Jun 16, 2010
What's Wrong with the Southern Baptist Convention?
The Southern Baptist Convention is holding its annual meeting in Orlando this week. The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the country (over 16 million members and 42,000 churches), so their annual meeting is a pretty big deal. It usually generates national news. Unfortunately it is often because of some "controversial" resolution that is being passed (boycott of Disney, position on gender roles). This year, though, there is also an internal exploration of what exactly is going wrong with the SBC. There was a Task Force formed a while back to explore this very issue. Why, for the first time in their 165 year history are they decreasing in membership?
To explain my interest in this issue, I will offer a brief personal history. I was saved at age four. My mom had come to Christ two years earlier. However, my father did not become a Christian for another seventeen years. Our house was filled with turmoil - especially over the issue of church. We went through several stretches where my father did not allow us to go to church. (Even though he sent us toa Christian school.) So we didn't associate with a denomination, since we had to church hop for much of my younger years. We called ourselves "Christians," not Baptist or Methodists or whatever. We attended Palm Beach Bible Fellowship and Palm Bible Chapel and some church with Faith in the name. We briefly went to First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, but didn't latch on there.
In fourth grade, we started attending Forest Hill Christian Missionary Alliance. That was our first real affiliation with a denominational church. We never joined, since my mom didn't like membership and my dad didn't want us to. In seventh and eighth grade, we switched to FBC WPB again. Jack Graham was pastor (future President of the SBC). It was a much bigger church and offered more opportunities for us as kids - youth camp, VBS, youth choir. But we went back to the CMA church until I was a junior in high school. That is when we went back to FBC WPB. Keith Thomas was pastor at that point (future big shot of the SBC). It was at this point that I basically aligned with the SBC. I felt that the denomination's doctrine was the closest to the Bible. And I knew that, for the most part, attending a SBC church was going to be a safe choice. After all, I was moving to Orlando after high school and would need to find a place.
This was also when I was fighting my call to the ministry. It wasn't an open rebellion. I just was pushing it down and pursuing teaching. When I moved, I attending FBC Orlando (Jim Henry pastor - future President of the SBC). It was just too big. After attending there for three months, I was asked in Sunday School if it was my first time by one of the leaders I had talked to several times before. In my mind I said, "No, but it is my last." I tried some other places, but finally ended up at FBC Oviedo. (Dwayne Mercer pastor - future President of the Florida Baptist Convention) That was where I stayed, joined, and accepted my call into the ministry. After graduation, I went to FBC Temple Terrace near Tampa. (Rick Edmonds pastor) It was my first church ministry job. I also worked at the BCM on campus at USF (Eddie Gilley director). That was my first experience with "The Convention" - since I had to report to the Florida Baptist Convention and the North American Mission Board for my job reports. I was licensed and ordained at FBC TT.
Since then, I have almost always attended SBC churches (except for a few months in 2006 and this year). We went to FBC Orange Park while we lived in Jacksonville. I worked on staff at FBC Oviedo for over four years. Then I was on staff at Waypoint Church (an SBC church plant) for two years. And we tried to find a SBC church in Tallahassee. After about nine months of frustration, we finally started attending Grace Church of Tallahassee. Technically it is non-denominational, but the ministers all went to Southern Baptist Seminary and the church is loosely connected to the Grace Church movement started by John MacArthur. All of that is to say that I am not an SBC hater. I am an SBC minister. I have attended SBC churches for almost twenty years. I have been under the leadership of some very high ranking SBC pastors. I attended an SBC seminary (did not finish due to life's curveballs). And I have worked with the SBC as a minister, support staff, convention employee, speaker at SBC events. I love the SBC. I want that understood so that no one for a moment believes that I am just taking aim at an easy target.
