Is there a Future for the SBC? Some Pre-Houston Reflections

“Is there a future?”

That’s always the question around the denominational season.

This summer, I’ll be at a few of those denominational annual meetings. Though they are different denominations, they will all have something in common—they will all be wondering what kind of future their denomination, and denominationalism, holds.

Denominations are having a rough go of it. Some have been weakened by theological controversies over core Christian beliefs. Others are just trying to figure out what the future looks like. And, though the Southern Baptist Convention is driven by a conservative baptist theology, we still have had our share of difficult times.

Many of the well-known, large churches in America have no denominational affiliation, and many church leaders believe the days of denominations are over. A few short decades ago, denominational meetings were some of the most widely attended places to receive training and connect with others in church ministry.

Now, events such as Catalyst, The Gospel Coalition Conference, Passion, Willow Creek’s Summit, and Exponential Conference rival or surpass the attendance numbers of annual meetings of the SBC and have an age demographic that is three decades below that of SBC messengers. Sadly, when I spoke at the Exponential Conference last month, I probably connected with more young SBC pastors than I will see at the annual meeting in a few weeks.

Times, particularly denominational times, are a’changin’ and that means we need to think strategically about the future.

Denominations as a Tool in the Mission

Denominations—yes, I’m talking about the SBC as it is a denomination regardless of what some think—are a tool, a vehicle, to be used to join God in His mission. Unfortunately we often turn tools into goals and our focus becomes the machine instead of the mission.

If our GOAL is the SBC, we’ve missed it.

Actually, I’m concerned about people who make the SBC their goal—those who are driven and impressed by a denominational system. Our focus should be on the REAL goal, the advance of the gospel worldwide. So, I am not driven to maintain the SBC system, I’m driven by the goal of that system– the task of worldwide (local, national, and international) mission.

When I walk out of my house in the morning and get into my car, I do not praise and exalt my car as a miraculous, end-all, be-all creation. To the contrary, my car is a helpful vehicle that assists me in my mission of getting to work and accomplishing all that God intends for me to do. My car doesn’t need a mission statement. I, living a life of gospel purposefulness, am the one with the mission.

So it is with our churches– they’ve been given the mission. A denomination should exist to help its churches live sent and live out that mission, rather than maintain a structure. The denomination can be an extension of the local church’s ministry, but only to the degree the denomination is willing to be the tool and not the goal.

The goal of the SBC now, particularly post-Conservative Resurgence (which promised to get our theological house in order so we could focus on global missions), has to be what the original documents said: “eliciting, combining, and directing the energies of the Baptist denomination of Christians, for the propagation of the gospel.”

We will see if Houston feels that way. I’m praying it does.

The SBC and the Mission of God

It goes without saying God does not need the SBC to fulfill His mission.

Yet, the mission is bigger than a mission board, and God’s agenda is working far beyond the SBC, and the SBC should be valued to the degree that it lines up and helps churches and believers participate in the mission of God throughout the world. If denominations are to exist, as I have advocated in Christianity Today, it must be for the purpose of helping churches fulfill the Great Commission and join God in His mission.

I sense the affirming rumblings of a chorus of “Amens” as I write about the priority of the mission, but will it feel like that in Houston?

Will the reports of the mission boards dominate our interest, or will controversies? Will key voices be the mission leaders or the theological warriors? (For what it is worth, my observation is that healthier denominations build their annual meeting programs around their mission boards… but that is for another blog post.)

Perhaps the focus of our denominational meetings will tell us what we really value.

What Happened to Denominational Loyalty?

The SBC is a convention of churches, not a hierarchical organization. We do not have a pope or a college of cardinals. We do not—or should not—blindly follow a cult of personality.

The purpose of the SBC, according to the founding documents, is as a “corporation… created for the purpose of eliciting, combining, and directing the energies of the Baptist denomination of Christians, for the propagation of the gospel, any law, usage, or custom to the contrary notwithstanding.” That’s a noble purpose.

However, the value of such denominational partnership seems to be increasingly on the decline among churchgoers.

LifeWay Research conducted a study of Protestant churchgoers who had attended more than one church as an adult. We were looking for reasons adults chose their current church when changing churches. The most important factors were the beliefs or doctrine of the church, the preaching, and the authenticity of members. Only half indicated that denomination was important—ranking 13 out of 19 possible factors. Denominational loyalty doesn’t seem very important, and as I talk with leaders from across the spectrum of denominations, they are working hard to discern what the future holds.

When you look at it generationally, the trends don’t look good. In a 2010 study of Protestant pastors, LifeWay Research found the majority were pessimistic about the future of denominations. Only a couple of subgroups of pastors differ significantly. Pastors age 65 and older are less likely to agree that the importance of being identified with a denomination will diminish over the next 10 years. Fifty-four percent of pastors age 65 and older agree with this statement, while 67 percent of pastor ages 55-64 agree.

The strongest differences, however, are seen across responses of pastors of different size churches. Seventy-two percent of pastors of churches with 250 or more in average worship attendance agree with the statement concerning the diminishing importance of denominations. This is compared to 64 percent of pastors in churches of 100-249 attendees, 62 percent of pastors in churches of 50-99 attendees, and 53 percent of pastors in churches of less than 50 attendees.

So, there is a loyalty challenge. No question.

The solution is not berating those that are disconnected, but to provide a compelling vision that draws churches and leaders in.

Later this week, I will share some thoughts about what that might look like.

 

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