GM and the SBC

Between the Times welcomes guest contributor Don Dunavant. Dr. Dunavant serves as Professor of Christian Studies and Director of the Bachelor of Applied Theology Program at California Baptist University at Riverside, CA.

Monday morning, June 1, 2009, General Motors filed for bankruptcy. The once number one car maker in the world came to an ignoble demise. Started in 1908, for most of its one hundred and one year history GM was synonymous with the America idea of success, an industrial icon that was as American as apple pie. That has all changed now. Speaking of GM’s bankruptcy President Obama optimistically asserted that the trauma of bankruptcy will help GM be a more viable company in the future. Yet he pointed to dark days ahead saying that more plants will close, more dealerships will shut their doors and more people will lose their jobs. GM as it has been up until June 1, 2009, will never be again.

What happened to cause the downfall of the car-making giant? Some will point to the economic downturn as the culprit. But, GM had survived all other economic downturns and even the Great Depression. No, there was something more systemic behind its failure. GM had developed a management culture so entrenched in the way it had always done business that it lost touch with the rapid changes taking place in the car-buying public and a union culture so preoccupied with self preservation that it entrenched itself against any change in the business model. Together both made GM too inflexible in a world of rapid change.

No one did anything on purpose to undermine GM. In fact, up until a few weeks before June 1, both management and labor argued passionately that what they were doing was the best for GM. But now their words sound hollow and their arguments mute in the wake of the ruins of GM. Inflexibility trumped the best of intentions.

Are there lessons the Southern Baptist Convention needs to learn from what has happened to GM? The SBC touts itself as the largest Protestant denomination in America, boasting sixteen million plus members. Together Southern Baptist have stood in the forefront of other denominations in sending missionaries around the world and across the nations, supporting theological education and so much more noble work. But does success in the past guarantee continued success in the midst of the seismic cultural shifts taking place in American culture and in the emerging generation of pastors?

While there are many areas that question demands we must explore, there is one that the GM demise has made much more urgent for Southern Baptists. It is the question posed in article IX of Toward a Great Commission Resurgence. The article, subtitled “A Commitment to a More Effective Convention Structure,” and the implication that substantive changes must be made in the bureaucratic structures that have entrenched themselves in SBC identity and life, brings us as a denomination to a critical point in looking to the future.

I have read the responses of both those who have signed Toward a Great Commission Resurgence with enthusiasm and those who refuse to sign the document because of Article IX. On both sides of the issue are good people who are voicing their best intentions for the future of the SBC. However, the best of intentions are not enough. This is one that we cannot afford to get wrong. The future of the SBC as a force in cooperative missions depends on it.

I come down on the side of those who believe that we must reexamine our structures, not just for some reorganization attempt, but for a substantive overhaul. I do so because I believe with all my heart that the duplication of work and the allocation of CP monies are issues that must be seen in the context of the rising young pastors who in the next ten years will determine the future course of the SBC.

I see three major movements that distinguish these young pastors and some commonalities they share. The first are those who identify themselves as Reformed. They are serious about theology, about the church, and about missions. They measure everything through the lens of their theological commitments. The second are those who I call fearless innovators. They plant or go to pastor churches with big, bold vision. They are serious about the church, the Scriptures and missions. Even when they grow big, they struggle with the tension of staying small. They want their people directly involved in missions and ministries. The third are those who are emerging (as opposed to emergent) in approach. They are serious about the church and culture. While they make mistakes they are passionate about contextualization and communicating with their generation.

These are three very different groups of young pastors, but they do share some things in common. Consider just three:

  1. They are more loosely tied to the SBC in their identity. They are Southern Baptist and are appreciative of their theological education provided by the SBC. However, their identity is broader. Have you wondered why it is that when you attend the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention or state convention that it looks a lot grayer? The reason is these young pastors are not interested in meeting just to meet and conduct business. They are looking for something much more in identity. You’ll find the Reformed guys at Together for the Gospel or Piper’s pastor conferences. You find the innovator networking with others who share their priorities in ministry.
  2. They are more loosely tied to the SBC in their giving. They will not give just to give. They are not concerned with what is counted as CP giving or with where they stand in CP giving in comparison with others. What they are concerned with is giving their money to make a difference in the world. If they perceive they can do that better by giving directly instead of to and through the CP, they will. They will not giving money to support bureaucracies. They will give to those things that get the money to the field.
  3. They are more loosely tied to the SBC in accomplishing their sense of missions. If they cannot get their people to the mission field by denominational mission agencies, then they will by pass the agencies and directly support those whom they send out.

Those of us who are in the 50 and up crowd can’t afford to miss what is going on and entrench ourselves in the way we have always done things. If we do then tragically the SBC could travel the same road as GM.

