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