Monday, May 17, 2010

Repost - Facing Reality: How to Respond to SBC Decline

Ed Stetzer has written a well documented piece at the Between the Times blog regarding the steady decline of the Southern Baptist Convention.  To those who have kept up with the convention in recent years, it will come to no surprise to you that the convention continues to decline in membership.  However, according to recent reports, the number of baptisms increased from last year while the membership declined.  What are we to make of this?

Certainly any increase in baptisms is reason to celebrate.  Dr. Thom Rainer, President and CEO of Lifeway, rightly said:

Every baptism is a celebration of another person finding new life in Jesus Christ . . . The fact that more people were baptized this year than last year gives us a reason to hope we’re on the right path. At the same time, we as Southern Baptists continue to show signs of drifting from our historic commitment to evangelism, as reflected in the fact that it still takes 46 Southern Baptists to lead one person to faith in Christ.

We should celebrate any baptism the Lord gives us, but at the same time, the increase of baptism should not be received with the false idea that things are on the uptick.  Last year was the lowest in baptisms in the SBC in some time so the fact that the number increased (ever so slighly) doesn't mean things have changed, but that the number of just barely over last years poor numbers.

At the same time, our membership continues to decline likely due to deaths of older members and similar factors.  Southern Baptists must face these facts.  And if we are really honest with ourselves, most churches have a much higher membership numbers than they do of people who actually show up on Sunday morning (not to mention Sunday Nights and Wednesday Nights).

So what's next?  How are we to respond to these discouraging numbers?  Stetzer offers five options:

Option #1: Act as if nothing negative is really happening, proverbially fiddling while Rome burns.
Option #2: Acknowledge that the decline is real but blame some “other” segment of the convention for the decline. “It’s those contemporary pastors who have colluded with worldliness.” Or “It’s those old dusty pastors who have confused tradition with the power of the gospel.”
Option #3: Blame lost people for being lost. Perhaps complaining about the state of the country will make lost people want to be saved. Unlikely.
Option #4: Wish for something else. We can dream of a different future or pine away for a preferred past but without action in the present context of our churches, nothing with change.

The 5th and final option, and really the only option for us to really impact the world, is a serious self-examination as to whether how we make disciples is rooted in Scripture and delivering the gospel effectively to our mission field. We can scarcely hope to impact the world if we do not approach the gospel and kingdom of God in the same way that Christ did.

I agree with Stetzer that our response is limited.  We must face the facts and deal with them, but how? It is tempting to changing out old programs for new one's or even to be more user-friendly with our ministry, but these things never work.  More programs isn't the answer.  Bigger churches isn't the answer.  Doing away with hymns or older pastors isn't the answer.  Just planting new churches isn't the answer.  Being more socially minded isn't the answer.  A new Public Relations strategy isn't the answer.  Focusing on young people isn't the answer.  So what is?

The answer must always be a transcendent, vibrant gospel.  It is no surprise that the world is in tatters and our culture is among the worst in the world.  People are hungry for spiritual truth, but due to the boring and mundane appearance of the SBC and similar churches and congregations, the church looks dead.  Most of our churches care more about the dress of the pastor and the style of worship than we do about personal evangelism, real surrender to the gospel, practical discipleship, and to gospel ministry itself.

There is a cancer in our churches and it isn't necessarily a false gospel, but a boring gospel.  We have gotten used to and assumed the gospel to a point that we don't let us shake us.  We fear change, we fear action, and we fear something that the hospitality committee can't deal with.  When 20% of our people are giving 80% of the offering and doing 80% of the work, we have problems.  Where is the call to surrender, to pick up our cross and follow Christ, to make disciples, and to reach the lost?  When was the last time we discussed these things at business meeting?  When was the last time our worship didn't look like a business meeting?

Until Baptists wake up from our slumber and take the gospel (the whole gospel and all its implications) seriously, we will continue to decline.  Do we really expect God to honor gospel laziness?  The pastor should not be the only an person reaching the lost or praying for the church.

Will we take the gospel seriously without confusing it with other false gospels?  Or will we continue to point fingers at someone else, wishing they would do something different, all the while content with our mundane gospel?  I am praying for the former.  What about you?

Lifeway - Southern Baptists report slight increase in baptisms, decline in membership
Ed Stetzer - Will Southern Baptist Ignore the Ongoing Decline? 

This article originally appeared at the SBC blog

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