The Future of the SBC?

To some, it would seem presumptuous to consider the future of Baptist associations before considering the future of the SBC. While it is not an assumption of this study that Baptist associations require the existence of the SBC to ensure their own survival, it is nonetheless beneficial to present issues relating to the future of the SBC, as there is a significant correlation to some of these issues and the future of associations.

A common approach in forecasting the existence of something is to consider the consequences of nonexistence. Junker (Rolfes, Oliveri, McNulty, & Junker, 2010) ascertains the voids that might be present in a world without secular associations: advocacy (mostly in the form of legislative lobbyists); education and certifications; awards and recognitions programs; and networking. Junker goes on to point out that the educational role currently performed by associations might be filled by for-profit companies and universities, as well as informal gatherings of smaller groups. However, formal accreditation and certification of “small subspecialties in larger fields or professions that are too small to offer much profit opportunity might find themselves missing the education their associations formerly provided” (Rolfes et al., 2010, para. 61). An online commentator of Rolfes et al., (2010) remarked that the functions of the association would carry on beyond the existence of associations, leaving a world without associations being merely a world without “associational buildings and hierarchies” (para. 68).

Just as Rogers’ (2003) diffusion of innovation curve demonstrates that innovations have life cycles, advances in social thought and technology have prompted the question of whether large institutions are now antiquated. Gallup has measured American confidence in various institutions since the early 1970s. Americans who felt significantly high degrees of confidence in organized religion fell from 65% in 1979 to 52% in 2009. Though the drop is notable, only 38% had high levels of confidence in public schools and 22% had confidence in banks; other business entities, as well as Congress, ranked even lower. In fact, only the police, small business, and the military were rated higher than organized religion (Saad, 2009). Confidence in particular institutions affects individuals’ willingness to be associated with those same institutions. “People today do not want to be categorized or identified with major institutions, and this invariably affects the religious sector as well” (Lindsay, 2011, p. 63).

The SBC suffers from negative feelings associated with the name “Southern Baptist.” Confirming earlier research (Stetzer & Stanley, 2006), respondents to a recent Lifeway Research study (2011) were asked:

“If you were considering visiting or joining a church, would knowing that the church was Southern Baptist impact your decision positively, negatively or have no impact?” Forty-four percent of Americans indicate that knowing a church is Southern Baptist would negatively impact their decision to visit or join the church, 36 percent say it would have no impact and 10 percent say it would positively impact their decision (para. 9).

The study did not investigate the reasons why such negativity was associated with SBC churches. However, SBC statistics between 2010-2011 confirm the denomination is functionally stagnant in terms of membership (down 0.98%), new churches (up 0.08%), and baptisms (up 0.70%) (Rankinon, 2012). While the entire U.S. only grew 0.9% over the same period (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012), all of America’s top 15 fastest growing cities grew more than 3% from 2010-2011 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). The SBC lost slightly more in total membership (-157,932) than the three cities with the largest numerical increase gained in population (147,645), and the loss of SBC worship attenders (-40,333) is only slightly different than the numerical gain for Houston alone (45,716) (Rankinon, 2012; U.S. Census Bureau, 2012).

One cannot look at declining numbers alone and assume that denominations have no future. Stetzer (2011) looks to the relational nature of denominations as reasons to think that denominations, or some form of them, will exist in the future. Wuthnow (1988) emphasized the emergence of networks, parachurch groups, and transdenominational movements as the most significant change to Christianity since the Reformation, and he did so before the contemporary technological advancements and progression of decentralized organizational thinking which enabled even more networks like the Willow Creek Association and Acts 29 to become established (Dockery, 2011). It is too early in the lifecycle of many networks to determine if they will survive the test of time. Some networks are designed to be temporary gatherings revolving around a particular purpose. Others may develop into denomination-like entities as their size and complexity grow, much like various contemporary denominations had very humble beginnings (Stetzer, 2010).

The restructuring of American Christianity along horizontal lines rather than in vertical silos such as denominations serves as both a comfort and a warning to the future of denominations. As Stetzer (2011) points out, “Like-minded people will always find a way to associate with each other” (p. 41). However, current associations and networks cross denominational lines with such regularity that if a particular denomination does not meet the needs of constituents, those people will not hesitate to seek out other networks of like-minded people.

A tempting target to blame for the decline of denominations is younger evangelicals and their apparent lack of denominational loyalty. More will be presented on this topic, but Stetzer (2011) reminds his readers that younger leaders are not running from denominations just to be free spirits, but rather they are “looking for rootedness in a fragmented society” (p. 44). Stetzer believes that younger leaders will find that stability in denominations, yet another reason to believe in their future existence.

Stetzer’s (2011) third reason to believe in the future existence of denominations is the wealth of experience, history, and solidarity  that denominations can provide—particularly in matters of orthodoxy—to those without a stable network.

