Monday, November 29, 2010

A Bloated Baptist Bureaucracy We Could Do Without

I prefer the SBC structure to any other that I know, but I do believe that we run the risk of creating bloated bureaucracies at all tiers of our cooperative efforts. "Bloated bureaucracy" has become a phrase of fighting words in the SBC, and that's not difficult to understand. Denominational employees understandably hear them as an attack upon their personal character, as though our denomination were some sort of a scheme intentionally designed to bilk churches of their missions money and to deprive missionaries abroad of their needed funding. People who employ the phrase to describe the collective SBC organizational chart understandably struggle to find other language to characterize accurately the fact that our denominational structure is not perfect such as to be beyond critique, and that historically we have had periods of time when we effectively advanced the kingdom with far fewer offices and a much smaller payroll.

In recent days, the bulk of this discussion has focused upon the bureaucracies at state conventions and at NAMB. I have commented before on the oddity of the GCR report acting as though the IMB could not possibly be improved. Our largest entity is the one considered to be free from bloat? Not likely. Not really. IMB could be improved, and it needs to elect a president who sees the need for some fundamental changes at our largest missions entity.

But that's really not the topic of this post.

With all of this talk about bloated bureaucracies at the national level and bloated bureaucracies at the state level, it is interesting that local church pastors have comparatively so little to say (a few exceptions notwithstanding) about bloatedness at the local church level. Let's change that with this post, shall we?

Criticizing the Local Church?!?!?!

It may seem strange that I, as such a staunch local church autonomy guy, would write a post criticizing bloated bureaucracies at the local church level. But let's not confuse the autonomy of the local church with an excuse for recklessness of the local church. Enormous swaths of the New Testament are dedicated precisely to the task of criticizing problems in local churches.

The preeminence of the local church over other cooperative structures is all the more reason to hold local churches to a higher standard than we apply to any other denominational or para-church structure. Christ has instituted the local church; local churches should operate in a manner worthy of the Lord.

With that goal in mind, I humbly submit the following as potential ways in which Southern Baptists might combat the bloated bureaucracies of the local churches.

Overplanting

If younger Southern Baptists are serious about getting resources out to where lostness is, then we will witness some stanching of the flow of young seminary graduates out to plant new churches throughout the Southland. If it is wrong for a local congregation to keep the preponderance of its money and if it is wrong for a state convention to keep the preponderance of its Cooperative Program receipts within a state, then it is equally wrong for seminary graduate after seminary graduate to cram their new church starts into wealthy Southern suburbs tighter than sardines in a can.

The guy who just planted a church in suburban Atlanta? I don't need to hear word one from him about the pressing need to get more resources out to the darkest areas of lostness.

Every one of those church plants increases the staff overhead, marketing overhead, and equipment overhead incurred for kingdom work on that area. Many of them increase the facilities overhead.

If the Southern Baptist Convention's leaders are really serious about getting more resources out to reach the most lost areas of the world, they ought to reject entirely the notion of widespread church planting (apart perhaps from language work) within the strength areas of the SBC and labor hard to curtail it—and yet a steady stream among our seminary graduates eschew established churches and choose to create yet another local church bureaucracy in communities already served by multiple congregations, reducing with each new work the funding available to send to the nations.

Multi-Site, Multi-Bureaucracy

I predict that you won't soon see the following multi-campus sites opening: Fellowship Church Wilmer-Hutchins Campus, Saddleback Watts Campus, NorthPoint Community Church Bankhead Campus, or Second Baptist Houston Third-Ward Campus. The multi-site movement and the preponderance of domestic SBC church planting is focused like a laser upon those areas where people with lots of money live in church-friendly cultures—places where it is easy to fill a church with rich people.

Do these facts reveal that our passion for money is at least as strong as our passion for spreading the gospel? You bet they do, but that's not the point of this post. Rather, one implication of this pattern is that our multi-campus churches are building multiple campuses in places where the real estate required to do so is expensive. Furthermore, the people who work for those campuses (and their name is Legion, for they are many), must buy houses in expensive suburbia and must survive in areas with high costs of living.

