Lately, we’ve been talking about some heavy stuff. Ready for something lighter? Today, let me show you one of the most howlingly-funny parts of the 2018 Annual Report recently released by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In this report, the SBC introduces us to the people they hope will totally save their bacon as a denomination. Let’s meet the EVANGELISM TASK FORCE, and learn what they’ve been doing all year!
(Bee tee dubs, I capitalized the name of the task force the way I did because it amuses me. In text of the actual report, they capitalized it conventionally. I just can’t read its name without imagining these nutbars in colorful costumes. Nor can I imagine a Southern Baptist intoning the name of the committee without investing it with movie-trailer voice. “In a world… where Christianity declines more quickly by the day… the EVANGELISM TASK FORCE rises from the ashes of inevitable decline… to save Southern Baptists from… THEMSELVES.”)
Worst. Superhero Group. Ever.
During the 2017 SBC Jamboree, the members at the convention voted to put together a force of Southern Baptist heroes who would “investigate the possibilities for renewal among Southern Baptists.” This force decided not to worry about resolving the denomination’s many doctrinal differences. Instead, they focused on “evangelistic effectiveness.”
The SBC has fretted for years over their self-described “baptism drought.” Indeed, their decline continues unabated, and has for years. Instead of focusing on the concerns causing their growing churn problem, however, they’ve decided that The Big Problem Here is that their members aren’t evangelizing enough.1
The EVANGELISM TASK FORCE, therefore, examined the question of how to make members concentrate more on recruitment.
This committee’s entire existence revolved around “improving evangelistic effectiveness.” As we move through today’s post, I want you to bear that in mind.
Everyone, Say Hi to the EVANGELISM TASK FORCE.
On p. 96 of the report, we meet the 18 members of the EVANGELISM TASK FORCE. The report described them earlier (p. 93) as “a cross-section of pastors, denominational leaders, and seminary faculty members.” The report also talks up how totally different, y’all the members are in terms of their doctrinal stances. (We are clearly expected to forget purification wrought by the Conservative Resurgence.)
Let me provide a brief rundown of some of them.
- Paige Patterson, chairperson. Of course this disgraced-and-disgraceful TRUE CHRISTIAN™ leader popped up here.
- Adam W. Greenway, vice chairperson. He’s one of the deans of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He focuses on missions and evangelism, but he does (or has done) a little bit of everything in the SBC.
- J.D. Greear. The new-and-current SBC president happens to lead a megachurch. Megachurches still enjoy good health overall, so obviously the EVANGELISM TASK FORCE wanted the input of an SBC leader who was also very clearly a rising star politically in the group.
- James Merritt. One of the past presidents of the SBC. He was heavily involved at some point in Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing (bonus: Matthew 18 used to shield wrongdoers). The FTC shut down that MLM as a pyramid scheme in 2016.
- Jeff Iorg. Another seminary official. He merits some side-eye for, apparently, being thick as thieves with Rick Warren. More-hardcore-than-thou TRUE CHRISTIANS™ consider Warren to be a purveyor of New Age gobbledygook.
- Robert Matz. A seminary professor. In 2015, he wrote a dissertation about how it’s totes fine to baptize little kids. Considering how much the SBC depends on those little kids to boost their baptism numbers, isn’t it super-nice that one of them figured out Jesus is cool with the idea?
- Matt Queen. A seminary assistant professor and culture warrior. Paige Patterson adores this guy; he picked him as his successor in something. In that capacity, Queen did some tedious, useless recruitment effort called “Taking the Hill.”
The rest are unremarkable–megachurch pastors or seminary professors, almost entirely.
Why This Task Force Was Doomed From the Start.
I checked on every single one of the members of this superhero group. Every one of them. I know exactly who they are (though I’ll probably forget who they are in a few minutes because they are, as a group, as bland as steamed steak). In addition to being overwhelmingly white and old, not to mention exclusively male, they’re all good and loyal Southern Baptists.
Not one of them can (or does) question the SBC’s party lines. Indeed, Southern Baptists take as a point of dogma that their message is always perfect and that Jesus totally wants them using their current tactics and none others.
I can barely find words mocking enough to describe how comically doomed this task force was from its beginning.
But I do love a challenge.
Here’s How They Spent That Year.
On page 93, we learn that these 18 SBC leaders tasked with reversing the SBC’s entire decline met three whole times this past year. They also communicated via phone or email. And they all
prayed intently thought super-hard-y’all at the ceiling.
