News Articles

SBC churches must ‘upsize,’ BSSB national strategist says

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–For Al Riddley, the task ahead may be difficult, but his message is simple.

“We’ve got to upsize in a downsizing world,” the Baptist Sunday School Board’s newly appointed national strategist for new Bible study units said.

Riddley, former director of Sunday school services for the Illinois Baptist State Association, has been charged with encouraging the development of 100,000 new Bible study units in Southern Baptist churches within the next five years. Accomplishing that goal, he said, will require a “shift in thinking” for SBC churches from a “fortress mentality” to an “expansion mode.”

“We can’t let all of the corporate downsizing infiltrate the church. There’s been a pervasive ‘retrenching’ in our convention and we can’t allow that to continue. It will mean a death sentence to our ministry if we do.

“We’ve got to be entrepreneurs, risk-takers,” said Riddley, who comes from a background in newer convention work.

He knows firsthand the importance of an aggressive church outreach program. While living in a third floor apartment in south Chicago as a boy, his family was reached by a small, but persistent Southern Baptist church in the area.

“My dad began having Bible studies in our home, and then my parents eventually became kind of lay church planters, starting Bible studies in other people’s homes.”

Riddley later became a minister himself, serving as an associate pastor, minister of education and minister of youth at several Kentucky churches. Later, he served 10 years as director of the Baptist Convention of New England’s church development division. During his tenure there, the state convention received the B.W. Spilman Award for the best ratio of new to existing Sunday schools three times and also was honored once with the J.N. Barnette Award which recognizes the largest numerical increase in state Sunday school enrollment.

From 1989-96, Riddley provided leadership to Southern Baptist Sunday school work in Illinois.

“I believe God has been preparing me for this ministry all these years with the experiences I’ve had,” said Riddley, who will continue to be based in Illinois until next year. “I’m excited about this opportunity.”

Why should churches get excited about creating new Bible study units? There are several reasons, Riddley said.
“New units can bring new people, new opportunities and new life to a church. It’s especially important to small churches and missions, as it can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.”

Many churches, he said, get too comfortable with their size and familiarity and unintentionally close newcomers out.

“If a person doesn’t fit in, or if they aren’t connected to someone in the congregation, they can get overlooked. Starting new classes gives room for new people to fit.

“And these new people are often new Christians with a passion for God. They can really energize a church and have a ‘multiplier effect’ on growth.”

Is 100,000 new units an achievable goal for Southern Baptists? Riddley said “yes, but only if our churches give it priority.”

He plans to use a team approach in developing his strategy for success, explaining, “We’ve got to dream some new dreams and we’ve got to get people at all levels of our convention involved.

“I see the need for a network of large churches, input from small churches, goal-setting with state convention leaders, maybe a national advisory committee to help make this goal a reality.

“I’ll be accepting some speaking engagements and conference assignments, too, but I don’t want to leave myself without adequate time for strategy development.”

Riddley said he sees his work as a three-step process:

1) Situation overview: what’s happening in our churches today and what needs to happen?

2) Establishment of new networks and strengthening of existing relationships with churches, state conventions and denominational agencies.

3) Developing a process for creating the new units. “This will be the nuts and bolts of what we will be asking our churches to do and what we need to put in their hands to help them do it.”

What will all these new Bible study units look like?
Riddley said he isn’t “hung up” on the name “Sunday school,” but he added the Sunday morning time slot “is still very attractive for Bible study.”

“We don’t want to abandon something that’s working. But I don’t think we can think only in traditional terms.

“We’ve got to get Bible study units outside the church walls — into apartment complexes, retirement and nursing homes, businesses. We have to use our existing organization to start off-campus Bible studies that can impact unreached people groups — folks who are geographically or socio-economically separated from a church.”

Bible study is more than a strategy for Riddley, it’s a personal commitment. In addition to his responsibilities for the Sunday School Board, he leads a weekly Bible study for coaches at a local gym in Springfield, Ill., and he plans to start a group for couples in his home in late March.

“I feel blessed to be involved in this ministry,” Riddley said. “I can’t think of any other opportunity that has this kind of potential for reaching people.”

    About the Author

  • Chip Alford