By Ed Stetzer
NASHVILLE, Tenn.,—It is time for the Southern Baptist Convention to move from denial to decision.
It has happened again. The SBC reported membership has declined, again. And, baptisms are at their lowest level in 60 years.
I remember the first time the membership declined, just a few years ago. I pointed out (based on Cliff Tharp’s data, LifeWay’s now-retired statistician) that it was not an aberration, but a pattern. The 50-year membership trend was moving into negative territory.
“Put simply,” I wrote in April 2008, “membership may go up next year, but the trend points to the negative. It probably won’t go up. But, even if it does, I believe we will have more declining than growing years over the next decade. Unless the trend changes, membership has peaked.”
How did we respond? I remember how strongly these observations were denied. A segment of the SBC seemed to think closing our eyes or disputing the data would change our reality.
In 2008, we were again faced with the data of a continuing trend. I noted then, “Today we are facing a set of numbers to which we are not accustomed . . . This year, I believe that our tipping point continues to tip. Unless things change, we are about to enter a time when we grow accustomed to decline and think back to the good ol’ days of growth.”
Following that report there was a little less denial. Actually, more spoke up. Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Seminary, warned that Southern Baptists are in danger of entering a deep decline with all the accompanying problems.
Subsequently, the data for 2009 revealed no reversal.
Now, we can see four years in a row of statistics confirming a long-term trend of membership decline in the SBC. It is what it is.
It is time for the SBC to move from denial to decision. I am only echoing what others have said before: It is time for change in the SBC. But change, just for the sake of change, is not enough. We must ask, “What kind of change do we need?”
For me, as a missiologist and denominational servant, change needs to come in several places.
First, we need a renewed passion for churches to live on mission. We need to see the church not simply as an institution but as an agent of God’s kingdom-mission. Increasingly, people must recognize the church is a missionary body with a divine call to be a sign and instrument of God’s kingdom. In short, God is a sending God and we are a sent people.
Second, we need a greater emphasis on ethnic diversity. We’ve been so Southern and so white for so long that the annual meetings look like a loaf of Wonder bread. Our ideas of “reaching out” are less impressive than striving to create an intentionally multicultural family that reflects the population of heaven. Simply put, denominations will not embrace ethnic leaders without a plan and strategy to do so. The Executive Committee is pressing in on this issue, and it is about time.
Third, we must have a plan to raise up a new generation, not just of leaders, but young people throughout the SBC. The oldest generation may indeed be the “Greatest,” but it must not be our last. The SBC will not last forever based solely on the presence of its elder statesmen and women. Mentoring, where the younger learns from the elder, and reverse mentoring, where the elder learns from the younger, creates the kind of dynamics that perpetuate an effective denomination without the bloodletting of civil war.
Finally, we need more new churches in our convention. I’m thankful for the efforts of Kevin Ezell and the team at the North American Mission Board, as they are taking bold steps to refocus on church planting. Even in the Bible Belt there are large segments of people who have not been and are not being reached with the Gospel. In our large cities, one could surmise that so much “urban blight” is the result of a spiritual vacuum. In the lesser-evangelized parts of our own country are people who have been insulated from the Gospel in the most Gospel-saturated society in history. Only a vast movement of church planting across North America will see these people reached with the message of Jesus Christ.
Telling the truth has been controversial in SBC life. But facts are still our friends. The fact is, our denomination is struggling and needs to change. Yet, it is not the denomination that is “great,” rather, it is that a denomination is a family of great churches. I love those churches and pray God will use them to advance His name and His fame. The denomination is the tool the churches use to accomplish the God given goal.
When will change come? I don’t know. Some will keep going as before—considering slow decline as acceptable as long as they can keep doing church in a way they have grown to prefer. Some are content to successfully manage decline. Yet, for others, knowing that 2010 saw the fewest number of new believers going through the baptismal waters since Eisenhower was president will break their hearts. They will weep for the lost.
We don’t change until the pain of staying the same grows greater than the pain of change. May the truth break our hearts, drive us to our knees and compel us into the mission.
Ed Stetzer is is vice president of the research and ministry development division and missiologist in residence at LifeWay Christian Resources.