By Ron F. Hale
Will Rogers once quipped, “If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging!” Yet, the Southern Baptist Convention continues to toss spadeful after spadeful.
Chuck Kelley is the president emeritus of and the distinguished research professor of evangelism with the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. While he was leading the seminary, he was the only SBC entity head who voted against the 2010 initiative called the Great Commission Resurgence. Now retired, he has provided keen analysis in his new book, “The Best Intentions: How a Plan to Revitalize the SBC Accelerated Its Decline,” that shows the Convention’s decline in every vital ministry measurement (membership, worship attendance, baptisms, church planting, and gifts through the Cooperative Program) since that centralization of power at the national level.
Responsible leaders in business, military, and church know that one must always “inspect what you expect.” Kelley’s book successfully makes the case that the GCR has not met the expectations sold to Southern Baptists, and even more so, it has led to growing failure.
The GCR report focused on structural and funding changes that created competition (so-called “Great Commission Giving”) for the Cooperative Program and the two annual national mission offerings, while fundamentally altering the historic relationship between state conventions and the North American Mission Board (essentially nationalizing control of evangelism and church planting).
Equally dramatic, the GCR shifted Southern Baptist’s strategy for soul winning away from direct evangelism to emphasize church planting as the means of reaching the lost.
Like a seasoned aircraft accident investigator sifts through bits and pieces of evidence, Kelley pored through SBC official databases since 2010 to uncover the impact of the GCR changes on the cooperative missions and ministries of Southern Baptists, revealing:
— 2,297,619 people have dropped from SBC church membership rolls;
— 2,547,586 people no longer attended SBC worship services;
— average annual baptisms per SBC congregation fell by more than half, from 7.2 to 3.2 baptisms per year;
— the Cooperative Program, the financial lifeline of the SBC, is experiencing an astonishing lack of support (40.33% of SBC churches did not give to the Cooperative Program in 2019 — “According to a report in the Summer 2021 edition of SBC Life Journal, in 2019 (pre-pandemic), 19,645 SBC churches did not give to the Cooperative Program, a stunning piece of data published without fanfare.)”
— fewer missionaries are being deployed at home and overseas (International Mission Board numbers have dropped from 5,021 in 2010 to 3,592 missionaries in 2021);
— the ending of traditional strategic partnership agreements with state conventions has eroded the previous spirit of cooperation that defined Southern Baptist relationships; and
— centralized control of mission monies, and strategy has led to inefficiencies, not greater effectiveness.
Kelley’s book should cause every pastor, key lay leader, and denominational leader at every level to pause, pray, and ask tough questions about moving forward. This is not a time to maintain the status quo! It is not a time to shoot the messenger! Kelley’s book is a wake-up call!
A famous military axiom states, “No strategy ever survives first contact with the enemy.”
As part of strategic planning, battlefield commanders must prepare to respond to changing circumstances and unintended results. Successful military leaders typically have an alternative course of action ready if the desired outcomes of the main battle plan fail to materialize.
Thirteen years after the implementation of the GCR, it is obvious that a fallback plan to reverse our downward slide is desperately needed. We are at a “sons of Issachar” moment (I Chronicles 12:32), needing leaders who understand the times and know what to do!
At the least, we need to realize it is time to stop digging.
TRANSPARENCY & TRUST
Transparency has always been valued and expected by Southern Baptists!
When Southern Baptists are working with the same set of facts and shared vision, the entire Convention feels connected. Without transparency, relationships become strained with effectiveness threatened.
Serving on the SBC Executive Committee, this writer heard the president of our International Mission Board give a healthy financial report with the documents to prove it. A few months later, hundreds of our most seasoned missionaries were offered early retirement and brought home. Was the EC given a separate set of financials?
Later, this writer witnessed the president of LifeWay stand before the EC and present a rosy financial report with the documents to prove it. Just months later all LifeWay bookstores closed! Were we given all the facts?
The key to creating transparency in an organization is having transparent leaders!
AREAS OF CONCERN
Kelley has called into question the lack of transparency by the North American Mission Board, noting three specific areas of concern.
EVANGELISM — Kelley highlighted “the profound shift away from evangelism in order to magnify church planting” that took place in 2010 (p. 190), noting that “evangelism at NAMB is a shadow of what it was pre-GCR.” He also noted, “Baptisms dropped to levels not seen since the 1930s” (pp. 162-63).
This writer previously served as a NAMB missionary with a non-South state convention in the role ofassociate executive director of evangelism and church planting (departing NAMB in 2006). I was shocked at NAMB’s defunding — under the imprimatur of the GCR report — of state convention evangelism director positions in places like New York, California, and other high population areas not in the South. Equally disturbing was NAMB’s scrapping – also related to the GCR initiative — of “God’s Plan for Sharing,” the national evangelism strategy that engaged all state conventions.
CHURCH PLANTING – In 2013, NAMB president Kevin Ezell told the Convention the SBC needed to start 1,500 new churches a year to keep pace with population growth and church closures (2013 SBC Annual, p. 115). This goal was later reduced to 1,200 new congregations, then to 600.
From 2012 through 2020 NAMB would not release information about church planting missionaries serving the SBC. Then, in 2021, NAMB reported that 1,316 church planting missionaries were serving (down from 2,637 in 2010, prior to the GCR).
Meanwhile, NAMB’s church planting budget had soared from $24 million to more than $73 million, 2011-2021 (p. 120). Tragically, as Kelley stated, “No other administration of HMB/NAMB has spent so much money and had such little positive effect on measurable outcomes in SBC churches” (p. 132).
COOPERATING AGREEMENTS – Prior to the GCR, the North American Mission Board emphasized true cooperation with autonomous partners, implementing a national strategy through give and take negotiations with each of the state conventions. This “partners in the Gospel” approach through actual cooperating agreements led to the greatest growth the SBC has seen.
The GCR called for the cancellation of these types of cooperating agreements, and NAMB responded by replacing them with contracts that emphasize centralized control at the national level. Kelley pointed out that these cancellations “gave NAMB the power to create a financial crisis for state conventions and associations that differed with the corporate strategy coming out of Atlanta” (p.85).
The impact has been especially hard for non-South state conventions. Indeed, in 2020, six executive directors from the West and Midwest wrote a letter to NAMB seeking better collaborative partnerships. The response from NAMB was harsh: “You have correctly identified that we are more focused (centralized) and directive in our strategies, personnel and funding,” NAMB wrote. “We’re not sure you could make a more complimentary accusation of us!”
Friends, it is time to stop digging or looking for sharper shovels. It is time for local church pastors and lay leaders to hold their Convention leaders responsible.
This article was originally published in the Louisiana Baptist Message. Ron F. Hale has served as a pastor and North American Missionary around the country. In pre-retirement, he is now back home in Jackson, Tennessee, serving as interim pastor and writing.