Increasing Diversity in SBC Churches

This past Sunday I had the pleasure of taking part in a Solemn Assembly hosted by a local Baptist Association.  The gathering was special for many reasons, but the diversity of the participants and the audience was encouraging.  On the platform were White, Black, Hispanic and Asian church leaders each sharing scripture and calling the church to confession, repentance and commitment.  Worship was led by a diverse praise team and the gathering was hosted by an African-American congregation.  It was a foretaste of what heaven will be like when every tribe, tongue and nation stands before God in total praise.  The uniqueness of the assembly was not only in the diversity of the participants, but most encouraging was the fact that the majority were members of SBC Churches.

Without question, the Southern Baptist Convention is turning a corner in the area of diversity.  We have repented of our past failures, embraced church planting among various ethnic groups and races, passed resolutions in which we took hard stances against racism and even elected our first African-American president in 2012.  According to Frank Page, CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, one in five SBC congregations are non-white.  There are now over 3,000 black churches and 2,000 Hispanic churches in the SBC. There has never been a time in the history of our convention where we have been such a colorful bunch. This was evident at the SBC in Phoenix. Not only did I notice a growing diversity within the elected messengers, but also in the nominated officers of the convention. I celebrate and applaud the efforts of NAMB and our state conventions.  Both have increased the diversity of the denomination through intentional efforts of outreach and ministry.

This past week James Emery White shared the most recent study released by the Public Religion Research Institute.  His conclusion from the study is simply, “The American religious landscape is undergoing a dramatic transformation.” (Church & Culture Blog, Volume 13 No. 72).  The results of this study reveals the continued need for local SBC churches to ask the tough questions regarding their outreach to minorities, ethnic groups and younger generations in general.

White Christians now account for fewer than half of the public.  Today, only 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian, and only 30% as white and Protestant. In 1976, roughly eight in ten (81%) Americans identified as white and identified with a Christian denomination, and a majority (55%) were white Protestants. (https://www.prri.org/spotlight/aging-white-christian-america/)

According to the Pew Research Center, 85% of SBC congregants are white, 6% black, 3% Latino, with the rest spread out among several groups.  Think about the realities expressed in these two studies, 85% of SBC members are white, while only 30% of Americans identify as white and protestant.  Also the study reveals that 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian.  America is quickly becoming more diverse and less Christian.  Many Southern Baptists will see these numbers as troubling, but I suggest we see them as a great missional opportunity.  The great question for many SBC churches is simply, will the majority of outreach efforts be focused primarily on 30% of the population? Most of the “additions” listed on annual church profiles include people within the 30% demographic.  An even greater question is how will the church adjust outreach efforts to reflect the increasing diversity of America. James Emery White, pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church says, “Not only does it mean that fewer “whites” identify as Christian – which is to be expected with the rise of the “nones” – but also that white Christians as a whole have become a minority group in American culture. The future of the American church lies not only in regaining its evangelistic edge, but in embracing diversity. In fact, apart from embracing diversity, there can be no evangelistic edge.” (churchandculture.org)  It has been my experience that most declining churches have membership demographic that does not accurately reflect community demographic.  While many of these churches recognize the need to reach out to those of other races and ethnicity, the truth is they have no strategy to do it or simply lack the desire.  There are several historically strong SBC churches that find themselves in rapidly changing communities. Membership decline takes place because outreach efforts are not adjusted to reach the new demographic. Some of these church leaders have admitted to me that, “they don’t know how” to reach minorities.  I believe that many of these Pastors see the need and even develop helpful strategies, but receive push back when they share the necessary changes needed to reach the population.  Thus the reality is that several of these churches are facing an uncertain future.  Here are some questions for these churches to consider as they face the realities of a changing demographic:

  • Does your missional view include the Biblical reality that God loves ALL people and wants ALL to come to repentance? (James 2:1-8, Acts 10:34, John 13:34). The Great Commission to the church clearly includes “make disciples of ALL nations” (Matt 28:19), which I am pretty sure includes many within the 70% of population your church isn’t currently reaching.
  • Are you willing to make cathartic changes to be more intentional in outreach to minorities in your community?  Will you do whatever it takes to see souls saved regardless of race or ethnicity? This may include ESL classes, diversifying staff, or after school tutoring for disadvantages minorities in your community.  It is interesting to study to the book of Acts and see the progression of the Gospel from the Jews to the utter most parts of the earth.  Acts reveals the fierce love of God to all tribes, tongues and nations.  In it we see Phillip preaching to the Samaritans in chapter 8, Peter at the home of Cornelius in chapter 10,  the diversity of the church at Antioch in chapter 11, and Paul, Barnabas and Silas among the Gentiles throughout the remainder of the book.  The book of Acts reveals a strong message, souls do not have a color or ethnicity.  When the blood of redemption covers a soul, regardless of the skin color, all become crimson stained and righteous.
  • Will your welcome be more than words?  Simply handing a person a bulletin with a smile may not be enough.  The heart of your churches mission must not be simply words on a bulletin or church sign.  The heart of the mission must be extended through the hands and feet of the congregation to the community. Engaging them where they are, as they are, rather than what we wish them to be.  This will involve many SBC church members coming to grips with deep seeded wrongful views.

