My friend, Perry, is addicted to jigsaw puzzles. He loves to get with friends and have races in putting together these challenges to anybody's sanity! The bigger and more complicated the puzzle, the better. He scours stores to find puzzles on sale and buys them by the truck load. Recently, one of his puzzle-solving friends came up with a new twist. He arrived with a bag full of puzzle pieces and dumped them on the table. The challenge was that he didn't bring the box top with the picture of the completed puzzle. Therefore, they had no idea what the ultimate goal would look like. They had to put together the puzzle without knowing what the end would resemble. After innumerable hours, they finally got a border together, but by that time were so frustrated they walked off and never returned to the task at hand. When there is no "big picture" the process becomes unworkable.
As the Southern Baptist Convention, we owe a great debt to the Program and Structure Study Committee for the two years they spent giving us a "big picture" of a restructured and re-engineered Southern Baptist Convention effectively poised to step into the 21st Century. We called the big picture Covenant for a New Century. That Covenant was strongly affirmed at the Southern Baptist Convention held in Atlanta last June. Ironically, it was also in Atlanta in June of 1978, that the Southern Baptist Convention officially launched Bold Mission Thrust with evangelism and missions as its heartbeat.
As we move forward in the implementation of the Covenant for a New Century, it very well could be the boldest step Southern Baptists have taken in 150 years. It is amazing not only to me, but to people I've talked with across America, that a Convention of our size, longevity, and reputation, would be courageous enough to take a serious look at where we are and where we need to be. We position ourselves for leadership by our unwillingness to be sedated by the status quo. Yet, whenever we face change, we often feel uncomfortable. It is one of the expected outcomes of the change process. Many ask why we need to change. Haven't we done a good job? The answer is a resounding yes, we have done some things well. Our agency leadership and trustees have guided the Southern Baptist "ship" through the changing waters of many decades. However, because we have seen wonderful things happen doesn't mean we can become complacent and conclude that changes are unnecessary.
Southern Baptists have long understood that vision is crucial. Helen Keller captured the concept well when she was asked, "Miss Keller, what could be worse than not being able to see?" Her immediate and poignant response was, "That's simple. What is worse is being able to see and having no vision."
We have been long on vision. The key, however, is to make sure that our vision is as large as our commission and that it is constantly evaluated. We must step up to the challenges. A giant step was taken when, for the first time, we established a Convention-wide mission statement:
The Southern Baptist Convention exists to facilitate, extend, and enlarge the Great Commission ministry to the Southern Baptist churches, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, upon the authority of Holy Scripture, and by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
The implementation of Covenant for a New Century will allow us to concentrate and focus our energies on penetrating North America and the world with a comprehensive and intentional strategy to impact our world with the Gospel.
The timing is crucial for such a move. Between 1985 and 1994, the population of the United States increased by 9.4 percent. During that same period, baptisms increased by only 7.8 percent. Clearly, we are falling behind our nation's population growth. Church growth strategist Lyle Schaller has done significant study concerning new church planting. He concluded that a denomination whose new church starts fall below three percent of the number of existing constituted churches is on a plateaued or declining path. Those who initiate starts equivalent to three percent of the number of existing constituted churches are on a slow growth pattern. It requires exceeding five percent of the number of constituted churches to create the power of a "movement" of evangelism and church growth. Between 1978 and 1993, Southern Baptist church starts grew at a rate of three percent annually. What we have been doing is obviously good, positive and steady ... but SLOW.
In addition, a thorough study done by the Home Mission Board's research and planning division, entitled "The Massive Unfinished Task of Southern Baptists in North America," contained sobering findings. The SBC, the study revealed, has not adequately penetrated the non-South and/or newer Convention states. "It would take 26,104 additional churches in the non-South tomorrow to bring the SBC ... to one church for 5,000 persons, a ratio of twice that of the church population ratio in the South."1 The study declared it would require 9,632 more churches in the South to have had the same ratio of church-to-population at the end of 1993 as existed at the end of 1970. The report indicated, "At the end of 1993, SBC churches in the South would have to have added 922,657 additional people to their churches in order to have the same ratio of resident members-to-population as existed in 1970."2
Thus it becomes clear that all areas of North America require a renewed and refocused intentional strategy as we move into the 21st Century. Our agencies are filled with wonderfully gifted people and guided by excellent staffs with committed trustees. Yet, we are not exempt from the challenges every organization in North America is facing as they move into the new century. It is incumbent upon us to walk into the future well prepared, streamlined, and committed to effectiveness. It requires us to do what is right ... not merely what is easy. Only then will our mission and commission come into alignment.
The Implementation Task Force is taking great pains and time to gather all the information and perspectives needed to facilitate the mandates of our Convention in truly thrusting forward in Bold Mission. We ask that you pray for us regularly. Our prayer is that all of us everywhere be willing to effect and accommodate changes needed to be the most effective force possible for the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. We as a Task Force commit to our Convention to move forward with sensitivity, integrity, tenacity, and prayer that is intercessory. We are thankful to be serving Southern Baptists "for such a time as this!"
1. "The Massive Unfinished Task of Southern Baptists in North America," p. 6.
2. Ibid, p. 6.
Reccord is chairman of the Implementation Task Force and pastor of First Baptist Church, Norfolk, VA.