Wednesday, April 30, 2008

SBC needs to get back to the basics

Last week, the results of the 2007 Annual Church Profile were released, and the results were not good. Southern Baptists reported a decline in both total membership and total baptisms. Membership in our 44,000 churches has gradually tapered off over the past decade and is now showing measurable attrition. Baptisms have declined 7 of the last 8 years, and are at their lowest level since 1987.

The release of these figures has sent the Southern Baptist blogosphere into a frenzy. Now, I know the kingdom of God is a lot bigger than the SBC, but as a pastor in an SBC church, I would be remiss not to comment on these findings.

One of the first bloggers to offer analysis was Ed Stetzer, Director of Lifeway Research. Stetzer observed three issues that seem to rise to the top and help explain our denominational decline. First, he said, we’ve been steadily losing denominational leaders, most notably among the younger generation. Second, we’ve become known for our frequent infighting. Many of our meetings, churches, and even our blogs are distinguished by conflict and pride. Third, and most importantly, Stetzer said we have lost our focus on the gospel. Evangelism has taken a back seat.

Another insightful post came from Nathan Finn, Assistant Professor of Church History at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Nathan candidly shared his concern over the SBC: “I fear we are too insular, too sectarian, too pugnacious, too ‘Southern,' too reactionary, too pragmatic, and for sure too proud to have any real future. I hope I’m wrong. I pray that I am not the very things I accuse the convention of embodying, though I suspect I am at times. I hope the SBC does have a future, mostly because we had a great – though imperfect – past. I love who we were. I struggle with who we are. I am very fearful of who we will become.”

What’s the root problem of our denominational decline? And what can bring true reform? One thing is certain. The solution is not another denominational “program” or “conference” or “curriculum” or “initiative.” What we really need is radical, local church reformation. I believe Stetzer hit the bulls eye when he remarked, “Our denomination is only as strong as our churches, and these statistics remind us our churches are in trouble.”

That's the key. Denominational reform must begin at the level of the local church. The Southern Baptist Convention may be capable of conducting a survey and identifying a problem, but it hardly has the ability to effect widespread change. Reformation is a work of the Holy Spirit that must take place one Christian at a time, one leader at a time,
one worship service at a time, one ministry at a time, one small group at a time, until the local church begins to conform more into the image of Jesus Christ!

But how can pastors and church leaders facilitate change? When I consider the path toward local church reform (and thus denominational reform), I can think of no better resource than “9 Marks,” based out of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. As their name suggests, this ministry presents nine basic marks which promote genuine church health and growth: expositional preaching, biblical theology, a biblical understanding of the good news, a biblical understanding of conversion, a biblical understanding of evangelism, a biblical understanding of membership, biblical church discipline, a promotion of Christian discipleship and growth, and a biblical understanding of leadership. Mark Dever has written a book which develops each of these themes. There is simply no replacement for these God-ordained fundamentals.

If there is to be a bright future for the Southern Baptist Convention, we cannot look to Nashville for the solution. We need to get back to the basics. Reform must begin with the local church. Even more fundamentally, it must begin with each one of us. This isn't about denominational pride. It's about the glory of God in the church of Jesus Christ.

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