Al Mohler held a forum this morning at Southern Seminary on the “Future of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Mohler observed that the world has changed dramatically in the last 60 years, and that the SBC is at a crossroads. If we continue to embrace a corporate mentality, the SBC will quickly become extinct. But if we return to a more biblical model of doing church, our brightest days may lie ahead. The Great Commission Task Force has been given a unique opportunity to talk about denominational structure and efficiency, but this conversation must be founded upon a strong theology and unflagging commitment to the Great Commission.
Here are my full notes from his message:
The President’s Forum on the Future of the SBC
Al Mohler, President of Southern Seminary
August 19, 2009
What does it mean to be a Southern Baptist in the 21st century?
First, an expression of gratitude to all those who have been faithful over the years, and to all those who have been giving, praying, going, sending
John 9:4 says “work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day” – a very urgent warning about time. Asking about the SBC is an urgent and strategic question about the gospel and the Great Commission. Yet many feel an urgency that we should be doing more. The issue is faithfulness.
Some Historic perspective
1845 – founders in Augusta established a mission statement for the “eliciting, combining, and directing of energies toward the propagation of the Gospel.” Missions was the reason for the SBC.
Home Mission Board was originally designed to reach the frontier. America did not exist the way it does now.
Late 1800s – began to meet annually; SBC begins to broaden; seminaries established
1914-1919 – Great shift of logic in SBC; a new word entered our vocabulary: “efficiency.” Efficiency experts rose in America – time, systems, organizational management. An infusion of a business culture entered into the life of our denomination. It is helpful and relevant, but has limited application in spiritual matters.
1925 – Executive Committee was established. Necessity for an ongoing, coordinating entity. Also year Cooperative Program was established.
1926-27 – Executive Committee was given enormous expansion of powers.
1950s – Formation of Committee to Study the Total Church Program, chaired by Douglas Branch. Goal: to recommend a massive restructuring. Used the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm. Again, “efficiency” was the main concern. Some of the recommendations: an office building in Nashville (headquarters); inter agency council; program assignments to entities. What would be our mission? “To bring men closer to God through Jesus Christ.”
1995 – Program and Structure Committee – reduced entities from 19 to 12. Mission “SBC exists to facilitate, extend, and enlarge, Great Commission ministries of local churches.” Sounds less bureaucratic, more richly theological, and urgently evangelistic.
2009 – A Great Commission Task Force was assigned to bring recommendations of how churches may be more effective in the Great Commission.
Consider 1945. By this time, the SBC had developed a programmatic identity. The basic ethos/energy was programmatic unity (you’re SBC because you do certain things, have certain features, uses certain literature, etc.). It was assumed you hold to certian doctrines. A corporate management mentality. This came out of a social context. Post war, the SBC became something like a Catholic Church of the South. A cradle-to-grave approach to Southern Baptist identity (starting with “pre-cradle roll”). Sunday was at least a four-fold activity. Youth choirs. Missions organizations. Offering envelopes with check boxes. College and Universities had Baptist Student Union. Families had Camps, Brotherhood, WMU. Retirement Centers even established. The planning concept: “The key church (or model church).” Had all organizations. Reported in Annual Church Profile. Resulted with great solidarity, denominational identity, incredible intactness/tightness in SBC identity. Any use of resources “outside the program” (using different curriculum, attending a non-SBC conference center) were immediately suspect. There was enormous spiritual security in all this. There was a tribal, cultural identity. An enormous brand loyalty. But now the world has changed on us, and the world that produced that identity is long gone.
The SBC today – Two Analogies
- The SBC as General Motors – William Durant developed GM as a cradle-to-grave employer. Everyone became ‘inside.’ You never have to leave the corporation. Small distinctions, but many similarities. Centralized headquarters with centralized “offerings.” Dealders were distributed throughout the country. GM overtook Ford because of its aggressiveness, and led in auto sales for 77 years. Managerial dynamic, the envy of every other company. But now, has transformed into a new corporation owned by US taxpayers and pension stock. Lost market share and is the second largest bankruptcy in human history. It fit the 50s and 60s really well, but doesn’t fit any more. Are we trapped in the same organizational logic?