Of course, rich people need to go to church, too. I'm in favor of our having churches in rich areas. If we see things rightly, we recognize that every Southern Baptist church is situated in a rich area. But most of those areas being targeted already have churches in their midst. Most of them have had churches in the community for a long time. Indeed, if Prosper, TX, already has 8 Baptist churches within 10 miles of the town center, is the cause of the Great Commission really best served by another Prestonwood campus locating there? Forget the fact that this multi-campus business is nothing more nor less than the concoction of an ecclesiology from someplace other than the New Testament and just look at the economics of the thing. Yes, there are some lost people left in Prosper. Yes, the churches already there will not reach them all (nor will 1,000 churches if we plant them all there). But comparatively, can we really say that the wealthiest fringes of the urban South are the highest priority for the Great Commission?

Somebody will read this and think that I'm trying to be mean to my brothers who pastor large churches. Not at all. I admire them and learn from them in so many ways. Some churches get large by winning people to Jesus and preaching the gospel faithfully. And if we weren't in the midst of a discussion—provoked by other people—about how to rid the SBC world of wasteful bureaucracy, I would not be lobbing criticisms at sister churches, for there are better ways to use my time to pursue the Great Commission. But if we pastors are ready to ask hard questions about our denominational structures, it is only appropriate for us to ask harder questions of ourselves first.

Too Many Splits; Too Many Congregations

Just to be fair, let me pick on small churches for a while.

Has your church ever in its existence undergone a church split? If so, did the split result in multiple Southern Baptist congregations in your community? If so, when was the last time anyone bothered to ask whether that breach might be repaired? Some Southern communities are littered with a handful of tiny SBC churches that serve as eternal testimonies to our unwillingness to get along and our sinful rejection of Christ's appeals for unity within the churches.

I hope to open a conversation about whether many communities in the South ought to investigate the possibility of church consolidations. I can think of both positive and negative possibilities that could arise out of such a campaign.

Possible Pros
  1. The repair of congregational splits, no matter how long ago they took place, could be an exciting achievement in the arena of Christian Unity.

    I've never believed that Christian unity ought to be achieved at the expense of doctrine. But in many of our communities stand multiple congregations, sometimes with meeting houses within a stone's throw of one another, that formerly were united and still share the same beliefs—affirm the same confession of faith, even—but that divided in the past over some altercation. Can anyone say this is Christ's intention? Can anyone affirm this as good? If church splits are evil at their inception, when do they become acceptable? A month later? A year? 10 years? Why?

    I am convinced that many of our congregations were birthed in sin and strife and remain afflicted by their original sins, unrepentant for the offenses that brought them into being. Other congregations hastily bade a not-so-fond farewell to some amputated portion of their body because the majority who stayed stubbornly refused to repent of their own offenses that brought things to the breaking point. Refusing even yet to break under the chastening hand of God, they obstinately watch as year-by-year, letter-by-letter, God inscribes "Ichabod" over their doors.

    I am certain—as certain as I am that Jesus loves me—that it would delight the Head of the Church to see estranged congregations throughout our nation accomplish mergers that effectively put their differences into the past.

  2. The repair of congregational splits could impress a watching world and create opportunities for sharing the gospel with the lost.

    Guess what: Lost people know that churches all around them have undergone meanspirited splits. That fact is one of their favorite rationalizations to employ in attempts to silence the conviction of the Holy Spirit. "The so-called born again can't even get along with one another. Why would I want whatever they've got?"

    But imagine the stir it could cause across our nation if, in community after community, estranged congregations were able to come together. It would make the news. It would be the last thing that a watching world would expect. It would cause people to wonder what is different about those people.

    This could especially be true of congregations that are separated for no other reason than the project to segregate the body of Christ into ghettoes (a.k.a., the Homogeneous Unit principle of the Church Growth movement). We would bewilder even some hardened skeptics if we could very publicly bring into unity white-collar churches, blue-collar churches, young-people churches, old-people churches, white churches, black churches, and brown churches.

    I believe that such a phenomenon could provide many fruitful opportunities to share the gospel.

  3. The repair of congregational splits could greatly reduce local church bureaucracy and financial waste.

    Local churches have overhead too, you know. Payroll, facilities, administrative costs, and a whole host of other expenses are needlessly duplicated, triplicated, and quadruplicated throughout the South.

