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Thursday, June 6, 2013

The SBC Annual Report

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) recently released a report that shows declines in baptisms, church attendance, and the number of affiliated associations through which the SBC operates. Since the SBC’s annual convention is only weeks away, it is certainly the case that even now sermons are being edited and keynote addresses are being revised to present these less-than-rosy findings to the congregated messengers.

As someone who was raised comfortably within the boundaries of SBC life (my father and grandfather were both SBC pastors and involved in state-level convention work), this report is troubling. Regardless of the political or social mess that the SBC has waded through in the last 35 years such a report is no occasion for gloating or mockery. All Baptists must remember that these numbers represent people, not theology or politics.

As someone who has moved away from the center of SBC life into the BGCT first and now the CBF, I am developing something of an insider/outsider perspective on the report. I remember the Annual Church Survey that was delivered to my church each year and the questions that is asked. How many baptisms? How many professions of faith? How many in Sunday School? How many? How many?

Those reports eventually became for me something of an embarrassment. I lost the conviction that the numbers of those baptized or the quantity of those praying the “sinner’s prayer” was truly the mark of a ministry. Unfortunately, those numbers are translated into words about the success of a ministry or of a church, much like the way a congregation’s budgeted percentage given to the Cooperative Program is used to “prove” loyalty and faithfulness.

I understand the impulse to quantify and rank these things, though. We minister in an atmosphere of the Spirit; such a place is difficult to organize and nearly impossible to quantify. The ground-level work that we do involves the transformation of people’s hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit actualized through the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the first-level work that we do, and it is of primary importance. But how does one measure a transformed heart? How do you quantify a progressive depth of faith and discipleship?

Therefore we quantify and categorize the second-level work that we do, things like tithes and Sunday School attendance. These things lend themselves naturally to the accounting arts, and are therefore things that we feel we can measure and rank. Baptism is trickier, though. Our Baptist churches are re-baptizing people at an alarming rate, rendering the quantity of our baptisms and the theology that motivates them almost irrelevant.

Herein lies the trap. By emphasizing these second-level quantifications we adopt and live into the language of business. We begin to speak of “growth” and “marketing” in our conversations about making successful churches and ministries. We attend conferences and seminars on being more “effective” and on the development of mission statements and vision statements. Because the world of Spirit is so difficult to explain and publicize, we inhabit the world of business, which is a world that views the numbers of the aforementioned report to be bad news indeed. McEntyre comments, “We have appropriated the language of investment and profit to describe endeavors that ought rightly to remain distinct and free from market considerations. Self-interest and increase pervade…churches’ evangelical campaigns.”[1] Saying further, “We lose at great cost common expressions that remind us that some things cannot be bought and sold. Some times, places, relationships, and words should not be subjected to the terms of economic transaction. At least the discourse of the church should reflect this.”[2]

It is this language of economy that has supplanted the language of the Spirit in many cases. When bureaucracy becomes so self-interested that it cannot tell the difference between the work of the Gospel and the number of people baptized something has gone wrong.

But the bureaucracy is not the Church. The quantification of our baptisms or giving or attendance is not the Word of God. No, these are things that are of the domain of the accountant. At the heart of this and every other report are the people. These are people who are actively living the Gospel, learning to be disciples, dealing with the world every day. They are not numbers, and they are not trends. They are the Spirit-enabled people of God worshipping together in congregations seeking after God in their community. They need relationships, they need resources, and they need the glad hand of fellowship much more than they need an Annual Church Report to tell them how good they’re doing at being made into the image of Christ.

We are not a business. We are not a corporation. We are a cooperative: we cooperate with the Spirit of God who has graciously allowed us to participate in God’s redemptive work for the world. Let us be careful in word and in thought that we do not give away that mighty work to reports of the bureaucracy. Let us be “people of careful speech.”[3] Let us carefully navigate between the Scylla of being business-savvy by the world’s accounting and the Charybdis of ecclesial isolationism and irrelevance. The work is too precious and the people too important to fail.

[1] McEntyre, Marilyn C., Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009; p. 15.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Thanks to Rev. Charles Poole for emphasizing this to me so strongly over the past two years.

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