The SBC is indeed in trouble and there are many reasons. Some will get worse as the world continues to move further away from God. Some could be fixed by the SBC if they were willing to try. And I do admire the convention for actually addressing this. They could have just kept their head buried in the sand, ignoring the reality. I don't necessarily feel like the way they have addressed it was the best way. But it was an effort. I hope that they can get some answers. No matter what you personally think of the SBC, the world would be a worse place without it. The ministries they perform - from Disaster Relief to foreign missions to curriculum production - have a massive impact on our world. I am a very small fish in this ocean. But I have had lots of opportunities to observe the SBC from many perspectives. And, honestly, I have nothing to lose by writing this. At this point, I'm a stay at home dad with a non-profit ministry. What can the SBC do to me? They can not hire me? That's been the case for years. Basically, I can write what many of my fellow ministers want to. I hope that it can be helpful to someone.
1. THE SBC IS A RESPECTER OF PERSONS
I put this issue first because I think it is the most glaring issue - which actually spills over into the other issues on this list. I wrote about the problem with Christian celebrity in this posting. It has become the way of life in modern American Christianity. And the SBC is perhaps the most guilty of this habit. There is a general mindset that pastors of large churches are worth more than the pastors of smaller churches. If they are growing that much, they must be doing something right. As a result, a minister of a large church become someone that the other churches try to emulate. They get invited to speak at convention events. They are the guest speaker at special church events. They get the book deals from Lifeway (the SBC publishing arm). They have their own disciples. People who work for them get hired just because of their connection. And, as they become bigger and bigger, they become more of a CEO and become more distant to their church. At a typical mega-church in the SBC, the pastor's only interaction with his membership is from the pulpit - unless he decides to do a walkthrough at some event for the church. Taking it one step further, the pastor may not even interact with his own STAFF - leaving that to an executive pastor. Pastors who are not at this level yet set aim for this. They want to work their way up the ladder. So they hop to larger and larger churches. They have their churches create television programs and books to highlight their sermon series - hoping to be noticed by the higher ups. They dress like the big shots. They quote the big shots. They want to become a big shot. It is a vicious cycle.
The people who are identified as the major power brokers have a massive amount of pull in the convention. They can dictate the direction of things. They can make a younger minister's career - or utterly destroy it. And they become fiercely protective of their ground. They never make a mistake. Staff turnover is high, since the blame is always being placed on underlings. Staff burnout is also through the roof, since the junior ministers are expected to work insane hours. They have to be at every event, even if the senior pastor doesn't. The same goes for musicians, music minister, even youth pastors. There is a hierarchy. Ministers with large attendance, big budgets, huge facilities are put on a pedestal. That is why I even put the names of the pastors in my history. Those names are recognized and looked up to. People would kill to be able to put Graham, Thomas, Henry, Mercer on their resume. Those names open doors.
This is a huge problem. And it isn't a new one. We see this in the New Testament. Paul had to fight this mindset when he encountered people who would say they were disciples of different teachers. Paul said that we should be disciples of Christ. Today, more weight is put on the pastor's name than on his life or teaching. Reputation is more important than reality. And Christ gets shuffled to the back of the deck. The fact of the matter is that a huge percentage of these men that are being lifted up are not loving, not merciful, not caring, not kind. They don't look out for others. They don't exhibit the fruits of the Spirit. They are impatient, selfish, egomaniacal, driven, arrogant, judgmental. They preach good. They have a good reputation. But, they are human and this mindset actually makes their human flaws worse. No person should have that much attention and importance. People are not strong enough to handle it. And a denomination that keeps looking to the celebrities to lead it is going to lose its way.
2. TOO MUCH ENERGY IS SPENT ON FIGHTING OVER SIDE ISSUES
I would rank this as the second biggest problem in the SBC. So much energy is spent fighting over issues that, truthfully, do not make an eternal difference. I remember the huge uproar over the Disney boycott back in the late 1990s. It is a perfect example of this problem. In the long run, the boycott did nothing. The average member of an SBC church didn't follow it. It didn't hurt Disney at all. There was infighting over it (with Orlando and Florida SBC churches leading the charge against it). And it just made the SBC look stupid to the world.