    Consider, for example, my home community. Lake City, Arkansas, demonstrates to us that this is not solely about split churches. In Lake City and its close environs are four Southern Baptist congregations. All four affirm the Baptist Faith & Message, to my knowledge. All four are a part of the same local association. All four originated in an era before reliable transportation. A century ago, a cluster of small farming communities surrounded Lake City. All of the outlying communities have shrunk greatly, and some of them have been obliterated. The congregations have dwindled as well, eking out numerical and financial subsistence. The majority of the people attending the outlying congregations no longer live near those churches. They drive out into the fields so that they can worship God in the structure where they did so as a child.

    I can relate to that, and I don't think that such nostalgia is a bad thing. I was saved at one of those churches, and I have powerful emotions associated with that place and with that congregation. The question is not whether such nostalgia is bad, but whether it is worth what it costs. Several of those congregations sit on valuable farmland. The liquidation of congregational real estate could produce financial resources that none of those congregations can use presently. The largest congregational facility in town could accommodate all of the people attending all of the churches, so 100% of the maintenance cost, 100% of the utility cost, and perhaps even some portion of the payroll cost of those churches could be money freed to accomplish other ministries. The outlying congregations are dying, not because they have been unfaithful, but because their communities died as people moved away. They struggle to keep a pastor, and upon every occasion when they lose a pastor, they enter a lengthy struggle to find another pastor. At some point, the needs of the future have to overcome the fondness for the past. The members of these congregations should at least embark upon a serious exploration of whether they could serve the Lord better as one congregation than as four.

  4. The repair of congregational splits could reduce the number of pastorless congregations.

  5. The repair of congregational splits could result in a dramatic increase in North American church planting.

    Reduce the number of churches and open pulpits in the South, and then all of those seminary graduates are going to be forced to look elsewhere for beginning pastorates. Isn't it handy that we have enormous concentrations of the American population in places like the Northeast Megalopolis where we also have a dearth of churches and pastors? The currency of the Great Commission is people, not money. Get more obedient people out to the darker areas, and you'll see a greater spread of the light.

Possible Cons
  1. The merger of previously split congregations could result in a disheartening display of Christian Disunity.

    That's the largest negative possibility that I can imagine. Maybe fights over the color of the carpet have trans-generational staying power. Maybe we are so committed to defending turf that we simply aren't capable of getting along. I believe better about us in most cases, but depravity is real and is really ugly. Certainly in some cases the churches trying to get back together would claw each other's eyes out.

  2. Fewer churches might struggle to be varied enough to reach varied communities with the gospel.

    The old, popular, unbiblical Homogeneous Unit principle would teach us that it is good to have at least one church for every demographic slice that we can imagine in our communities. Rather than identifying us as Christians, our churches wind up identifying us by our race, the kind of music that we enjoy, our age, our income level, our education level, how many horses we own, and how many tattoos and piercings we have.

    People are passionate about all of these things. It is harder to locate people who have become excited about Jesus than it is to locate people who are excited about their hobbies, so in that sense, yes, ministry in consolidated churches would be harder and would likely result in fewer people attending churches.

    And yet I hold out hope that the witness generated by being the one place in town that brings people truly together across a broad kaleidoscope of backgrounds and interests is like a rose garden: Somewhat more difficult to cultivate and tend than Bermuda, but infinitely more beautiful and savory.

  3. If we save money by merging congregations, we just might squander it on ourselves.

    Church mergers would result in larger churches. As those churches become larger, they might convince themselves that they have to have all of the expensive things that typically accompany being a larger church.

Conclusion

One enormous difference between changes in denominational bureaucracy and changes in local church bureaucracy is the authority and influence that I have to effect those two categories of change. In state and national conventions, I get one vote. In all local churches other than my own, I get no vote at all. I'd rather have biblically governed, less-efficient congregations than subjugated, less-wasteful congregations any day. In other words, I'm not complaining that I don't have the authority to make every local SBC congregation do according to my bidding.

I also realize that I am comparatively young and new to all of this. Christian ministry is 2,000 years old. I've been at it for a little over 20 years. I consider it a high likelihood that all of these ideas that I've put forward in this post are not 100% entirely right.