If the SBC is going to turn the trends upward with more baptisms, more members and growing ministries, it must come to grips with the new reality.  America is changing quickly and diversity is rapidly coming to communities all over the nation.  Churches can be troubled and threatened by this trend or embrace it as central to our mission. The Southern Baptist Convention will not change shrinking statistical trends unless many congregations embrace the exciting opportunities for outreach that a diverse population provides.  That Solemn Assembly I attended was encouraging and inspiring. May it be said that my denomination embraces a missional approach that secures a bright and exciting future filled with many more of these assemblies.

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Is There Still a Need for Denominations?

 

Much has been written on this subject in the last ten years likely due to the fact that this question is being asked more and more by the “don’t label me” Millennial generation and post-modern thought. As a life-long Southern Baptist,  I have enjoyed the benefits my denomination offers such as educational opportunities, resources and networking with other like-minded believers.  I recognize that I write with a bias as a former state convention pastor’s conference president, trustee and employee of a Baptist entity.  The religious landscape of America is changing dramatically and rapidly.  Not only are we moving into a post-denominational mindset, but I would argue a post-Christian mindset with the consistent rise of “nones” (22%) in relation to religious affiliation.  The latest Pew Research reveals interesting statistics in relation to denominationalism in America.  Of the 70% of Americans who identify as Christians,  a little over 6% belong to a non-denominational church. While that number doesn’t blow you over it does represent a growing trend and, I believe, it will continue to gain momentum.  In 1955 only one in 25 churchgoing Americans tended to change denominations over a lifetime. In 1985, one in three did so. In this current decade, that number has risen to more than one in two, or about 60%. (Dr. David Dockery, The Changing Face of Denominationalism) I have noticed (at least in my state) an increase in non-denominational involvement.  One such non-denominational church is Church of the Highlands here in Alabama. The church is growing and expanding all over our state and, best I can tell, doing good things.  Recently a friend  emailed me asking for help in finding another place of service due to the fact that a non-denominational church placed a campus near his ministry and he had lost so many members that his position was no longer financially sustainable.  While Non-denominational churches still represent a small percentage of the Christian faith, there is little doubt of the growth of this movement and its future impact of traditional denominations.

Even among Baptist circles there are a few churches who have dropped the “Baptist” from their church signs. They may still identify as Baptists and give to Baptist causes but they have chosen to not highlight their Baptist identity.  When you ask the church leaders why that decision was made you find it to be a part of a strategy to broaden their reach to younger people who don’t visit churches based on denominational affiliation.  (I may write another article about that strategy at some point soon.)

There are more than 12 million people who belong to non-denominational churches in America with over 35,000 congregations in existence.  Last year Thom Rainer released his findings on why people are leaving denominations to join non affiliated churches.  The results can be found here.  One of the reasons people listed for leaving their denomination was simply, “They could see no perceived benefit for belonging to a denomination.”  Looking over Dr. Rainer’s list of responses from a Twitter poll, I see superficial and misinformed responses on denominational life.  It is true that most traditional denominational bodies are on the decline and have been for over a decade now. However, (some may call it Utopian thinking) I have a strong belief that denominationalism in America is not dead.  Some traditional groups have ventured off into liberalism where the message has been so watered down that it is hardly recognizable.  This is why many denominations have declined, but the ones who remain true to the Gospel, strong in their convictions and intentional in their mission will make a come back.

Contrary to the responses from Rainer’s poll, I see several “perceived benefits from denominational life.  Here are a few: 

