Recently my friend Ed Stetzer released a Lifeway study showing that the Southern Baptist Convention actually declined in membership in the past year. Ed (together with Southern Baptist president Frank Page) caution Southern Baptists that this probably reflects a drift of the "younger" generation of Southern Baptists away from the SBC. Ed’s research is convincing… he shows that this is a 50 year trend, not just a one year blip. Ed ends the article with a very penetrating question, "Now is the moment for us to hone our vision and take on a bigger
battle—we must battle to build upon our Conservative Resurgence and
make it a Great Commission Resurgence… If we don’t, why did we bother with the Conservative Resurgence in the first place?"

One of my mentors, Paige Patterson (president of the Southwestern Seminary in Ft. Worth) took exception to some of the conclusions. Dr. Patterson brought out a number of good points, including:

  • Dropping in membership numbers can actually be seen as a good
    thing, if it represents removing some of the "inflatedness" of Southern
    Baptist numbers (i.e. counting people who haven’t been to church in
    years because they left the faith, have joined other churches, or are
    dead, all of which are true of many Southern Baptist churches that have
    3000 on the membership role and only 300 present on Sunday morning).
  • The supposed decline in membership numbers does not indicate a failure of the "Conservative Resurgence" for at least two reasons: 1. The baptism/membership numbers of the "moderates" who left the Convention are much lower than those of conservative churches. 2. Ultimately, the conservative resurgence was not borne out of a desire for increased growth, but out of a passion to be faithful to Scripture and the historic doctrines of the church, recognizing you could find "no place in history where any movement based on questioning the authority and accuracy of God’s Word ever produced evangelistic fervor, missionary zeal or healthy churches."
  • "Mean-spiritedness" is never appropriate in the cause of Christ and is to be regretted.
  • There are a number of "younger" pastors (of whom he cited me as one), who have not left the Convention.
  • Many of the "older" Southern Baptist leaders have spent their lives investing in younger leaders and remain as mentors to those leaders today.
  • Many of the "younger" pastors who have left the Southern Baptist Convention have done so because they simply do not share the convictions of Southern Baptists… convictions on things like faithfulness to Scripture, the historic doctrines of the Gospel, the necessity of faith in Christ and the call of God to world evangelization.
  • The really critical issue for Southern Baptists is not that we need a new worship style or more up-to-date marketing, but the fact that we have substituted dependence on God in prayer with flashy, ready-made programs, and replaced the responsibility of believers to share Christ with clever marketing schemes.

Both Ed and Dr. Patterson are my friends and men I look up to, and both share the same values and commitment to the Gospel. Both love the church and her mission.

Let me explain first off that our church has chosen to cooperate missionally with the Southern Baptist Convention because we believe unified effort between Gospel-loving churches increases our effectiveness in church planting, leadership training, and public witness. The blessing and curse of my generation seems to be an independent, can-do spirit when it comes to mission. I just finished reading Stephen Neill’s A History of Christian Missions, and one of the points he makes is that though Protestants have historically been extremely zealous for missions, we often have charged into unreached areas like Lone Rangers with no sense of who else was doing what for the cause of Christ there. Because of our lack of cooperation, we have often repeated easily avoidable mistakes and caused unnecessary chaos in the fields they we are trying to reach. Therefore we (the Summit Church), through the SBC, want to link up with missional, like minded churches for the purpose of mission.

I also want to say that I am exceedingly grateful to Dr. Patterson and other ‘older’ Southern Baptists who have invested heavily in my life. I was told long before I met Dr. Patterson that he was a mean-spirited man by some people who obviously did not like him. However, upon meeting Dr. Patterson I did not find the charges of mean-spiritedness to bear any real truth at all. He was gentle and forgiving. His insistence that we remain faithful to Gospel doctrines grew out of a fervent love (or so it appeared to me) for Jesus and for people. He was the one who taught me, "You must always be sweet. You can never do Christ’s work with Satan’s spirit." I began to wonder if the charges of mean-spiritedness were truer of Dr. Patterson’s critics than of Dr. Patterson.