But neither are they 100% entirely wrong.

And I believe that at least some of the questions that I have posed are questions that we need to ask. Whatever the SBC is, it is what local churches have made it to be. Whatever ills you might diagnose in the SBC's various denominational entities, you'll find a breeding ground for that plague in at least some of the local churches in our fellowship. If it is time for judgment to come to the SBC, then it is time for judgment to begin in the families of God that are our local churches.

30 comments:

Matt Svoboda said...

Bart,

You are one of my favorite Southern Baptists...

I didnt read your whole post because I had to comment immediately on one section.

You hit the nail on the head when you talked about all of the young seminary grads going to the deep south to plant churches next to 50 other churches in a 10 mile radius.

I live in South Central Nebraska. SBC presence in Iowa, Nebraska, Dakotas, Idaho, etc. is a joke. A big fat joke. Most SBC churches in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska are merely displaced Southerners that wanted a church like the one they had in the South.

The SBC is doing little to nothing to "penetrate the lostness" in North America outside of the deep south. The statistics say it all: look at where all the money goes- the Southeast part of the country.

I understand my generations desire to plant where they are comfortable-where they grew up... But we need to be looking to places like- Detroit, Ann Arbor, St. Paul, Omaha, Lincoln, Boulder, Souix City, Rapid City, Bismarck, Billings, Salt lake City- and those are just in the Midwest. I could name a lot more cities in the NorthEast.

If NAMB is going to be effective it needs to take the money out of the Deep South and plant church in New Work areas.

I would go so far as to say if a guy wants to plant in Birmingham, Alabama NAMB should say "good luck" but not give them any money. The Deep South is NOT where NAMB money needs to go.

Thank you for this great post, Bart. I will now go finish reading all of it!

Dave Miller said...

Bart,

Powerful! Insightful.

Thanks for posting this.

Greg Alford said...

Great post Bart...

The issue of church reconciliation/consolidation in many communities throughout the South needs to be at the top of someone's list of things to seriously address. I wish it had been something the GCRTF had recognized as a top priority, and I hope it will be something that NAMB might promote as we attempt to redefine our priorities toward a greater emphasis on missions.

In the small community where I serve there are an additional five Baptist Churches within less than three miles of First Baptist Church. Four of the Five I know are a result of church splits over the last one hundred and fifteen years... and combined they might have a Sunday morning worship attendance of 250 on a good Sunday.

This is just sad, and whenever I have brought up the subject of reconciliation/consolidation during my 11 years at First Baptist Church all I get is the deer in the headlights look. I am so grieved over the divided state of the church in this community that I would be gladly willing to give one of these other pastors my pulpit to see these churches reconcile... But I know in my heart this is never going to happen.

Joe Blackmon said...

Some Southern communities are littered with a handful of tiny SBC churches that serve as eternal testimonies to our unwillingness to get along and our sinful rejection of Christ's appeals for unity within the churches.



Somebody ought to take that sentence, engrave it on a bronze plaque, and send it out to every SBC church. It's that profound.

selahV said...

Hey Bart! "At some point, the needs of the future have to overcome the fondness for the past." Amen!
Bart Barber for President of the SBC! selahV

David Rogers said...

Carl George, in The Coming Church Revolution, wrote the following:

“The secret of the expansion of the Christian movement is the mobilization of more workers. The key is not just new churches, but also new units. It is a model based on harvesters. The more units there are, the more harvesters there will be who can be effective. The best way, then, of preparing for a greater harvest is training more leaders who will be able to care for people.”

I think you have hit on some very interesting thoughts here, which undoubtedly have a good bit of merit.

However, do you think part of the problem is our insistence on equating "new evangelistic units" with new autonomous congregations, each with its separate facility and paid staff?

If all the mergers did was get more people meeting together in one room listening to just one preacher instead of a variety of preachers, I think that would be unwise, and would fly in the face of what Carl George says in the above quote, which, to me, rings true.

Yet, if we could continue to multiply "new evangelistic units" and train more and more evangelists and disciplers, while cutting down, at the same time, on superfluous real estate and salaries, that would, no doubt, be a good thing.

