Somewhere today a little girl sits alone, nameless, hungry, scared, devoid of the most basic necessities of life which you and I take for granted. But most disturbing, she is unaware of Jesus and His love for her.
Somewhere today a pastor sits alone, nervous, uneasy, praying as he embarks upon a journey to start a church that will shine a ray of light into the abject darkness of his inner city neighborhood. He wonders if anyone will walk beside him in this struggling journey.
Somewhere today—no, everywhere, every day—there are people of every race, every generation, every background, every socioeconomic category sitting alone, struggling, scared, hurting, doubting, wondering if there is anyone who cares.
We must do all we can to ensure that everyone—regardless of who they are or the struggles they face—knows they are not alone.
What Are Our Priorities?
In traveling around our Convention, I am constantly asked, in individual as well as group settings, what is happening in our Convention and what the real issues are that we face. Often those who ask these questions already have an idea or opinion about what those true issues are.
Some have in mind Cooperative Program (CP) versus direct giving models. Some inquire about church governance or how to “do church.” Others ask about theological challenges such as Calvinism or non-Calvinism. Still others are interested in personality issues or power groups.
I am convinced we are missing the two most urgent issues we face: evangelism and stewardship. Southern Baptists are trying to do ministry with fewer people and to support missions with less money because other secondary matters too frequently stir our passions and consume our energies.
Symptoms of a Bigger Problem
Part of the reason we have fewer resources is related to demographic factors to which few pay attention. An absence of biblical stewardship and, the flip side of its coin, unbridled individualism have crippled our churches.
Stewardship Challenges. Are you aware that tithes and offerings given by church members to Southern Baptist churches have declined by almost 8 percent over the last seven years? Total receipts reported by our churches in 2014 are almost one billion dollars less—yes, that’s billion—than in 2008.
Though the average percentage CP gift per church has stabilized over the past four years (between 5.4 and 5.5 percent of undesignated offerings), when coupled with the decline in total giving to our churches, our SBC ministries received fewer CP dollars to send missionaries, plant churches, and train future leaders.
According to recent Annual Church Profile reports, we have no record of CP giving from more than one-third of our churches. We know some of them gave through their respective state conventions, we just don’t know which ones.
Then add one more underlying fact. The average American gives only 2.32 percent of his or her disposable income to charities. While we continue to have many tithers in our churches, overall giving through our churches mirrors that percentage.
Do you see a trend? Churches have significantly less money than they had before. Certainly there are exceptions for which we give praise to the Lord. However, overall trends show a disturbing lack of support for our churches. Therefore, when churches receive less, they tend to give less to missions and ministries beyond the four walls of their churches.
Individualism Challenges. The twenty-first century is an era of extreme individualism. The consumer rules the day with a demand of individualized products and provision of services.
How does this flow over into our Convention work and church life? People are less likely to give to anything out of loyalty. People are less likely to support any kind of seeming bureaucracy. That is not necessarily bad. But, unbridled individualism has other consequences.
The state conventions and the SBC entities are supported financially from the same sets of churches. Prior to 1925, the states and the SBC competed with one another for financial support.
Competition for dollars does not lead to cooperation for Kingdom purposes! In fact, a funding war can easily happen if this cooperative balance is upset by the states or the SBC entities.
Through a cooperative model of giving, the CP helps avoid turf wars between state and national. It also avoids turf wars from entity to entity within the SBC. The Cooperative Program provides a level playing field for the small membership church as well as for the ethnic church.
Let me point this out. Our state convention partners have taken bold steps in response to their messengers, even before the Great Commission Task Force report five years ago. For example, in 2000, our states employed more than 1,750 people. By 2013, that number had dropped to 1,350, allowing the states to forward a larger percentage to the national CP even while attempting to do more ministry with fewer staff members. In 2001, the average CP forwarded from the states was 34.7 percent; in 2014, this had increased to almost 38 percent.
