WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)–We may have to admit it — the Southern Baptist Convention is getting smaller.
If you measure it in purely empirical terms, the SBC is in decline. We just finished gathering in Phoenix for our smallest annual meeting since World War II. Not only that, but almost all of our denominational statistics are headed downhill, from our cumulative baptisms to the number of regular attenders in our churches. And we have lower amounts being given to the Cooperative Program. Annie and Lottie are struggling. Not good.
And how about this newsflash — the SBC is probably already smaller than we care to admit. Kevin Ezell’s “you have heard it said, but I say to you” speech in Phoenix revealed that the North American Mission Board and its state convention partners had planted about half as many churches in 2010 as are normally claimed. The self-reported ACP numbers of our churches are also suspect. Those reports are available to the press, bloggers and potential future employers of pastors. Does anyone doubt that pastors feel pressure to pad the stats? So the SBC isn’t just getting smaller — it is highly likely we already are smaller than we think.
Let’s face it — there are a lot of things against us as a denomination. The culture is becoming more hardened to the Gospel. The bad economy is hurting our people and our churches financially. We have 40-something thousand churches in the SBC, but we all know that many of those churches are very weak or dying.
And we are certainly an aging denomination. Our congregations are aging, as are many of our buildings, our programs, our strategies and our most visible leaders. Many of the mega-churches that have been our flagships for the past 30 years have quietly plateaued. There are numerous non-denominational churches and mini-denominations that have sprung up in suburbia everywhere — younger, more agile, cooler, and basically baptistic but not in name or affiliation. These churches and organizations siphon off some of our best leaders and most faithful people. Sometimes it just seems like the SBC is tired.
In spite of our challenges, I have to say that I am more encouraged about our future as a missional enterprise than I have been my entire adult life. Our mini-meeting in Phoenix actually served to advance my growing optimism about the SBC. Here are some reasons why:
— Church planting and unevangelized, unreached people groups are on the front burner in a fresh way. This is why I want my church to give to the Cooperative Program. Our common commitment to the Great Commission and our shared strategy for pushing back lostness in cities and among peoples around the world is why the CP is the best place for churches to invest missions dollars.
— Outstanding new leadership. New leadership at the Executive Committee, the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board are breathing new life and vision into our cooperative efforts. Our ability to select and attract Frank Page, Kevin Ezell and Tom Elliff are a testimony to both the strength of our denominational talent pool and the wisdom of our trustee system.
— Our commitment to expand beyond our “whiteness.” According to Ed Stetzer, head of LifeWay Research, by 2050 there will be no majority race in the United States. The demographics will push us beyond the rural, white South and into neighborhoods where we have previously been irrelevant. The affirmation of the Executive Committee report on ethnic diversity, passage of the resolution “On Immigration and the Gospel,” and the election of our first black to serve as first vice president are positive steps.
— The new movement among young leaders. Organized networks such as 9Marks and Baptist 21 are intentionally connecting and mobilizing young Southern Baptists. The church planting surge among Southern Baptists is being spearheaded by guys in their 20s and 30s. And don’t forget that the Conservative Resurgence was led by pastors in their 30s and 40s — Vines, Patterson, Hawkins, Stanley, Rogers and Pressler were young when they made their mark. This new youth movement has to happen or we are dead.
— An explicitly competitive posture. The SBC and its agencies are repositioning themselves to compete in a world where other attractive opportunities for church cooperation abound. We are going to have to continually persuade new generations that the CP is the most effective place to invest missions dollars. The rising cohort of Southern Baptist churches and leaders will not cooperate out of loyalty or guilt. They will respond to compelling vision.
So what if at the end of all of these changes the SBC is still smaller? Smaller doesn’t have to equal decline in effectiveness. A leaner, younger, more agile, more focused, more diverse denomination will continue to make a huge impact for Christ. And I still believe that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We can do more for King Jesus together than any of us could do on our own. That is why I am more motivated than ever to participate in the Great Commission work of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Jimmy Scroggins is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in West Palm Beach, Fla. He was a member of the 2011 SBC Resolutions Committee. His column first appeared in the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.gofbw.com.