At the 2016 SBC Annual Meeting, when Dr. Kevin Ezell presented a report from the North American Mission Board entitled It’s Working, he was referring to the implementation of NAMB’s new strategy over the past six years. However, his version of the storyline does not match the facts.
Is It Working? The answer to this question is a resounding “no” in light of the evangelistic results actually reported by SBC churches and church plants. While this is certainly not the kind of news anyone wishes to hear, the data nevertheless supports such a conclusion, which may explain why certain facts were either missing or misused in Dr. Ezell’s report. Baptisms per church have declined 18.7% during Ezell’s six year tenure.
This essay is the second part of a series entitled Is the New NAMB Working? In the first part, the questions asked and answered by Dr. Ezell in his report were exposed as weaker questions than the better questions we are asking and answering in this series. Today’s “better question” is this one: How are Southern Baptists doing in evangelism as seen in baptism reports and in correlating comparisons under the New NAMB?
Our Evangelistic Mission
Evangelism is the major purpose for NAMB. Church planting is reportedly the primary strategy to accomplish this purpose. According to Ezell, “NAMB’s primary reason for existence is to help Southern Baptists reach North America for Christ. That is the mission that runs through everything that we do.” (It’s Working, June 15, 2016)
Evangelistic strategies should be driving the New NAMB. These strategies reveal the measure of their effectiveness by resulting in baptisms. Planting new churches is not the ultimate mission—helping churches to be more effective in evangelism is the mission.
Our Evangelistic Results
According to an analysis of data reported in Southern Baptist Annual Church Profiles, we can draw the following conclusions by comparing our last year under the Former NAMB with our most recent year under the New NAMB:
- Our baptisms per member have declined—1 to 46 in 2009 and 1 to 52 in 2015.
- Our baptisms per attender have declined—1 to 18 in 2009 and 1 to 19 in 2015.
- Our baptism total has declined to a 70-year low—345,737 in 2009 and 295,212 in 2015.
NAMB is not solely responsible for the evangelistic results of the SBC. However, we should thoroughly examine these results in light of the complete dismantling of their evangelism staff, and in light of their complete rejection of our historic approaches to evangelism. In lieu of these time-honored ministries, the New NAMB has adopted church planting as virtually the only approach to “help Southern Baptists reach North America.” Any evaluation of results must consider the evangelistic effectiveness of the New NAMB and compare it with that of the Former NAMB.
New NAMB Era (NNE) vs. Former NAMB Era (FNE)
The evangelism statistics below compare the results of the past six available years (2010-2015) under the New NAMB with the results of the previous six years (2004-2009) under the Former NAMB. Under the leadership and strategies of the New NAMB, one seemingly positive result is that the total number of SBC churches did increase by 2.3%. We might assume such a result would increase our evangelism. However, when we analyze the statistics reported in the Annual Church Profiles during each era, this is simply not the case at all. In fact, as we compare the results of the New NAMB Era (NNE) with the Former NAMB Era (FNE), we discover the following:
- SBC Total Baptisms declined by 13% from the last 6 years FNE to the 6 years of NNE.
- SBC Baptisms declined by an average of 45,289 per year from the FNE to the NNE.
- SBC Baptisms declined by an average of 18.7% per church from 2009 (FNE) to 2015 (NNE).
Dr. Chuck Kelley, President of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, is widely known for his research and teaching on the history evangelism in the SBC. During a 2016 presentation, Dr. Kelley noted, “Southern Baptists are closer to losing the South than we are to reaching North America. If we lose the South, eventually, we lose everything.” (Is This a Great Commission Regression? NOBTS Chapel, January 19, 2016) Kelley later stated, “Lostness in North America is having a bigger impact on Southern Baptists than Southern Baptists are having on lostness.”
New NAMB Actions Crippling Evangelism
We have already seen that baptisms are in a steady and significant decline in the SBC under the leadership of the New NAMB. Any serious exploration into the possible causes requires an investigation into the specific measures taken by NAMB over the past six years which may have contributed to these steep declines in baptisms. In stark contrast to the approach taken by the Former NAMB, the New NAMB took the following specific actions significantly weakening SBC evangelism.
- Massive National Force Reduction
The New NAMB terminated some 37% of the staff members at the national headquarters within months of Dr. Ezell’s employment, including virtually all of the evangelism staff. NAMB evangelism staff reductions along with cuts to evangelism staff and missionaries at the state and local level has left fewer people to engage in leading, training, and engaged on the ground with their focus on evangelism.
- Massive Budget Cuts in Evangelism
The New NAMB reduced the funds committed to evangelism from $20.6 million to $6.3 million. By reducing evangelism funding to 5% of the overall $120 million budget, NAMB was able to invest 2.5 times more funds toward church planting. Today, out of this $76 million annual church planting budget, NAMB is spending $12 million to purchase homes for church planters and only $6.34 million in evangelism in 2017. This means that the New NAMB is now spending twice as much on real estate as it spends on evangelism. Additionally, the housing purchase project will spend $62 million in total for housing for planters.