I do want to note, however, that Ed’s call is a timely one, and one that I believe we absolutely must heed. I do know some "younger" Southern Baptists who have left the Convention, or, having stayed, involve themselves in it only minimally. I’ll try to make this short and to the point:

  • Misplaced focus on priorities other than the Gospel. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 is our statement of belief, and its beauty is that it is specific enough to define us as a Gospel-faithful people, and broad enough to tolerate acceptable diversity among us. "Southern Baptist" should not indicate a style of worship or a political platform or interpretation about issues of Christian freedom or a stance on the finer theological points of Calvinism or even one’s position on minor spiritual gifts. The Convention exists for a shared mission around the Gospel. When minor things (such as the ones I listed) become major things, then the mission itself becomes minor. When that happens, many Gospel-loving people look to better organizations to facilitate their cooperation in mission. We need to renew our commitment to the Baptist Faith and Message, 2000 as the substance of our unity.
  • Failure to distinguish between necessary cultural adaptation and real worldliness: In an attempt to separate Christian witness from the pollution of the world, some Southern Baptists have mistaken a cultural preference for faithfulness to the Gospel. We have assumed that faithfulness to the Gospel meant a certain style of music, a certain tradition of worship, a certain method of evangelism, even a certain tone of voice and a certain coiffed hairstyle. Most Southern Baptist churches are a beautiful blend of the 16th and 17th centuries. The tragedy in this is that in those places where we absolutely SHOULD NOT look like the world–specifically how we treat money, power, and outsiders, we look just like the world–like Samson, we have not only failed to "overcome" the Philistine culture, we have absorbed their values and look just like them in the places we are supposed to be distinct. Many younger Southern Baptists have seen that in order to reach their culture they were going to have to change some of their methods and traditions. No doubt they (and I) have made mistakes in attempting this, but some older Southern Baptists have mistakenly insisted that we hold on to some things that have nothing to do with the Gospel. If given the choice between effective Gospel ministry and Southern Baptist traditions which have nothing to do with the essence of the Gospel, many younger pastors will choose (correctly) the Gospel.
  • Bad parachurchism: OK, I totally made that term up. But here’s what I mean: there is good parachurch and bad parachurch. GOOD parachurch ministries FACILITATE the ministry of the church. A good parachurch ministry attempts to be a resource to the local church through which the church can do her ministry more effectively. BAD parachurch takes ministry from a local church and does it for her. Bad parachurch says, "Give us money and people and we’ll do ministry for you."

The SBC was born out of the "good parachurch" model: the agencies of the Convention facilitated the ministries of local churches. Local churches led in the ministry, the Convention served the initiatives of those churches— but it was the local churches that took the lead and got things done. Over time, it appears that some parts of the SBC have shifted into ‘bad parachurch’ mode. They expect the local churches to turn over resources so the agencies can do the work. Burgeoning bureaucracies were created that basically duplicated what was to be happening in the local church. We, the local church, are to give our money and be happy with the results, and scolded for not giving properly.

Some missional churches are not actively participating in the Convention because they don’t see the SBC helping them (that is, the local church) fulfill the call God has given to that local church to plant churches. Sure, sometimes "younger" pastors don’t give because they are arrogant, shortsighted and don’t see the value of cooperation. Often, however, it’s because they are not convinced the SBC is best channel for fulfilling their calling to reproduce and multiply. And this is, in part, because they see the Convention taking ministry initiative away from the churches.(Of course, there are some things local churches can’t do
effectively… for example, most churches cannot house a an academically credentialed seminary… and for that we
are happy to turn over the role to a Convention agency. We should not, however, relinquish the responsibility to raise up and train ministers). 

Many of these new churches are simply not going to give to the SBC out of a sense of loyalty. They are going to give to the SBC when they see that this is the most effective way of accomplishing the call placed on them to plant churches and transform their cities. Many "younger" pastors are more committed to the call of God to plant churches than they are to the Convention, and this, in my opinion, is not a bad thing. When the Convention reveals that it is the best investment for assisting the local churches in training leaders, planting churches, and doing the work of God in the world, that is when many of the "younger" pastors will give their money and involvement to the work of the SBC.

We, the Summit Church, give somewhere around 21% of our budget outside of our church to
evangelism, community ministry, and church planting work. We give a significant portion of that to the Convention because we do see the value in cooperation
and shared resources. We know that whenever you cooperate not
everything will be done exactly as we like it, and we are ok with that. We send out most of our teams under the direction of the IMB and try to
give generously to the IMB for that purpose.

We also recognize, however, that the Summit Church will answer to God personally for His command on us to
multiply and grow, and so we prudently evaluate how effectively the
money we give to church planting efforts is helping us to fulfill OUR
calling to plant churches. We are more committed to the call of
God on us than to a "denominational giving program." As the Convention helps us fulfill our calling, we will participate in it.

I do believe that as the SBC refocuses itself on the priority of the Gospel, majoring on it and not on other minor (though important) things, and that as it continually realigns itself to catalyze the work of local churches, we will see more "younger" Southern Baptists happy to remain a part of this great mission organization.