Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Charting a course for the SBC

In his recent President's Address, Walter Price called for Californian Southern Baptists to seek a radical "new way of doing cooperation" that will streamline our resources and narrow our focus on missions, education, and mercy. These are the three areas where Southern Baptists can accomplish more together than we can individually.

Recently, Bruce Ashford and Danny Akin wrote a series of posts called "The 21st Century SBC." It's the best summary I've seen so far of where the SBC probably needs to head if it is to regain effectiveness and attract a younger generation of leaders. Here's an excerpt which gives specific examples of what the "new normal" may look like...

Through four centuries of history, Baptists have displayed a remarkable continuity in doctrine and practice. With historic Christianity, we have confessed that God is Triune, that his Son is fully God and fully man, that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone, and that the Scriptures are the very words of God. In addition, we have held that the church is regenerate in its membership, autonomous under the headship of Christ, and free from state control. These last three distinctives relate to the doctrine of the church. Baptists have always been serious about church and specifically about the local church. It is through his churches that Christ disciples his children, directs his mission to the lost, demonstrates his glory to a watching world, and extends his kingdom.

What does this mean for the Southern Baptist Convention? The SBC was formed as a network of local churches who partnered together for the sake of mission. In the last 50 years, however, she has become more and more of a denominational bureaucracy. We must help our denomination return to her roots. The SBC of the twenty-first century must be a missional network, just as the churches of Acts were a missional network. Our focus must be the gospel, and our means of cooperation must be primarily “churches partnering for the sake of mission.” Thom Rainer has urged our churches to simplify and streamline so as to maximize their effectiveness, and we think that this applies to our convention as well. The roadmap for revisioning the SBC, as well as any institution or entity within the SBC, will always involve two ideas: local church and missional cooperation.

What then will the Southern Baptist Convention look like if we re-vision it for the 21st century? That is, of course, a very difficult question to answer, a question that exceeds our abilities of and the scope of this post. However, we can point out the broad contours of what it might look like, and raise some pertinent questions along the way. One issue that we might examine is our name. We are the Southern Baptist Convention, but “Southern” neither describes who we are or who we want to be. Perhaps we should modify our nomenclature to better describe our nature as a transregional network of churches. A second issue that our churches might agree upon is that the Cooperative Program needs to be continually re-examined to make sure that it is serving the churches in the best way possible. One of the great motivators during the Conservative Resurgence was the fact that 60 cents of every dollar went to a moderate/liberal bureaucracy. One of the great motivators for a Great Commission Resurgence is the fact that often 60 cents or more of every dollar never leaves the state and often goes to bureaucracies that spend not nearly enough of it on missions and church planting (regardless of whether it is North American or international missions).

What are some challenges ahead for the seminaries? One challenge the seminaries face is how to locate as much of our education as possible in the local church. Is there a reason not to return certain courses of study, such as pastoral ministries, to their native environment in the local church? Another challenge we might face is how to provide the most affordable seminary education. Are there ways we can streamline our institutions? A third challenge is for the seminaries to reject the temptation to be divisively competitive and instead commit to being a network of truly cooperative campuses. Such a network could, for example, provide a combination of on-campus and distance education to international missionaries in a way more beneficial that what is offered presently. A final challenge is for the seminaries to remain vigilant to ensure that our professors are doing theology primarily for the church and secondarily for the academy.

What are some challenges ahead for the International Mission Board? The International Mission Board has taken major steps to re-organize for its 21st century mission. One challenge for the IMB is how to continue to restore mission initiative to the local church, just as our churches must repent for ceding all mission responsibility to the IMB. Local churches must become Great Commission churches who recruit, disciple, and support their members as they go on mission. They must stop recommending candidates who are unfit (morally, spiritually, or otherwise) for the field, and must stop sending candidates to the field while never really intending to support them. Further, our churches must realize that the IMB is not the true “sender” of missionaries. The local church is. Churches send missionaries. Some churches will be able to call from their midst a team of church planters and handle all of the discipleship and team dynamics as they go to the field. The IMB provides oversight, further training, and strategy. Other churches may send only one member to the field, in which case they may partner with other churches in putting together a team to reach a particular people group, and to hold that team accountable. Regardless, we must work hard to help our churches blossom into Great Commission churches.