- Church Planting Tunnel Vision
While its assignment is to reach all of North America, the New NAMB is focused almost exclusively on 4,000 church plants while under-resourcing the 43,000 existing SBC churches in evangelism. The New NAMB suffers from tunnel vision by focusing so exclusively on only 32 cities in North America.
- Massive State Evangelism Defunding
In the Former NAMB Era, and even in the early days of the New NAMB Era under the previous 2012 Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), NAMB jointly funded multiple evangelism staff members within the 25 non-southern state conventions to assist new and existing churches in evangelism. However, in 2014, the New NAMB revised the 2012 Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) by defunding all evangelism staff positions jointly funded by NAMB for decades. These positions included State Directors of Evangelism, other state evangelism staff, and the Baptist Collegiate Ministries staff evangelizing American and International students on college campuses. The cuts affected all of the 25 non-southern state conventions except for the Northwest Convention.
Let us pause a moment to synthesize and evaluate the cumulative impact upon evangelism of the four catastrophic initiatives mentioned above. A significant part of the New NAMB strategy has been to (a) practically eliminate its entire evangelism division, (b) slash its evangelism budget by nearly 70%, (c) narrow its focus to ten percent of our churches and 0.2% of our cities, and (d) abandon its historic commitment to assist sparsely populated state conventions with the resources necessary to employ evangelistic staff. Does it not stand to reason that evangelism in the SBC was bound to suffer as a direct result of these New NAMB initiatives?
This summary of the New NAMB strategy crippling evangelism raises a few important questions. If the New NAMB traded all of this evangelism infrastructure to accomplish something else, then what has been gained as a result of all that has been lost? What were we hoping to accomplish? What was the reason for doing all of this? And is this approach proving to be valid or invalid?
Appraising the New NAMB Rationale
Southern Baptists were told that church planting would become the primary focus of the New NAMB because church planting is the most effective evangelism strategy. Early studies were cited indicating that church plants are three to four times more effective in evangelism than established churches. This information was remarkably false and misleading, yet it was used to justify the radical changes made by the New NAMB. The study (Church Planting as an Evangelistic Strategy 2002) NAMB hired me to conduct and report on debunks the NNE claims and their rationale for making such radical changes to NAMB on behalf of all Southern Baptists.
Additionally, in 2007, Ed Stetzer conducted NAMB research and published a report entitled Research Report Church Plant Survivabilty and Health Study 2007 and powerpoint Church Planting and Survivability. Comparing Stetzer’s data with the data shared by Dr. Ezell in his 2016 SBC Annual Meeting Report entitled It’s Working, a very different picture emerges.
- Declining Baptisms in Church Plants Per One Hundred Members
Church plants in the New NAMB Era report lower baptisms per one hundred members than church plants in the SBC and other denominations reported previously—20 baptisms per 100 members 2005 compared to NNE 7 baptisms per 100 members in 2015. The drop in baptisms is a staggering 65% less than churches in the study by Stetzer.
- Evangelistic Effectiveness Plants vs. Established Church
In an upcoming study, church plants may be marginally more effective in evangelism when using baptism-to-attendance ratios instead of baptism-to-membership ratios. However, the difference is not nearly as pronounced as New NAMB proposals advocating the strategy that church plants are 3 to 4 times more effective– instead in 2015 1 to 14 baptism ratio for members in church plants and 1 to 19 baptism ratio on attendance for all SBC churches in 2015.
- Southern Baptist Impact
Church plants under five years old represent 8.5% of our churches, and an estimated one percent of our baptisms and less than one percent of our financial contributions to Southern Baptist work.
Comparing Apples and Oranges
Statistics can be accurate and yet, intentionally or unintentionally, misleading. It is either guile or statistical ignorance to compare the baptism ratios of church plants to the baptism ratios of existing churches as long as the two ratios are based on membership. (Frankly, one would expect this reality to be crystal clear to Dr. Ezell when he included this information in his 2016 SBC Annual Report.)
The explanation is simple. Typically, membership in church plants is typically less than average attendance, as new seekers take time to explore the faith before trusting in Christ and joining the church. On the other hand, membership in existing SBC churches in 2015 is almost three times more than average attendance, since churches that have existed for years, in most cases, will have accumulated a list of inactive members still on the rolls, having never joined any other church. The disparity in baptism-to-membership ratios between church plants and existing churches is not due to the evangelistic success of church planting. Rather, it is due to differing membership roll tendencies.
More accurate assessments can be utilized in comparing the baptism ratios of church plants with the baptism ratios of existing churches. The best two approaches are to compare baptisms with either (a) the average worship attendance, or (b) the average small group attendance. These are the precisely the two measures I used when NAMB hired me to research, write and publish a paper comparing the baptism ratios of existing churches and church plants in 2002.
A Historic Lesson in Reporting Evangelistic Decline
In 1946, when Southern Baptists were disturbed about the declining baptism rates and bothered by a baptism-to-membership ratio of 1 to 27.6, they reported it at the SBC Annual Meeting, rather than covering it up. They were concerned about the entirety of the nation, and worked in conjunction with state conventions and local associations for greater effectiveness. Notice the humility and the burden expressed concerning the situation. Is this not the proper way to report evangelistic decline?
