We Baptists are in decline
There is no doubt that we are experiencing the waning of much that is bundled in the word ‘Baptist.’ Statistically, attendance is down, conversions are down, baptisms are down, memberships are down, funds are down. And this fits with the anti-denominational, anti-church, anti-institutional, anti-commitment trend prevalent across the world. Last year, America’s largest protestant group, the Southern Baptists, experienced the biggest decline since 1881. Unfettered, non-structured relationships are where it’s at today. And our youth are leaving or have left the church. Perhaps more so now than ever before, a person can firmly believe that they are a Christian and yet have nothing to do with a church. That’s like saying “I love Christ, but don’t like the Body of Christ.” Its hitting us hard and there aren’t many people talking about it and asking the tough questions.
2. Some of us Baptist pastors are no longer Baptists
We Baptists do not hold as tightly to our core tenets as we used to; the Bible as the inerrant and inspired Word of God and final authority in all matters of faith and practice, the congregational principle and the priesthood of all believers. Not so any longer. Now, a pastor will set his WhatsApp status to “Man of God” disregarding the NT teaching on the church and acts as a bishop disregarding the decisions of the leadership or membership of the local church. In another church, a pastor mentioned that he recommended to his independent church that they should join the Baptist Union. In order to assess and begin this process, he visited a local Baptist Union Church nearby and heard the preaching of the prosperity gospel from the pulpit and that was the end of the process for him. I hear someone saying that there is no reason why a pastor cannot be both a Baptist and hold to the prosperity gospel; which introduces my next point.
3. We are too broad theologically
Different understandings and expressions of spiritual gifts and the question of whether women could serve as pastors are where the debate used to be. Today, we can’t collectively put the word “inerrancy” in a statement on orthodoxy, our multiple expressions of pragmatism, our embracing of Ignatian Spirituality as helpful and the lack of a corporate stance on a number of hot contemporary issues including the gay debate and the prosperity gospel are all declarations of a seemingly proudly held (in some quarters) lack of theological backbone. When last was our statement of faith affirmed corporately and publicly? Who holds pastors and elders and college lecturers accountable to their once held affirmation of the statement of faith? And does our 1924 Statement of Faith address all the issues today?
4. Our union is fragmented
Not, our Union is fragmented primarily, but our union, our unity in corporate solidarity as Baptists is threadbare and worn thin as a result of the our permissive theological breadth with its manifold expressions. In my experience, there is an attitude of general distrust between Baptist pastors because the fringes of our Baptist identity and practise are frayed and thin permitting all and sundry “to find a home.” To find a group of fellow pastors that are like ourselves in theology and practice is still very needed but largely these groupings are not outwardly Baptist groupings per se.
5. Our structure and formal association is outdated
There is no doubt that a structure that met the need of 50 churches so long ago cannot work today for 550. There is general agreement that changes have to be made to how the Baptist Union and its ministries and associations are structured and how funds are collected, utilised and managed.
6. We are confused
We, as Baptists, are really confused about a number of things, I think…
- Over leadership; that is the role of the elders with respect to the historical and constitutional Executive in a local church and over the role of the BU with respect to that of the autonomy of the local church.
- Over denominationalism; we are, as Baptists, not a denomination even though some think we are and every Baptist on occasion has some form of erroneous denominational thinking.
- Over autonomy; that autonomy doesn’t mean independence but inter-dependence and what that looks like.
- Over partnership; that some churches are member churches of the Union and Association on a list only. Some of our churches with their leaders have all “moved on” with respect to real co-operation and association and simply pay their minimal financial dues.
- Over congregationalism; “that each member has the privilege and responsibility to use his/her gifts and abilities to participate fully in the life of the Church” and so few do. That “each member should participate in the appointment of the Church’s leaders” and so few do.
7. Some of our preaching and churches have become gospel lite
Two professors of history at Baylor University wrote an article as to why Southern Baptists are in decline and their first reason for the deterioration, as they saw it, was that Baptists “must get serious again about that “evangelical” distinctive of sharing one’s faith.” I am convinced that this is a pandemic among our Baptist family. I can remember listening to a popular Baptist preacher preaching with passion, but as far as I could hear, was intensely passionate about absolutely nothing, no content, no Christ, and I came away saddened because much of what is regarded as good preaching could better be described as either “passionate about nothing” or “Christological boredom.” And this in turn leads to “candy floss Christians;” congregants and churches who are Christ-less or passion-less or both.
8. Some of our preaching and churches have become historically heavy
While emphasising as preachers, “This is what God has said,” we almost completely neglect to say “This is what God is saying…” That is, that the past in the text and the past in our church history are seemingly more important than our present and our future. This leads to a congregational “glory days”-reminiscence and soon thereafter to a corporate pessimism about the present and collective scepticism regarding the future. Daring for Christ and taking risks for the gospel and for Christ are not what defines Baptists any longer although it certainly used to.
9. The exceptions are exceptional
By this I mean that there are some churches out there that are exceptional; the preaching is passionate and doctrinal with direct application to the present, there is a sense of excitement and expectance, and things are happening in the church, its people, its structures and the building. There is prayer, planning and participation by the body and its a breath of fresh air! These exceptions are exceptional in that they are quite rare and best seen among what have come to be known as the ‘avant garde’ churches; those innovative Baptists, those historically-different Baptists, those not-sure-if-you-really-are-Baptists Baptist churches, those churches that have a leadership that have thought hard about their doctrinal position on all sorts of things, thought hard about the needs of their people and are marrying the two in loving, profound and novel and fresh ways without compromising the gospel or their theological position. And it’s wonderful to see!
10. The strength and well being of the local church (including its leaders) is paramount
A well known marriage success axiom optimistically states, “Happy wife, happy life.” I am convinced from Hebrews 13:17 that many of these challenges which our churches face are directly related to the lack of joy and to the deep groaning of our pastors; “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Where the church and her archaic structures, systems and habitual practices are not harmonious or conducive to ministry, they are detrimental to the wellbeing of the local church.
Lastly, having had the privilege to have seen all that there is, in this last year, “beyond the local church,” I am convinced, more than ever, that the local church is “where its at” – gospel, ministry, passion, hope, growth, connectedness, significance and faith. These are all bundled up in what Jesus died for, committed Himself to and is perfecting right now in spite of and maybe because of all the challenges of our hour. The church is the advert of God’s glory. The local church is Jesus on display to the community. Let’s reform it so it looks like it!