Dealing with Decline: The Future of Southern Baptist Cooperation

Is the SBC in Danger of Unraveling at the Seams?

We have got such a great past, BUT are we going to have a future?

The Southern Baptist Convention has a strong historic foundation, but is currently declining in worship and small group attendance, baptisms, church plants, and cooperative mission dollars invested.

QUESTION: With less resources and declines in most measurable indicators, what are Southern Baptists going to do?

  • Merge or eliminate agencies, state conventions, associations, seminaries
  • Reduce the number of staff or field missionaries
  • Become more nationalistic or societal in our approach to missions
  • Reenergize the cooperative spirit and investing in strengthening and starting of new and existing churches
  • Fragment, dismantle, consolidate
  • Lock arms to find new ways to cooperate again to meet the challenges and opportunities

SBC’s Place in God’s Kingdom

Southern Baptists represent a remarkably small percentage of the Christians in the world, yet God has used mightily Southern Baptists far beyond its size. However, lest we become arrogant or prideful, we should remember God is working in unseen ways and many other Christ followers also have the world on their hearts, minds and actions.

Among many others, God is raising up leaders in the house churches of China and among the persecuted and martyred saints in the Middle East. God can continue to use Southern Baptists, however He does NOT NEED us and we are not doing Him a FAVOR with our obedience or service. It is our REASONABLE act of worship to love Him, love neighbors and share Christ.

If Southern Baptists lose the strong base of churches and disciples concentrated in the South and lose the cooperative spirit that has held us together, then America will soon start to mirror the church in parts of Western Europe where the modern missionary movement began. Those countries are typically only 4-7% Christian with a weakened sending capacity.


  • Today the US is the world’s 4th largest unchurched nation and it is increasing at alarming rates. From a national study by Pew Research, in the last 7 years, the people identify who themselves as Christians in the US has dropped an alarming 7.8%.
  • We have more missionaries coming to the US than the American church is sending out across the globe.
  • As we are going to the nations, God is also sending many peoples of the world to us, particularly our college campuses. There is significant diversity in most every city and neighborhood in America. While they are here and more open to the gospel, we need a strong base of churches to evangelize them with the good news of the gospel.

As Annie Armstrong said, “Men and means were not forthcoming fast enough for the great work of foreign missions, so God turned the stream this way and sent great masses of the unevangelized to come in contact with Christians.”

SBC Tapestry & Ecosystem…

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in its autonomous forms has been a beautiful, but resilient tapestry, built on a cooperative spirit of missions. It has provided opportunities to all parts of the body of Christ to engage in the entirety of the Great Commission, regardless of size, style, ethnicity, or location.

In the midst of widespread cultural individualism, the diversity of SBC people, forms and expressions have been woven together in a cooperative spirit to bring glory to God and advance His mission to neighbors near and far. While far from perfect all of its days or in all its ways, Southern Baptists have given serious efforts to reach and reflect an increasingly diverse people in racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, and other ways.

The SBC is an Ecosystem, with expressions at local, state/region, and national levels. Southern Baptist mission efforts are stronger and more effective when local, state, and national parts of the tapestry are functioning in their respective roles. If we start eliminating parts of the eco system, we will eventually see unintended consequences. I am not suggesting holding tightly to current forms or expressions. However, I am agreeing with a national SBC leader’s warning that we need to be careful that we do not kill the milk cow in order to eat well for a few days, only to discover some days later we now have no milk.

The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations by Dietrich Dormer has challenged my thinking and practices. Business Week writes, “Everybody knows that people in authority make dumb mistakes. Dietrich Dorner explains why they do so, drawing on psychological experiments conducted via computer simulations with role-playing volunteers.” Dormer’s tests revealed the people who solve problems the best are the ones who can think multi-systems at once. The SBC is a multi-system ministry and missions cooperating, volunteer organization.

One Book Review of Logic of Failure  and  Executive Summary of Logic of Failure

Dormer discovered through testing, that the most logical solution to solve a problem can actually lead to failure. Smart people often unknowingly work toward failure of the very thing they are seeking to help. They often make irrecoverable mistakes in their zeal because they do not foresee or anticipate the unintended consequences of their decisions. In other words, they do not easily or naturally think and see multi-systems at once. Instead, they think mostly about isolated problems without considering the side effects and long-term repercussions.

Ok, let’s see how this applies to SBC life:

Currently there is a systematic effort to change the ecosystem of the Southern Baptist Convention. I presume it is well intentioned. May I suggest that those who have taken on this task should exercise EXTREME CAUTION. I fear that we are seeking personality driven and single system solutions to complex challenges in the midst of the current declines in the SBC.

This behavior is consistent with stage 4 of organizational decline that Jim Collins describes in How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In.

Stage 4 “Grasping for Solutions” …

This is where…. charismatic and fast moving leaders are sought after who will then provide silver bullet solutions based on unproven strategies. Hype gets ahead of results, and the short-term results are not sustainable and over time distrust of vision and the new values grows. I highly recommend reading about this stage, actually all the stages, whether considering your denomination or local church.

Consequently, is it possible that those in national leadership are in danger of missing the potentially long-term damage or destruction of SBC mission efforts? From the outside, the fibers which hold the SBC together are under enormous cultural pressures. Additionally from the inside, the fabric and fibers of the SBC are now being systematically and increasingly loosened.

Near-Future Challenge for SBC…

We are no longer growing people into high levels of understanding of SBC history or commitment to historic SBC values and cooperative forms of mission and ministry to replace the faithful, generous servants of God who have built this Missional denomination. Inevitably, this will bring enormous challenges in the near future.