The internal battles are sucking the energy out of the convention. There is the worship style battle that seems to exist in a majority of churches. There is a huge fight going on between what I like to call the five point Calvinists and the four and a half pointers. The reformed Calvinist bloc (led by Southern Seminary) will fight with everyone that doesn't agree with them. Many of them personally target people, like Ergun Caner of Liberty. This particular issue has caused so many vicious fights in churches - splitting groups apart. (I personally have had to deal with fights over this more times than I can remember.) Then there is the Full Quiver movement (Voddie Bauchman is big in this) and the fight that brings. This is the belief that we are called to have lots of kids. People who buy into this fight for it against the people who think it is irresponsible to have so many kids. There is the battle over biblical gender roles - brought to a head by the resolution a few years back that led to a bunch of Texas churches seceding. There is the homeschooling vs Christian school vs public school battle. There are people who believe all parachurch group (ministries that exist outside of a church itself) suck money and support away from the church.
So much energy is spent on these fights that it affects how the denomination functions. Just think about how well you are able to worship if you get in a fight on the way to church. Now imagine that fight happening IN the church. Abraham Lincoln said that a house divided against itself can't stand. Jesus said a man can't serve two masters. Both of those play into this. A church can't function right if it constantly besieged by fights within its members. And a convention that has such loud fights will have a hard time being unified on anything. It is like millions of people are dying of thirst because we are fighting over the method to give them water, or the color of the pitcher, or how many kids the person bringing the water should have. It seems a bit foolish.
3. THE SBC IS A SUCKER FOR GIMMICKS
When you go back up to problem 1, one side issue from this is that people try to replicate the "success" of a famous pastor/church. The easiest way to do that is if they have come up with some program to mimic. SBC loves putting out programs. Just plug it into your church and it will work. It almost sounds like an infomercial. "YOU TOO can have a huge church. Just send six payments of $19.95..." In evangelism, there was CWT, then E.E., then FAITH, then Evangecube. You had Cross Seekers in college ministry. True Love Waits is the official purity program. Every year Lifeway puts out a VBS theme. The SBC was one of the biggest groups to buy into Promise Keepers and a Purpose Driven Life. John Maxwell's leadership programs are just about mandatory for ministers.
If you want to make a ton of money in the church world, pitch an easy to memorize gimmick to a big shot pastor. Once they implement it, and his name gets attached to it, everyone will want it. It needs a formula, a clever title, some kind of thing to memorize. It happens pretty frequently. Some minister will write a book that strikes a chord. He hits the speaking circuit. His sales goes through the roof. Every church seems to be making their staff read it. They run Bible studies based on it. Everywhere you turn in that church for like a year, that book is mentioned and glorified. Then, a couple years later, another book (or movie) takes it place. There is no quick fix to our problems or to quick solution for life. But it seems like we're willing to try all the time to find one.
The other big gimmick, which ties into problem 1 and contributes to other ones also is the love affair with conferences. Conferences are big money. Ministers want to go to at least one a year. There are exhibit halls and breakout sessions and big name speakers. And lots of money. (Personally, I think the modern Church Conference is the closest things we'll see to the money changers at the Temple.) At the high end conferences (Orange Conference, Catalyst), exhibitors are gouged for a MINIMUM of $1500 just for a table. Sponsorships can hit $15,000 or $25,000. Just putting some quick numbers together, a big national conference can generate over $300,000 just from exhibits and sponsors. Then there is the registration fees - hundreds of dollars times 4000 attenders. The big speakers get paid $10,000 for one or two days. The musicians can get $30,000. It is amazing. But churches eat these up. They "get new ideas" or "get refreshed" or "get challenged." In reality, they spend a lot of tithe money for a mini-vacation with a religious theme. (At one conference, a church member generated this classic line: "We just spent more on fudge than I tithed last month.") Again, it is another quick fix attempt with high dollars attached.
4. THERE IS A LACK OF RESPECT FOR THE YOUNGER MINISTERS
A couple years back, the SBC came up with this plan to have a million baptisms in a year. It was a noble goal, but it didn't happen. It actually wasn't even close. But, instead of rejoicing over the ones that happened, there was a big row over the failure of it. In a memorable moment, SBC President Bobby Welch took aim at the younger ministers and wailed that if they had taken less time blogging and spent more time trying to lead people to Christ, then they might have hit their goal. I remember talking to several younger ministers after that happened. They said that it was indicative of the way younger ministers were treated within the SBC.
