Friday, June 17, 2011

The Nadir of the SBC?

The headline is inherently ominous: " Phoenix SBC attendance lowest since '44." Like most people, I was prepared to see a slight dip in SBC attendance, just because we were going all the way to Phoenix. But as the headline makes clear, the paucity of messengers in Phoenix cannot be explained by the vagaries of geography and political cycle that normally cause messenger count to oscillate: This was historic: Many of our churches could have hosted this annual meeting in their own facilities.

The proposed explanations are predictable. "It's too far away!"

But the last time we were in Phoenix we had 47% more messengers.

"It isn't a 'real' election year."

But in 2003, the last time we were in Phoenix, it was a re-election year (Jack Graham) just as it was this year. In fact, this year's elections were MORE contentious than they were the last time in Phoenix: all of the offices went unopposed in 2003, but not all elections were uncontested this year.

"It's the economy(, stupid)."

But the previous record was in 1944. The economy has not been waxing continuously since 1944. We've had more economic downturns in that span of years than I dare to count: Three that I remember myself.

"It's the bitter fruit reaped from that evil Conservative Resurgence."

<sarcasm>Yes, if only we could experience the robust growth of non-conservative Baptist groups like the BGCT or the CBF.</sarcasm> I'm willing to concede that controversy can drive people away from a group. For the sake of discussion, allow me to grant temporarily that we are declining in messenger count entirely because of the Conservative Resurgence. If so, then why would the blame fall only on conservatives? It takes two to tango. The Conservative Resurgence was caused by a century-long pattern of responding to grass-roots concerns about denominational liberalism with a disingenuous "There, there" mouthed by doublespeaking denominational bureaucrats. If the SBC apparatus had demonstrated some willingness to respond to messenger concerns in 1925, 1963, and 1970, then 1979 would likely have looked much different. We were headed down the same road as the ABC, compared to whom our messenger registrations totals look like Pentecost. I am not moved by claims that the Conservative Resurgence has killed our denomination.

"It's because our meetings don't reach out to 'younger leaders' in the SBC."

But this was THE 'younger leader' convention year, as the stereotypes go. This was the year of the Necktie Nazis. This was the year when there were more Acts 29 folks on the platform than Southern Baptists. A deliberate campaign is underway to woo a certain caricature of 'younger leaders' into our annual meetings.

Fact are our friends. The facts are coming in. The more that we bend over backwards to try to interest people who really aren't that interested in the SBC, the more that we accomplish two things: (1) We fail to bring in a category of people who are never going to be interested in the SBC (more on that below), and (2) we drive away people who really are interested in the SBC by showing them the backs of our hands. The SBC really needs to consider the old proverb about the bird in the hand.

This was the year that nobody came. I was cajoled in a friendly fashion on Twitter earlier this week (when I said that I would watch the live-feed while wearing a tie) to embrace "the new normal." Are sub-5000 messenger counts the "new normal," too? We're soon to be told how this was actually a good year of attendance, but the numbers say otherwise, unless you have an agenda to construe them.

Of all of the younger folks around us, why is it so hard to court the particular group for which our convention has such passionate, unrequited stirrings? By an unscientific analysis of tweets coming from the convention, I would highlight a few things:

Our Annual Meeting is going to be a hard sell to anybody who doesn't like congregationalism. It is the epitome of congregationalism, and that's not going away any time soon. People at our meetings are going to speak their minds. Some of them will speak their convictions about right and wrong without running it by a press secretary first.

Our Annual Meeting is going to be a hard sell to anybody who considers himself or herself "post-denominational." Although our structure is different from that of the more hierarchical, non-locally-autonomous groups, to a post-denominationalist, we certainly are a denomination.

The Southern Baptist Convention is going to be a hard sell to people who are ashamed of being Southern or ashamed of being Baptist. Or, if they are neither Southern nor Baptist, it is going to be a hard sell to those who despise Southern-ness and Baptist-ness. People want to change the name sometimes—I think that's a surrogate for changing the makeup of the convention. The name fits us pretty well, or at least it has done so. We have redneck roots. Some of us are proud of them; some people are mortified by them. But Just for Men has never manufactured enough dye to cover those roots up. That's who we are.

Pandering is unattractive. I don't like dye-jobs anyway. "Hey, Southern Baptists! I'm a younger leader. Who are you?" The correct reply is not "Who do you want us to be?" I'm not a star-studded analyst of the generations, but I think that younger people are not moved by disingenuous branding and marketing. I'd much rather that the SBC be a genuine something than a malleable, Potemkin anything.

