Some things cannot be addressed in a soundbite or 140 character Twitter post. The matters facing Southern Baptists churches and the increasing challenges we face demand a more thorough analysis as we evaluate our current course as Southern Baptists. One must understand wider and more deeply before seeking to evaluate or adjust strategy for an organization the size of the SBC.
My exploration of the impact of church planting began in a PhD seminar on the History of SBC Evangelism in 1989 at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. I had the privilege and task of reviewing the all the dusty SBC Annuals to determine, “The Impact of Church Planting on Southern Baptist Evangelism“. In the major paper I traced church planting in the SBC from its earliest roots and examined the various flavors and its impact on evangelism in the SBC.
Since 2010, Southern Baptists have gone all in with church planting as the single focus of its evangelism and mission efforts in North America. Is this single focus working in meaningful and lasting ways for Southern Baptists? That questions is one of several questions that deserve to be explored? While there are some positive results there are also major concerns as well, particularly on the impact on evangelism results now and in the future.
A flawed foundational statistic was used to justify the “all in” and single focus strategy. The same flawed statistic continues to be misused to convince Southern Baptists to support and fund the New NAMB approach to the neglect of all other approaches to helping churches evangelize North America. There are a number of great reasons to start new churches, but basing the focus on the statistical lie that church planting is 3 to 4 more effective in evangelism is not it.
NAMB President Ezell once again misused the statistic of membership to baptism ratios in his proclamation to Southern Baptists “It Is Working” in June 2016 in St. Louis. He communicated to Southern Baptist the baptisms to membership ratios as 1:14 for plants and 1:52 for established churches, and stated publically that the plants are making up for the lack in evangelism of established churches. He must know better.
How can I say this? In 2002, I was asked and hired by Dr. Ed Stetzer on behalf of NAMB to complete a research project on “Church Planting as an Evangelistic Strategy“ and report the findings back to the Former NAMB leadership. One of the requests was to compare the evangelistic effectiveness of church plants to established churches. One finding from the research was that church plants at that time had marginally better average attendance-to-baptism rates and marginally better average Sunday School attendance-to-baptism rates. I did not explore and compare the membership baptism rates because that would be a useless and unrevealing number. Baptism ratios can reasonably be based on average worship attendance or the average small group attendance, BUT NOT membership. Why? The typical SBC church has 3 times more members than average attenders and church plants typically have more attenders than members.
To see this clearly, consider the following:
An illegitimate comparison that is misleading…
- Older established church – averages 100 in worship, has 300 members, baptizes 10 people. The membership baptism ratio would be 1:30 or 10 baptisms out of 300 people.
- New church plant – averages 100 in worship, has 50 members, baptizes 10 people. The membership baptism ratio would be 1:5 or 10 baptisms out of 50 people.
- Using this flawed approach New Churches 1:5 and Existing Churches 1:30; which is a difference of six times, but both churches are averaging 100 in worship and baptizing the same numbers of people.
A legitimate comparison
- Older established church – baptism based on attendance would be 1:10
- New church plant – baptism based on attendance would be 1:10
Do you see the problems of national leaders sharing misleading information with the SBC people? Building a national strategy off one primary completely misleading statistic has proven to deeply damage large portions of the SBC and our evangelism effectiveness. Additionally, its impact will be felt by Southern Baptists for decades.
For a current real life example of strategy based on flawed information, read about Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos. Her business was initially built on good intentions to help people around the world. Hope grew as the technology was tested, and the business exploded in growth. But later it was discovered that she had sold some of the best minds and wealthiest people in America was built on a false medical information and unattainable dream. The 33 year old’s new worth of $4.5 billion went to zero overnight and many, many people were hurt as the truth was revealed.
We are people of truth, serve a God of truth, and share the truth. It is imperative that Southern Baptists leaders tell the truth to Southern Baptists, lest our efforts come crumbling down and damage His Kingdom.
Virtually all Southern Baptists can agree on several affirmations. We affirm the ministry of church planting. We affirm the missionary role of church planters and their family and we should take loving and reasonable measures to assess, train, and deploy planters into fields with human and financial support, and work to connect them to local churches and others islands of health in their region for greater support.