When the younger ones would ask questions - like "Why do we do it this way?" - they got smacked back down. "Where were you when we were ridding the seminaries of the liberals? Where were you when we got this thing going? Sit down and hush up." One younger minister in particular said, "We stayed. We followed the rules. We went to their seminary. We worked our way up through the hiring ladders. We used their materials. But we aren't allowed to even ask for an explanation." True, the younger people were not there waging those wars years ago. But they are the ones in touch with the younger generations now. And they have valid thoughts. But, for now, they are still relegated to the sidelines. The SBC and its state offices still are electing the old guard to leadership positions - or their 1st generation disciples. The younger guys (and by younger, that can go up to 40 years old) have to wait their turn. Only, like Prince Charles, it feels like their turn is never going to come.
It isn't even just about leadership. If something appears to question an established way of doing things, that is seen as an affront. It is rebellion. I have even heard one of the old guard say that criticizing the Church is the same as criticizing Christ, since that is His Bride. Huh? I remember the vehement and vicious reaction by the older ministers to Donald Miller's book Blue Like Jazz. That book resonated with a lot of younger ministers because it reflected a world and a Church that was wrestling and disillusioned by the modern approach of religion. Instead of seeing the validity of the emotions, the book and author were blasted from the pulpit by the old guard - while being embraced and promoted by the younger side. How long did it take before churches and older ministers allowed websites, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts? If the idea doesn't come from the top, it takes forever to catch on.
5. THERE IS A LACK OF RESPECT FOR THE OLDER GENERATION
But there is two sides to this coin. The younger ministers and members have a huge problem with respecting the older ministers. We are instructed in the Bible to respect our elders and to listen to them. That doesn't mean they are always right. But they have navigated things that we have not experienced yet. Some of them have forgotten more than the younger guys ever knew. As Christians, we should recognize the importance of the older generation. Instead, many times it seems like the younger group wants to ship them off to the Church equivalent of a retirement home.
This does not just apply to the older ministers. It also manifests itself in how the senior adults are treated at our churches. I served as the senior adult minister at a church (part of my many duties). It was a wonderful experience. I loved those people. In fact, I can honestly say, my interactions with the senior adults in the churches I have served at have been some of the best things I got to experience. Those people have long successful marriages, careers, walks with Christ. They should be a huge resource. They can teach so much. But they are usually pushed to some side building, given their own service, and resented for exerting so much influence. They give more money than most ages groups, so they have to be listened to. But the average pastor resents that. Even more disturbing is that most church plants and start ups have virtually no senior adults in them. They are all young families. Is it any coincidence that so many of these churches struggle with finances, leadership issues, commitment, directions, and longevity?
6. THE COUNTRY CLUB MINDSET DOMINATES CHURCHES
Think about a country club. It is a beautiful place with gorgeous facilities. It benefits its members. There are dues, membership handbooks, introductory classes, events for its members. And outsiders have to earn their way in through becoming like the members and going through the entrance rules. Sounds like a church - especially an SBC church. There is a way of dressing, talking, acting. There is membership. There are dues (tithes). There is a membership handbook (Class 101, photo directory). There are lots of events for their members. They have ornate and wonderful facilities. And for you to crack into the church, you have to run into a member, get invited, get accepted, become like them.
Jesus always told His Disciples to GO. It implied action. Get off your duff. Go where they are. Meet them on their turf. Meet their needs. Rescue them. The modern church makes it clear their primary message is COME. Come and see, come receive, come and be assimilated. We open our doors and tell them to come. We send out postcards, put up billboards, offer draws, present the sales pitch. Get them in the door. It is no longer a rescue mission; it is a sales job. It is like we are selling memberships at a time share or country club. "Look at our amazing facilities. Listen to the entertainment options. Try our Wednesday night dinner. See all the things your kids can do. All you have to do is join, not rock the boat, and pay 10% of your income." Think about what church members are told - invite your friends to church. Bring them to this event. The entire message of the Gospel has been subverted by the promotion of the country club.
The country club is also obsessed with money and numbers. How much do you make? How much is this worth? How many people come? What ranking are we? You want a prestigious country club. That is determined by how wealthy it is, how fancy its buildings are, how many people it has, who those people are, how well known it is. That is the modern SBC church. When you go to a conference, the first questions about your church are 1) how big is it, 2) what's your budget, and 3) what kind of facilities are there? The fourth question is how many salvations you had last year. It's all about numbers.
