ours.


Written by David Phillips


Again, thanks David and well said in my opinion. If any of you would like to read other things David has to say go here.... http://www.wdavidphillips.com/

Paul B.

22 comments:

Debbie Kaufman said...

David, Paul: I agree with every jot and tittle. It's time it was said straight and it was.

Bob Cleveland said...

Paul,

I wonder if he'd be up to SBC Presidency. He's already written the right platform for it.

Thanks for posting this.

Dave Samples said...

Amen, my brother! Perhaps we should consider David Phillips for our next SBC president.

Les Puryear said...

Paul,

Thank you for sharing David's thoughts. He makes a lot of sense to me.

Les

Aussie John said...

Paul,

Hear! Hear! Sadly, all of what David speaks about was imported into this country, as well!

Paul Burleson said...

All,

I figured many would see what I saw in David's thoughts. You guys and gal are proving my figuring to be correct. Thanks for commenting. I hope many more read it and think about it deeply. I believe it to a be prophetic word.

David Phillips said...

Guys, thanks for your gracious comments. However, unless God beats me over the head with a 2x4, I have no desire to be in SBC politics especially the presidency. I was on the committee on nominations for the SBC in 2007, and it almost made me sick at my stomach.

Paul, thanks for letting this get to your readers as well.

Blessings

Paul Burleson said...

David,

I've found that reluctant leaders are generally the best kind to have. Hmmmm. :)

traveller said...

Paul,

Thank you for posting this from David. I do agree with his analysis for the most part. The SBC, like essentially all denominations is disappearing. I think this is likely irreversible due to the cultural changes going on in Western society. We are moving toward networking, not conventions or denominations.

Further, most of David's post actually has to do with not the leaders in the SBC at the national level, although it does apply to them, but to the local churches. The problem is endemic throughout Southern Baptist life. Unless local churches are willing to de-program, de-institutionalize, eliminate the clergy/lay divide and take other huge structural reforms they will disappear as well. We have lost one of the cries of the Great Reformation....reformed and always reforming. We got stuck at the reformed (past tense) and forgot that we are always to be reforming. Five hundred years is a long time to be stuck in that rut....which, as we all know, a rut is just a grave with the ends removed......

Paul Burleson said...

Traveller,

I agree that networking is the wave of the future. I'm already a part of a fledgling group with a heart for cooperation toward a particular end and the atmosphere is about as exciting as anything that I've seen in a while.

I'm afraid that "identity" may be too much a desire of denominationalism and militates against a proper Kingdom emphasis. Maybe it's time for a post-denominationalism Church which would be a baby step in the direction of reform as you are presenting it.

GuyMuse said...

Paul,

You write in an above comment, I believe it to a be prophetic word. I too believe this as a prophetic word. The trouble is we have side-lined the apostolic and prophetic voices amongst us, and thus are a sadly imbalanced people.

Thanks for sharing this good word.

Alyce Faulkner said...

Amen and Amen,
I think 'we' must decrease so He can increase.
I also believe the Baptist Identity push has not been received well with most members of the SBC.
However, I'm not sure we are getting off our high horse, or being shoved off by the hand of God.
Also, I meet with 6 members of a missions council from a local large church here in central Arkansas.
Every one of them conveyed to us that God is doing missions differently. I think this is just the beginning.
Thanks for this post and by the way, Happy Anniversary Mary and Paul.

Todd Nelson said...

David (and Paul),

Yes, you've expressed many of my thoughts as well. And I've experienced the labeling personally -- not "liberal", but "Pentecostal" in 1994. And it ain't so. I'm here in Malaysia (SE Asia), not with the IMB, as a result. God opened a door in 1998 for us to serve as missionaries through another channel, a friend and former FMB'er in Singapore, Charles Carroll.

I feel a little like a denominational orphan, but it's ok. God has been faithful these ten years here. I've had my worldview broadened and my relational needs met through old and new connections.

It is about the Kingdom and the mission of God, not denominational distinctives. And I am encouraged because the Spirit and the Message of the King are moving around the world in powerful ways through all kinds of believers. It's an exciting time to be an ambassador of the King to people who've never heard His good news -- and to work with others who long to see His Kingdom come.

