The Spiritual and the Structural Coincide: Some Thoughts on the GCR

“Our problems aren’t structural, they are spiritual.”

I can’t tell you how many times I have read or heard some variation of the above sentiment in the past eight or nine months. Sometimes it is voiced by stakeholders who are in the “structure,” people like state paper editors, seminary professors, and other denominational employees. It is perhaps understandable that these folks would want to divert attention away from whatever issues may or may not be present within our various denominational ministries. Of course other times the spiritual vs. structural dichotomy is put forth by Southern Baptists who have no vested interest in preserving the denominational status quo. No matter who is making this case, however, and regardless of what motives may or may not be guiding them, the argument entails a false dichotomy.

It is simply not true that our problems are either spiritual or structural. Make no mistake about it-both are issues. And it is foolish to think that we should only address one of these problems to the neglect of the other.

Some of our problems are indeed primarily spiritual in nature. Taking the gospel for granted and/or failing to clearly articulate it in our pulpits, programs, and personal evangelism is a spiritual problem. Lack of evangelistic zeal, wherever it is present and for whatever reason it is the case, is a spiritual problem. Church members not giving generously and churches hording their financial resources is a spiritual problem. Uncharitable interpersonal relations between brothers and sisters in Christ-and the sins that fuel this situation-is a spiritual problem. Pride, in all its forms, is a spiritual problem.

Other problems among us are primarily of a structural kind. Focusing the vast majority of our Cooperative Program dollars on the Deep South and the Southwest is a structural problem. State conventions in the heart of Southern Baptist country receiving over tens of millions of dollars back from the NAMB is a structural problem. The duplication of some ministry efforts, particularly church planting, is a structural problem. And, at the risk of being provocative, any bloated bureaucracies that may exist in any of our ministries at any layer of our polity is a structural problem.

Still other problems are a combination of the spiritual and the structural. For the sake of space, I’ll limit this to one example. Making the amount a church gives to a denominational budget the chief standard by which that church’s faithfulness is measured (in function, if not in theory) is both a spiritual and a structural problem.

Southern Baptists have lots of problems, both spiritual and structural. But here’s the important thing to remember, and it’s very relevant to the GCR: the Convention (and its Great Commission partners like state conventions and associations) can only fix structural problems. The SBC or the Mississippi Baptist Convention or the Long Run Baptist Association can call attention to spiritual problems-and they should. They can debate the best way to handle spiritual problems-and they should. They can pass resolutions that suggest ways to biblically rectify spiritual problems-and they should. But these entities cannot actually fix those problems. Even if a denominational meeting was invaded by the Holy Spirit and resulted in mass repentance, it would only directly affect those at that meeting. Our spiritual problems can only be fully addressed at the level of individual local churches, which are the only biblically mandated layer of our polity and the only one that matters in any ultimate sense.

What our denominational ministries can address is our structural problems. To be sure local churches have a crucial role in this as all of our denominational ministries represent the churches. But the influence of churches is through democratic processes; problems are actually fixed by the trustees, administrators, and employees of our denominational ministries, though certainly in accordance with the will of the churches. For example, a task force can make specific recommendations about some of our structural problems. Assuming the convention adopts those recommendations, individual denominational ministries will then work to align their work with those recommendations. A similar thing could happen in state conventions and even some larger associations with multiple staff. Before you know it, structural changes have been addressed.

The structural and the spiritual coincide. To argue otherwise is to perpetuate a false dichotomy. Structure to varying degrees reflects spiritual concerns, and at times spiritual issues are exacerbated by structural shortcomings. The SBC needs a renewal in both areas.

I’m committed to praying for authentic spiritual awakening among our people and our churches. I’m also committed to advocating and, Lord willing, eventually implementing structural changes that will aid an awakened people in embracing all the gospel-driven, Great Commission priorities God has for us. The GCR is studying the structural problems, and the churches will decide how to respond. Similar task forces or blue ribbon committees are at work in several state conventions. Let’s pray that the Spirit will move the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention to address our spiritual problems. And let’s hope that addressing all of our problems will mean that our best years of gospel faithfulness and Great Commission fruitfulness are still to come.

When Words Aren’t Enough: A Report from the Field, Part 1

For much of the month of January, a colleague and I have been in an international setting serving with overseas workers. We have worked together daily in an educational context, and I have been reminded continually of the significance of the Great Commission. To say I am impressed by the workers of our mission board is an understatement, but I don’t want to embarrass my friends by being overly effusive about their labors. None of them desire to have attention drawn to himself anyway. During our weeks together I have had time to reflect on many important things, and I have written out some of my thoughts in a few posts I’ve labeled “A Report from the Field.” There is no grand theme to the posts; they are simply my reflections on matters that have come to mind. I hope they are an encouragement to our readers.

I did not realize the full effect of the economic downturn upon our overseas work until this past month. I have travelled overseas since the events of the Fall of 2008 when the world economy began its decline, but I am seeing the cumulative effects of reduced Cooperative Program (CP) giving and a weakened US dollar in its stark reality now.

