Dr. Ed Stetzer has offered his analysis of the current state of the Southern Baptist Convention arising out of his interpretation of Lifeway Research's latest report on ACP figures. The ripples have spread throughout Christenblogdom (see several reactions traced here). Stetzer on the same day recorded an interview with Chris Elrod (available at SBC Voices) discussing the report.
I suppose the reaction has been precisely what we all might expect—everyone in Southern Baptist life has used the statistics as a "See, I told you so" for whatever they presently dislike about the SBC (Calvinism, a dogged insistence upon being Baptist, the Conservative Resurgence, not chasing the culture fast enough). Along with every "See, I told you so," has been a stern "You guys just don't get it," in reply to the other groups' "See, I told you so."
And, of course, I'm eager to join the party and assert that the situation addressed in The Fifth Century Initiative is precisely the cause for the present Southern Baptist malaise. In fact, Ed's very next post supports the theory that a return to regenerate church membership alone would do wonders for our evangelistic effectiveness, even if nothing else in the SBC changed.
Eventually, somebody is going to ask how so many people can look at the same numbers and come to such vastly differing interpretations of the data. Some of those who are so enthusiastic about abandoning any hope of arriving at a clear interpretive answer with regard to what the Bible says are the most emphatic that we must all come to the one and only uniform interpretive answer with regard to what the latest ACP says (I love irony). But maybe it will be helpful for me to go a different direction with this post. Why does Ed see these numbers as calling for one set of actions in the SBC, while I see them calling for another? Perhaps a starting point for an answer will be to examine things that I think are presumptions that I do not share with Ed.
First, I do not agree that Southern Baptists are still doing what we did in the 1950s. The only people who say such things are people who were not alive and ministering in the 1950s. In the 1950s Southern Baptists were faithfully going to church three times weekly. They had robust Discipleship Training programs ongoing. They had two evangelistic crusades (which they called revival meetings) every year. Some of these would last two weeks. People in the churches not only attended, but they also invited lost people to come to these meetings and sought their salvation. The Southern Baptist Convention was able to coordinate a nationwide revival strategy entitled "A Million More in '54" during the 1950s.
Now, setting aside the discussion as to whether a similar approach would work today, can anyone with a straight face suggest that the Southern Baptist people are doing today what they were doing in the 1950s? One might make a very cogent case that the problem with Southern Baptists is that we have stopped doing what we did in the 1950s and can't seem to find the resolve to do it again. The members of my congregation are not 1950s people, they are not emulating the 1950s. They weren't alive then. They can't emulate the 1950s. But even if they were 1950s people—even if they just stepped out of Marty McFly's Delorean—a people busy sharing the gospel are doing their jobs as Christian witnesses. I firmly believe that a geek, a dork, a cowboy, a jock, a prom queen, a Napoleon Dynamite, a wallflower, or anyone else can be equally effective in sharing the faith just by being equally persistent in sharing the faith. Sometimes it just seems like Ed is suggesting that the world can't hear us share the gospel until they think we're cool. Ed probably wouldn't say it in those words, but that's what it sounds like. I don't agree with that presumption, because the power is in the gospel, not in our contextualization of it. And no, I'm not opposed to contextualization, I just think that the power is in the gospel and not in the contextualization.
Second, I do not agree that Southern Baptists can improve our missional PR by becoming less controversial. I agree that the world often regards us as controversialists. I agree that many people know us more for what we're against than for what we're for. But here's the thing: That's not a phenomenon that has anything to do with private prayer language, the relationship between eternal security and baptism, or even the inerrancy of scripture. Most lost people don't even know what those things are. Those who know us by what we're against, well, they know that we're against homosexuality and abortion and universalism. They know that we dare to think that the Bible teaches that Jews and Muslims and most Catholics are going to Hell. They've never heard of the Conservative Resurgence. When they complain that Christianity is divided and fractious (in my experience of witnessing to hostile lost people), they're talking about the fact that there are so many denominations of Christianity and they're talking about the crusades or the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement. They're not talking about appointment guidelines for the IMB.
