By Chuck Kelley
One of the most successful movie franchises in Hollywood history grew out of a very popular TV series called “Mission: Impossible.” The plot of both the TV series and the movies revolves around a small group of people called the Impossible Missions Force (IMF). Their job is to take on dangerous missions deemed impossible to accomplish and find a way to succeed anyway. Today, the Southern Baptist Convention faces its own version of an impossible mission. In the history of American Christianity, no large family of churches that sinks into the scale of decline currently experienced by the SBC has ever found a path back to consistent growth.
Why is it so difficult for churches and denominations to break the grip of decline? First, lost people never, ever lobby for attention or complain when churches fail to share the Gospel with them. Second, very few church members notice or complain when baptisms become rare. Most church leaders have little idea how many people have been baptized in their church in any given year because that number is rarely published or announced to congregations. Third, there are always people and issues completely unrelated to evangelism clamoring loudly for attention. Ignoring those insistent voices about other issues can get a pastor or denominational leader fired. On the other hand, ignoring lost people hardly ever causes a stir or puts a job at risk. The bottom line: As decline grows, the attention, energy, and resources necessary to reach the lost are judged not worth the effort or the risk. It seems better and safer to focus whatever mission energy a church has on people who live elsewhere than bothering the men, women, and children who live in our communities but appear uninterested in Jesus. Given the present state of the SBC, history indicates the Southern Baptist Convention is unlikely to recover the evangelistic fervor and fruitfulness of years past. Still, unlikely is not impossible.
Unlike the Hollywood version of an Impossible Missions Force, the SBC does not need a small group of highly skilled professionals performing at heroic levels to take on this impossible mission. This mission, if Southern Baptists choose to accept it, will require all of us. The SBC must refocus on its superpower: Cooperation. The rise of the Southern Baptist Convention was fueled by the unprecedented impact of passionate, voluntary cooperation among local churches on a massive scale. The Convention is not a collection of churches. It is a body of churches, a body joined together by a mission. When thousands of local churches made a passionate, voluntary commitment to fulfill the Great Commission by working together, greatness happened. In the SBC, the local churches of the Convention still set the agenda, make the rules, and pay the bills for SBC ministries. The SBC is not a great big bus with a really outstanding driver. The SBC is more like a huge pack of buses, each with its own driver, who have agreed to coordinate their travel plans and share some of their expenses. With the churches having grown apart in recent years, today’s SBC must again find ways to get all those buses to better coordinate their travel plans and do more to share some of their expenses.
Passionate, voluntary cooperation to fulfill the Great Commission together proved to be the superpower of the Southern Baptist Convention, producing unmatched fruitfulness and eventually making the SBC the “Big Dog” of evangelical Christianity in the United States and the world. Creating a common purse (the Cooperative Program) to fund their shared Great Commission expenses was a masterstroke that generated far more funding than the more typical systems of dues, annual assessments, or special offerings used by other denominations. Also, after decades of miscommunication and the reduplication of efforts, the development of Cooperative Agreements between each state convention and the Home Mission Board following World War II was a crucial strategic adjustment that launched the SBC out of the South and into every state. It translated a spirit of cooperation into a decentralized strategic planning process that incorporated both regional and national priorities and provided funding for both direct mission activity and logistical support. Together the Cooperative Program and the Cooperative Agreements created a massive coordinated funding and planning process that mobilized the thousands of SBC churches for evangelism, church planting, and the underappreciated but crucial element of logistical support, all of which were necessary elements for sustained growth in the Convention and its churches. The formula worked!
Unfortunately, the Great Commission Resurgence proposals approved at the annual SBC meeting in 2010 unexpectedly accelerated an unraveling of that passionate, voluntary cooperation, an unraveling that the passing of time had already set in motion. In particular, the decisions of NAMB turn away from evangelism and to pull funding from state conventions and associations and to attempt to exert centralized control over efforts to reach North America by working independently in state conventions rather than with and through state conventions, had a far more damaging impact than expected. This change was especially hurtful in the non-South state conventions where supporting partnerships were most needed. As the SBC superpower of cooperation unraveled, decline grew across the SBC. If the SBC is to overcome the now entrenched reality of decline, it must recover that superpower of cooperation to fulfill the Great Commission. The question of the day is: How? That will be the subject of my next blog.