What are some challenges ahead for the North American Mission Board and the State Conventions? It is the charge of both the NAMB and the state conventions to reach the United States of America with the gospel. How might they partner together in order to serve the church and further the church’s mission in a 21st century context? A detailed answer to this eludes our grasp, but some things are certain. The state conventions must have a renewed focus on church planting and renewal, and NAMB must be a handmaiden who provides resources for that task. Unless there are major changes in the state conventions and at the NAMB, it is doubtful that younger pastors will give their money to the CP or seek the resources of the NAMB. They will bypass the CP and give straight to Lottie Moon, if they give at all, and they will seek church planting advice and training from sources other than the NAMB and the state conventions. This type of bypassing has already begun to take place, and at a rapid rate.

Our state conventions must streamline and focus themselves. They must get rid of whatever unnecessary bureaucracy exists and focus their energies on church planting and church renewal. If they refuse, they will be forced to reduce their budgets drastically because a younger generation of churches will not give to the state conventions merely out of a sense of loyalty. Likewise, the NAMB has its work cut out as it adjusts to the 21st century context. Many of our younger church planters are bypassing the NAMB for other church planting networks and resource centers. In terms of resource-access, these networks have become functional substitutes for the state conventions and for the NAMB. Perhaps a revisioning of the NAMB-state convention relationship would look something like this: The state conventions reorganize, streamlining their operations so that at least 50% of it goes to the national convention, while at least 30% of the in-state remainder goes to in-state church planting and renewal. At the same time the NAMB reorganizes, ceasing to become a mission-funding organization and instead becoming a small, sleek, and efficient group of church planting and renewal consultants who provide resources for the state conventions (as the state conventions focus primarily church planting and renewal themselves). This is a radical suggestion, for sure, but radical ideas are needed for our future effectiveness. All options need to be put on the table for careful and deliberate consideration.

What will be the role of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in a 21st century context? Southern Baptist churches have long been involved in public square issues, and the ERLC was formed to serve our local churches in that facet. Three challenges in particular lie ahead for the ERLC as it serves our churches in the 21st century. First, the ERLC, alongside of our churches, must stand strong in the midst of an increasingly relativistic culture. Nowhere is such relativism more evident than the controversies surrounding life, death, and sexuality. Second, it must seek to bear witness to the gospel, and to the implications of the gospel for our society and culture, in a way that is gracious, prophetic, and compelling. It must be prophetic in its willingness to point out evil and its consequences. It must be gracious, or else it will contradict the very message of grace. And it must be compelling, seeking to win and persuade our society to what is true and good. Finally, we must not tie ourselves to any one political party, because to do so would distort and domesticate the gospel: “Inappropriate is the only adequate term,” writes Paige Patterson, “to describe purely partisan politics or the use of the pulpit to endorse personalities running for political office.” Likewise, I (Danny Akin) have argued: “Our hope is not in Republicans or Democrats, Congress or Capitol Hill. Our hope, the world’s hope, is in Calvary’s hill and a crucified and risen Savior…." The gospel cannot be domesticated to fit the agenda of any one worldly political party.

What are some of the challenges facing local associations in upcoming years? In the years of horse-drawn buggies, local associations provided resources for pastors who could not travel to the state convention offices for assistance. In the ensuing years, local associations have also become facilitators of fellowship for pastors in the local associations. For some churches, their closest ties are to their local association. In the 21st century, however, many pastors and churches are able easily to find resources outside of the local association and look for fellowship based on affinity as much as geography. In light of the present situation, perhaps we will see local churches choosing their associations rather than having their associations chosen for them. In addition to county seat-based associations, will we see the creation of voluntary, affinity-based associations, formed for the sake of mission? This would give local churches the freedom to align with an association that best fits their needs, or to align with multiple associations. One could easily see a larger church that is part of a national megachurch network (that ministered to the unique needs of larger churches) as well as a local association with churches of all sizes (that is focusing on planting churches in a tri-county area, for example). The upshot of this discussion is that local associations, like state conventions and national entities, exist to serve the local church and further her mission.

The original article with footnotes can be read here and here.

I'm sure the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force will deal with some of these very issues in their report next June, but it's good to start thinking about them even now.

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