By Chuck Kelley
The Southern Baptist Convention is firmly in the grip of decline. No large family of churches in the history of American Christianity to date has been able to break free from that grip and return to growth and fruitfulness. The challenge facing the SBC is immense, demanding intentionality and strategic action. Leaders must step up and take a stand, insisting this issue be addressed. But if the grip of decline is to be broken and the SBC is to reclaim its heritage of evangelism and growth, it will be because the “Typicals” go to war for the sake of the future. The typical pastors and the typical churches, the “grass roots” of our Convention are the Impossible Missions Force of the SBC. They must embrace the challenge of decline as an opportunity to reclaim the soul of the SBC as a Great Commission people focused on evangelism, missions and discipleship. This is an “all hands-on deck” moment for Southern Baptists to recover their superpower of cooperation and work together.
First, we must be willing to repair what is broken. The numbers are the numbers, and the numbers indicate the SBC is struggling. We need honest conversations about what SBC strategies are not working and what adjustments to make. A steady diet of Convention happy talk does not match the present reality. The focus of the Convention should be on the outcomes Southern Baptists desire from their ministries and what the numbers indicate about progress towards achieving those outcomes. When the outcomes indicate progress, celebrate! When the numbers indicate a lack of progress, adjust to improve progress. Clearly what we are doing now in some key areas has not been working as expected. Adjust! A healthy SBC will be willing to make strategic adjustments and expect those adjustments to produce progress in outcomes achieved. Wishful thinking is not a strategic plan. Occasional success is not growth.
Second, we must insist on transparency. Southern Baptists need to know that the SBC faces urgent problems that require all of us to engage. Engagement from SBC churches is more likely if the Convention knows the precarious state of the SBC today and what trendlines for the last ten years indicate about our likely future. The Convention does not need every report from its leaders to be glowing, but all reports should be complete and honest. Annual basic data reports should be placed in the context of a timeline of five to ten years to indicate the trendlines of where we are headed. Ten years that are generally upward indicate growth. Ten years that are generally downward indicate decline. Ten years with little change indicate a plateau with possible stagnation and a need for fresh attention. Primary SBC data for the last ten years clearly indicate the Convention is in trouble. Total membership, worship attendance, new church plants, total baptisms, and CP giving are ALL trending down. Both mission boards have fewer missionaries today than they did ten years ago. Greater transparency will communicate urgency requiring engagement. Interested readers can find primary SBC data placed in the context of the last decade in my new book, The Best Intentions.
Third, we must address the elephants in the room (the serious challenges) that the SBC has ignored for too long. Three of the elephants in the room for Southern Baptists are the Cooperative Program, church planting, and evangelism. The Cooperative Program is heading into its 100th anniversary facing serious headwinds. The 2021 issue of SBC Life Journal reported that in 2019 (pre-pandemic), nearly 40% of SBC churches did not give a dime through CP. Clearly, that is a serious issue. Also, in spite of the most extravagant spending on church planting in SBC history, the lack of progress in church planting borders on the shocking. For example, NAMB spent three times the amount of money on church planting in the past decade, but the net increase in the total number of SBC churches was about 50% less than in the previous decade when far fewer dollars were spent. We had about one church per 6,000 Americans. We now have about one church per 7,000 Americans. That movement is in the wrong direction. A third elephant is the dramatic SBC evangelism decline. Southern Baptists baptized more people in 1939 than they did in 2019, prior to the pandemic. The number of baptisms per SBC church is down by nearly 50% in the last decade. These and other elephants in the SBC room will not disappear without being acknowledged and addressed. The failure to make strategic adjustments now makes further decline inevitable and recovery ever more difficult.
Fourth, we must work on these and related problems in the appropriate way. Issues like these are very difficult to address from the floor of the SBC annual meeting due to the limitations of time and Convention processes. Complex problems should be addressed internally through the engagement of the appropriate entity trustees and staff over time. The Conservative Resurgence succeeded because year after year messengers elected Presidents who intentionally nominated entity trustees committed to making sure the entity they served clearly affirmed the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. Today Southern Baptists need entity Trustees and Presidents who will make a public commitment to the Convention that acknowledges the issues of decline, pledges to work with their staffs to address such issues and find solutions, and includes an annual progress report on issues pertaining to decline in the entity report to SBC messengers. Convention messengers during the Conservative Resurgence insisted the trustees of every entity focus on affirming the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. When both trustees and staff of the entities focused on this critical theological issue, profound change happened through internal processes. That is as it should be. If present trustees do not think decline in the SBC is a problem that needs to be addressed, Convention messengers should elect SBC presidents who will fill trustee vacancies with Southern Baptists who pledge to make addressing Convention decline an internal priority for the SBC entities they serve.
The crisis of decline is a defining moment in the SBC story. The Convention faces an uphill battle against decline that history tells us we are unlikely to win. But unlikely is not impossible. Southern Baptists experienced the impossible once in the Conservative Resurgence and turned back liberalism’s influence over Convention entities and leadership. The “grass roots” Southern Baptists, whom I like to call the “Typicals,” became our Impossible Missions Force. Together they got involved in record numbers at the annual meetings and for more than a decade insisted SBC Presidents and entity Trustees take seriously the charge to affirm the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. They re-established a culture of traditional Baptist theology. The battle was long and difficult, but the resulting victory was a mighty act of God greater than the “Typicals” dared to dream. Do Southern Baptists want God to do a transforming miracle again? An even bigger question: Are they willing to pay the necessary price to make sharing the Gospel with every person in our nation and the world the true SBC priority?