For more than a decade, prior to 1943, we had witnessed a gradual decline in evangelistic results. Taking the convention territory as a whole, we had dropped to the alarming average of one baptism a year for every 27.6 church members. Accordingly, as we surveyed this serious drop two years ago, and as preparations went forward for our Centennial Celebration last year, it was felt, by your committee, that we should celebrate that historic year by placing a special emphasis on soul-winning. (1946 SBC Annual Evangelism Report, p. 30)
We would further urge the organized forces of all our cooperating states to maintain an organization which will give perennial attention to the work of Evangelism. We would encourage the growing of departments of evangelism wherever practical, in all the States, and as full correlation and cooperation as possible between these State Convention departments and the department of evangelism of the Home Mission Board, and/or its other missionary departments. (1946 SBC Annual, p. 31)
We would send forth the challenge to all our constituency to pray earnestly for revival fires among us, in congested City areas, in rural areas, everywhere throughout our territory, where Christ does not reign in all the relationships of men. Let us pray for, plan for, and expect the tides of Evangelism to rise on and upward, until his Name shall be made known to every lost soul within our Convention bounds. (1946 SBC Annual, p. 31)
Summary of Strategic Evangelism Pitfalls
- Church Planting Tunnel Vision The New NAMB is almost exclusively engaged in assisting about 8.5% (4,000 church plants) out of our 47,000 SBC churches, while investing little money or personnel to assist the other 43,000 existing churches. Meanwhile, the established churches are responsible for at least 98% of the baptisms of the SBC, and provide at least 99% of all funds given through the Cooperative Program and Annie Armstrong.
- Proposed Church Probation Policy The New NAMB appears to be considering the controversial embrace of a pastor shaming approach to evangelistic motivation. Reportedly, Dr. Ezell communicated his current thinking leaders in St. Louis in June 2016 at a Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary panel discussion and again to State Executive Directors in February 2017 that churches who do not baptize anyone over a two-year period and are not investing in the CP should be put on probation. Ezell said, “And in my opinion, that if you don’t baptize no one in two years, we should put them on probation and eventually kick them out. I am absolutely serious. We got people wearing our uniform who are not on our team. They are bad advertisement.” Apart from reservations regarding local church autonomy and our rejection of a ruling denominational hierarchy, Dr. Ezell’s proposal reveals an unwillingness to assume any measure of responsibility on the part of NAMB for these declining baptism rates. After practically obliterating our SBC evangelism promotion, slashing millions of dollars in evangelism budgets, and laying off hundreds of evangelism staff at both the national and state levels, Dr. Ezell explains the decline in baptisms by blaming the very pastors his organization has decided to no longer to equip for evangelism.
- Defunding State Evangelism Directors The New NAMB defunded their portion of the salary and ministry budgets of State Directors of Evangelism and other state evangelism staff. This seems utter foolishness if an organization’s purpose is to reach the lost in North America.
- Exclusive Focus on Unreceptive Areas The New NAMB strategy is focused on reaching the North American people groups that are hardest to reach, located in the most unreached areas, and comprised of the people most unreceptive to the gospel. While the intentions are admirable, this strategy is being implemented in cities by church planters who are often isolated and inexperienced. Meanwhile, we are practically abandoning the places and people who were being reached with the missionaries and methods previously utilized.
- Heavily Investing in Isolated Urban Ministry The New NAMB foolishly invested all evangelism resources into church planting among the largest unchurched cities in North America to the exclusion of virtually all other approaches to impacting lostness in North America. This approach was taken while making decisions to defund local and state support systems, undermine by defunding local associations who are there to help support the planters, and often move planters into mission contexts that are both radically different than their own without proven cross-cultural ministry effectiveness, and without connecting with healthy churches around them.
- Dismantling Four Layers of SBC Cooperation The New NAMB leaders are making decisions leading to or hastening the dismantling of the ecosystem of SBC life. History reveals that Southern Baptists accomplish more when we work together from the national, state, association and local church levels—not when a national organization picks a strategy for the day and forces it upon state conventions, associations, and local churches. As Southern Baptist have become disconnected at these four levels, even viewing some of them as unnecessary, baptisms in the SBC have been on a steady decline for sixteen full years—marking the first time in SBC history that we have ever observed such a slide.
With all due respect, how can we possibly conclude that in the area of evangelism, It Is Working in the Southern Baptist Convention today? The New NAMB strategy has put the cart before the horse. Evangelism must be the leading edge, not the trailing edge. It must not be an afterthought in strategy operating on leftover human and financial resources. The New NAMB has become more effective in public relations and less effective in evangelism. In spite of all the inspiring testimonies and positive rhetoric presented by New NAMB leadership, the cold hard facts reveal that Southern Baptists are doing a historically poor job of evangelizing North America. We are not in need of a spin zone, but a reality check. It is not working. In all honesty, our leaders should stop reporting that it is.