More power to you, David, and to you, "Uncle" Paul. :-) And may our Father grant renewal and a missional resurgence to SBC churches and leaders at every level, beginning with repentance for the fleshly power plays of the past and the pridefulness of the present.

I might even be so bold as to pray for reconciliation between some of the leaders of the SBC and CBF. (I don't mean a reuniting, but humble expressions of repentance on a personal level among leaders.) I'm sure the Lord would be pleased. But who would go first? Maybe whichever one is the most mature spiritually and cares least about denominational politics and his job? Hmm. Maybe I should direct my prayers toward something that's more likely to happen, like new networks and new wineskins.

"Lord, may Your Kingdom keep coming ever more widely and thoroughly, however and through whomever You choose. Even so, would you please breathe new life and health into your people who call themselves Baptists, particularly in the USA, so that they can have the privilege of being used more effectively in your mission. And whatever the national leaders do or don't do, please, Lord, give your people creativity, courage, and faith for new wineskins -- to follow You in the great adventure of being on mission. For Jesus' maximum glory in the nations, Amen."

Blessings on you, David, as you serve in Delaware, and on you, Paul, as you travel and teach. Maybe we can get you out here in the not-too-distant future, like 2009? ;-)

Earl Baker said...

Bro Paul,
I can only say amen to David's observations, because they pretty well echo my own. I have been involved with the SBC for the past 54 years, my wife about 45 years. We have seen much change, but if it were not for our support for missionaries, we would have left the convention years ago. I'm afraid that our leadership has become so intent on building their own kingdoms that we have become blind to our real purpose. We must learn how to relate to God in order to be on mission WITH Him instead of ALWAYS making our plans and programs expecting Him to join us in our efforts of doing something FOR Him. Thanks David for opening a dialog that has long been needed. I am not usually involved in the blogsphere, but this is very close to my heart and I couldn't resist. Thanks.

Paul Burleson said...

Guy, Alyce, Todd and Earl,

I'm sorry for not having the opportunity to respond to each of you because I absolutely love doing just that. Especially you guys and gal. But I've just returned from a major procedure that is a prelude to carotid artery surgery to be done in the next couple of weeks and am under instuctions to get in my recliner and not use my right leg or hand as each has had an invasive procedure the past few hours.

This old body isn't cooperating like it used to. I'll get back to commenting after a couple of days.

But...I read again what David has written and am more convinced than ever, as you also see, it IS prophetic. I'm also reminded that a prophet not without honor except in his own country. [Convention] Our bad.

traveller said...

Paul,

I understand your feelings about that old body. I am looking forward to my redeemed body. But in the interim, I am praying for your physical strength and healing....and for your family as well.

Todd Nelson said...

Dear Paul,

I'm sure it's hard to sit still, and tempting to type, but keep being a good patient and following the doctor's orders. :-)

Seriously, praying that all goes well, that your artery gets cleared up and restored "good as new".

Grace, peace, and health,
Todd

Paul Burleson said...

Todd,

I appreciate your concern and prayers. The doctor found it to be a little bit worse than expected so he has planned for a double surgery and it will take the middle of June [16] and the rest of the month to get it all done.

Boy.. can they do delicate things with the human body now days. [Of course the doctors are just tools for what God is up to and my doctor knows it.] I view this as mine [1 Corinthians 3:22] and am going to rejoice in every moment of it learning what I can as I go along.

I do appreciate you commenting.

Lin said...

Paul, You are in my prayers. After all, you are one of my pastors.

Paul Burleson said...

Lin,

Thanks. But, as one of the members of His Boddy, I'm blessed and encouraged by you as well.

Bryan Riley said...

David is spot on. God is not about Southern Baptists. God is not about denominations at all. God is about blessing people who will be a blessing to the nations. He's been that way since Genesis and He will continue to be that way.

Paul Burleson said...

Bryan,

I continue to believe David has given the clearest statement I've read yet on our condition as a convention.