Thursday, July 3, 2014

Hard Decisions SBC Churches Must Make Less They Die

Another year, another report regarding the continued decline of the Southern Baptist Convention - the largest protestant denomination in America. For years, pundits and Southern Baptists have offered a number of explanations for this decline (change of demographics, rise of American secularism, blame the Calvinists!, etc.). Perhaps there is some truth in some or even most of these factors. I will not debate that here. Knowing the why is important and it is a conversation we must continue have. I want to offer here only a few difficult decisions Southern Baptist churches should consider in light of our ongoing decline.

Ultimately, we must remember this: our highest priority as Christians, local congregations, and Southern Baptists is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Though traditions, histories, projects, programs, and "the-way-we've-always-done-them" are not necessarily wrong, we must not allow them to be roadblocks to our ultimate goal: reaching people with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I will add just one more word for clarification. I believe that the gospel is transcendent because its origin is found in an immutable God. Southern Baptists should never consider redefining the gospel. The same message that transformed Saul the Pharisee into Paul the Apostle or Martin Luther the monk into Martin Luther the Reformer or CS Lewis the atheist into CS Lewis the apologists is the same, relevant gospel that saves even today. Therefore, what follows are only bullet points on decisions we can make, not theology we should change.

1. It is time for churches to merge

Travel throughout the South and you will find countless small, rural churches who are hanging by a thread too stubborn to make the necessary changes and decisions to grow and be healthy. Such churches need to merge with other churches nearby in order refocus their calling and to pool together their resources.

Imagine what would happen if two or three established small churches agreed to put the kingdom above their history and geography, sold their property, and together replanted in a strategic location and became a sort of traditional/church plant congregation? The problem with a lot of established churches is its refusal to refocus, refuel, and get back to work. Complacency runs rampant.

Of course such a scenario is a dram and that's the problem. If we took the gospel and our work as God's ambassadors seriously, churches would be willing to make such difficult decisions. But alas, we care more about earthy matters than heavenly ones.

This will take leadership. I am aware that raising such an option is like a politician promising to reform social security. This is why there is no leadership on this issue. No pastor, director of missions, state convention leader, or national leader wants to touch it. Church planting is a wonderful work that I praise, but we also need to focus on the health of traditional churches. In rural churches, pastors are starving their families and churches are sitting on their hands shrinking with the death of every member. The inevitable is inevitable for many of these churches.


2. Some old ways must die for the sake of the Kingdom

Related to the above point, many Southern Baptists hold on to traditions stronger than they hold on to their calling. We need to repent of this. Many pastors have been burdened with tolerating dead programs and lifeless congregations who refuse to put the Kingdom before tradition. Many have had to fight needless battles over Sunday School curriculum (the Gospel Project is nothing more than a Calvinist coup!), the not-so-stereotypical color of the carpet, and unnecessary budget wars.

Just because its not called The WMU doesn't mean a proposed ministry to women is somehow unspiritual or unBaptist. Just because God used such and such program or tool to save students twenty years ago does not mean it must remain an annual event.

Instead of warring over personal turf, churches ought to pick up their cross and follow Jesus. The best men's ministry is men doing ministry. The best student ministry involves leaders discipling young people to do ministry. Instead of insisting on the same programs bent toward making each group the center of the universe, we must train our people to reach our communities (Ephesians 4:11-12). To do so, some things must die to the glory of God.


3. Believers must take evangelism more seriously

Evangelism is not just the pastors job. Somehow it has become the assumed norm that the paid pastor is the only one qualified and obligated to evangelize the lost, visit the sick and the shut-ins, and counsel grace as the remedy to all our ills. The pastor, in a healthy, vibrant congregation, is a pastor of pastors.

Stop expecting the lost to come to you. We must go to them. The days of people "getting back to church" are essentially over even in the South. It is time we get back to our original calling and reach people where they are.


4. Personal engagement is better than public crusades

Revivals, rallies, crusades, and the rest are great but they are not as effective as they used to be. The days of Billy Graham are over. Instead of investing a large percentage of your budget on large events, focus instead on personal one-on-one ministry and discipleship. Working in the community will have better affects than hosting an event whereby you yell at the community.


5. Churches must have an online presence

There really is no excuse for churches not have some sort of presence online. We can complain about millennialz not knocking on our church doors all we want, but unless churches are willing to take full advantage of technology, they will never take their calling as missionaries seriously. A Facebook page with all of the necessary information, links, pictures, etc. of the church can be created easily and quickly and it is free. An attractive webpage is simple to do.

Anymore, Americans are as active online as they are offline. A church's website should be taken with the same sort of seriousness as the church's building. Take into account what a visitors impressions would be the minute they walk through your front door. In the same way, take into account what a first time visitor of your website. An attractive site gives the impression that your congregation is at least up-to-date.


6. Never abandon the gospel

The gospel has never been cool. Get over it. The temptation is great to focus on relevancy over theology, but do not give in. The gospel is always relevant so long as we preach it without corruption. Growing a church is easy - take out the pews, put in a wrestling ring, and hand out money. But that is not a church. Only the gospel saves. Only grace builds a church.


Conclusion

The above is only a sample of things I have considered and prayed over for years now. Each church must consider their situation, pray for solutions, and trust the sovereign hand of God in the lives of their people and the lost they have been called to serve.Ultimately, if we take the gospel seriously, I believe the current trends in the SBC will change. But we must take the gospel seriously.
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