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  1. Martie   •  

    I would place myself in the “reformed” young pastor (31) category mentioned. I agree with your characterization knowing you have shared my heart. I led our church a few years ago to reduce the giving to our local association, keep the giving the same amount to the state convention, and start giving directly to the national convention. The main reason I did this was because I saw at both the state and local levels a great deal of wasteful spending. God has called me to lead His church in being good stewards with the monies He has entrusted us. Not only did we make these changes but we have, on occasion given to other non-SBC mission agencies, who are effective at reaching people with the gospel.
    I have a heart to bring change to both the church I pastor and the SBC. I started pastoring a church that is approximately 40yrs old and had only 8 or so people attending. My desire was and is to take them from near death to bringing glory to God as we attempt to reach the nations with the gospel. I also desire that the SBC would change in ways to be more effective at using the resources God gives us.
    I do plan on attending in KY, because I’m excited at the potential shift in the convention; to be driven by the glory of God, more centered on the gospel, and a greater passion to reach the nations.

  2. Brian Mann   •  

    Another thing that prevents us from going, is money, we that pastor churches often cannot afford to go to the sbc, travel, expenses and such, and when our churches are small, declining, and we have to select what conferences we are going to attend, the sbc is not the first pic.

  3. Jeff Fisher   •  

    A striking analysis. Thanks for the insights and perspective.

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  5. Steve Schenewerk   •  

    Kudo’s for an on target analysis. I am in the 50+ (I’ll be 53 in August- been pastoring SBC churches in the Northwest Baptist Convention since 1981- and prior to that I was an associate pastor in the Northwest from 1977-1981. Anyway, I have led my churches to give generously to the CP for all these years. Once in a great while missionaries come through, or agency heads come to our annual meetings. But due to costs of travel those visits are usually limited to few and far between. Reorganization is a fact of life, change is a necessity, for without change there is only death. Our church- where I’ve served for almost 18 years -constantly faces the challenge of adapting to what God is doing in our community. I believe that our agencies and the entire structure must be open to change in order to be oriented to the move of God. Dan Southerland, in Transitioning, talks about surfing, catching waves…I sense we are on the edge of a wave of God’s movement unlike anything we’ve seen- at least in our neighborhood. Let’s be willing to change- not for the sake of change, but for the opportunity to be involved in the activity of God!

  6. Kyle Logan   •  

    This article took the words right out of my mouth. I am a 20 year old Theology student at CBU and would consider myself one of the “fearless innovators” (I definitely have the coolest title, btw).

    I’ve learned to love the structure of a cell church that is mission minded and Gospel saturated. It is my prayer that the Christians in the CC will not only SAY that they love missions, but will DO missions. And that means that members are going out into the harvest with the Local Church sending and supporting them. I’ve talked to a plethora of students my age with the same mindset. And if this is going to be the new thinking of the SBC when my generation gets into the passenger seat (shotgun will work since Jesus is driving), the structure must change. Instead of money rising up to the higher echelons of the SBC, maybe it could fall down to the churches, allowing them to fulfill God’s mission.

    I don’t know what the changes will be, but I certainly pray the changes will further the Kingdom and that more disciples are taking up their cross than the world has ever seen before.

  7. Roger Simpson   •  

    Dr. Dunavant:

    I agree 100% with your analysis!

    One part of the problem is that most of the agencies operate like secret societies. They don’t do this intentionally — because the agencies have “plenary” or PUBLIC Board of Trustees sessions.

    Things have been smooth for generations but now younger pastors are beginning to raise questions. These younger pastors are asking, “why should we support this CP/IMB/NAMB model”?

    The agencies are not doing much proactively reach out to these younger pastors using communication mechanisms that are relevant to them.

    I’m trying to do at least a SMALL thing to address this. I plan on attending the next BoT meeting of the IMB (September 16th in Jacksonville) and blog about whatever is going on. I am going to do this on my own dime.

    The stuff I’m doing will supplement current documentation such as published minutes and BP news releases.

  8. Brian Rolfe   •  

    Good observation!

    It might be helpful to note that this trend is by no means new. As a 40+ Seminary graduate (not a pastor) I grew up in what Dr. Dunavant calls the “reformed” category.

    I attended SBC churches all my life, and when I felt the call to go serve on short-term missions after college, I applied to the Journeyman program. When my application was denied (too fat) I made no further applications, but God’s call was not to be denied. A missionary, who our church supported directly, met me and extended an invitation to join him for the summer. I sent one letter requesting support and two weeks later I was on my way to a 7 month assignment overseas. I was generously supported (I had to ask people to stop sending money) by several SBC churches in at least three states.

    My point is that these SBC churches were already eager to support missions and had no reservations in bypassing the convention. In fact, the speed in which they responded indicates they were well practiced at it. All of this took place in 1989, so this “trend” is at least 20 years in the making.

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  10. Robert Angison   •  

    We’ve absolutely got to change this thing in the next few years. If we fail we won’t see an immediate effect but, like GM, within the generation we’ll look around at our monolithic buildings and organizations that are hemoraging money from bloated local staffing and budgets that don’t actually reach people with the Gospel.

    Right now we’ve lost the next generation. Some will hang around, some of them toeing the line from the elites in our convention, spouting the same rhetoric, but the real innovative and Kingdom minded pastors have left.

    I’m thankful for the Great Commission Resurrgence and the signatories. We have to change this thing. We’ve walked away from the streamlined convention of the founders and have hung an albatross around our CP necks. We absolutely have to change this thing. Hopefully it will happen.

    You are the Church!

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