So, if we could wave a magic wand and make all of the blog wars of the past two years vanish overnight, that wouldn't get anyone's attention outside our little ghetto. The only reason that the recent climate change statement had legs press-wise is because it was interpreted as an in-your-face toward other Southern Baptists, and therefore, as a controversy. Unless and until we are prepared to jettison biblical morality and compromise the gospel, we're not going to improve our PR status in this world. Ed Stetzer knows the research well enough to know that our stance on homosexuality alone is a huge obstacle for young lost people when it comes to the SBC.
But, Ed Stetzer is not prepared to jettison those things. I know that he's not. And they can much more readily be attached to our declining numbers than can our internecine debates. If Ed wants those debates to end, it must be for other reasons or because of some way in which he conjectures that the two topics are related.
I do not agree that declining numbers alone are a clarion call for action in the SBC. I think that there is a clarion call for action in the SBC, but the indicators are in our eroding beliefs and anemia in obedience to Christ's commands. If we were solid in our theology and faithful in our obedience to share the gospel, live transformed lives, and order ourselves biblically, then we shouldn't change no matter how much our numbers might decline. Stetzer's quote from Cal Guy measures the pragmatic impact of a person's theology in terms of what believers do, not in terms of how unbelievers respond to what believers do. Ultimately, our theology must make some account for Matthew 7:13-14.
I can count on my hands and feet the number of Southern Baptists I know who ever present the gospel to anybody. And I've been a member of six SBC churches in three states over a period covering more than three decades. Unless I've just been extremely unlucky in my acquaintances, these facts alone indicate a problem regardless of our membership numbers.
I say this because there are bad ways to chase numbers. Joel Osteen has great numbers, and you call tell from the videos that Ed's not on the same page as Osteen. We've got to have a different standard by which we can measure fruit, and we need to promote those standards of biblical obedience rather than statistical benchmarks.
I do not agree that we are necessarily losing the leaders we need to survive into the next century. Having a promising ministry in a local church is not the same thing as being a potential leader in a network of churches. Different tasks require different skills and callings. William Carey was pretty ineffective as a local church pastor, but brilliant as a missionary translator and strategist. James P. Eagle was never any more than an itinerant bivocational pastor, with no formal pastoral training and no record of significant accomplishment as a pastor, yet he is the patriarch of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and gave strong leadership to the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1890s and 1900s. We ought always to be careful of thinking that we can identify whom God will or will not raise up to lead His people. Here's a thought experiment for you: Our denominational contests of the past three years have witnessed the emergence of key leaders on the respective sides. How many of them could you have identified or predicted five years ago?
How many lapsed Southern Baptists are becoming key leaders in some other denomination? From my observation, most of the individuals whom I would guess that Stetzer has in view are choosing to forego denominations entirely and either do their own thing in isolation or work in some small homogenous group. If the Southern Baptist Convention is becoming small and homogenous, it is more likely because it is emulating these people than because it is rejecting them. For whatever my opinion is worth (and I'm sure you'll all tell me!), a great many people reject working in established denominations for the same reasons that they reject working in established congregations—they want to work in a context in which they can do things the way they want without having to convince anyone else. Such is not the mark of our great potential leaders of the future, IMHO. They're great at leading people who are already going in the direction that they want to go.
In conclusion, Ed Stetzer and I agree about a lot of things. Maybe Chadwick Ivester ought to Photoshop Ed Stetzer and myself into some sort of photo. Ed can leave me at home on his next trip to an Acts 29 meeting, but I wish I could have been at the Building Bridges Conference with him. It's a mixed bag. We agree about some of the things in his blog post that has precipitated so much gnashing of teeth. In some areas, I believe that Ed proceeds from a few false assumptions. But we ought to be careful to make the distinction that Ed himself has made in his comment stream. One can join Ed in having recognized a problem in the SBC long before these ACP data came out—one can see clearly the symptoms—without agreeing with Ed about his diagnosis or his prescription. If the denomination's vital signs are diminishing, then that just makes it all the more important that we choose the right prescription and administer it with rapidity and resolve. That's why I'm spending time engaging the SBC in its decision making process, because I think the need is just that important and the prescription is clear.