The New NAMB has brought greater awareness of the ministry of this missionary, sought to engage partnering churches to undergird them, and increased the overall value for church planting among SBC pastors and leaders. We are grateful and celebrate that there are plants which are impacting their local ministry contexts. Lives are being changed and the gospel is spreading to new people. However, the reality is, that some of this would happen with or without local, state or national support. From a few reports being shared among guys connected to the mission field, the New NAMB approach is working in some church planting, but there are others where it is reportedly not going well at all for the plants themselves or the local associations as redundant tracks are being built which is creating more confusion.
Planting Statistics and Facts
Dr. Ezell stated that the New NAMB had a church planting goal of 1,500 plants per year that was restated to the SBC in 2013. During the last six years under his tenure, the New NAMB has averaged 924 plants per year. On Feb. 8, 2016 Dr. Ezell publicly revised the goal to 1,200 plants per year in his presentation to NAMB Trustees. The average number of plants for the six years prior to the New NAMB was 1,368 after adjusting the number down for the average number of churches who became a part of the SBC by affiliation, not new starts. Using the numbers we have and adjustments down, the SBC is still seeing 444 less churches per year started during the last 6 years compared to the 6 prior years.
Dr. Ezell has claimed that it is impossible to compare the number of plants in the New NAMB to the number of plants in the Former NAMB. One of his concerns about past reporting is the possible duplication in counting and that new plants were not required to receive their unique SBC ID number. Another concern related to the number of affiliating churches that could have been reported in the pre-2010 reporting of new SBC congregations. However, in my calculations, I took into account one of the major factors, that of churches which have affiliated with the SBC as a church, but was not started by the SBC. In comparing the last six years to the six years prior to the New NAMB, I reduced the number of churches reported in the SBC Annual (Baptism and Plants 2004-2015) by the average on a per year basis.
2004-2009 8,211 (9,361 reported minus an estimated affiliated 1,150)
2010-2016 5,546 (reported church starts, also reported affiliated 1,150)
2,665 less churches reported started during last 6 years than prior 6 yrs.
I do not know the church plants Dr. Ezell is contesting prior to his becoming President. Not knowing how to calculate an allowance for them, I share the best figures I can calculate with an allowance for churches that are affiliated, but not started in 2004-2009. On average, it appears the SBC is starting some 444 less churches each of the last years, while spending initially two times more money and now 3.5 times more money than the Former NAMB used to start more churches. It is possible that Dr. Ezell can make a case for some differences in the calculations of church plants in prior years without SBC ID numbers, but I suspect he cannot account for the some 2,665 less churches even after an allowance of 191 per year for possible affiliation instead of being newly started. With less fanfare, it appears that the Former NAMB was planting more churches with less money and still funding evangelism efforts nationally, regionally and locally.
Ideally church plants are started with focus on evangelizing lost segments of society. Southern Baptists should be reluctant to fund church starts to provide Christians with a new church that is more to their liking.
In 2007 Dr. Ed Stetzer while working at NAMB conducted a study on 2000 church plants started between 2000 and 2005 in 12 different denominations and networks. In surveys with 500 of those churches, he discovered a membership baptism ratio of 1:5 for churches during their first four years (p. 16 above study). Dr. Ezell reported in recent SBC church plants to be 1:14. The membership baptism ratios are 65% worse in the SBC than the ratios discovered by Dr. Stetzer on plants in his study.
A better way to compare the currently known data and accurately reflect reality would be to say that new church baptism ratios to members is 1:14, while all 47,000 churches in the SBC have baptism ratios to average attendance of 1:19. As new research is completed on baptisms to average worship attendance in new churches, appearances are that the differences in new and established churches will only show small differences in ratios.
It thus appears that already existing local churches are a significant factor in evangelism, with new church plants only slightly more effective. Therefore, helping them with evangelism may be a significant way to bring people to Christ.
Yet Southern Baptists dismantled their entire multi-faceted approach to evangelizing and disciplining North America based primarily on the belief in a statistical lie that church plants were 3 to 4 times more effective in evangelism.