I hope that this year was the nadir of the SBC. A nadir marks a bottom point from which you rise. Some very positive things are at work in our midst. I hope that we can go another 70 years of never hitting this low point again. I believe that our North American Mission Board needed a fresh start, and although my antennae are up against intermingling with Acts 29 (although I am working on an upcoming post about things we need to learn from Acts 29), I believe that Kevin Ezell is making some hard, healthy changes at NAMB. He has my prayers and my support. I am really excited about Tom Eliff at the International Mission Board. I look around me and see a rising coterie of good, dynamic, convictional Southern Baptists who are well poised to lead this family of churches into the coming decades.

Let's invest in who we have rather than pining for who we do not. Let's design our Annual Meetings with those in mind who are committed to attend them. Let us not make the mistake of trying to bring in those who don't come by driving away those who do. It would be far easier to succeed at the latter half of that project than the former, and it would be a shame to wind up entirely empty-handed.

Surely, we won't do that.

19 comments:

John Young said...

Excellent!
Definitely a “Top Ten” post by Praisegod Barebones.

Les Puryear said...

You wrote, "Let's invest in who we have rather than pining for who we do not."

A hearty AMEN!

Les

Tom Parker said...

Bart:

You said:"I am not moved by claims that the Conservative Resurgence has killed our denomination."

Oh, but it has and the decline will continue as the "conservatives" battle other "conservatives."

Jason Morrison said...

The numerical decline of the Phoenix Convention surely has multiple reasons (my absence was due to the birth of a son).

However, I think the main reason why the numbers are never as high as they should be is because the SBC Convention is a reflection of our local church business/members meetings.

I have never been in a church where the majority of people show up for these meetings.

The truth is more and more Southern Baptists are just fine with the few making decisions for the many so long as the worship services are strong and the church is growing.

volfan007 said...

Bart,


How did you like being told by Platt and Eliff that we're being disobedient to God, and we're not really a NT church, unless we are PERSONALLY reaching out to an unengaged, unreached, people group? I thought that's what my church was doing thru the SBC and the CP and gifts to Lottie and Annie and thru our prayer support?

I agree that it's a lofty goal, and a worthy endeavor to lead a church to reach out to an unengaged people group...but... but...disobedient to God? as Platt told us over and over again? not a NT church, as Eliff said over and over again?????

Where's that in the Bible?

Just would like to hear your thoughts on this....

David

Tim Rogers said...

Brother Bart,

You will be able to check your stats in 2017. At the recommendation of the Executive Committee we voted to return to Phoenix in 6 years.

Blessings,
Tim

volfan007 said...

BTW, some of the things that I really enjoyed about the SBC were:

1. Bob Pitman's sermon....he preached and taught the Bible and lifted up Jesus.

2. watching the movie "Courageous." It was absolutely tremendous...every Pastor should stress that all their church members should go to this movie....this movie could really impact people's lives in a wonderful way for the glory of God.

3. Hearing the testimonies of the people, who got saved, and who led people to the Lord. Tremendous blessing.

4. Seeing old friends.

5. and this should've been first...spending time with my wife.


David

PS. I missed seeing you and Tracey and children...

volfan007 said...

Also, another thing about the low attendance...only half voted for the Pres. and only about 2100 I believe voted on the 2nd VP. Also, only 1500 voted on the Immigration resolution.....

this was the worst attended SBC I have ever seen. And, we've been way, way out of the South before, and didnt have this kind of pitiful attendance....we've been to Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, etc....

We even went out of the country, one time, and went to San Antonio, TX....lol

David

David R. Brumbelow said...

Good thoughts and concerns. In many ways in the SBC it is the best of times, but there are concerns.
David R. Brumbelow

Justin Kirksey said...

I do not think this will be a "nadir" because it seemed to me that everyone in SBC leadership considers the meeting to be a great success.

Bart Barber said...

Thanks, John Young.

God bless you, Les Puryear.

I welcome a chance to review your statistical evidence for the superior outcome of the "liberals," Tom Parker, at which point I will take your comments seriously.

Jason, I think that the point you are making is a credible candidate for one factor leading to a general overall decline in messenger counts. It probably doesn't explain why Phoenix is different from last year's meeting in Orlando.

David. Having a high view of the local church, I do believe that every local congregation ought to be engaged in the pursuit of the Great Commission. I also believe that cooperative efforts with other local churches represent a perfectly biblical way to do so. If Platt and Eliff were alleging otherwise, then I disagree with them. Even in cooperative ventures, each local church needs to be engaged (talking about and praying about missions, calling out missionaries, etc.) rather than just "farming out" concern for missions. If Platt and Eliff are simply saying THAT…that churches must make missions a priority and be engaged as they can and should…then I don't disagree.

Bart Barber said...

Justin,

I could understand your comment two ways. Help me to know which of them (if either) is correct:

1. You could be saying: "The leadership do not consider this to be a bad convention; therefore, if corrections need to be made they will not be made; therefore, the downward slide will continue; therefore, this will not be the nadir."

