As the saying goes “ignorance is bliss”, but it can also be deadly, so it is critical for leaders to come to grips with the realities of their situations. As I reflect on the challenges facing the Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist General Convention of Texas I am concerned that our basic challenge is not ignorance but rather denial. All we have to do is look at the hard numbers from our annual church profiles, listen closely to the reports from the field, and check our balance sheets and the message is clear. We either change or we will simply find ourselves rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as the band plays in the background “Nearer My God to Thee”.
The world has changed and flattened while we argued over theological fundamentals. While we were drawing lines in the sand between each other the world around us changed even in the beloved “Bible Belt”. At one time with our chests puffed up with “righteous arrogance” we pointed at the old mainline denominations decline and blamed it on their theology and liberalism, but now as we decline after our “Conservative Resurgence” we either to have to admit the basic problems we face are not theological or we must invent a theology of the “holy remnant” that explains our decline.
In Loren Mead’s book The Once and Future Church, he noted the three primary responses of denominations to the sea change around them. He wrote:
“Frantic effort to recapture the initiative, to get ‘ahead of the curve’ and to develop a NEW PROGRAM so compelling that it will attract all the eroded support”.
Like a faded camp tee-shirt with scripted letter on it, we must admit “we have been there and done that”. In fact, we continue to look for the secret. How many leaders do you know that have been on holy pilgrimages around the county to our versions of Mecca (like Saddleback, Fellowship Church, Willow Creek, Prestonwood). In many ways, the mega-church has replaced the denomination as the innovator, but when these quick fixes were tried at home by amateurs who read the books, and listened to the tapes, but did not fully comprehend the principles, splintered churches and broken pastors were the primary results. In fact, I have heard Rick Warren say time and time again, like a TV announcer on a thrill show, saying please don’t try these things at your home church, go home and start a new church.
The BGCT has tried reorganizations, new structures, new innovations, and new leaders and yet the results continue to decline. Mead noted, “In almost every case the result is that the clock is not turned back, the resources continue to decline—with an occasional hiccup of growth—and those leaders end up with larger tasks, promises, and commitments but even fewer resources and staff”. This prophetic word sounds all too familiar.
A second approach Mead observed he described as follows:
“Holding steady and hoping for the best”…
I suspect this describes well why many of our churches have continued to give to the Cooperative Program. The tradition of sending your money to Dallas or Nashville to reach the world runs deep. As long as there is a small vocal minority of senior adults who attend business meetings we will continue to pay our dues to Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong, even though many of our younger members don’t even know who they are and often wonder when are we ever going to get those ladies paid off? Playing it safe in times of seismic change can be very risky at best. On of the reasons Ed Jackson of Garland called on the BGCT to form “The Future Focus” study taskforce goes back to the looming threat. As the GI Generation passes the baton and their resources on, who is going to make up the slack? We need to look no further than a demographic study of the messengers of BGCT annual meetings to realize our window of opportunity is rapidly closing. “Holding steady” hoping for a miracle or a miracle worker may be fool hardy at best.
A third approach Mead observed and advocated is:
“A third strategy, the one I obviously prefer, requires moving ahead into a new paradigm of mission, rebuilding and reinventing the church as we go. This choice would be simple to make if two things were clear—what the new paradigm really is, and how we determine which parts of the collapsing system we need to keep to make it in the new era”.
As you can see this strategy is easy to choice, but rather trying to implement. If we had a “word” from heaven that spoke to the specifics of what to do it would make things much easier, but we lack or fail to listen to the futurists in our midst much like the people of old ignored the gloom and doom prophets. Like a doctor who is gifted in diagnosis but lack the medical expertise to heal, I find myself scratching my head, reading widely, praying, talking, dreaming, and in the end wondering which way to turn and what to do.
However, I want to end on a positive note. The mission of the Kingdom of God is too great for God to leave it to us and our bumbling attempts alone. Jesus knew that apart from Him we could do “nothing”. So I am confident we are edging our way into exciting times. As our feet splash in puddles of “new” wine spilled on the floor from the rupture of the old wineskins of our denominational systems, I believe God is already retooling His church and pouring new wine into new wineskins. I am claiming the words of Isaiah for the generations to come as he wrote:
18 “Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert
and streams in the wasteland. Isaiah 43:18-19 (NIV)
Forgetting the “former things” is job one for many of us steeped in the old systems, but the call is clear “see, I am doing a new thing!” I believe God is going to bring “streams” to the desert. He is answering our prayers with Himself rather than another innovative program. May we all look to Him in faith as our young men and women “see visions” and our old men “dream dreams”.