When the dwelling place of God is with men there will be no place for liars. John casts such a vision from the Isle of Patmos in The Revelation (ch.21). We, then, have some time to repent of our lying, those of us in the SBC, Southern Baptist Convention.
Before we insist on churches choosing between two ways with regard to the LGBT issue, we might ought to take the time to choose to tell the truth. Else, if we persist in our lying, we will be excluded along with the “cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters.” That’s right, when it comes to preachers, even seminary Presidents, singling out the sexually immoral, liars get no upper hand.
What’s the Lie?
What’s the big reveal? We are not as impressive as we want people to believe for we are not as big as we pretend. Ed Stetzer once told us, and he keeps telling us, facts are our friends. The President of Lifeway Research began beating the drum that the SBC was in decline six years ago. Underneath these numbers lies the truth. The SBC touting a membership of 15.735 million members, down from a high of 16.8 million, is undercut by weekly average attendance numbers of 5.8 million. I agree that regular attendance patterns have changed. But, we are hardly a denomination of 15.735 million people just because we say we are no matter the calculus used to determine regular attendance – weekly or otherwise.
The truth is we have long known this. Our organizational impetus leads us to recognize that if you want to run x in worship, used to be Sunday School attendance, you must have a membership roll of 3x. We have long known we will not see regular attendance at a rate much more than 30% of our membership figures. Yes, this was included in seminary training. We learned it the RE school, Religious Education. It was a given. “That is the way the numbers work.”
Telling the Truth is Painful
A large church, by mid-1990 standards, went through a bit of turmoil. The church called a new pastor. I contacted the new pastor to welcome him to our association. We decided to have lunch. Back then our state Baptist publication reported weekly Sunday School attendance for those churches that chose to report. Within weeks of the new pastor taking the helm the numbers of this particular church were no longer included. The new pastor told me the story.
He believed numbers mean something. When they began counting noses they discovered a great disparity in formerly reported numbers and actual numbers. The new pastor told me the shock of seeing such a dramatic drop in numbers may create more angst among members than the very public schism that resulted with some leaving the church. After going over the way numbers had been gathered it was learned the old numbers were mythical. I mean mythical in both senses. First, they were mythical as in contrived or made up. Second, they were mythical in that they served to foster the impression that the church was bigger than it was and so would carry more clout that it otherwise would. This is the SBC Mythos.
The SBC either reflects the churches or the churches reflect the SBC. It is the age old discussion, “Does life imitate art?” or “Does art imitate life?” When it comes to numbers it is an art either way.
What Would It Mean?
For starters it would mean telling the truth. We are not as impressive as we want people to believe and we are not as big as we pretend. Here are some random points.
1. We would need to acknowledge we are more close in our membership numbers to those denominations we have excoriated for their liberal drift.
Molly Worthen weighed in on the recent SBC statistics. If Worthen is on to anything, it is that the Southern Baptist experience is more complicated and nuanced than touting a conservative theology as the means to stave off decline. There may be more at work in the numbers than we are willing to admit. Those of us who grew up as young preacher boys at the onset of the CR were regularly chided that the SBC would go the way of the Mainline if we did not stem the tide of liberal drift. Many of us jumped in wholesale. I like the way David Fitch re-posted Worthen’s article,
This is us! Myopia keeps us from seeing that rather than the Separatists that we are, we need to be more interconnected with our Christian brothers and sisters. More cooperative than divisive.
2. We would need to publicly apologize for our arrogance, that we are somehow more right than all others.
If we have had a hard time getting past our racial heritage in the public eye, next year is the 20th Anniversary of the 1995 Racial Reconciliation Resolution, know it will be as difficult to overcome the impression that we believe among all God’s people we alone serve the Lord faithfully. Consider the way Mohler frames his argument for no third way by suggesting his way is the only faithful way to follow the Lord. This post is not about that piece per se. But, it is important to listen to the way we frame our arguments. I know those who hold an entirely different view than Al and they believe they are being as ardently faithful to the Lord. Both sides articulate their arguments in much the same way.
Christian life, even Southern Baptist Christians, appear to be a incessant replay of Inman’s quote from Cold Mountain,
“I imagine God is weary of being called down on both sides of the argument.”
3. We would need to acknowledge that we represent but 1.8% of the population of the United States.
If we accept the statistics, then Southern Baptist weekly average attendance is marginal at best. We could go all remnant in defense of our position. But, we often wonder how it is that we have lost influence. One wonders if it is influence that has been lost or is it that those who have been announcing the end of Christendom are more alert to our cultural location than we are willing to admit. Again, consider Worthen’s conclusion. She offers,
Christianity has been around for 2,000 years. Over the centuries, the faith’s center of gravity has shifted many times: from Palestine and Northern Africa to Rome and Byzantium; from Western Europe to America. The Southern Baptist experience is more proof that Americans’ term at the helm of Christ’s ship may be nearing an end, and the sailing is more squally than ever.
Is There Hope?
There is always hope. Southern Baptists heading to Baltimore may purpose to acknowledge our own weaknesses. Maybe we will resist the occasion to do the very thing Al Mohler told us we were guilty of in Louisville in 2011. Maybe we will be called on to think more deeply lest the only thing reported out of Baltimore is that Southern Baptists hate gay people and Muslims.
Maybe we would spend a bit more time on our proverbial, yet very real, logs in our own eyes. If we do not, then we only fool ourselves with thoughts of a Celestial City from which we will only see the outside if we continue to avoid telling the truth – to ourselves and about ourselves.