LITTLE ROCK — A report urging Southern Baptists to re-energize efforts to spread the Gospel and plant churches will top the agenda at the denomination’s annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., next month.
The Great Commission Resurgence Task Force report not only presses for a revival of evangelism in the face of declining baptisms but also outlines new responsibilities for the denomination’s missions organizations - the International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board. It also calls for increased giving by all Southern Baptists.
Ronnie Floyd, pastor of First Baptist Church of Springdale and The Church at Pinnacle Hills in Rogers, is the task force chairman.
He said he believes the recommendations, crafted after a year of discussion across the country, reflect the wishes of Southern Baptists.
“We believe we have our finger on the pulse beat of the vast majority of leaders and people in the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said. “But June will tell.”
With 16.1 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. But membership has dropped in recent years.The number of Baptisms climbed slightly from 2008 to 2009, but have dropped sharply in recent decades.
Bloggers and commentators have dissected the report and many have voiced opposition to the changes online and in Baptist publications across the country. Even leaders within the denomination, including Mor-ris Chapman, president of the powerful executive committee, have expressed concern with portions of the report.
Others, however, support the recommendations and think the changes will streamline the denomination’s efforts to reach the world for Christ.
“I think the report is crucial and essential to the future of our denomination, because the structure our convention is operating under is a model that is antiquated,” said Jeff Crawford, pastor of Grand Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Smith. “This report refocuses who we are and what the No. 1 focus of the church needs to be and that’s the Great Commission, taking the Gospel around the entire world.”
Crawford, 40, will attend his first convention annual meeting this year. In the past he hasn’t felt compelled to make the journey. This yearis different.
“I find the Great Commission relevant,” he said. “I can get excited about the Great Commission and I think it will strike a chord with many other pastors as well.
“I think there’s a general consensus that we need to do something different. People can get nervous about what that means but I think everybody realizes we can do better and we need to do better.”
Crawford’s hope is that the report will unite convention members under one common goal - sharing the Gospel. He said the very relevance of the denomination is at stake.
“We can’t afford to be irrelevant,” he said. “We need to send a message that the denomination can be relevant and the right way is to make sure we are centered on the Great Commission.”
Thousands of delegates, called messengers, will gather June 15-16 in Orlando to consider numerous resolutions, elect a president and other officers and hear from the task force.
Floyd said as the 23 task force members met with Southern Baptists during the past year they found most are concerned about how the denomination of autonomous churches can pull together to reach the world for Christ.
“This is a very complex ministry that has to work really hard at cooperating with one another,” Floyd said. “This is about how we can do it better.”
In all, seven recommendations will be presented by the task force, including one to phase out the so-called cooperative agreements between the North American Mission Board and state conventions in seven years and establish a new strategy for partnership. That would mean state Baptist conventions will no longer receive funds for instate missionaries and church planting efforts from the national mission organization. In Arkansas, that amounts to a loss of about $500,000, according to Arkansas Baptist News.
The Missouri Baptist Convention stands to lose even more - almost $2 million - and the executive board has expressed concern about several other aspects of the report. The group’s executive director, David Tolliver, will attempt to make a motion at the annual meeting to delay action on the report to give the entities involved time to study the impact of the proposed changes.
While Southern Baptists are generally united in wanting higher membership and more baptisms, they’re divided over how to split the money.
“We need to take some time to study the ramifications of their recommendations. I may be for every one of them once I fully understand what it will mean to Southern Baptists,” Tolliver said.
Tolliver will be one of many messengers attempting motions on various topics. He said there’s no guarantee he’ll even be acknowledged, but he’ll make the attempt.
Tolliver said he’s concerned about several components in the report, including a section proposing a new category of designated giving - Great Commission giving - which he believes will hurt the denomination’s Cooperative Program. Since 1925, the Cooperative Program has helped unite Southern Baptists in a spirit of cooperation. Local churches contribute to the Cooperative Program and state conventions fund their ministries with a percentage of the money and forward the rest to the executive committee to be disbursed among thevarious denomination entities.
As for the cooperative agreements, Tolliver said the report leaves the future of funding unclear.
“But if Southern Baptists decide to dissolve those agreements, I, frankly, will do that and we’ll begin to adjust,” Tolliver said. “We’ll live with whatever Southern Baptists want us to do.”
Floyd said the recommendations concerning cooperative agreements are an attempt to utilize the North American Mission Board more effectively. The proposal calls for “refocusing” the board by making church planting in North America the top priority. He said that requires moving funds.
“We need to move as much money as we can out of the South and into areas where Christianity isn’t known,” Floyd said.
Mike McDaniel, pastor of Grace Point Church in Bentonville, hasn’t attended an annual meeting in several years but is making the trek to Orlando this year. His congregation is similar to many others - it affiliates with the Southern Baptist Convention but also with other entities, including the Willow Creek Association, and supports them financially. The majority of the congregation’s contributions go to the convention. McDaniel calls these congregations neo-Baptists, those who no longer place the same value on aligning themselves with a denomination.
“Denominations are shrinking,” he said. “They are relics of modernism and we are in a postmodern culture... where we are anti-institutional.”
McDaniel sees the restructuring of the convention as an attempt to stabilize the denomination but he’s not sure the changes will foster a sense of cooperation, especially with the dissolution of the cooperative agreements.
“My conclusion is that it will create a competitive spirit,” he said. “It’s a fight for a bigger piece of a shrinking pie.”
McDaniel said changes to the Cooperative Program are needed because the current system is not efficient if the goal is to reach the world with the Gospel. Most state conventions keep more than 60 percent of their cooperative giving funds in state. He thinks the majority of funds should leave Arkansas.
“There needs to be prioritization on evangelizing the unreached peoples of the world,” McDaniel said. “If 60 cents of every dollar never left the state, did we really believe in global missions or did we believe in Arkansas missions?”
Ultimately, McDaniel said the denomination’s pace of change could be too slow for many churches.
“I’m afraid the more progressive churches loyal to good, sound Baptist doctrine aren’t waiting around for the slow giant to wake up and change,” he said. “They are moving on.
“People in our church aren’t waiting for the IMB and other SBC organizations to change and catch up with the times. They are getting seminary degrees ... going on missions with pioneers. They are ready to go and they are not going to wait around five more years or so until the denomination can finally get going in the right direction.”
As for Floyd, he encourages Southern Baptists to read the report. It’s online at pray4gcr.com.
“Southern Baptists are very concerned about the future but the problem is they are not sure how to get there,” he said. “We need to build a compelling vision that rallies them to a better future. ... We need to create a climate where change is acceptable.”