I should note that our overseas personnel are not the sort to grouse about all this, but the difficulties imposed upon them and the potentially negative impact of budget reductions are all too clear. Personnel reductions and cuts to strategy budgets are bound to decrease the extent to which the Great Commission work of the IMB will be accomplished.

I would never suggest that this limits God’s power to make His Name known among the nations. In fact, we may form a dependence upon the work of the Holy Spirit in ways that will bear much fruit due to our lack of resources. Nevertheless, our failure to consider the ramifications of reduced budgets is at least Pollyanna and is, more pointedly, a mark of foolishness.

I know of no one in our stateside congregations who fails to voice their support of our overseas work. It is the essence of what it is to be Southern Baptist: to unite together in a cooperative effort to send and support laborers to go to the nations. Or so we say. In fact, we say this without hesitation. But to say this is not enough. Not nearly enough.

At the risk of making some people very angry, let me lay out some facts:

  • Of every dollar given by Southern Baptists to their local churches, 1-2 cents (depending on the state convention through which the funds are dispersed) ends up at the IMB.
  • In the CP process by which funds move from the local church to the state convention to the SBC for dispersal to the various SBC agencies, the highest percentage that a state convention sends to the national convention (and therefore to the agencies, including the IMB) is about 50%, while most send 35-40%. (The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia lead the way in CP giving, and are to be commended for doing so.)
  • That is, most state conventions keep 60-65% of the funds given by those in SBC pews, and forward the remainder to the SBC.
  • Most SBC churches keep 85-95% of the funds given by those who fill their pews for work in that church, forwarding 5-15% of those funds to the state convention (though some may give directly to the SBC, though they are not credited with CP giving if they do so. Yes, Virginia, that’s correct.)
  • So, let’s say Widow Ellen gives $100 as a monthly offering in her local congregation. It would be typical for the church to use $90 for its own budget, while sending $10 to the state convention. The state will then keep, let’s say $6 and send $4 to Nashville. And the Executive Committee of the SBC will then disperse the funds to the various SBC entities, and the IMB will receive $2 of that $4.
  • I’m not making this up. $2 of her $100 makes it to the cause that is the primary reason for the existence of the SBC in the first place. (Yes, I’m arguing that our forebears banded together to form a convention of churches for the purpose of fulfilling the Great Commission, primarily focused on sending laborers to the nations to spread the gospel.)

I realize I’ve irritated some folks at this point. And likely made some mad. I hope your indignation is directed where it should be. That is, I hope you’re indignant that such a paltry amount of the funds given by the people of the SBC make it to our international work. But I imagine that may not be the case with everyone.

Some like to point to the state conventions as the primary culprit in this state of affairs. To be sure, I hope our state convention leaders will join en masse to change their funding strategies (some already are), raising their contribution to the SBC to at least 50% and, I prefer, targeting 60-75% as a goal, depending on the needs in a given state or region (I think those state conventions in pioneer areas are justified in keeping a greater amount of funds for a period of time to support church planting in those areas). But I don’t want to pick on the state conventions alone. I want to pick on some of our churches.

One prominent church in the SBC recently embarked on a $130,000,000.00 building campaign. Yes, that is the right amount of zeros and the commas and decimals are correct. Several years ago I heard an SBC pastor bragging about his $70,000,000.00 building campaign. We build lavish (by any standards in the world they are lavish) worship centers, “family life” centers, and other buildings at every turn. I have to ask, in light of the fact that over 1.6 billion people have never heard of the name of Christ, do we really need such facilities?

This was brought home to me not too many years ago when I learned of a congregation on another continent that circulated a prayer request among some believers for a larger tree under which they could worship. That’s right. God had added to their number so significantly that they were beseeching God Almighty for a larger tree. Perhaps we should inform them that they should have a bit more faith and go for a family life center where they could play some racquetball or basketball while they take a break from the toil they endure just to stay alive.

Yes, that was sarcasm in that last paragraph. And before you criticize me for that, we should realize that the Scriptures employ sarcasm as a way of communicating that some things are so absurd that sarcasm is a legitimate device to get our attention.

It’s time for our attention to be gotten. And it’s time for us to awaken to the commission of Jesus to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. The accomplishment of that mission, the mission of God, does not rest on lavish buildings in the US (trust me, they really are lavish), nor immense state convention structures, nor grander buildings on seminary campuses. That mission will be fulfilled by sending laborers into the international fields. And if we have any sense about us and, let’s be honest, real devotion to our Lord, we’ll put our greatest amount of resources into the places where there is the greatest amount of need. And that typically isn’t in our stateside ministries.

This is a time when words aren’t enough. We say we support the Great Commission. But to say we support the Great Commission and then keep spending money on ourselves is to say that we don’t truly care about the Great Commission.

The real test of our commitment to the mission of God will be found in the extent to which we give (and get that money to those who carry the gospel overseas), pray, and ultimately send workers to the ends of the earth. Words aren’t enough, Southern Baptists. They simply aren’t enough.