  1. Denominations keep us anchored in doctrinal statements and Christian orthodoxy. In short, denominational statements of belief places fences around doctrine and keep believers focused on a coherent system of beliefs. Denominations are formed with clear doctrinal guidelines.  The Baptist Faith and Message is the doctrinal (not creedal) beliefs on my denomination. Created in 1925 it was based on previous “Baptist statements” of doctrinal orthodoxy and has seen minor adjustments since its creation.  While there is some doctrinal disagreement in the SBC pertaining to certain statements in this document, the BF&M gives SBC members guidelines on our generally accepted beliefs.  This helps to safeguard our churches from falling victim to outlandish heresies and practices.  Some non-denominational churches are vague on their doctrinal stances regarding historical Christian doctrines and the membership they attract becomes a mix of eclectic beliefs with little uniformity of doctrine.  There doctrinal beliefs (if stated) usually reflect the orthodoxy of the founding pastor.  However, when there is a change in leadership those foundational doctrines are subject to change based on the preferences of the next leader.  Even if the church has adopted certain core beliefs, they are likely much more fluid during leadership changes in comparison to denominational churches who are generally anchored in doctrine.
  2. Many denominations have a cooperative streamlined approach for missional support. If doctrine is the anchor that holds our feet to the ground, then our missional togetherness becomes the bridge that allows us to take our deeply held convictions to a lost world. I  believe the Cooperative Program of the SBC is the best example of this.  It is a system of focused missional giving and sending. One church can’t reach a nation, but one church partnering with many others can accomplish wide-spread gospel globalization much more effectively than a non-denominational church.  Any system that brings together like-minded missions giving and support has the potential of changing the world for Christ. Denominations have a long history of effective cooperation in this regard.
  3. Denominations encourage interaction and intentional networking between churches. If we don’t have some type of intentional glue that holds churches together then all churches would work independently and historically that has not been the best system for Kingdom work.  Denominations provide a dedicated platform for cooperation and collaboration between congregations.  Christians have always been more effective when they work together.  In 2 Corinthians 8 Paul describes how the churches of Macedonia had joined together to provide for other churches in their time of need.  Paul could not have traveled as he did without the support of many collaborative churches working together to assist him financially.
  4. Denominations encourage fellowship among like-minded people. Generally people are naturally geared toward certain affinity groups.  If I were to put 500 random people in a large room for a certain length of time you would eventually see groups begin to form.  Conversations would flow naturally as people mingle to find others with similar tastes, likes and ideology.  If you don’t believe me stop by your local high school lunchroom. If we were to do away with every denomination, eventually they would organically re-organize based on doctrinal, ecclesiastical and polity affinity. There are countless historical examples of the truth of this statement.  The East-West split of early Catholicism, the protestant reformation and the Great Awakenings of the 1700’s-1800’s in America all reveal sociological shifting of certain affinities into groups or denominations.  This is more than just history, this represents basic human action.

Yes, contrary to some people’s thought I am crazy enough to believe in the future of denominations and especially my own. Denominations must continue to be culturally relevant, consistently resourceful, but most of all intentionally missional with the good news of Jesus Christ.  

The Greatest Sign of a Healthy Church may not be Baptism Numbers

How many baptisms has your church had this year?  Pastors hear this question all the time.  It is a figure that gets prominent attention when the annual church profiles are released each year.  Pastors get bigger churches when this figure is up, they are more respected by peers and can even win denominational awards.  Yet, this is likely not the most important statistic.  It is important, don’t get me wrong.  Baptismal numbers are more than numbers, they represent someone whose life has been changed.  However, it could be that the greatest sign of a healthy church isn’t baptisms.  Go back to Matthew 28: 18-20 and reread the Great Commission. This statement from Jesus has become the utmost purpose for the Christian church for good reason.  It was his final edict to his followers before ascension.  Yet a closer look at the statement redefines traditionally held beliefs about the focus of this commission. We have used this as a rallying cry for evangelism and boosting baptismal numbers in our churches, but the intent of his statement wasn’t for the church to simply go and baptize new believers.  The commission isn’t for converts, but for disciples.  He clearly says, “Go and make disciples…”  Yes it begins with belief and baptism but Jesus is calling for a clear well defined process and not only an event.  The church is called to make disciples, not simply converts.  He even explains the disciple making process as “teaching them to obey all things I have commanded you.”

A church may have 50 baptisms in a year, but more importantly than the baptisms is the process of disciple making that should be intentional in every New Testament church. It has been my experience that many churches don’t have a well planned process for disciple making.  Baptisms are seen as the goal, the end rather than the beginning of the journey for this new believer. A church may have 50 baptisms, but without a disciple making plan many of these new believers will simply become a baptismal statistic and never reach their full potential.  It is the highest privilege of a church to walk alongside the new believer, encouraging them, teaching them, training them and equipping them to be fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.

Every church should be a factory that produces world changing followers of Christ, valiant disciples that will in turn “give away” their new found faith to someone else. Great churches don’t just produce lofty statistics, they are building great disciples.  I will often see church profiles that have large numbers of baptisms yet little change in attendance figures. This is a sure sign of a church without a well defined plan for disciple making.

I want to suggest to church leaders that they train their church members to be disciple makers and mentors for new believers.  Each person who is brought into our baptistry ought to be matched with a mature believer who will walk alongside them until they are ready to do the same for someone else.  This creates accountability and assimilation into the body of Christ.  Church leaders must be intentional in the process and stick with it.  It is my belief that God will not judge our effectiveness not only by our baptisms, but more importantly by the quality of disciples that we are producing.