On the local level, some pastors have led their churches to support only those Convention ministries he believes are most admirable or effective. I sincerely hope that our pastors will recognize that that which they may encourage on a state or national level is exactly that which they discourage on a local church level.
In the local church, if individual giving to specific projects is seen as an acceptable way of giving, and even encouraged, this leads to anarchy as persons begin to support their “pet projects.”
While the issues faced by a local church and the Convention are different, there are transferrable principles at work here. We discourage our people from designating their tithes and offerings to support ministries they value the most, leaving other less visible ministries within the church unfunded; but, some have no hesitation about doing that in Convention work. This practice would lead us back to a pre-1925 anarchy in which churches were hounded on a weekly basis for funds to support various ministries.
Continuing Declines in Baptisms
Though the symptoms are distressing, the true issue is far more serious. We have less money because we have fewer people; and we have fewer people because we are winning fewer souls to Christ! If we would simply return to a biblical model of Great Commission evangelism and missions, we would see a resurgence of resources in every category!
With the accelerating death rates of the Builder generation, total membership in our churches has declined by almost three-quarters of a million people since 2008—from just over 16.2 million to less than 15.5 million.
An analysis of our baptism numbers reveals a startling reality. Our total reported baptisms stood at 419,342 for the year in 1999. Fifteen years later, our 2014 reported baptisms were 305,301. While the precipitous drop in this year-to-year comparison is dismaying, the cumulative effect of fifteen years of decline is staggering!
If we had merely baptized the same number of people each year that we reached in 1999, we would have baptized an additional one million precious souls during this fifteen-year span! Instead of a decline, we would have seen growth!
Interestingly, during this same period of time, our total number of churches increased by more than five thousand, from 41,099 to 46,499. Despite the largest number of cooperating churches in our history, our total baptism level is the lowest since we first surpassed the 300,000 baptisms threshold in 1948.
Tragically, this means that our average number of baptisms per church has also declined— from ten baptisms per church in 1999 to less than seven baptisms per church in 2014.
In almost every age category, we are simply not reaching people for Christ. God help us!
Some want to blame this on the resurgence of Calvinism. That may be a factor. Others point out birth rates or other demographic factors. I’m sure that has an impact. Others recognize that we have adopted society’s lie, which says people no longer want to talk about spiritual things. While that may be true in some isolated examples, I personally find that to be false. I find a refreshing openness as I share the Gospel with people all across the country.
What Do We Need To Do?
The Executive Committee is proposing a ten-year strategy to help us unify our energies in a way like never before. We are calling this ten-year strategy the Great Commission Advance. It calls for an expansion of evangelism and deep increases in our missions support.
We continue to encourage all pastors to look at the wisdom of supporting missions and ministries through the Cooperative Program. Is the CP perfect? Absolutely not! We are seeking ways to review and improve it.
Though the underlying principles of CP are sound, we don’t merely need a “1% CP Challenge” for our churches to increase their giving to Convention causes. We need to challenge our people in evangelism and in stewardship, encouraging them to radical obedience to the Lordship of Christ in every area of their lives.
Why do we do this? We should never be content until we see every man, woman, boy, and girl on the face of the earth have a valid opportunity to respond to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In 2014, I began my EC report at the SBC annual meeting with a photo. This picture, taken by Kevin Carter, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. It immediately began raising questions. People asked, “What happened to the little girl?” and “What did you do to save the little girl?” It serves as the basis of a message I often preach entitled, “Save the Girl.”
I showed this photo again in 2015 because it is a picture that continues to haunt me.
Southern Baptists, we need to get serious about saving the girl! We must let every girl, and boy, and man, and woman know that they are not alone. There is someone who cares for their souls.
I call on Southern Baptists to rise up in unity like we have never seen before, to join forces in a common purpose like we have never joined in before, to do a work that we have never seen done, and pray that the Great Commission will be accomplished! This will be a true Great Commission Advance.
Frank S. Page is president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee. Adapted from his report at the 2015 SBC annual meeting in Columbus, Ohio.