QUESTION: Should SBC leaders dismantle, fragment or consolidate components of the SBC Ecosystem to solve the larger near-future challenges facing the SBC? OR Look for other viable solutions?

I believe in the coming years, others (churches, its leaders and followers of Christ) will once again desperately need each other as we face an increasingly hostile audience to His message and messengers.

Current SBC leaders steward both what others before them built and they/we steward today so that we can handoff a strong foundation to future generations. America will desperately need a strong church in the midst of the exponentially growing rapid change and chaos that is surely already coming.


Role of State Conventions and Local Associations….

There are discussions nationally about the role of state conventions and associations. This discussion is taking place for several reasons, but like many things, it involves financial resources. Southern Baptists are struggling to decide how to divide steadily decreasing financial resources and also address the growing complexities, opportunities, and challenges around North America and the world. If we are not more careful than we have been with recent talks, we may be our own undoing, or at least hasten the downward trend-lines.

Withstanding the current strategies, missionaries, and accumulated financial resources, because our world is smaller and more accessible than ever before in history, I believe Southern Baptists in their local and state forms could, but not necessarily should, do without national agencies. However, SBC national agencies and their mission efforts cannot, or should not, do without local and state expressions. This position is consistent with Southern Baptist’s historic past perspectives related to a national missions agency. With the world more accessible and communication systems infinitely stronger, the international efforts are less complicated than in the past for local churches. But, there is a place for an organization that is globally focused, champions the peoples of the world, and that coordinates training and logistics for international mission advance to compliment the efforts of local churches and Christians.

Concern has been expressed related to duplication and adjustments needed. The duplication in most aspects is what happens at the national level, particularly with North American mission efforts, not the local and state levels. The closer to the local church the better for all aspects of denominational life. However, there are select, vital, but limited roles the national agencies can play. This is analogous to our own system of government with local, state and federal roles. It may be logical to eliminate one or more of these parts of the ecosystem, but this could have disastrous unforeseen consequences in the future. Each of these three expressions, with their challenges and imperfections, are essential.


Foundations for Mission Advance

All financial support for all mission efforts is LOCAL.

  • Unlike the American government, our national and international agencies cannot print their own money, in fact they steward local money. They do not have money separate from local people and churches
  • All funds used nationally or internationally come out of the pockets of local Southern Baptists and local Southern Baptist churches

All human resources and support for all mission efforts is LOCAL.

  • Southern Baptists missionaries are developed by and come from local churches.
  • Southern Baptists do not have required missionary service and operate completely on a voluntary basis, whether vocationally supported or mission field employed.

Southern Baptists past and current mission efforts are built on at least …

  • Commitment to the Bible as the final authority for faith and practice
  • Cooperative spirit to do more together than individual churches can do by themselves
  • Commitment to the Great Commandment and Great Commission

If Baptist do not know each other locally, do not cooperate locally and throughout their state/region, the overall national and international mission efforts will suffer long-term. In war, one does fight for country, but a higher motivation is to fight sacrificially for your friends and comrades in arms who are in the foxhole with you.

While national agencies can influence and reinforce values, local and state leaders are better positioned to know their churches, their leaders, and their mission field. Local and state leaders are better positioned to set strategies and goals, determine priorities, and to hire and hold their leaders accountable.

4 Proposed Affirmations…

1. National Agencies (North American Mission Board – NAMB, International Mission Board – IMB, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission – ERLC) have the right to set their priorities and strategies for carrying out their respective mission entrusted to it by and in keeping with expressed purposes of the SBC.

2. State Conventions and Local Associations are each unique in size, strengths and mission field, and as such have the right to be self determining, which involves, but not limited to …

  • setting its human and financial priorities and strategies for carrying out its mission as those who God has placed in that mission field
  • forming partnerships with sister agencies that are in its best interest to carry out its mission
  • setting budgets and staff in keeping with its priorities

3. Southern Baptists who are the owners of the SBC, have the right to expect their leaders to conduct themselves ethically and attitudinally in keeping with the Word of God and the example of Jesus Christ.

  • Support the cooperative spirit and nature of Southern Baptists
  • Honor their word, contracts and partnership agreements
  • Not strong-arm or threaten each other with their size or financial strength or positions
  • Communicate honestly without pretense and operate in the light with functioning accountability to Southern Baptists
  • Hire leaders in key positions that are actively involved in cooperating and investing Southern Baptist churches

4. Southern Baptists recognize that their national agencies, (ERLC, NAMB, and IMB) will be under constant spiritual attack and under various temptations as the national missions arms and national voice on public affairs. As such, Southern Baptists have the right to expect the trustees to provide oversight to the leaders of their national agencies, and to take seriously their responsibility to explore concerns that are raised, whether internally or externally, to ensure the integrity of their national agencies.

  • State and local expressions should be accountable to the pastors and local churches they serve. Local expressions naturally have more access to their leaders for greater accountability.


God is about His purposes and advancing His Kingdom. We get to participate in His work. While we typically think the individual and a single church, He is thinking about His Kingdom and His church, both locally and globally.

God often works in counter intuitive ways and is a jealous God. He uses the weak to confound the strong and to demonstrate clearly it is about Him and His glory, not our strength or clever strategies. With that statement of reality, the stronger the local church and their bonds to each other, the greater the capacity for mission advance and influence on culture.

May God grant us faithfulness in following Him, serving others, participating in the building of His church, and advancing His glory and His fame. May we cooperate well with Him and His agenda so that He does not have to work around us as Southern Baptists. May we be thankful that God and other followers of Christ across the globe also have the world on their hearts and minds.

Questions to Consider…

  • Will the SBC continue down the path of decline?
  • Will the SBC learn to cooperate again or unravel at the seams?