Baptists' plan tries to address dwindling numbers

 

Southern Baptists have adopted changes they hope will lead to a denominational growth unlike anything in their history.

Southern states, where the denomination is concentrated, might feel the pinch when money traditionally spent on established church programs is diverted outside the South.

"It will fundamentally change the way the Southern Baptist Convention is put together," said the Rev. Bill Harrell, the pastor of Abilene Baptist Church in Martinez and a longtime member of the convention's executive committee.

The denomination, founded in Augusta in 1845, is struggling to address declines in membership. When delegates gathered for an annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., in June, their focus was a document calling for a Great Commission Resurgence.

"I see our convention at this point going through some transitions I am troubled about," Harrell said. "The GCR is a rallying cry."

The report urges a response to a number of statistics, namely that 6 billion of the world's people, including an estimated 258 million in North America, are "without Christ."

In 1950, Southern Baptists had about 27,800 churches. In 2008, the number had grown to about 44,800. Yet Southern Baptists baptized about 33,800 fewer people in 2008 than they did in 2005.

Ed Stetzer, the president of LifeWay Research, the denomination's research arm, has declared Southern Baptists "a denomination in decline."

He says the church, the country's largest Protestant denomination, has struggled to respond to a changing culture, an aging membership and new, young leaders who are choosing partnerships with other churches and church-planting networks.

Offering cooperation

The average Southern Baptist tithes 2.5 percent. Southern Baptist churches keep 94 cents of every dollar in their offering plates, forwarding 6 cents to the Cooperative Program, which funds international and domestic missions and seminaries and provides for operating expenses.

It's a bloated bureaucracy to some, but the bedrock of Southern Baptist cooperation to others.

Most agree, however, that something must be done to address declines in membership and baptisms.

The Great Commission Resurgence includes seven recommendations, all of which were adopted in June, including one that would allow Southern Baptists to give directly to missions, rather than funneling that money through the Cooperative Program.

The Cooperative Program was created in 1925 to fund missions but now also is used to fund other programs and entities of the church.

The SBC describes it as "the crown jewel of the denominational world, pulling together the resources of almost 50,000 churches and missions."

Many are concerned that the GCR will diminish giving to the program.

"There's a fear that it's going to ultimately destroy the unity of the Cooperative Program when the Cooperative Program is what defines us as Southern Baptists," Harrell said.

Georgia Baptists will give $45.5 million to the Cooperative Program this year. South Carolina will give almost $32.2 million. The funds are split among three pots: one that is kept, one that is given to the national convention and one to cover costs of both the state and national conventions.

The pot that goes to the national convention is largely spent at mission agencies.

One of those agencies, the North American Mission Board, which is based in Alpharetta, Ga., sends some of the money back to the states in the form of cooperative agreements. Those agreements will be phased out over the next seven years.

That's a loss of $900,000 a year for Georgia Baptists and $500,000 a year for South Carolina Baptists.

The money currently funds a portion (or, in a few cases, all) of the salaries for 151 missionaries in Georgia and 129 missionaries in South Carolina, said Mike Ebert, the communications team leader of the North American Mission Board.

Rethinking the impact

Baptists in the South are being asked to make a sacrifice, said J. Robert White, the executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention, who served on the task force that developed the Great Commission Resurgence.

"Stronger conventions need to support weaker conventions," White said, noting that South Carolina and Georgia are the two oldest conventions in the country. "State conventions like Georgia should send that $900,000 to parts of the country that don't have many Southern Baptists."

That's the goal. While the North American Mission Board spends most of its funds -- up to 77 percent -- in areas with few Baptist churches, Southern Baptists, as a whole, do not.

"Approximately two-thirds of our Cooperative Program dollars are spent on regions where only one-third of the population resides. In other words, the greatest percentage of mission funds remains where our own churches are concentrated," according to the GCR recommendations.

The changes could force Southern states to do away with some of their missionaries or find other ways to fund them.

"We have 2,100 churches in South Carolina, and this will mean something different to every one of them," said Roger Orman, the associate executive director of the communications and mission development team of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

The convention has set a meeting for Aug. 24 in Winnsboro, S.C., for churches to come and learn about the effects of the GCR.

In Georgia, White is optimistic.

"Our churches will need to increase the Cooperative Program support as they're able to help us make up this gap," he said. "We believe we can make it happen without losing people or ministries."

Working as a group

Until the state conventions make changes, it's difficult to measure the local effects.

Many of the Augusta Baptist Association's 62 member churches already give to the Cooperative Program faithfully.

However, several of the area's most vibrant ministries, and the association itself, don't receive funds channeled through the Cooperative Program, said the Rev. Don Wheless, the executive director of the Augusta Association of Baptist Churches.

Local churches have, for instance, established 12 churches in the past 12 years. While some have been more successful than others, it's a sign that this area is committed to church planting and evangelism -- regardless of where the money is coming from, Wheless said.

"When we work as a group, we're able to pull together our resources," he said. "Our churches believe in that. They find ways to make it happen."

ZACH BOYDEN-HOLMES/STAFF

Abbigail Deloach, 8, is baptized by Associate Pastor Terry Doss at Abilene Baptist Church in Martinez. The Southern Baptist denomination, founded in Augusta in 1845, is planning to divert funds outside of the area to address declines in membership. \nThe Rev. Bill Harrell, of Abilene Baptist, also serves on the convention's executive committee.

BACKGROUND: Last spring, Southern Baptist leaders drafted the Great Commission Resurgence declaration, which called for a renewed focus on Jesus' call to spread his message. Thousands of Southern Baptists signed on in agreement.

DEVELOPMENTS:

- A 23-member task force -- which includes the Rev. Frank Page, a former pastor of Warren Baptist in Augusta, and J. Robert White, the executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention -- was appointed to present at the annual meeting its recommendations for addressing dwindling membership and decreasing baptisms.

- In June, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in Orlando, Fla., overwhelmingly approved the task force's recommendations, which include channeling funds away from established programs and using them to fund new churches and more missionaries outside of the Southern states.

-- From staff and wire reports