The New NAMB is investing 3.5 times more SBC dollars per year into church planting the last year of the Former NAMB: 76.1 million in church planting in 2017, compared to $20.9 million in 2010 (p. 294). By any thoughtful look at the numbers, we are spending 3.5 times more and actually getting less church starts each year. At the same time we have virtually eliminated NAMB evangelism staff specialists, defunding State Directors of Evangelism and other state evangelism staff who were there to assist both new and existing churches, reduced the evangelism budget to 5% of the New NAMB’s annual budget, and removed focus and funding for various regional effective evangelistic ministries. The church planting budget ($76.1 million) is over 12 times more than the budget for Evangelism ($6.3 million) in 2017. (see Financial Management p. 1) This means 43,000 existing churches of the total 47,000 churches that have had a 1:19 attendance to baptism ration are receiving little to no help with evangelism. Instead, the vast majority of funds are being spent to start new congregations whose actual evangelism effectiveness is only slightly better than the existing churches.
Under a new project, the New NAMB is budgeting $62 million to purchase homes for church planters over about a 6 year period (see p. 2 under Financial Management). In the last published report, NAMB had purchased 89 homes (see #III). This move into owning and managing property for planters has not been seen by this writer in the history of the SBC. The 2017 budget for purchasing homes for church planters ($12 million) is twice as much as the entire NAMB budget for evangelism ($6.3 million)
Church Planting Targets
Southern Baptist historically have planted churches with the DNA embedded from the mother or sponsoring church. This would have included a commitment to similar doctrine, governance, and a cooperative form of mission advance through the Cooperative Program. Since we are planting churches in radically different places and seeking to reach into new subsets of people groups, we need to be clear on the essentials we are trying to instill into the DNA of the new church.
The SBC should steward the resources of Southern Baptists by investing in church plants which have or develop
- Evangelistic heart and effectiveness
- Planter/pastor that is equipped and supported by local relationships
- Capacity to be self-supporting, self-governing, self-determining
- Commitment to the Baptist Faith and Message
- Long-term commitment to a cooperative spirit and funding of missions as a stewardship of the investments made into the plant
- Connected to and invested in the various expressions of the SBC ecosystem: local, state, and national
- Intentionality and effectiveness in developing disciples who are then engaged with community impact for Christ
Unknowns but Vital
To better evaluate the effectiveness of the New NAMB strategy it would be very helpful to discover two pieces of information that are currently unknown from a reliable source.
The first is survivability rates of the new church plants. Church planting is both an art and science with some unique challenges to its growth and sustainability. In the absence of access to current and reliable survivability rates, I can only relay that I have been told that the survivability rate of plants during the New NAMB is similar to the reported national averages in all denominations which is around 68% at the four year mark.
Another unknown is the long-term commitment of the new plants to essential values and practices of past generations of SBC churches and plants. The challenges in this area are increased because of our approaches to church plants and the North American culture in which we are planting.
Strategy and Tactical Concerns
The following are possible concerns related to the strategies and tactics being used by the New NAMB
- Short-sighted Approaches — It appears that we are using tactics that produce quicker results, result in NAMB looking “cool” and successful but have long-term negative consequences.
- Placing and/or approving planters to ministry fields that are far removed from their past contexts of living and ministering without examining these issues, preparing the planter and his family, and without connecting them to adequate local churches and leaders of healthy churches in surrounding areas. This will result in more planting failures, which damage not only the planter and his family, but also reflects negatively on all parts of the SBC family to all the individuals and churches which partnered with and supported the planter.
- Funding satellite campuses of some mega churches. Danger lies in the growing belief that the faithful CP giving of smaller and mid-size churches is being taken and then redistributed back to mega churches who plant campuses around them that in turn not reach lost people, but reach the church members of those small and mid-size congregations.
- Partner with (not sure all that it entails) with historically non-SBC churches to plant churches. I assume this means that SBC funds are being used to start churches who primarily relate to and are committed to non-SBC entities and mission efforts. Such known partnerships include: Harvest Bible Chapel, Acts 29, McLean Bible Church and most probably several others. I don’t know if we are counting them as SBC church plants for our records, but it would be worth inquiring of a NAMB Trustee.
