It’s that time of the year again for Baptists like me. Just before our annual convention, the latest numbers come out and confirm what we’ve known for years: we’re shrinking. We’re at our lowest number of baptisms since the 1940s, we’re steadily losing influence in our culture and we’re hemorrhaging the next generation. And every year, pastors like me mourn and wail and cart out the same solutions that we’ve carted out for the past twenty years: pray more, evangelize more, maintain doctrinal purity, give more to the Cooperative Program. Not to say that those things are unimportant, but merely praying for a spiritual awakening can be an abdication of our responsibility to change and grow. For most of us, praying for revival is code for: “We don’t want to change ourselves, so we’re going to pray that God will change America back to the 1950s.” It doesn’t work like that.
I’ve got seven things I believe Southern Baptists must to do to stop the bleeding and start growing again, but these seven are much more outside-the-box. We pray, we evangelize, we give, but those haven’t turned the tide yet. If the Southern Baptist Convention is a patient crashing on the operating table, here’s what invasive surgery looks like to attempt to save the life of the SBC:
1). Learn from churches outside the Southern Baptist Convention. We have to stop the baseline assumption that Southern Baptists have a corner on what works in American church life. We had it figured out decades ago, but America has changed and we haven’t adapted. We need to see how God is working through other churches outside the fold. Look at North Point Community Church in Atlanta. Look at NewSpring Church in South Carolina. I would argue that the healthiest and best growing group of churches right now are ARC churches. We need to eat some humble pie and learn from churches that are successful. (On a side note, we need to stop this ludicrous assumption that if a church down the street is growing, they must be compromising the gospel somehow.)
2). Modernize worship. Call them “worship wars” if you will, but churches need to modernize worship quickly. Music has always been a way to connect with society at large and with a person’s soul. If we want to reach modern people we need to modernize worship. A church’s refusal to modernize worship is declaring that they have no intent to reach the next generation for Christ. If that’s your church’s stance and you’re not moving from it, go ahead and skip down to number 7.
3). De-formalize the church experience. You can dress casually and still be respectful. The formalization of so many church experiences has choked out the very community that keeps a church vibrant. The entire church experience should feel like a family reunion (casual dress, kids running around, lots of hugs and handshakes) rather than a symphony concert or a funeral service. This definitely includes changing the way preachers communicate from confrontational to conversational, from a formal monologue to an conversational dialogue with the audience.
4). Kill ineffective legacy programs and focus on quality over quantity. We simply do too much stuff and families are too busy. If we continue ineffective programs that should have been killed a long time ago, we’re spreading out our limited resources and pressuring families to participate at an unrealistic pace. As experience has shown, families will simply withdraw all together because they don’t feel like they can keep up. Instead of dong a lot of things kind-of-well, do a few things and hit grand slams every time. Your families will thank you for it, and your grand slams will start to see tangible results.5). Transition from Sunday School to small groups that don’t meet on Sunday mornings. I’m not saying that Sunday School is ineffective, in many places it is. But the way today’s typical SBC churches are set up, everyone meets at one time for Sunday School, and that’s a problem because adult Sunday School is harming your children’s ministry. I know this from experience. When I was in charge of youth Sunday School for years, I was always trying to recruit the best adults to pour into my students. Yet all the good adults were either teaching Sunday School or locked into a thriving adult Sunday School class. My students typically got the leftover adults. If a church is serious about reaching the next generation, they will make sure that their best leaders are free to lead their preschool, children and youth ministries. The success of this is dependent on number 4. You need to kill off ineffective programs and allow adults to meet in small groups throughout the week without clashing with other programs.
6). Stop making an idol of the Cooperative Program. I saved this one to the end because if I put it up top too many folks would have instantly checked out. The Cooperative Program is great, but it’s just a program. In SBC life, I would argue it’s become an idol, a litmus test of your spirituality. Pastors are criticized when they dare to give to other mission efforts or actually ask if what the Cooperative Program is funding is effective. Here’s what I know: Cooperative Program giving has gone up steadily for 30 years while overall attendance in Southern Baptist churches has decreased. The Cooperative Program is not the end all. It’s not our savior. Too many times giving to the Cooperative Program becomes an abdication by a local church from its responsibility to actually reach its own community for Christ. Everyone gives, assuming that someone else is actually evangelizing with all that money.
7). Let dying churches die. I was always confused by Moses’ complaints against the people of Israel in the desert. Why where they so ‘stiff-necked’? Being a pastor in SBC churches for twenty years now, I completely understand. Some churches will simply refuse to change. I know the admirable thing to do would be to save every single declining church, but that’s unrealistic. As harsh as it is, we need to just let them die. That’s why church planting is so important. It’s much easier to give birth than raise the dead. In the majority of churches in the SBC, the leadership either refuses or is unwilling to change. And that’s why we’re dying. For the SBC to flourish in the 21st century, we need to allow dying churches to die and create space for new and growing churches to flourish.
*This is more than just academic theory. Over the past fifteen years the Southern Baptist church I pastor has implemented the first six things listed here and we’re growing. We don’t have to worry about number seven.