I guess a big piece of the puzzle is the answer to the question: Have we, in the Bible belt, come to depend on church buildings and salaried staff as the only way to multiply disciples and disciple-makers?

Alan Cross said...

Great post, Bart. You hit on a lot of important things here. Church planting in the South is largely about attracting churched Christians who want something that they can relate to. Biblical Ecclesiology has given way to mass marketing and the desires of religious consumers. Some say it is okay. I disagree.

However, I will say that new churches are needed in the South and it is not just because young people don't want to worship with older people. Many of the older churches are dying. They made decisions years ago to pay more attention to themselves than to the mandates of Scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As they fade away, there will be huge swaths of unchurched areas.

I live in Montgomery, AL. On the eastern side of our city, there are 100,000 residents. There are about 8 SBC churches that are located in this area. I am not saying that we definitely need more churches as there are several churches of other denominations too. But, as the population grew, new churches did not spring up. As older churches died, new ones did not take their place.

I am just adding to what you are saying, not disagreeing with you. I actually thought this was a very timely post and we definitely need to focus more on unchurched areas than on the South.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bart, it's me, Christiane

You wrote:
"We would bewilder even some hardened skeptics if we could very publicly bring into unity white-collar churches, blue-collar churches, young-people churches, old-people churches, white churches, black churches, and brown churches."


I think all Christians would rejoice to see this happen among Southern Baptist people. May it be so.

Come, Holy Spirit . . .

Anonymous said...

The only Unity Christians have EVER had is 'in Christ'.
It's still there. :)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POm7_WBMJTI

Anonymous said...

Was the GCRTF really about saving a dying denomination, and seeking to get more $$$ to our bloated big denominational entities (i.e seminaries)?

Jim Shaver said...

The best analysis I've read recently on the SBC and its problems.

Now if we could just implement it!

GCR, the Sequel.

Anonymous said...

NOW, I know what you were working on at odd hours of the days and nights of Thanksgiving week. Great, insightful, (and for you and I, a bit melancholy) post; a definite improvement.
Love ya,
dbrady

Bart Barber said...

I'm really thankful for everyone's comments. Our spam and virus software chose a bad time to go down. I've just not been able to respond. But I want to do so, and I will at some point. Thanks for your patience.

Sheila said...

Jena, La., experienced an intense time of genuine revival in 2009, I think it was. The revival fire broke out after the pastor of one church apologized to the pastor and church it had somehow (no one seemed to remember the details) offended 70 years ago. Baptist Press reported on this at the time. It goes along exactly with what you're saying here: If MY people -- Christians -- who are called by MY name, will humble themselves. That's what was happening all over Jena.Families were getting right with each other. Churches were getting right with each other. Because people were humbling themselves and turning in prayer to God.

GUNNY said...

3 of my favorite sentences:

"Denominational employees understandably hear them as an attack upon their personal character, as though our denomination were some sort of a scheme intentionally designed to bilk churches of their missions money and to deprive missionaries abroad of their needed funding."

"But let's not confuse the autonomy of the local church with an excuse for recklessness of the local church."

"If it is wrong for a local congregation to keep the preponderance of its money and if it is wrong for a state convention to keep the preponderance of its Cooperative Program receipts within a state, then it is equally wrong for seminary graduate after seminary graduate to cram their new church starts into wealthy Southern suburbs tighter than sardines in a can."


The entire post did a little something for me, but those were very well crafted and potent sentences, which I read multiple times.

Thanks for articulating well the thoughts of many.

Tony said...

Bart,

I'm a "young seminary graduate" as you've referenced in your post. I'll graduate in 3 weeks, and am humbly seeking God's place of service as Pastor of a local Southern Baptist Congregation.

I've got to say that as I've made known God's call on my life (to move from music ministry to the pastorate), more people have tried to push me into church planting than have tried to encourage me spiritually. My wife and I have felt like if we don't start a church plant somewhere, we're not answering the cries of our denominational leaders. The push for us to plant a church has been so demanding that it becomes discouraging at times.

I have felt the same way you do for quite some time, and i was so refreshed to read this blog post. Not that I've been looking for someone to tell me what I want to hear, but this post did help to solidify our convictions about moving into the pastorate.