- The SBC as Shopping Mall – this was made possible by the automobile. First built in 1950. A complete reversal of downtown logic, with pedestrians walking down the street, entering storefronts. Significant advantage: enclosed space, protected from the elements. Anchor tenants attract shoppers. The logic is that you’re “going to the mall.” The action and identity is inside. By 2008, 1175 enclosed mall in the US. Displaced almost all other retail context, rivaled only by “big box stores.” #1 item sold is women’s clothing. But not one enclosed mall has opened in America since 2006. Retail logic has collapsed – lifestyle centers. Retailers now want their name out front. The identity is now primarily the “store” rather than the shopping “center.” The SBC is a huge “mall.” Two anchor stores: IMB and NAMB. Inside the mall are many other things going on. The loyalty is to this huge “thing” that is only explicable from the inside.
There were certain gains from these models, resulting in many people getting to the mission field, but the question we need to ask is, “What is changed, and why have we not?” and “Has the logic of this particular organizational pattern been eclipsed by something else?” Does it seem like an age gone by?
The SBC now faces several questions.
We must choose one direction or another.
- Are we going to be missiological or bureaucratic? Only missiological fits the Lord Jesus Christ. Otherwise, we will find ourselves out of touch with churches and the world we’re trying to reach. The logic of bureaucracy will never take us where we need to go.
- Is our identity tribal or theological? We’ve had many shared theological convictions. SBC tribal identity is no longer the norm. A theological identity will lead to missiological.
- Is the basis of our cooperation convictional or confused? We must “grow up” theologically. Must distinguish first order issues. A clash of worlviews now occurs very early in life.
- Is our logic going to be more secular or more sectarian? Will we stand out from the culture around us? The SBC did not once need to be sectarian in the South, but that has changed, and we need to reach areas outside the Sun Belt. The church of the Lord Jesus is in a sense always sectarian, comprised of reside aliens never fully at home in the culture.
- Are we going to become younger or dead? We’re losing at least 2/3 of our young people between adolescence and adulthood. This is a generation that has reduced religion to “moralistic therepeutic deism.” We need a level of evangelism and discipleship beyond what the SBC has traditionally seen. The SBC birth rate has shrunk.
- Are we going to be more diverse or diminished? Becoming more diverse will require a lot of strategy and uncomfortability. This means we won’t be singing out of the same hymnbook. By the year 2050, 25% of all Americans will have a Hispanic grandparent.
- Will we become missional or missiological? We can no longer be merely methodological. The church is found faithful when found missional.
- Will we be more strategic or anemic? Local churches must be a missiological think tank for our community. More intentioned.
- Will we be more bold or more boring? This generation will not be satisfied with boring (same thing, same way, no surprises). The NT Gospel is bold. We’re going to have to take risk, which is uncomfortable, especially for a denomination already struggling. Need bold leadership. The comfort zone will lead only to death.
- Are we going to be happy or bitter? The SBC has a reputation for denominational crankiness, even in our annual meetings. Don’t be cranky for the wrong things. We’re going to have to say hard things that appear unloving, intolerant. We cannot afford to waste the opportunity to reach our neighbors by being cranky over extraneous things. There needs to be a love and commonality. There should be evident joy among God’s people.
Two problems with the Cooperative Program.
The SBC has both perception problems and reality problems. Only a small portion of CP giving actually makes it to missions.
- Our greatest goal is not merely to cooperate. Any entity can do this. The whole purpose is reaching the nations. Are we going to be relevant in the modern world.
- We cannot simply tell churches in a new age what they must do and how they must live. We must earn their trust. We are partners of the churches. They must be liberated to give as they will, or they will not give at all.
- We are still too North American centric.
- We need to return to the primacy of the early church. Where are churches urgently, passionately understanding the mission of God. Our identity is not in the “giving.” The giving must be at the end, not the beginning.
- We first need a theological rationale. Corporate logic comes at the very end. The SBC is at one of those very interesting moments – primarily made up of “PC guys.” The “Apple guy”. They don’t use the same logic. We cannot be seen as backward and cranky, committed to the wrong cultural identity. We need to be missional. Our mission must be to gather to work with other Christians to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. We cannot gauge church health by raw numbers on a profile. The question is “does this church have what the NT church has”?
The SBC is at a great crossroads. Discussion of structure cannot come first. Our ethos/mission comes first. Structures must remain open and flexible for the rest of our lives.
Let’s not be caught in the dark, realizing we missed a great opportunity while it was still day.
Update: here is the audio from the forum: