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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

It's Time to Think Small

Ed Stetzer’s recent speech to the SBC Pastors’ Conference in Houston highlighted the negative trend within the SBC in terms of baptisms and church membership. He pointed out that this “is a 50 year trend” that has been mathematically documented since the SBC’s heyday in the 1950’s. Bob Allen concluded an article about Stetzer’s speech by saying, “Acknowledging that it’s hard to turn around a 50-year trend, Statzer urged church leaders to stop being distracted by secondary issues and rehabilitate the convention’s image so that Southern Baptists will “be known more for what we’re for – the gospel – than what we’re against.””[1]

Stetzer is commenting on the prevailing themes of the SBC annual convention, that is, Calvinism and the Boy Scouts’ recent ruling on the inclusion of homosexual boys. These “secondary issues” may be responsible for the SBC’s numeric decline, although this is hardly likely. Stetzer is correct, though, to urge that the Gospel be placed at the fore of the SBC’s vision rather than theological litmus tests that only exclude those who would believe.[2]

These secondary issues are just that: secondary. I do not mean that they are unimportant; rather they are the issues that are to be worked out prayerfully and with the leading of the Holy Spirit within a local congregation. The SBC (or any other authentically Baptist convention) cannot legislate belief. The autonomous local congregation filled with Spirit-led Priests (as in the Priesthood of the Believer) must earnestly and thoroughly seek God’s will for itself and act accordingly.

Here’s where the idea of “small” comes in.

I have long assumed that a great hemorrhage of people out of our Baptist churches would come. I remember a conversation with my father when I was first working out my call to pastoral ministry during which he stated that the pastor of the future is going to be bi-vocational. His point was that the institutional, bureaucratic, top-down Baptist model was unsustainable and would ultimately fall. I believe we are seeing the beginnings of that now.

I believe that the Church will endure a great shrinking in my own generation. I credit this neither to the punishment of God nor to the failure of the Gospel. Rather this shrinking will be something akin to a “market correction” that our economists speak of when housing bubbles or tech bubbles or .com bubbles burst. Is it so fanciful to suggest that for the last 50 years we have been experiencing a “bubble” within the Baptist community?

So passionate have we been to baptize every man, woman, and child we meet that we have forgotten how to actually make disciples. Hear me: baptism is a necessary and powerful initiation into the Christian faith that should only be performed upon an individual’s profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. But baptism is not enough. If we, as Baptists, believe that salvation depends on faith in Jesus Christ rather than the act of baptism, and if we believe that the Church’s essential function is the proclamation of the Gospel to all people and the making of disciples out of those who respond, then we must learn to live in a state of holy discomfort when our churches begin to shrink and our statistics trend away from the high-water mark of the 1950s.

We have tried the “smaller-is-better” approach before. We need look no farther than the rapid expansion of cell-groups or other incarnations of the small group church model in our own era to see that our obsession with size, accounting, and the language of the free market has led many to look for smaller, more authentic ways to be and make disciples. I am not convinced that the small-group model accomplishes discipleship any better than massive Sunday School classes, but its existence is certainly a mark of our impulse to be more intimate and real with one another.

Here is a case on point: in my city many Baptists attend Pinelake, a church that is SBC to its gills yet would rather not advertise such a fact. This church does many wonderful things in terms of Gospel ministry, but one new ministry caught my eye. Pinelake has recently developed a worship setting called “the Venue” which “provides an intimate worship experience allowing you to build relationship with others.”[3] It is a church-within-a-church, a worship setting for those who desire relationships rather than worship-tainment. I would note that even in this setting the sermon is still piped in so that all of Pinelake’s campuses see and hear the Senior Pastor simultaneously.

We are already looking for more intimate worship and discipleship settings, and some churches have already begun developing ministries that address this desire among the faithful. More than worship settings, though, we must be prepared for smaller churches as we re-discover the nature of discipleship and the hard, slow work of being the people of God.

I would suggest, though, that we are not on the leading edge of a smaller church today. The old market strategies and religion-as-commodity language will no doubt be revived and efforts redoubled in the wake of Stetzer’s speech. The great shrinking is yet to come. There must be an intentional ministry of transition for those who are searching for authenticity and have no place to land in Baptist life because of it. Baptists must develop what my congregation calls “waystations” for those who are committed to the life of discipleship to Jesus Christ but feel that they cannot live such a life authentically in their current congregations. Our churches must begin ministries that receive, love, and eventually send people on their way as they discover God’s calling on their lives. Then we will be congregations in the truest sense of the word and will be able to minister to those who now classify themselves as the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd.

I can hear the wheels turning even now as pastors and Baptist church leaders think of new ways to get back to the glory days of the 1950s. I pray that in their machinations Stetzer’s words of encouragement will be made real, that the Gospel will be the message rather than any secondary issues of identity hair-splitting. I pray, though, that when the Spirit of God brings revival among those who want a deeper, more authentic walk with God that our congregations will be ready to come alongside them and journey with them for a while.

[2] A case in point is Dr. Albert Mohler’s motion to excommunicate Lakeshore Baptist Church of Waco, Texas for that congregation’s support of Planned Parenthood. Ironically, the same congregation that went a bridge too far (at least according to Mohler) voted years ago to disassociate from the SBC. See

1 comment:

  1. I am hearing some of my own thoughts echoed in yours. Check out Dr. Mark Metcalf (whom you may remember from MC days), who left big-church student ministry to found a non-profit with a vision to create missional communities (small-group ministry-minded discipleship as the organizational model for the church). He has spurred interesting thoughts in me, and is fueled by the smaller-is-better concept. Look at his site,

    I'm convinced that local church evangelism will work out to be slow and small in our current culture as it secularizes further, but this will be more effective and more faithful to disciple-making as a whole. The mega-church model seems to be gaining the most traction as a response to our sinking-ship baptism numbers. This is especially disturbing, though, considering the high percentage of small (and often rural) churches in the makeup of the SBC.

    I think that Matthew 7:13-14 is stating the way the world works. Most will not say yes to Christ (the wide gate). But some will choose to follow (the narrow gate). This should not dissipate our fervor for the gospel, but rather should warn us that there are many different kinds of responses to evangelism, but most responses are not favorable (parable of the sower and seed, Matthew 13). For me, this means that if something is bringing in the crowds, it needs scrutiny. Not all methods that produce big results are effective (we remember Willow Creek). But none of this cynicism should lead to less passion for evangelism (which it could easily do)!