By John Chandler
Seven years ago, I was asked about the future of local Baptist associations. My response was to say that while I felt the future of Baptists associating was still very strong, the future of local Baptist associations was far from certain. In my commonwealth, Virginia, that has proven true. While some of our regional Baptist associations continue to thrive and be led with creativity and gusto, more have fallen onto hard times. Some have merged, others have collapsed.
This same scenario is now being played out on the level of state associations or conventions in Baptist life. In the historic Southern Baptist Convention, the last five years has seen a drop of state denominational employees from approximately 1,800 to 1,300. One old denominational stronghold, the Florida Baptist Convention, has experienced an annual budget drop during that span from 48 million to 27 million dollars. The changing shape of denominational tribes is skinnier.
The shrinking trend may be most evident in old-line Southern Baptist strongholds. It reflects, I believe, a generation of decline in SBC life. In May, a pastors task force of the North American Mission Board released a report lamenting a two-decade drop in baptisms in SBC churches, including a 5.52 percent drop recorded in the 2012 Annual Church Profile, the worst drop since 1950.
It is not a stretch to extrapolate that the networking structures of a plateaued and declining denomination would reflect similar hardship. While the SBC is certainly not the only Baptist body experiencing national and state-level decline, it is clearly feeling the cuts. How much more so are other Baptist tribes in North America that have lower margins than the SBC?
Okay, Debbie Downer, is there any good news in this trend? Well, yes. The decline in state-level Baptist structures means that the votes are in, the churches have spoken and some winners and losers are clearly named. Program-focused, high-control, “father-knows-best” and patronizing state leadership is out; innovative, emerging-leader-heavy, relationally dense, do-more-with-less leadership bodies are in. State leaders who whine about financial reductions off from historic levels will see even less of revenue; those who find supplementary income streams will be rewarded with capital to launch new initiatives. Ironically, states where Baptists have always functioned with minority consciousness may be better positioned to lead with this sort of creativity going forward.
Historic forms of trans-local Baptists associating are morphing rapidly. I am eager to see (and contribute to) new, dense-relational structures as Baptists figure out how to collaborate in doing together the Kingdom stuff we love doing.