7. EVANGELISM HAS BEEN COMPARTMENTALIZED
Evangelism still exists, but it has been banished to Tuesday nights. We just saw that our members no longer are told to GO. They are told to bring people. Then, our crack expert trained evangelism team will "follow up." With the emergence of FAITH evangelism training, the average SBC church removed the responsibility for evangelism from the membership and placed it on the FAITH teams. The SBC touted FAITH as a way to grow your church. They held up FBC Daytona - the creator of FAITH - and their huge number of decisions. There were FAITH training conferences for pastors. Churches had to set up FAITH exactly the way that it was prescribed. Plug it into your church and, viola, instant growth. This program capitalized on problems 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and caused 8.
The problem was that most churches had some form of churchwide visitation. Yes, there was evangelism training. But visitation was the job of everyone. Big groups would show up on Tuesday night or Sunday afternoon or Tuesday morning to visit guests, shut ins, prayer needs. Once FAITH got implemented, most churches saw their visitation numbers plummet. It was the FAITH team's problem now. And, following the FAITH manual, unless you were FAITH trained you couldn't participate. You had to follow the outline implicitly. Even though the presentation was not very effective with college students or young adults, you had to follow it. "Decisions" in most churches actually went down. So did baptisms. But the most damaging result is that the average church member stopped sharing their own personal experiences with God. They would just invite people to church and hope someone else could "clinch the deal."
8. DISCIPLESHIP LOST OUT TO EVANGELISM
This led to a showdown between discipleship and evangelism. I say it was a showdown, but it was hardly a fair fight. Evangelism had a gatling gun and discipleship had to borrow a pea shooter. Evangelism had all the money and support from higher ups. In most state conventions, there was a huge evangelism department and two guys in the basement for the discipleship department. Evangelism is quantifiable. There are numbers to show. You can hold up the number of people in your FAITH training, the number of salvations, the number of memberships, the number of baptisms. Numbers look good. They make you happy. They get you noticed at the Convention. Discipleship is slow and time consuming and has no numbers.
FAITH was an all-encompassing program. Its tendrils wormed into every aspect of the church. As a result, the goal was to get people in the doors, get them visited, get them saved, teach them to get more people in the door. But they never were discipled in this program. Their evangelism training was the only teaching they got. Many new Christians never grew. They never learned how to study the Bible or pray. They got frustrated. In addition, they never got rid of the sinful elements of their life. They learned how to dress like a Christian, talk like one, act like one. But the never learned how to live like Christ. Divorces in Christian homes are just as common as in non-Christian homes. Porn usage, premarital sex, unethical behavior, affairs, abuse. All those things are rampant in Christian homes. And elite FAITH team would lead the person to Christ. They would assign him to a Sunday School class. No one knew this person or had invested in his life. So no one walked with him.
There is no easy gimmick for discipleship. There isn't a how-to guide. It is an investment of your life in the life of another. It is walking with them and sharing and answering questions. It is teaching how to study and how to pray. It is sharpening that person. But that is not easily taught or modeled. The Senior Pastor is not going to do it - he is busy studying for his sermon or writing a book or being important. Staff members are too busy to do it, what with all their responsibilities. Church members never learn how to do and are never asked to do it. So it doesn't happen.
9. MISSIONS HAS BEEN SENT OVERSEAS
SBC has always been known for its missions efforts. There are thousands of SBC missionaries all over the world. The International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board run short term mission trips, long term assignments, two year stints. There are Bible translation efforts and reaching unreached people groups. There is the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering that helps support missionaries. Most SBC churches have a mission emphasis week. They sent teams out a few times a year to help build churches or teach English or lead sports camps. These are wonderful things with amazing results. The SBC has always gotten this right.