The Future of the Southern Baptist Convention (Pt. 6)

#6) Southern Baptists have a hopeful future if we have the courage to rethink our Convention structure at every level, clarify our mission so that we maximize our energy and resources for the fulfilling of the Great Commission, and provide a compelling vision that inspires our people to do something great for God.

Are Southern Baptist a Great Commission people? If you listen to our rhetoric then the answer is yes. And yet, though Southern Baptist gave $12 billion last year through the local church, only 2 % ever left the borders of the United States. It takes almost 9 Southern Baptist churches to produce 1 overseas missionary and now even if we produce them, we lack the funding necessary to send them! Further, North America church planting in the unreached and underserved areas of our nation is little more than a trickle! Why we plant more churches in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee than we do in New York, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Washington and California is absolutely incomprehensible to me.

Recent days have convinced me of an undeniable truth. The future of the Southern Baptists will depend upon the type of leaders we choose to follow. The need of the hour is for aggressive visionary leaders who are daring and courageous, men who understand the times and are willing to attempt great things for God and believe great things from God. Why do I say this? Because many Southern Baptists are trapped in a time warp. They are aiming at a culture that went out of existence years ago. They use mid-20th century methods and pine for a nostalgic golden age. They are convinced if we would just go back “to the way things were” we would experience a spiritual renaissance that would restore the good ole days. Such a perspective is a prime example of denial and a refusal to live in the real world in which we find ourselves. We cannot go back. We are not going back. We will move forward into the future whether we like it or not. How we move ahead is the question yet to be answered. The leaders who lead us will play a significant role in that answer. Of that I am certain.

In addition, we have built bureaucracies and little kingdoms that are the primary objects of our affections, concerns and reasons for existence. We are slowly dying but refuse to admit the patient is even sick. The amount of time, energy, personnel and resources we keep at home, especially in the deep South, is hard to explain or accept for a rapidly growing number, and I fear how we will justify ourselves when we stand before our Lord. Some may say this is “dramatic rhetoric” merely designed to “fan the emotions.” Call it what you will, my concern is what will the God of heaven say about so much staying in church saturated regions in America? Jesus said, “To whom much is given much is required.” God will, no doubt, require much of Southern Baptist when He asks what we did with what He gave us to reach the nations and penetrate the lostness of this world.

Thom Rainer has challenged us to do simple church. This is good counsel. Once more I want to challenge us to do simple Convention. We must streamline our structure, clarify our identity and maximize our resources. A younger generation wants a leaner, quicker and more missional Convention that pursues the unreached and under-served in our nation and around the world, and so should we all! That is where they are going and our leadership at every level will either get on board or be left behind. In other words we will change the way we operate whether we like it or not. The Southern Baptist Convention of 2010 will not look like the SBC of 2020, and certainly not like 2030. Again, I would raise some hard questions we must consider in the immediate future. There are six.

1) Is the name “Southern Baptist Convention” best for identifying who we are and want to be in the future? I believe the answer is no.

2) Do we have unnecessary overlap and duplication in our denomination that can be corrected for greater efficiency and better stewardship? Yes.

3) Do we have a healthy and strategic structure and mechanism for planting churches in unreached and under-served areas that will thrive and survive past a few years? I am doubtful but hopeful that will change and change quickly in the near future.

4) Should we dismantle the Cooperative Program because it is dead, no longer effective and does not work? No, because such a perspective is simply untrue. Actually, in spite of a recent Baptist Press article, I cannot find anyone who thinks like this. Now, this does not mean that we should not be open to studying the Cooperative Program and making improvements if possible. Such a mindset is essential if we are to be responsible stewards of the gifts of God’s people.

5) Are we technologically savvy and up to date, living on the cutting edge of the advances being made at a rapidly increasing pace? Doubtful.

6) Are we distracted by doing many good things but not giving our full attention to the best things? No doubt. Church planting in the unreached and underserved population centers in North America, pioneer missions around the world, and theological education that permeates every sphere of our Convention is a 3-legged stool that will excite and inspires our people. It will inspire them to serve more and to give more. Of that I have no doubt.

Our mission in the future will require aggressive and intentional church planting. Rick Warren is right, “Starting new congregations is the fastest way to fulfill the Great Commission.” The churches we plant must be sound in their doctrine, contextual in their forms, and aggressive in their evangelistic and mission orientation. In order to make this work, we need a new and compelling vision for our churches, local association, state conventions, and national entities.

Timothy George is correct, “the exchanging of one bureaucracy for another bureaucracy does not a revolution or reformation make.” For a revolution, for a revival, to occur we need to kill and bury all sacred cows; we need to be willing to put on the altar for sacrifice our dreams, goals, ministries and entities if doing so will further the Great Commission. For me personally, that would include the dismantling and closing of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary if that would further the goals of world evangelization. For me to think any other way would be hypocritical.