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The Dilemma of Decline: Epilogue - An Optimistic Pessimist

By Dr. Chuck Kelley

Optimism is the tendency to expect the best. Pessimism is the tendency to expect the worst. An “optimistic pessimist” is someone who chooses hope in spite of discouragement. In a series of nine blogs, I explored the reality that the Southern Baptist Convention is in the grip of prolonged decline. That decline was first manifested in our evangelism statistics, but as it grew unchecked, decline spread to nearly every statistical category that matters to people concerned about the Great Commission. The chart on the total number of SBC churches and their baptisms over a period of more than one hundred years (see Part 1) and the chart showing key SBC statistics over the past decade (see Part 8) are two of the most unsettling documents I ever presented. The numbers give Southern Baptists no place to hide and no room to wiggle. The knowledge of what happened to Methodism in the aftermath of their failure to heed the similar warnings of W. E. Sangster in 1938 (see Part 9) is a chilling reminder of how very serious this moment is in the Southern Baptist story. Having painted this bleak picture of the SBC present, what do I see in the SBC future? I am an optimistic pessimist. I choose hope! Here is why.

The SBC Leaders Are Beginning to Recognize We Have A Problem

In an NOBTS chapel message on March 3, 2009 entitled The New Methodists, I addressed publicly the reality of decline in the SBC for the first time. Baptist Press thought the message too controversial to publish in their news feed to the SBC. From that day to this, when I address any gathering of church and Convention leaders, some aspect of SBC decline is usually my subject. On June 18, 2020, after I banged this drum for more than a decade, the President of the North American Mission Board, and some other SBC leaders finally acknowledged the decline of the SBC and pledged to address it in a video, “It’s on Me.” You can’t fix a problem you don’t think you have. No one knows what action steps will follow. While this acknowledgement is an important first step, it is not why I choose hope.

The SBC Already Has A Powerful Evangelistic Paradigm in Place

A paradigm is a characteristic way to solve a problem. The SBC developed and incorporated into nearly all of its churches the most powerful plan for reaching a community for Christ in the history of American Christianity. The basis of the paradigm was the New Testament teaching about the process of sowing and reaping. This paradigm worked in every size and type of church in every part of the country, was flexible enough for any church to adjust it, but clear and simple enough for every church to implement. The key: Relentless focus on spreading the Gospel throughout a community, baptizing those who responded and incorporating them into a process of congregational discipleship. The steps to implement this paradigm: First, create and sustain an evangelistic culture in the church. Second, mobilize members to share the Gospel outside of the church. Third, connect any who hear the Gospel with a process of Bible study and relationship building with Christians. Fourth, periodically create harvest opportunities that ask those who have heard the Gospel to respond and begin a disciple’s life in Christ. The paradigm is explained more fully in my book Fuel the Fire, but at least some elements of this paradigm are already in place in your church, even if time disconnected them from a strategy to reach the community. Southern Baptists can reconnect with the elements of this powerful paradigm, but this is not why I am an optimistic pessimist.

The Essence of Warfare Is Logistics

Military history and strategy are areas of interest for me. One statement often encountered in such reading is: The essence of warfare is logistics. Soldiers, sailors, and airmen need support and supply to be able to fight. To speak of the military, is to speak of both the warriors and the support system that undergirds them. For example, an aircraft carrier is the mightiest naval vessel afloat, but you are unlikely to see one sailing alone. In addition to its own crew, weapons, and aircraft, a carrier typically deploys with two guided missile cruisers, two destroyers, one frigate, two submarines, and a supply ship. Imagine how much money the navy could save if it trusted the aircraft carrier to take care of itself. Such a reduction would provide more money to increase the number of sailors, pilots, and marines. However, sailing on its own would make the carrier more vulnerable and thus less certain of fulfilling its mission. Southern Baptist churches have long had a comprehensive support system to facilitate their ministry and evangelism. In recent years, elements of that support system were diminished or eliminated under the banner of spending more on missions. Operational efficiency must be better balanced with missional necessity. The SBC can do this, but that is not why I am an optimistic pessimist.

Why I Am an Optimistic Pessimist

I grew up in the Sixties, an extremely tumultuous era in American life. Race riots, three major political assassinations, the rise of the drug culture, an unpopular war, and the sexual revolution turned the whole culture upside down. To top it all off, the cover of Time magazine, a major news outlet of day, proclaimed “God Is Dead,” the highly publicized announcement of a theologian at Emory University. The church was in retreat, with no prospects on the horizon for a recovery. And then, the Wind blew. God poured out the Holy Spirit on the nation in what became known as the Jesus Movement. Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar were the hot tickets on Broadway. The Top 40 pop radio hits included Amazing Grace, Jesus is the Soul Man, Day by Day, Put Your Hand in the Hand of the Man Who Stills the Water, and more. Thousands responded to the Gospel. Worship was transformed. First Baptist Houston set a record for youth baptisms that stands to this day. And on June 21, 1971, Jesus was on the cover of Time magazine! God was not dead after all. I was there. My college campus was transformed from depressing darkness to glorious light. Everything changed. I am an optimistic pessimist because I know God still moves. God can stir His church again. The question is: Do we recognize how desperately we need a fresh touch of His Spirit? Will we seek it?

This Sinner’s Prayer

Heavenly Father, forgive me and us. Days filled with Kingdom service are not necessarily obedience. Pleasing those who share my opinions is not necessarily pleasing You. Years ago there was such darkness on my college campus, such confusion in our land, I thought change impossible. I left the toughest battle for one of my choosing. You drew me back into the fray those long years ago, and I saw darkness become light. Dear Father, once again, Let the Wind blow! Surprise us with its unexpected power, and may our surprise lead to our repentance.

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