A task force, convened by the North American Mission Board to grapple with declining baptisms among Southern Baptist churches, recently released its full report. Alarmed by a two-decade downward trend, the report offers five recommendations – all marked by an “urgent, immediate call for spiritual renewal and personal commitment to evangelism and discipleship.”
The task force identified five key areas, described as problems, that pastors and churches must address to reverse the baptism decline:
Spiritual -- "With urgency, we must join together in fervent and effective prayer for spiritual awakening in our churches and our nation."
Leadership -- "As pastors we must intentionally model and prioritize personal evangelism while providing clear pathways for our congregations to follow."
Disciple-making -- "As pastors we must create a disciple-making culture -- focusing on multiplying disciples who know how to grow in Christ and lead others to Christ."
Next generation -- "As pastors we must leverage our influence, activity and resources to reach and make disciples of the Next Generation."
Celebration -- "As pastors we must celebrate new life in Christ as people publicly profess their faith through baptism. We must establish an ethos of joy that celebrates the practice of personal evangelism and its fruit."
No doubt, these five are true. And if evidenced, would make a marked difference in any local church. And there were some good minds in the room tackling the issue.
Missing in these five seems to be the “how.” Perhaps they weren’t “tasked” to go that far. But reading the report was like hearing a great sermon admonishing you to be a better father, but never telling you how. The importance of a father’s role in a child’s life was lifted up, but you were never told how to actually be that person.
Yes, we must prioritize evangelism in ways that church attenders can follow…but how?
Yes, we need a disciple-making culture…but how?
Yes, we must reach the next generation…but how?
Of course, it’s precisely at “how” that things get intense. Remember the movie Jerry Maguire, where the character played by Renee Zellweger says to Tom Cruise, “You had me at ‘hello’”?
Well the problem with many church leaders is that after you get past such recommendations as listed by the SBC task force and into the how, all bets are off.
It becomes, “You lost me at ‘how.’”
Here’s three reasons why.
1. An Acts 2 Strategy in an Acts 17 world.
Many churches are pursuing an Acts 2 strategy in an Acts 17 world. Meaning they are employing methods designed for the God-fearing Jews of Jerusalem instead of the “nones” on Mars Hill.
The SBC and many other denominations were largely built on four evangelistic strategies: revivals, door-to-door visitation, busing, and Sunday School. All four were anointed for their time, and all four are predicated on the audience being a “God-fearing Jew.” Yet we now live in a post-Christian culture, and strategies must change.
Further, people have confused orthodoxy (right thinking) with orthopraxy (right practice), and then further muddied the waters by putting select methods into the orthopraxy box. Like revivals, door-to-door visitation, busing and Sunday School. In other words, made sacred cows out of tired strategies.
2. Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place.
A second reason for the problem with a “how” is that many leaders are caught between a very unique rock and a hard place. Leadership knows that the church is not experiencing the growth they desire, particularly among the young and unchurched. They have a solid constituency, but they are older and, most definitely, churched. They are good people, giving people, serving people, but they like the church the way it is.
Yet times have changed. Culture has shifted dramatically. Unless they reach the next generation, the church will simply get older and smaller, year by year, until it is a shell of what it once was. But if they attempt to implement some of the things they feel could make a difference, they run the very real risk of alienating their current base of support – the people paying the bills, serving in the nursery, and leading their teams.
So they feel stuck. If they don’t change, they fear a slow death. If they do change, they fear a quick death. If you fear death, you would rather put it off as long as possible.
3. Congregational Rule.
A final impediment to all things “how” is majority rule. Whether it is in the form of a monthly business meeting, or simply how a committee or board makes a final decision, the raw democracy of majority rule is often employed. And when “how” matters come up, it often means they also “come up” for a vote. And those votes are cast by those who tend to like things just the way they are.
Majority rule is rooted in American democracy and, as a result, has often been incorporated unthinkingly into the church. But the Bible teaches that a church is a family (cf. Galatians 6:10; Hebrews 2:10–12; 1 Peter 4:17.)
In most family structures, the immature members (children) outnumber or at least equal the mature members (parents). In my family, there are two parents and four children. In the early years of our family, if we had voted on everything, we would have had ice cream for dinner every night, never have gone to bed, and taken up permanent residence at Disney World.
A church is a family and, as a result, contains members who are at different levels of spiritual maturity. If every decision is made by the majority instead of the most spiritually mature, then there is a very strong chance that the majority could mislead a church. This is precisely what happened with the Israelites. Moses sent twelve spies into the Promised Land to report back to the people if it was everything God had promised. All twelve agreed that the land was flowing with milk and honey, but the majority said that the land could not be taken. Only two, Caleb and Joshua, were convinced that God wanted them to possess the land.
The majority were allowed to rule, however, which left the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for another forty years.
There are other reasons, to be sure, but these three came quickly to mind after reading the report. And if these three point to anything, it is the necessity of courageous leadership.
So while it may be “you lost me at ‘how’”, somehow we must see another truth:
“You saved me at ‘how.’”
James Emery White
Click here to view a PDF of the full report by the SBC Task Force.
“Pastors’ task force releases report on declining baptisms,” by Joe Conway, Baptist Press, May 12, 2014, read online.
“Baptists, Just Without the Baptisms,” by Emma Green, The Atlantic, May 14, 2014, read online.
James Emery White, Rethinking the Church (Baker).
James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones (Baker).