In The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Theoden remarks to Aragorn, “The old alliances are dead.” That phrase sticks in the back of my mind as I write this post because it is not my intention to end or strain any alliances. These are not the days for conservative Christians to make enemies within their own ranks!
We are few in number as it is. May the old alliances remain alive, and may my brothers and sisters in Christ hear me out on why you won’t see me personally endorse Ronnie Floyd’s Vision 2025. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with everything. Instead, I see a glaring blind spot.
To me, the vision says we need to replace the tires, detail the car, and repair the windshield. But we’ll leave the failing transmission untouched. New tires are always great. But not if the vehicle can’t shift.
A Book of Numbers
Based on these 2019 numbers, 36.1% of Southern Baptists are in church on any given Sunday. And that’s if the 5,250,230 [attending] people were all members. Of course, some of them are guests, and children, so 36.1% is actually high, but we’ll use that number anyway.
This means that on any given Lord’s day 63.9% of those professing allegiance to Christ are missing. And this isn’t a Sunday here or there but the telling story of the entire year.
Furthermore, the trend is going in the wrong direction. Based on the numbers presented, in 2018 the percentage was at 36.5%. That means in 2019 fewer members are attending church percentage-wise than they were in 2018.
As Southern Baptist pastor, Jim Elliff, once wrote, the SBC is largely an unregenerate denomination. That is, if we take the New Testament’s admonitions about the local church seriously.
Regenerate Church Membership
I know we could list problem after problem in the SBC right now. But for me, I am putting our poor ecclesiology at the top of the list. I include in this problem the fact that we allow women to be pastors, which is in violation of the Baptist Faith and Message (2000). And I also include the fact that we allow our churches to continue to inaccurately report membership.
First, I want to be forthright. My own church is working on this. We are not where we want to be on our church rolls yet, but we are discussing and working toward that. Some of this was put on hold by COVID-19.
Second, I want to point out that in 2008 the SBC approved a very well written resolution on Regenerate Church Membership. The Resolves say,
RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, June 10-11, 2008, urge churches to maintain a regenerate membership by acknowledging the necessity of spiritual regeneration and Christ’s lordship for all members; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we humbly urge our churches to maintain accurate membership rolls for the purpose of fostering ministry and accountability among all members of the congregation; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we urge the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention to repent of the failure among us to live up to our professed commitment to regenerate church membership and any failure to obey Jesus Christ in the practice of lovingly correcting wayward church members (Matthew 18:15-18); and be it further
RESOLVED, That we humbly encourage denominational servants to support and encourage churches that seek to recover and implement our Savior’s teachings on church discipline, even if such efforts result in the reduction in the number of members that are reported in those churches, and be it finally
RESOLVED, That we humbly urge the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention and their pastors to implement a plan to minister to, counsel, and restore wayward church members based upon the commands and principles given in Scripture (Matthew 18:15-35; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15; Galatians 6:1; James 5:19-20).
From my observation, this resolution has gone all but unheeded by the overwhelming majority of churches and leaders in the SBC. Thankfully, not everyone has been silent. But the majority has. It is as though we tipped our hat to a long-held Baptist (and biblical) position – regenerate church membership – and then carried on as if it were unimportant.
I wonder how we can expect the Lord to bless our association of churches if we neglect the care of His local churches? And why would we want to plant another 6,000 churches if we haven’t been careful with the 47,000+ that we already have?
I’m not against church planting. I am not against missions. I am, however, very much pro-local church. In fact, being pro-local church is the only way to be a true endorser of biblical church planting and missions. And the further Southern Baptists move away from the purity of the local church, the less we can expect the Lord to bless our efforts in other areas.
But what can we do?
Often, when we talk about this, I’ve heard denominational leaders say that we can’t really “make” churches have accurate roles since every church is autonomous. Of course, this is true. Every local church is autonomous.
But our annual giving is also autonomous, and yet we don’t mind asking churches to increase that.
It’s actually not hard at all to issue a summons to churches to practice church discipline and regenerate church membership. It’s not hard at all to, instead of posting Cooperate Program percentage giving, to post church membership attendance percentage when considering people up for various elected positions in the SBC. It would not be difficult to have a standard in SBC leadership that said we expect pastors and churches to accurately reflect their numbers and to practice biblical church discipline. If we can have these other extra-biblical standards, like increasing Cooperative Program giving, can we not also have biblical standards, like regenerate church membership?
Does it really matter?
I would argue that neglect of the local church has led to a litany of issues in the SBC today. A poor ecclesiology has led to women preaching in our pulpits. It has led to the debauchery we saw in the SBC 2020 pastor’s conference lineup. And it has even been partly responsible for the sexual abuse mishandlings that have happened.
The SBC is supposed to be a bottom up organization. Seminaries and trustees are supposed to answer to local churches. The further we move away from healthy local churches the worse the SBC will be. The local church greatly matters to God and it matters quite practically for a healthy orthodoxy. To neglect the purity of the local church is to do so at great detriment to one’s own soul and to evangelicalism at large.
Thus, any Vision we propose for the future of the SBC must include a recovery of our historic Baptist beliefs about the greatness and purity of the local church. There is no future for Southern Baptists apart from the local church. If we continue to fail to see this, our future is quite bleak.
Lord, open our eyes.