Thursday, April 24, 2008

The SBC is in Decline

Predicting the future is always a difficult thing. But there seems to be ample evidence that the SBC is in decline. We have been essentially plateaued now for more than a decade. This last yearly report actually showed a decline in overall membership in the SBC.

A couple of observations:

1) Numbers cannot show the whole picture. This could be a one year thing, and there could be many reasons for the decline. If we are faithful to the gospel and people want to gather around themselves teachers who tell them what their "itching ears" want to hear, maybe we could point to the decrease as a sign of faithfulness. I suspect the reason is not so noble.

2) Everyone will blame the "other side" in the current fracas. The belligerent conservatives will blame Wade, Ben et al. They will probably blame those who don't support women in ministry. I am sure Ben will put the blame on Dr. Patterson. The CBF-types will blame the conservative resurgence. We will all be quick to pin the blame on someone else.

What we need to do is take a hard look at ourselves. True, numbers are easy to interpret any way you want, but this one is serious. We need to ask ourselves what is wrong.

There is a biblical principle that can be pretty easily demonstrated both in the OT (with Israel) and in the NT (with the church). When a people walk in obedience, they are blessed. When they are blessed, there is growth. The people of God under the blessing of God grow. Numerically. Read Acts. 3000. 5000. "The Lord added daily to their numbers those who were being saved."

Factor this in. We have been constant for about 10 to 15 years. Compare that to population growth and we have been in decline for 2 decades.

Why? I have a few observations - which may make a few of my friends angry. But, they are my observations.

1) One obvious reason for some part of this decline is, in fact, the conservative resurgence, which I supported. Quite a few churches left our denomination. That's a percentage of the numbers. Frankly, I'm okay with that. If we lose people and churches who want our denomination not to believe in and enforce inerrancy, I think that's a good thing. If we go the other way, I will be a former Southern Baptist myself.

It is also possible that the conservative resurgence, which I believe was a good thing, is not producing fruit because it has lost its way and gone in the wrong direction.

2) There is a cultural aspect to this. In the cities I have lived in the last 17 years, the "big" churches have been of two kinds. First, there are the charismatic churches. Second, there are the seeker churches. They build big churches, but I do not want to follow their model. They grow big churches, not great Christians (in my humble but correct opinion.)

Unfortunately, Southern Baptists have followed these trends and many of our churches are just like those churches (usually without the tongues). that is a mistake.

But there are other, less noble reasons.

3) An emphasis on Baptist traditions over scripture. My son, now a student at Liberty and a dynamic, growing Christian, went through a time of deep doubt. One of the reasons is that he began to study his Bible and realized that a lot of the rules he had grown up with were not based on the scriptures but on Baptist tradition and legalism. He began to wonder if all of it was the same.

Young people today want something more than legalistic rules and Baptist tradition. If they are going to be won, it will be by genuine Christianity in action. Biblical Christianity, not Baptist Tradition, will win people to Christ.

4) Virulent Calvinism. Caveat: I am calvinistic and I think it is important to have a correct theology that honors the sovereignty of God. I believe in God's sovereignty in salvation and that belief informs my practices and preaching. I reject much of the "reformed" system (eschatology, some of their sanctification teachings, etc) But I believe that salvation starts in the heart of God not the will of man. But the promises of the more passionate Calvinists have largely fallen flat in reality - at least in my experience. There is a virulent form of Calvinism that has been often in evidence in my state. Dr. Mohler once said that he knew of men who would "walk across the state to discuss one of the 5 points of Calvinism, but will not walk across the street to tell someone about Jesus." There are calvinists in Iowa doing a good job, but some have had what I think is a wrong emphasis.

I have seen a number of men come to Iowa whose goal seems to be more to proclaim Calvinist doctrine and reformed practice than it is to proclaim the gospel or obey the Great Commission.

I have also seen their churches dwindle and die - every time (so far). I know of no "virulent Calvinist" who has built a church in Iowa (I know, I know - through whom the Sovereign Lord has built a church.) I have seen them often use the doctrines of calvinism as a screen to hide behind when their churches fail. I suspect though that the failure has been the servant, not the sovereign Lord.

When the Calvinist movement started in the SBC, I was excited. I listened to the promises of the Calvinists that restoring sound doctrine would bring the blessing of God. They told me how much better things would be as Calvinism surged back to prominence. My experience has been the opposite. I have yet to see a church here that focused on Calvinism grow. Some have died completely. Others have dwindled. Others have struggled.

I don't think the problem is the doctrine of God's sovereignty in salvation, but the way it is preached, the unbalanced presentation, and the over-emphasis on the doctrines.

Track the nationwide spread of virulent Calvinism, and it coincides pretty neatly with the plateauing of growth.

5) Dr. Stetzer, in his article sharing this research, theorized that one of the reasons for the problem was the bickering and conflict in the SBC, especially among bloggers.

Read the SBC blogs. You will see an almost generic inability to discuss a disagreement with someone in a decent, collegial manner. There are exceptions to the rule, and we all get cranky and say something over the top sometimes. But many bloggers seem to rejoice in calling names and declaring the other side as wrong.