- A Nationalistic Approach and Devaluing of Local and State Partners
- Setting policies, practices, assessment requirements, training programs, and the like from Alpharetta far from the mission fields. The Former NAMB typically worked to supplement local and regional strategies around common objectives with NAMB.In the past we operated from the assumption that pastors and leaders on the local field would best know their needs. The new approach means that officials at a far distance are assuming that they best know the local needs. This is a significant shift for us.
- Employing church planting staff that works in various states beside the non-Southern state conventions, but come under the selection, supervision, and support of the New NAMB – not the State Convention.
- Directing all things church planting from Alpharetta, instead of being responsive to state and regional priorities and processes that fit their context and are connected to and held accountable by local pastors and churches.
- The 2014 removal of the historic requirement of church plants who are receiving SBC funds to reinvest into the local association of churches and missions around them. When questioned, NAMB leadership said, “they need to earn theirs” with “they” referring associations and the DOMS who serve the local churches.
- Defunding of partial funding of DOMs in non-Southern states in 2012 with the new partnership and budget agreements with state conventions.
- Reported some if not all state Executive Directors have been informed that NAMB plans to fly all planters to Alpharetta for “orientation”. For the first time in the history of NAMB, the money and time is being spent to connect the planters directly to NAMB rather than the ministry at the local and state levels.
- NAMB is beginning to inform some non-Southern State Executive Directors that when the State DOM positions open up, NAMB intends to not replace them because that is an “antiquated” role. NAMB will select the next leader and will be eliminating the SDOM position, and requiring the new hire to be involved directly with two church plants. Reportedly there was no reply from NAMB to one Exec. Director who expressed concerns about the other and wider duties of the SDOM outside of church planting.
- Financial Matters
- Lack of local and regional financial controls and accountabilities with money entrusted at the national level for local ministry. Stewardship of SBC resources is best closer to the field and closer to local accountability
- NAMB leadership stewards a $120 million annual budget in addition to $320 million in net assets to strong-arm, reward, punish and use to purchase goodwill and favors. This money used to be entrusted primarily to state leaders and staff who then were under the authority of local pastors and churches.
- Funding directly to more church plants and/or their sponsoring churches, when historically the funding for planters/plants almost exclusively went through the state conventions. The direct funding fosters loyalty to the New NAMB, but not to the Southern Baptist Associations and State Conventions.
- Trust of NAMB
- Selective following of Strategic Partnership Agreements (SPA) with State Conventions
- Violating, ignoring and changing the terms of SPA has and will continue to erode trust if it continues.
- See my article on “Going Going Gone, Sold: Essential Elements of SBC Mission Efforts — Major Changes in the Latest NAMB/State Convention Cooperative Agreements Shift SBC Ecology”
- Nationalistic approaches are eroding local trust and eroding local engagement and responsibility in non-Southern states
- Selective following of Strategic Partnership Agreements (SPA) with State Conventions
Southern Baptists took a leap of faith with Dr. Ezell and in the New NAMB in 2010. They bought into the sales pitch that starting more churches was worth it. Do you think they knew it would come at the expense of dismantling vital aspects the fabric of the SBC and virtually dismantling the entire budget and staffing priorities in evangelism nationally and at the local and state levels?
Statistically, the New NAMB in keeping with the Great Commission Resurgence were sold a lie, that church plants were so valuable and would be so effective in evangelism, that selling all other things NAMB and SBC partnership was worth it. I believe this blind leap of faith based on a statistical lie has damaged the SBC in remarkable seen and unseen ways in the future.
Southern Baptists must determine if the gain has been greater than the loss with this “all-in” and single focused strategy to reach North America with the gospel. While some gains in publicity and enthusiasm has been achieved, the planting, baptism, and impact on the cooperative work and partnership has suffered major, irrecoverable losses. The overall costs are too high, the benefits too low, and Southern Baptist are weaker in strategic ways and in essential trust.
It might seem that turning back the clock would be best. But, that is not an option for SBC leaders who must guide the SBC out of this blind jump into the unproven and damaging approach to growing our human and financial mission base. Southern Baptist church members and churches desire better stewardship of their national missions agency.