What this committee didn’t do is of far more interest than what they did do.
If a bunch of people in a closed system never expose themselves to outside feedback, they remain far less likely to gain necessary self-awareness. Human beings need feedback. It helps us regulate ourselves and improve. Without it, we struggle to correct our errors.
Despite this stunning lack of research, this “task force” developed some suggestions.
First, Tons of Affirmations.
Before making their suggestions, first the EVANGELISM TASK FORCE presented a list of 12 affirmations.2
Remember, they took a whole year to come up with this report.
Mostly the 12 affirmations simply define evangelism as the SBC already uses the term. These definitions share a near-total lack of real-world imagery that might help readers conceptualize the desired behavior. Almost all of the affirmations lack enough concrete description to understand or identify them when present or absent.
Each affirmation comes with an opposite, flipside denial. The denials constitute the SBC’s rejection of the idea in question. Only two or three of the denials contain concrete examples of what evangelism should not look like in action.
In addition, the committee seeks to impress Southern Baptist members with their personal responsibility to recruit new people to the tribe. Most of the affirmations and denials fit into this goal.
The Totally Groundbreaking First Recommendation.
I read the first recommendation and burst out laughing a few times. Our get-a-load-of-THIS-guy cam zeroed in hard on this bit.
They want every SBC church to set aside one day a month to think super-hard at the ceiling for their imaginary friend to, I suppose, save more people than he was going to otherwise from himself. Each church also needs to conduct recruitment seminars for members. They must set recruitment goals that “challenge” their laypeople to do more recruiting. Oh, and they have to submit detailed reports to the SBC. It sounds like these are just the reports they’re all supposed to–but sometimes don’t–submit for the Annual Report (a lot of churches didn’t send their information this year; I can tell the SBC’s leaders are worried about it).
The committee omits mention of where increasingly cash-strapped churches should get the money to enact all these initiatives. Nor do they reveal the names of any evangelism programs that actually work to recruit new people. They don’t even mention the downright comical lack of connection between reality and the SBC’s setting of goals.
More Work for Pastors.
The second recommendation aims for pastors to drill down harder on the party line.
Pastors must do more personal evangelism to “model” it for their congregation. They must present “public gospel invitations of various kinds.” And they should do more to invite laypeople to join the ministry, go on missions, and perform evangelism at all levels.
This recommendation suffers the same flaws as the first one. Pastors already must do more work with far fewer resources than they’ve ever had. Maybe I just didn’t notice, but none of their committee members pastors a small church or a church plant (that’s a teeny-tiny brand-new church, usually one plunked down in an area full of competing churches or in an area whose people don’t really care about the SBC). Consequently, pastors face a greater risk of burnout than ever.
The committee cares nothing for these worries. They don’t reveal where pastors should find the resources and time to fulfill this demand.
I won’t bore you with the remainder. As Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War-era witticism goes, it’s all pretty much of a muchness.
The EVANGELISM TASK FORCE issues tedious, been-there-done-that calls to action to all and sundry. Indeed, they point their fingers at seminary leaders and professors, the directors of various missions groups, state-level SBC leaders, the North American Mission Board (NAMB, and no, that acronym/abbreviation will never become not-funny), the Executive Committee, and finally to “all Southern Baptists,” by which they mean laypeople, parents, local pastors, and everyone else.
All of the suggestions sound nearly identical. The committee demands that each group in turn drill down harder on recruitment. Often they demand a group set aside a day to think about evangelism, or to perform evangelism with extra fervor.
Absolutely nothing about their recommendations stands as being very different from anything the SBC’s been saying for years. They essentially have for years demanded that people Jesus harder.
Muzzling the Oxen.
I suppose we couldn’t expect any different, though. Not really. The SBC chose a bunch of people for its stupid committee who represented the party line in every professional move they’ve ever made. These men dream in Southern Baptist catchphrases. When we talk about how fundagelicals completely scorched their compassion away and turned relationships into transactions, this committee hit that mindset’s apotheosis long ago.
They started with the assumption that the SBC’s message was perfect. They already think that the SBC’s recruitment ideology is the best out of all possible worlds. To them, the SBC faces a decline only because the members don’t put that message into play by recruiting more often.
In a nutshell, the EVANGELISM TASK FORCE’s report encapsulates in just a few short pages exactly why the SBC faces such a steep decline now. They’ve left nothing whatsoever to chance.