Speaking from the other side of the coin, there is significant pressure (at least we have felt as though there is) to plant a church - from young pastors and seasoned ones alike. It feels more like an infectious movement of human invention than a sweep of God's Holy Spirit. Many of the young pastors don't want to deal with the traditions established in older congregations. And to tell you the truth, I've gained a Masters degree from LBTS, and haven't had even one class on leading an established church into the future. We're not trained to do that. We're trained to "know" and to "plant." Anything else is peripheral.

Thank you for your sincerity, and your willingness to speak unpopular and difficult truth. I'm a fan of your blog, and of your character and leadership.

In Christ,
Tony

Bart Barber said...

OK, over the next couple of hours, I'm going to try to interact with everyone.

Bart Barber said...

Matt,

Thanks, both for the comment and for the characterization. ;-)

I agree that it would be good for NAMB church planting funds to be focused primarily outside of the Southeast.

Bart Barber said...

Dave,

Thanks to you for linking to it.

Bart Barber said...

Greg,

We should never give up hope for anything that we know to be to the pleasure of God. Thanks for addressing the aspect of unity and reconciliation in the post. That part is important to me.

Like you, I wish I knew better how to make it happen.

Bart Barber said...

Thanks, Joe.

Bart Barber said...

SelahV,

I thought you liked me! ;-)

Bart Barber said...

David,

Like you, I reject the idea that a building and a paid staff are the sine qua non of a church. I don't think it is bad to have a building, and I'm still cashing my paychecks, so I'm obviously not opposed to either of those things.

Elders, deacons, ordinances, preaching, discipline, congregational efforts to follow God's will, etc., we have these because they are non-negotiable aspects of a New Testament church. Buildings, budgets, etc., exist as practical aspects of our mission. These things must be subjected to practical considerations.

If we evaluate these things teleologically, then the point of this post, I guess, is that the telos in view must be bigger than the good of my particular congregation. It ought to be he health of Jesus' overall mission, since He is the Head of every congregation.

Bart Barber said...

Alan,

Thanks for stopping by to visit. It's been too long.

1. I agree that there is a need to plant churches in the South. I also don't find much going on in state conventions or the national SBC for which there is not any need. The trick is to evaluate these needs in comparison to needs elsewhere. My observation would be that the needs are more acute elsewhere.

One of my goals for this post is that we all understand how difficult these GCR-related decisions are going to be. We are going to have to set aside some things that are good ministries and some things that are needed. Economic factors are going to push us to that point, and we're going to have to decide which needs are the greatest.

If we undercut the home field too much, we'll lose our supply of personnel and money to keep our missions efforts ongoing. And yet we're always going to face the risk of lavishing too much money upon our greedy selves.

Thanks for making your point. I was wanting to make us all uncomfortable. Your observation contributes to that objective.

2. Presuming for the sake of discussion that your diagnosis of existing churches is accurate, we are still left with the question of whether such churches ought to be abandoned or reformed.

If the former takes place, then the likelihood of the latter is diminished, it seems to me.

Bart Barber said...

Glad you liked that part, Christiane. It never hurts to dream.

Bart Barber said...

I've got a great Father-in-Law.

By the way, I'm not sure that certain regions of Missouri have accomplished "reliable transportation" yet. Having seen a snow or two there, there may be a need for CBBC even yet. And certainly they are not squandering much money upon themselves!

So maybe your situation is not so melancholy after all. ;-)

Bart Barber said...

Sheila,

Thank the Lord for people of courage and conviction like that. Such things do not bring revival; they are revival.

Bart Barber said...

Gunny,

All of the sentences you liked were in the first few paragraphs. Like many of my sermons, maybe I should have ended this post much earlier. ;-)

Just kidding. Thanks for reading. God bless you!

Bart Barber said...

Tony,

You stick with it, brother. There's a church that needs you!

Anonymous said...

"Glad you liked that part, Christiane. It never hurts to dream."

Bart, I think your 'dream' is what my Church calls 'hope', as it is described in Romans Chapter 8, by St. Paul.


And from 'Spe Salvi', this:
"The one who has hope lives differently;
the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life."

Your hope, Bart, is born out of your faith . . . if God is for you, who can be against you? Do not be discouraged. All shall be well.

Be peaceful.