2. Or, you could be saying: "Regardless of the attendance, the leaders of the convention seem to be pleased with what happened in Phoenix; therefore, the statistics notwithstanding, this year was not a low point and cannot have been a nadir because it is actually an 'increase' of some sort from previous years."

Justin Kirksey said...

The first one is what I meant. I do not think the numbers bother our SBC leadership.
I think we will see more of the type of changes that led to this year's low numbers.

volfan007 said...

Bart,

I totally agree that Church planting is a great thing. My Church is giving $1,000 per month to a young man starting a church in a neighboring town. Also, I strongly encouraged my local association to start a church in W. VA. Also, my local Association goes to Honduras every year to help with church starts....I try to encourage my people to go....

But, Platt and Eliff were very clear...and said it over and over, again...not PERSONALLY engaging an unreached people group is SIN...
DISOBEDIENCE...and your church is NOT A NT church....they were very clear about this. I dont agree with them. I dont think the Bible is as specific and detailed as that. The Bible does teach us to fulfill the Great Commission....yes....but I dont think it tells us that our church has to be personally going to Senegal, or Malawi, or Thailand 3 or 4 times per year to personally engage and unreached people group.

Anyway, there was a lot more that concerned me about the SBC this year. I'm very concerned about the direction we're heading....


David

Anonymous said...

This was certainly ominous! I got chills reading it... Hopefully we will have an SBC revival in the near future.

Gary L said...

"...malleable, Potemkin anything."
Nice

Dr. Bob Rogers said...

I think you make some excellent points, but I think you underestimate the impact of the economy. I usually attend the SBC, but the combination of distance in a bad economy meant that I needed a much larger convention allowance to be able to attend from where I live in Georgia, and with a tight budget, the increase was denied by my Stewardship Committee. So I did not attend, but I will be in New Orleans next year.
You said we've had a lot of downturns since 1944, but I've never seen a downturn this bad in my lifetime, and I was born in 1958.

Bart Barber said...

Dr Rogers,

Thanks for coming by and commenting. If an economist can opine about it, then it can be debated! Nevertheless, I offer the following for you to consider.

The entire decade of the 1970s was a series of economic recessions. A total of 49 months (more than four years!) of the period between 1970 and 1982 were spent in economic recession, culminating in the "malaise" of Jimmy Carter. During this time frame, the Annual Meeting went as far away as Portland, OR, (mentioned above) and Philadelphia, PA. Nevertheless, the lowest messenger count was twice what we registered in Phoenix.

The 1970s featured longer-lasting economic recession with higher unemployment than today's circumstance. Any economic climate that leads to the popularization of a term like "misery index" has to have been pretty bad. That decade also featured an OPEC embargo that shot gasoline prices through the roof. It occurred before airline deregulation, when nobody could fly at the prices that carriers like Southwest Airlines offer today.

So, although I do not dispute that any particular individual might be experiencing greater economic difficulty now than ever before in his or her life, I believe that the statistics do not support the idea that this economic climate could objectively be evaluated as being the worst economic situation that the SBC has faced since 1944.

One final observation: When somebody says, "I can't afford to go to the convention," they are really saying one of two different things:

1. They could be saying that the number of dollars that pass through their hands this year are insufficient to pay for a trip to the convention, or…

2. They could be saying that, although enough dollars will pass through their hands to go to the convention this year, other expenses are a higher priority for them than the trip to the convention is.

I submit that, for the vast preponderance of people making the decision, they are in the second situation listed above, and not the first. Although the question "Why don't our churches have more money?" is an important part of analyzing this situation, the other side of the equation is the question, "Why doesn't the trip to the convention rank higher in priority for our churches when it competes for budget dollars?"

pastor rob said...

Hey guys. I'll be interested to see where things go. As far as why I didn't attend: money. My convention budget is $0. If I go, it is out of pockect expense + a week of vacation time because the church needs to pay pulpit supply for that Sunday I miss. I went to Orlando last year, and I'll be completely honest, it made me a little sick to my stomach to see all the extravagance, & money spent (self included) when people in the world don't even have food & are dying & going to a real hell because no on can "afford" to go on mission trips. "Leave it to the IMB missionaries. That's why we send our CP money in to pay for them."

Honestly, I fit into category 2, I guess. The money came through my hands but I felt other things were more important. I opted to use the money & vacation time for 2 international mission trips & 1 church planting trip in the Western US. I personally felt that it was better stewardship of my resources to put my time & money directly into Great Commission work as opposed to spending the money & taking the time to sit around & talk about why we don't have enough money to be more active in the Great Commission.

Maybe podcasting the convention & pouring all that money into missions isn't such a bad idea? And to save even more money we can get all the speakers from inside our own convention & expect them to do it for free to show their love & sacrificial attitude toward the SBC. I understand this is beginning to sound absurd. I intentionally reduced it to that point to magnify another. If we, as a denomination, really cared about missions half as much as we claim, we could restructure a lot of things to be more intentional about it.