New issues and crises seem to arise weekly in the SBC. Southern Baptist leaders need to respond to current issues and crises, but the mission strategy of the SBC must be shaped by future-focused thinking. What we do today will determine who we will be in 2040. If trends continue the SBC of 2040 will be a fraction of what it is today. The following charts show that the SBC is in crisis. The Cooperative Program has declined almost $80 million from its peak, despite strong growth in the U.S. economy (see Figure 1). Baptisms have declined to levels not seen since 1938 (see Figure 2). Perhaps most surprising is what has happened in church planting. Though NAMB has increased its church planting budget from $23 million to $75 million, total church plants have declined to less than half the number of a decade ago, and NAMB’s cost per church plant has exploded (see Figures 3, 4 and 5).
The critical question is not, “Is the SBC declining?” Decline is irrefutable. The critical question is “Why?” The answer to this question seems clear when you consider the strategic change made at the SBC Annual Meeting in 2010. Concerned about a more modest decline in baptisms, Southern Baptists formed the Great Commission Task Force, whose recommendations were adopted at the Annual Meeting of the SBC in 2010. Those recommendations were largely implemented by one agency of the SBC – the North American Mission Board (NAMB).
Under the leadership of Kevin Ezell, who was elected President of NAMB in September 2010, NAMB began a process of withdrawing from partnerships with State Conventions and adopted a more unilateral, top-down, nationalistic approach to missions, especially in church planting. NAMB slashed evangelism funding by about 65 percent, shed nearly all evangelism personnel, and eliminated funding for evangelism personnel in associations, state conventions, college campuses, and other places. At the same time, NAMB more than tripled the church planting budget, an increase of over $50 million annually, while nearly eliminating partnership with State Conventions in the starting of churches. This severe reduction of partnership has been devastating as new church starts have plummeted to less than half the number of a decade ago. NAMB’s approach changed from that of partnering with state conventions, and funding through state conventions, who then partner with local associations and churches, to setting up its own, autonomous church planting system in non-south state conventions, and greatly reducing work in the south.
When the current NAMB president began, he requested that he not be evaluated as to NAMB’s effectiveness for 10 years. He believed there would be a resurgence in church planting and evangelistic effectiveness. Alas, the opposite has happened. Initially the NAMB President said NAMB would lead in starting 1,500 churches each year. Then he decreased the goal to 1,200 church plants each year. In February 2020 he announced that the goal was further reduced to 750 church plants each year. In 2019 we recorded the lowest number of new church starts in our lifetimes – 552. The lowest years of the last half century in new church starts are the last four years, and this despite spending three times the money.
One might think that individual church planters are receiving three times as much money, but that is not the case. The church planting budget is funding the purchase of houses for use by a select few church planters (and others). There are also many pastors receiving funding as NAMB ambassadors, mobilizers, coaches, spousal support, etc. An independent forensic financial audit could help identify NAMB property holdings, paid consultants and contractors, and recipients of special grants, among other things. NAMB has reduced spending through state conventions by $50 million each year, maybe more than that (this is a rough estimate). How is this money being spent? The way dollars are allocated for missions in North America has undergone an enormous change in the last decade. With the accompanying decline in mission effectiveness, this bears scrutiny.
These charts reflect the fruit of diminished partnership and little trust between NAMB leadership and many state conventions. I believe this is the primary reason we have experienced steep decline. Southern Baptists were built on cooperation and partnership to advance the Great Commission. Concerning our work in North America, little partnership remains. One retired state convention executive director from a south state said, “Partnership is dead in the SBC,” referring to what NAMB has done. Much more could be said about this, and numerous examples could be given, to support the premise that lack of trust and partnership are the primary reasons for decline in the SBC.
The SBC took the wrong road in 2010 with the GCR and the new NAMB. It’s been said that you can’t turn back the clock, but that is the wrong metaphor for the SBC. We have taken the wrong road, so we must turn back and take the right road. The right road is local autonomy of cooperative missions. The right road is a bottom-up missiology, not a top-down mission strategy imposed by a handful of elite national leaders. Attempts to control cooperative work in North America, and dictate from NAMB headquarters, have failed. We must return to the cooperative mission strategy that made Southern Baptists a great missionary people.
Randy Adams, Ph.D.