The cosmic irony is that when I was a fundagelical myself, they had a word for people they saw as hindering recruitment: such people muzzled the oxen.3 They weren’t shy about applying that term to anybody they saw as doing that.
But it seems to me that the SBC itself has done a very fine job of muzzling its own oxen.
The Obvious First Reason Why the EVANGELISM TASK FORCE Failed.
The EVANGELISM TASK FORCE’s report will completely fail to reverse the SBC’s decline. And I can see two immediate reasons for that failure.
First and foremost, the committee failed to present any distinct recruitment method that works. Over the years, churches and individuals have tried every suggestion made here. This august, learned, well-respected bunch of leaders either didn’t or couldn’t find anything new to suggest.
Of course, you and I both know why no such presentation occurred. Even if any reliably-effective recruitment method existed, the SBC would hate it.
Instead, the committee established that the SBC totally possesses a toolbox of tactics and talking points that they think work great for evangelism, in complete absence of any observable, measurable evidence. They reiterated how necessary they think it is for Southern Baptists to actively recruit new people to the group. And they continued their ongoing campaign of dumping the responsibility for reversing their decline on individual members (we’ve talked about it a few times already).
“Evangelize More! Or We’ll Say ‘Evangelize More!’ Again!”
Second, the committee lacks any ability to penalize noncompliance. Simply put, the SBC decides on a case-by-case basis how much control they wield over their member churches. If it benefits them to be supreme dictators, then that’s how they proceed. If they wish to avoid any dings to their cultivated public image, then they act helpless to command anybody.
When you see a directive that lacks any penalty for noncompliance, then mentally file it under “doomed to fail” and move on with your life. In this, you’ll be joining millions of actual Southern Baptists who’ve been doing the same thing for years.
Now, I’m sure that a few members will get
convicted in their spirits guilted enough to try harder to recruit new people. I don’t think it’ll last very long, though. If people in the pews already feel nervous about evangelizing, they won’t become hardcore prayer warriors for Jesus just because their pastors pushed them.
More Epic Fail.
On the plus side, the report tells us that nothing whatsoever is going to change anytime soon for the SBC. That’s excellent news, if a tad bit unsurprising.
Churches that try any of these suggestions will drive away members who get put off by constant demands for them to do something they know they can’t do. Such members will feel put off even worse by the constant blame showered on them for something they know isn’t their fault in the first place.
And that’s saying nothing about public perception of the denomination for trampling non-members’ boundaries even harder than they already do.
Next year, I fully expect to read in the 2019 Annual Report that the SBC’s leaders blame members for not drilling down hard enough on their demands after 2018. Maybe that was the goal all along.
Maybe eventually they’ll form a task force about it.
After all, if there’s one thing the SBC knows, it’s that task forces fix everything.
NEXT UP: In a world… where information is scary… one custom will fix everything. Fundagelicals love bookburning. Join me next time for a look at why, and how one goes down. (Oh, and of course my ex Biff loved bookburning, so he will make an appearance!) See you soon.
1 The mocking phrase “The Big Problem Here” describes the way some people latch onto some surreal, bizarro-world explanation for their many problems. After they figure out what The Big Problem Here is, they stop looking for any other explanation. Almost always, the Big Problem turns out to be caused by people not drilling down hard enough on the group’s ideology. The solution, therefore, involves drilling down harder on it. Something kinda similar happens in the novel The Princess Bride, when Buttercup decides–briefly–that the Countess felt so attracted to her Farm Boy because he had marvelous teeth. Thankfully, Buttercup comes to her senses before long. A pity the SBC can’t manage the same trick. (Back to the post!)
2Fundagelicals love numerology. Not only does this form of magic feel incredibly Jewish, which fundagelicals like anyway, but it invests their blathering with what feels to them like great significance. They think the number twelve signifies “perfection and authority” and “completeness.” It’s the number of Apostles, among a great many other mentions. So I don’t think this number of affirmations was a coincidence at all. Interestingly, one Christian site thinks the number 18 signifies “bondage.” (Back to the post!)
3 I got accused of “muzzling the oxen” myself when I vocally opposed lying to people to persuade them of Christianity’s claims. Biff had a testimony that was completely fabricated. When I finally heard the whole thing for the first time, I felt just horrified. I told him I’d out him as a liar if he ever shared it around me again. He and our friends got mad–at me. Did I want people to reject the sales pitch? Did I want them to go to Hell? But I held my ground, and he stopped sharing this fiction–at least around me. (Back to the post!)
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