As you can read in my previous posts, and some of my comments on other blogs, I despair of the future of the SBC if the current crop of bloggers represent us. There is a deep disdain for Baptist distinctives among some and an enthusiasm for condemnation among others.

A lost world reading the SBC blogosphere would wonder, why on earth would I want to be a part of that mess?

Time will tell about the future of the SBC. But, my solution is simple. Let's accept our orders and lay all the other stuff aside. Let's proclaim the gospel and teach everyone to obey everything God commanded them. The Great Commission - what an innovative concept.


Pastor Michael said...

Great post! I agree with you that we need more humility in this Convention. The last thing we need is for more Calvinist preachers to be in their "Cage Stage" in the pulpit. If we rightly understand these doctrines of Grace that I firmly believe in myself (all 5 of them), then we would be driven to our knees in awe that God would ever save us to begin with. If we would see this all as revolving around God's glory, then just maybe we'd see that our fierceness is detracting from that glory!

It's refreshing to see that there are other Calvinist-leaning SBC pastors out there who are humble about it!

Luke said...

If, as a gardener, my garden begins to produce less and less there are a couple of questions I may ask myself.

1. Did I plant less seed?
2. Did I plant using Good seed?
3. Did I water what was planted?
4. Did I plant in the same field too often?
5. Did birds or insects devour part of my planting?
6. Did I have enough help to reap what I planted?
7. Did weeds choke out the plants?

These are all things that I can assess. But there is one other option that stands above the rest. If God is responsible for giving the increase, then...

8. Did God give us increase but we lost more than we gained?
9. Did God just not give us much increase?

Perhaps, after a time of tossing ideas around the table as to why this happened, what we need to do is turn to the Lord of the Harvest and ask Him what happened. A convention-wide time of prayer and fasting seeking the Lord to understand His mind on what is taking place.

And though you may not see it as a noble concept, perhaps the reason for the decline in our numbers is precisely because it is the cross that is being proclaimed more often now than the itchy-ear sermonettes. One is highly popular, the other is not. God may be steadily giving us an increase, but we fail to see it because we had some prior years of humanly inflated numbers which overshadowed the real work of the Master Gardener.

Thanks for stretching us on this one and being a humble Calvinist as pastor Michael has pointed out. I could grow to like you fellas.:)

Luke said...

I forgot one. I'll call this one question 7.1.

7.1 Did I pull up a veggie while pulling weeds or did my weed killer get blown by the wind onto my veggies?

CB Scott said...

Ben has not said much lately, has he, Dave?

Maybe we should just let that one go for a while.


Dave Miller said...


Ben who?

Dave Miller said...


I appreciate your comments. I may point out that according to my post, the idea that attendance would be down because we are holding to the gospel and people want to hear the positive preachers would be a NOBLE reason.

I just wish that explained all the data.

Luke said...

I misunderstood that point about being noble. I took it the opposite of what you intended which would explain why I said what I said. I apologize for the confusion.

Pastor Michael said...


I fully agree with you that the numbers can't be fully explained by the Gospel being fully preached in its entirety. I would speculate that a large number might also come from disobedience to the Great Commission and Great Commandment. If we don't go, we won't grow. God doesn't just send people our way from off of the street most of the time. He certainly can and does sometimes, but instead, I believe He blesses our efforts to reach out to people as He sees fit to bless most often.

Sad to say it, but it may well be that all of the bickering back and forth about who's right and who's wrong is really distracting us from our real mission on this earth! A healthy debate is good, but only to a certain point. How much we are either into *calvinism* or *arminianism* either one should not detract us from what we are called to do. And if it is, we're not letting our theology be the driving force to motivate us to fulfill the commands of God. In that case, I'd speculate to say that we'd be learning for no reason. I don't think that's God-honoring.

Luke said...

I see your frustration in not being able to discuss things on other blogs in a kind manner yet you interact very little with what others offer you here. Am I missing something? Do you post only to give your thoughts and that is it or do you actually want civil discussion. I think your blog has great potential to become a place of civil discussion but not much discussing seems to go on here. Should I just read and pass on from now on or should I leave an electronic footprint?

Just curious.

Luke said...

I should have worded that better. I see you frustrated that others lose their civility, not you personally and that what you are seeking for is civil discussion. That was my bad.

Dave Miller said...


I appreciate your comments. To be honest, people don't comment that often, and I don't check it as often as I should. So, I tend not respond as often as I probably should. Sorry.

Dave Miller said...


The hard part is knowing what fights you need to fight and what fights you don't. I felt like the conservative resurgence was a fight worth fighting.

The other side of it is only fighting fairly and honorably.

I think we need to proclaim the gospel and truth first and foremost. You have to fertilize your yard.

However, there is also a time to weed it as well.

So, I agree that the fights have distracted us. But I also think that sometimes, they have to be fought.

Traveler said...

There's a setting in blogspot where you can have comments sent to your email. That way you would know when you get a comment, and you don't have to check your blog all the time to see if there are any comments. I like your thoughts on issues also (even if I don't always agree), but, like Luke, have noticed you don't interact much here once you share your thoughts.

Dave Miller said...

I will look for that setting.

Rev. said...

Pastor Michael - Amen!

Dave - you've provided quite a bit to chew on, brother. Thanks for the post.