Denominations and their leaders have weathered many storms over the decades and even centuries. Denominations have more experience at handling conflict, engaging in mission, and fighting through crisis. While none of these resources guarantee the survival of a member church, they do increase the possibilities (p. 44).

Lindsay (2011) adds that institutions have inherent accountability systems due to the membership protecting and self-policing the community, providing “vital buffers against our worst instincts” (p. 71). Lindsay also argues that institutions provide “convening power” or the ability to network people, and that they provide “institutional gravitas” (p. 73) to open doors and enable organizations to navigate and operate more effectively in a highly complex world.

Perhaps more than at any point in their history, denominations must make an argument to justify their existence. Networking, a sense of stability, and an orthodox community are not enough reasons to justify the immense bureaucracy that is the SBC. However, that same bureaucracy can be a strength over less robust networks. Denominations, not networks or individual churches, are responsible for the majority of world missions and church planting (Stetzer, 2011). Provided that denominations maintain a clear sense of outward-focused priorities and operate with the goal of helping churches accomplish the Great Commission, the missio Dei remains the standard by which effectiveness is measured. “Until we are assured of the role of denominations within the framework of God’s mission, we should assume them to flexible, malleable, and possibly even temporary” (Stetzer, 2011, p. 38).

Denominations cannot hide from the declining attendance numbers and the challenge of collaborating with future generations. The external pressures motivating denominations to clarify and operate according to their stated values may exactly what is needed to begin a change process: a sense of urgency (Kotter, 1996).

Now is the time for leaders of all conventions to concentrate upon priorities of their organization’s very existence and determine that more shall be done for less. To fail to do so will bring the disadvantages of smaller budgets and reduced ministries. Now is the time to maximize our resources by creating leaner organizations and eliminating wasteful expenditures for failing and static ministries and programs. (Chapman, 2009, p. 173)

Chapman (2009) suggests that the time is right for considerable change within the SBC by asking difficult questions and doubting traditionally held assumptions. Day (2009) alludes to the need for more streamlined organizations and to the enormous cost involved in maintaining subsidiary institutions as reasons that state conventions are ending long-time partnership or ownership of camps, colleges, hospitals, student centers, and missionary centers. In the not-too-distant past, conversations about whether to continue subsidiary ministries may have revolved around the issue of available funds, prompting a theological response and encouraging people to maintain an abundance mentality. Contemporary discussions are more likely concerned with purpose, and whether the ownership of such organizations distracts from the entity’s primary mission or whether subsidiary funds are not better spent in the service of more primary goals. Regardless of the reason, the end result is a streamlined structure supporting an outward, missional focus, which prevents the organization from turning inward and inadvertently elevating self-preservation to the position of highest priority (Stetzer, 2011).

The structure of the SBC prompts additional questions beyond the size of the bureaucracy. As an introduction to those questions, some background statistics might prove useful. The majority of SBC churches run less than 200 in attendance, but the majority of members attend larger churches (Rainer, 2012), even though churches having more than 1,000 in attendance constitute about 1.5% of all SBC churches (Rainer, 2011). Trends indicate that the disparity of membership in smaller churches versus larger churches is growing, creating the possibility that numerous small SBC churches will disappear in the next few decades. National entities, state conventions, and the majority of local associations all employ people proficient in similar tasks, something Day (2009) refers to as “duplicated effort syndrome.” (p. 231). The majority of leadership positions at associations, state conventions, and the national entities are held by white males over 55 years of age. Therefore, here is a sample of questions important to the future of the SBC:

  1. Should formal measures be taken to ensure that leadership positions in the SBC within the convention and the national entities include more leaders from small and ethnic churches?
  2. Is there a hidden “ladder of promotion” within the SBC that makes it easier for pastors of large churches to obtain leadership positions within the SBC? If so, should anything be done about it?
  3. Are there correlations between CP giving and access to leadership positions within the SBC? If so, should anything be done about it?
  4. Should membership and attendance numbers remain stable, and yet an increasingly higher percentage of those people attend larger churches, what are the implications to the future of the SBC?
  5. What is required to remove the strain on SBC resources created by the duplicated effort syndrome (Day, 2009)?

The most significant factor regarding the future of the SBC is demographic: Baptists, particularly those in charge, are not getting any younger. The average age of SBC pastors is approximately 48 years old (2010 Lifeway Compensation Study, 2011). An unsubstantiated yet commonly repeated fact within church consultant circles states a church will experience growth in the age demographic +/-7 years of the leader’s age. If the same were true for the SBC convention, should it surprise anyone that Millennials seem to be missing from our churches? Why are Millennials so underrepresented in the pews and pastorates of SBC churches?

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