Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Can the SBC reinvent itself as a powerful force for God today?

Just a few short months ago Southern Baptists seemed determined to stonewall their deteriorating denominational situation.

Like ostriches with their heads stuck in the sand, SBC denominational leaders and laypeople alike seemed oblivious to declining baptisms, dwindling membership, and shrinking income—not to mention weakening morale in many quarters, especially among younger members.

Then late spring arrived and with it the so-called Great Commission Resurgence movement. At first the movement sounded like the kind of reform uprising the SBC so desperately needs—one led by laypeople from the grassroots up. Then just as quickly the denomination's bureaucracy rose up to seize control of the movement. The movement was institutionalized into a special SBC committee filled to the rafters with a wide assortment of SBC politicos and bureaucrats and only few of them genuine laypeople, women, or from the under-30 crowd.

After the committee's formation I was tempted to write a blog entitled "Can the SBC bureaucracy save itself?" (Perhaps in the end this committee will be able to muster the courage, insights and influence necessary to make the required dramatic changes, but I remain skeptical because too many politicians and bureaucrats are now involved. What isn't needed is a simple rearranging of the chairs on the deck of this Titanic!) Before I could pen that column, however, the situation at the top of the denomination began to unravel further.

The first blow occurred when trustees of the denomination's North American Mission Board unceremoniously dumped their new president and top staff (allowing them to "resign", of course)—a strong indication, which is widely known, that the agency is faltering badly.

Then last week the president of the SBC's mammoth International Mission Board, Jerry Rankin, suddenly announced plans to retire and step down by next summer. That bombshell was followed by the announcement this week that Morris Chapman, president of the SBC's powerful Executive Committee, is also making plans to exit the stage. Both men are 68 and neither has been inclined to go quietly into the night to pave the way for younger successors.

So what's going on in the midst of all this upheaval?

What was once a swirling mess is now churning into what looks like a denominational hurricane.

1. The decline in baptisms and church membership is serious business for a denomination that has had a decades-long love attraction to growth and big numbers. While the statistical decline so far has been minimal, any decline at all is like a bullet in the heart to a denomination that has attached its star and too much importance to rising numbers.

2. The economic recession is real and Southern Baptists have not been immune to the pain in the pocketbook of average Americans. Less money in Southern Baptist homes means less money in local church offering plates, which in turn means less money for the denominational bureaucracy to lay claim to. Unfortunately the SBC has lived too long on the illusion that the money supply will always expand—seen as another this-worldly sign of God's blessings on the denomination. SBC leaders know real emotional pain will follow dwindling dollars.

3. As I said in my book, Witness to the Truth, published 16 months ago, the SBC's entire bureaucracy is antiquated and in dire need of reform, revision, and dramatic downsizing. When they first took control of the SBC bureaucracy in the early 1990s, Conservative SBC leaders badly misjudged the situation they inherited from their Moderate predecessors. Had they not been so awestruck by the denomination's wealth and resources at their disposal, they might have stayed true to their original plans to downsize and severely overhaul the denomination's expensive, cumbersome and far-flung structures. Instead they liked the spoils of their war with the moderates too much and opted instead to mimic those they defeated. For starters, the denomination desperately needs to revise its way of propelling leaders into its hierarchy; setting term limits on agency heads and seminary presidents would be another worthy goal.

4. The technological revolution swirling around us is making many institutions obsolete, including many church organizations. Unfortunately, churches themselves are not immune to this trend. Facebook and Twitter provide social connections Sunday-school classes once provided. The Internet and cable TV expand our ability to tune in to a whole smorgasbord of preachers, theological discussions, and "religious" experiences for a lot less investment of time, money, emotions, and resources.

Meanwhile far too many SBC churches as well as others want to do things "like we've always done them"; they presume their traditions are written in the Bible instead of their own narrow ethno-linguistic Southern cultures.

5. Many denominational structures are ill-equipped for today when people don't need mission boards to find them places of service or money to support them, when givers to church want to see real progress and results from the money they are asked to invest instead of just trusting whatever religious leader puffs enough smoke, when old-line missions supporters are dying off at a fast clip and younger ones are not lining up to take their places at the offering plates; and when people in general want to cut across artificial denominational, political, and economic boundaries in search of things that help them live better lives in a more crowded, more complex, more dangerous, and a less-religious world.

Like people witnessing a dam that has broken, Southern Baptists today face a rising tide of transition that will determine whether the denomination as we know it will live on as a dying, myopic, irrelevant, isolated, navel-gazing institution or somehow dramatically reinvent itself as a powerful global force for God and good in our culture and world today.

I vote for reinvention, but then I'm just one lone voice crying in the wilderness of the Internet. Inertia and the fear of change are always major stumblingblocks to any real reform.