Recently, though, it has become very apparent that the emphasis on foreign missions actually causes some problems. It kind of assuages the guilt of GO and DO. We can't go, so we send others. We support them. We pray for them. Once a year we praise them. We don't have to do that now. Or, we'll go for a short time to help them and feel better. But, like the argument about foreign adoption, it generates the question: Isn't there anyone here in the US that needs help? Why do we always have to scamper off to Haiti or Nicaragua to do missions? What about the homeless shelter down the street? What about the pregnancy center or the drug rehab facility or the battered woman home? Wouldn't they benefit from some of that money and effort?
It is always strange how a church can have a dozen people sign up to pay $2,000 to go work in Brazil for a week. But if a church does a Saturday trip to mow a shut-ins lawn, they have the same three people show up. It seems that when it comes to Acts 1:8, most churches do great with the "Ends of the Earth." But they ignore the "Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria" parts. We are supposed to start at home. We should be ministering to those people in our community first. That is part of the GO that we are missing. It is feast or famine with most SBC places. They either won't GO at all, or they will GO far away. But they won't go down the street. I have heard a big shot SBC pastor actually say that the reason that his church doesn't help with homeless ministry is that there are no homeless people in his city. (Uh...) The benevolence fund - something most SBC churches have to help local people with food and such - is woefully low on money. The very same church that will drop $100,000 on a huge missions conference will only contribute $25,000 to the benevolence fund each year. How are we supposed to show the people in our community that our church cares if we never are out there doing anything - or we're all occupied far away. Many churches saw their members pull deep out of their wallets to help the tsunami victims or Haiti earthquake victims. But they did nothing for the Nashville flooding victims or the local family on the street because dad got laid off from his job.
10. THE BIBLE HAS BEEN MARGINALIZED
This problem is a result of all of the others, and a cause of all the others. It is actually the biggest problem, but it also is accelerated by the other problems. The Bible just is not the cornerstone of the modern SBC church. The senior pastor is the foundation. Or all the programs and events is the base. But the Bible is not. I have been in church services where the name of Jesus is never mentioned. I have been in numerous staff meetings where God is not brought up. Entire sermon series or Sunday school series have been constructed without the Bible.
Pastors love to talk about success and service and family. But they don't want to preach on holiness or being like Christ. They love to have sermon series on "hot button topics" or "controversial issues" or "relevant themes." The Bible becomes a supporting player. I am NOT saying that the only way to preach is verse by verse through the Bible. But the Bible needed to be liberally woven through whatever you preach. There needs to be verses as supporting evidence. Stories and videos and dramas are great. Jokes can help people get drawn in. Lord knows I use all of those things. But the Bible is the only thing that is promised to last forever. It is bringing the presence of God into the sermon. The Bible tells us the Word of God won't return void. That's a heck of a promise. You want to see your sermons have power? You want to see your youth group on fire for God? You want to see people get saved and regenerated? Use the Bible frequently and thoroughly. Not just the fun stories, either. And not just the deep theological battles. It is a complete work. Use all of it.
Every church activity doesn't have to be a Bible study. I know there is a real benefit to just getting together and having fun. But sermons, Bible studies, camps, rallies. These things need to be full of biblical principles. If you find it necessary on one Sunday to real drill into something relevant that turns into moral training, and you feel God led you there, then do what you're told. But not week after week. And don't just base the sermon series on someone else's book, using it as the main source. That is like a baker going to Entemann's and buying a bunch of donuts to sell as his own. Use that book and do a thorough study of the topic for yourself. If you are the pastor, it is your job to feed your sheep and shepherd them. That means to give them food - the Word of God. There is no substitute.
Sure, there are other issues that the SBC is battling. I think that there is a lack of respect for women, a reliance on entertainment and showmanship, a lack of pastors who see themselves as shepherds. And, like I tried to preface things with, I think there is lots to love about the Southern Baptist Convention. It is also easy to see this list and question, "Wouldn't this apply to every denomination?" The answer would probably be yes, although I am not qualified to say that. I think every Christian could make this list for themselves. I know that in ministry and in my personal life I have been guilty of all of these things as well. It is easy to attack the writer and get defensive. I would pray instead that you look to see if this is true in your life and your church. If so, how do you fix it? The SBC has problems. And, just like the problems didn't come overnight, the solutions won't implement overnight either. I hope that it is willing to actually try.