I just had the opportunity to finish reading a book written by Dr. Charles Kelley who has been President and Professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The book is “Best Intentions: How a Plan to Revitalize the SBC Accelerated Its Decline”. I am going to summarize the points he made.
It is first important to understand the structure of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) prior to, say, the year 2000. The Convention consisted of numerous autonomous, quasi-independent churches that united primarily to do missions. The lifeblood of the Convention had been the Cooperative Program. This was a plan that entailed churches giving a certain percentage of the tithes and offerings they receive to the SBC. Some churches gave a bigger percentage, some a lower percentage… and relatively few churches gave nothing at all. And each respective state Baptist Convention acted as the entity that promoted the Cooperative Program to the individual churches and collected the funds.
How did the Convention do evangelism and church planting? The local churches, local associations and state Baptist conventions would collaborate and plan; and the SBC might help facilitate or provide some degree of support through its Home Mission Board (later renamed the North American Mission Board).
Then two changes came. First, during 1995, the national Executive Committee for the SBC took over the responsibility for promoting the Cooperative Program from the state conventions. Responsibilities were being centralized.
Then, around 2010, a new president of the SBC– Rev. Johnny Hunt from Georgia– pushed a new model for the North American Mission Board (NAMB). Previously, it was involved in sending missionaries within the United States for evangelism and promoting evangelistic efforts; disaster relief; and a limited number of church plants. But his new plan would be called the Great Commission Resurgence. The plan was for the NAMB to “plant” many thousands of new churches across the USA.
But this would mean that the state conventions, local associations, local churches and pastors would have less involvement with church plants, and would be less engaged. Another implication is that less money would be given to the state conventions. The change also meant there would be less money available and expended for evangelistic efforts. And finally, it meant there would be more control at the national level, and less control at the local/ state level.
One initiative associated with the Great Commission Resurgence was promotion of “designated giving”. This meant that churches were asked to push/ encourage their members to donate more financial gifts specifically to missions as individuals. This was especially asked of churches that did not give a high percentage to the Cooperative Program.
Interestingly, the change also entailed state convention officials being required to sign non-disclosure agreements.
The point of Dr. Kelley’s book was to illustrate the results or outcomes from the Great Commission Resurgence. His approach was to present significant amounts of data based on his extensive research. And his assessment overall was that the effort backfired.
It must be pointed out that he fails to tease out the contributions of other major cultural trends– the increasing secularization of society, lower levels of church participation throughout American life, and changing preferences with regard to the types of churches people want to join. He also failed to tease out the impact of the general liberal drift within the Convention that might alienate some churches.
But here is a summary of the outcomes he found:
- The push for Designated Giving tended to compete with and decrease involvement with the Cooperative Program;
- Less churches were giving to the Cooperative Program;
- Churches that participated with the Cooperative Program gave less;
- A previously planned evangelistic effort at the national level– God’s Plan for Sharing– outright died;
- The Cooperative Agreements between the state conventions and the NAMB ended;
- The number of church plants promised did not nearly materialize, and the goal was reduced;
- The number of missionaries assigned to church plants was not disclosed by the NAMB;
- The number of new churches did not keep up with population growth and with the loss of other churches;
- Less logistical support was provided to churches by the NAMB, and the support provided was insufficient for church plants;
- The number of missionaries sent out by the NAMB was less than during the days prior to the Great Commission Resurgence;
- The number of baptisms and members in Southern Baptist churches fell significantly;
- There was less of an increase in new churches than during the ten years prior to the Great Commission Resurgence; and
- The amount (and percentage) given to the Cooperative Program for missions by Southern Baptist churches diminished.
In a nutshell, the results of the Great Commission Resurgence initiative– emphasizing new church plants directed by the NAMB– were clearly not stellar; and it is very possible that it had overall negative effects.
Dr. Kelley concluded that the Southern Baptist Convention needs to revitalize its Cooperative Program. He said that connections between the NAMB, state conventions, local associations and local churches need to be restored. In addition, he recommends a greater emphasis on evangelism. Finally, he recommends making evangelistic efforts and new church plants regionally based instead of being directed primarily by the central office– the NAMB.
He points out that, prior to the Great Commission Resurgence, the Southern Baptist Convention was the most successful denomination in the United States– with greater amounts of growth than all the others.
It appears the leadership issues within the Southern Baptist Convention are multi-layered.