October 21, 2020

Riffs: The Biggest Story in Southern Baptist News (and did you even hear it?)

SBC President Frank Page is one in a million. He’s a truth-teller who understands what’s actually going on in his denomination.

Don’t get me wrong. My denomination does love its statistics, but they seldom- never?- go all the way down the field and say “This is where the ball is going to fall.”

Frank did. Frank told the SBC that half of their churches are going to die in the next 20 years.

For those of us who work for SBC funded entities, this is a bit ‘o sobering news and if a person has both feet on the ground and his/her head in the real world, they would immediately take the news seriously.

And thousands of SBC churches do take that sort of things seriously. They are starting new churches that don’t resemble a refuge for southern white people who think churches ought to be museums of their tribe. They are daring to do things differently, or not at all, or like the other guy who is reaching his community.

Good for them. But for the ten thousand or so churches that are going to expire in the next twenty years, it’s a sad matter, and I hate to see it. I’ve preached and ministered in many of those churches. They have good people in them who love Jesus. They just have no idea at all what it means to be a missional church, so the clock is ticking, and no revival, change of pastor or new carpet is going to make a difference.

I’m with Dr. Page in believing the SBC that is to come will be stronger in many ways. Unfortunately, I also think it has at least one major functional split in its future, as younger missionals take off into networks that don’t require them to swear allegiance to a lot of cultural Christian baggage that has nothing to do with Jesus at all.

So if you are part of the SBC- church, institution or missionary- your denomination is going to drop 10,000 churches in the next twenty years, for reasons that anyone can diagnose in fifteen minutes.

Out of the old will come the new. And more of the new.

I’d like to suggest that the future is now. Take off that tie and join it.


  1. I don’t think it’s just the missional churches that are contributing to the decline in numbers of SBC churches. The megachurches and social mobility are also factors.

    People move. A lot. Every 3–5 years on average. When they are new to an area, they get blitzed with marketing campaigns from the megachurches, and before they even hear about the small churches they are sucked in. Also, a lot of SBC megachurches are buying up smaller, struggling churches in almost hostile takeover bids. (“Your church is on the decline. People are all coming to our church. If you don’t join us, you’ll be closing your doors soon. We can save you if you become a satellite of our church and let us beam our preacher over to your congregation.” I’ve seen this kind of thing happen several times.)

    I don’t know the numbers on the overall growth/decline of the SBC, but I suspect the reduction in numbers of churches is because more people are going to larger churches. So the same number of SBCers go to fewer churches. But I could be way off on that.

  2. Matt,

    I not quite following you when you mention missional churches causing decline. Did someone say that and I missed it? I was saying that the lack of new missional churches is a cause of decline.

    If we want to look at the SBC as a phenomenon of SBCers moving from church to church, then yeah, there is a lot of generational movement to megas, etc.

    But if the SBC becomes just our kids and grandkids going to bigger churches, we’ve totally abandoned the Great Commission anyway, right?



  3. Bob Sacamento says

    My sympathies are with you and Dr. Page (who produced one of my favorite quotes last year when he took the reins in the SBC: “I believe the Bible is the Word of God. I’m just not mad about it.”)

    But when I read that “Missional” is more than a buzz word, it takes me back to one evening in my college years when I was talking with an older and wiser Christian brother and was suddenly struck by the blindingly obvious fact that “evangelism” was not really the true emphasis of the “evangelical” movement. In the same way, calling ourselves “missional” won’t put us “on mission.” The etymological roots of “missional” are, and will be, utterly irrelevant. The word will come to mean whatever it is used to describe, just like “evangelical” did, all protests to the contrary notwithstanding. (BTW, Michael, I am reacing here not your post per se, but to the article you linked to.)

  4. Being missional is not a buzzword. Andrew Jones has traced the term to the early twentieth century. For SBCers, it means the church exists to promote the Kingdom of God to those OUTSIDE of the church. At it’s best, the SBC does this. Look at its new churches and its mission start ups. But at its worst, the SBC is full of maintenance churches who have audiences who want to be visited and served.

    I think missional is the most important word in evangelicalism, and unlike emerging, has a real definition.


  5. Michael

    Thanks for the link. As you are already fully aware there is much more that could and perhaps needs to be said to bring greater clarity to the issue, but I had to conserve words for editorial reasons and at the same time attempt to speak clearly to a SBC audience. However, at least for me, I find these three elements to be the most crucial to understanding the “best” of what it means to be missional.

  6. They just have no idea at all what it means to be a missional church, so the clock is ticking, and no revival, change of pastor or new carpet is going to make a difference

    I think I misunderstood what you meant by the phrase “missional church.” You meant “Evangelizing church,” while I interpreted it as “contextually relevant church.” There are two parts to being missional: (1) preaching/living the kingdom of God, and (2) doing it an a way that speaks to a particular culture. I thought you meant that the dying SBC churches were irrelevant to the culture while you meant that they weren’t sharing the Gospel.

    I have found the SBC to be very evangelistic. Every sermon ends with the Gospel and an alter call! I think their decline is not due to their lack of sharing the Gospel, but due to a change in culture. In the old south, church membership was a must, regardless of what one believed. This is changing and I think the SBC is suffering for it. In the long run, this might be good for the SBC, because the only people left in the church will be those interested in following Christ.

  7. Hi Matt –

    I’m pretty sure Michael was saying both. Hence the reference to churches as museums for a particular tribe.

    As a point of note, exactly the same thing is starting to happen to the Baptist Union over here in the UK. The more energetic outward looking churches are waking up to the fact that they live in multicultural cities and joining other networks of likeminded churches.

  8. I believe that Frank Page is spot-on! I’ve been an SBC pastor for nearly 30 years and have been dismayed by the inward-focus of so many churches. Lip-service is paid to “reaching the lost” but even that is usually limited to those who look like us, speak like us, dress like us and vote like us.

    I am encouraged by the numerous churches that see their mission as loving God and loving and caring for their neighbors in the community and outside the church. It’s not so much about worship style, architecture or counting noses as it it about developing a community of believers that remember the adage of beggars telling other beggars where to find bread. Part of the problem with many Southern Baptists (and again, I “are” one) is that they’re afraid of engaging the culture, lest they be somehow tainted. A missional mindset seeks to engage the culture with the claims of Christ in a loving manner.