Saturday, December 19, 2009

Of Scarecrows and Tin Men: GCR and the Economic Health of the SBC and the Country


L. Frank Baum published The Wizard of Oz in 1900. Though it is now generally seen as one of the quintessential children’s stories, it was originally intended also as a political satire on the Presidential election of 1896. The campaign was waged against the backdrop of the economic panic of 1893 that was almost as severe as the Great Depression. In the story the Tin Man represents the factory workers, forced to work so many hours to make a living that their grueling labor caused then to lose their hearts. The Scarecrow was the late-century farmer, duped by robber barons to get out of debt by making more silver coinage, thus devaluing the money through inflation, but, what did they know? They hadn’t got a brain. At least, so goes the interpretation. All of this was taking place on a stage set right before a new century dawned—a century of hope for the country, perhaps even for the world.

On April 16, 2009, President Daniel Akin of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary preached a message entitled “Axioms of Great Commission Resurgence.” It was in some sense a response to many concerns that had been voiced for several years throughout the SBC for more conversions and more baptisms both on the mission field and here at home. It was in another sense a clarion call for Southern Baptists to lift up their chins, to raise their heads, to clench their teeth and march forward in mission thrust as they had done in 1919 with the Seventy-Five Million Campaign. The response to Akin’s challenge from key SBC pastors and most of the entity heads was immediate and passionate. They saw this as a moment when we as Southern Baptists could once again say, “Let’s Roll.” And make it happen.

To make something like this happen, to see it through, takes more than a sermon and conference or two. It takes a strategy that takes into full account the strengths and weaknesses of our institutions, the real condition of our churches, and the strength of our resolve. It also must consider the obstacles before us, obstacles of many kinds. One of those obstacles is the economic condition of our denomination and of our country.

All one has to do is to look at the receipts of the International Mission Board in last year’s Lottie Moon Offering. The goal was $170 Million. The actual gifts totaled $141 Million. That constitutes a $29 Million shortfall. The impact is real, it is significant, and it represents a potential retreat on the part of Southern Baptists in the area of missions. This would be unprecedented in the last century. It would also be a serious blow to our sense of call as an evangelical denomination still committed to sharing the genuine gospel with genuinely lost people who need to hear it more than anything else in their lives.

There have been significant efforts on the part of many churches and SBC entities to soften the blow of this shortfall by taking special Lottie Moon offerings in August, special one-time offerings to send to the IMB by individual churches, entities, and other similar efforts. All of those are commendable, and those who have criticized these efforts (and many, especially on the left wing of the SBC, have been critical) have done so out of an agenda that is mainly bent on bashing the Southern Baptist Convention. Still, the traditional strategy of the IMB getting about half of its budget through the CP and about the other half from Lottie Moon is the formula which has worked for decades and is still likely the right strategy for the future. So, what will happen if 2009 witnesses a similar shortfall? The impact could be devastating.

One of the components of the GCR is Article IX, which calls for the SBC to consider what might be a “More Effective Convention Structure.” One of the key statements in the GCR document says this: “At the midpoint of the 20th century the Southern Baptist Convention was a convention characterized by impressive institutions, innovative programs, and strong loyalty from the churches. But the convention has too often failed to adapt its structure and programs to the changing culture. We are frequently aiming at a culture that went out of existence years ago, failing to understand how mid-20th century methods and strategies are not working in the 21st century.” There may be reasons why we ought to reconsider the structure of the SBC, at least in part for economic reasons. We do not have unlimited resources. (There is, in fact, no such thing as unlimited resources in the human, worldly economy.)

Churches have constantly to ask themselves, “Are we using the best possible methods to carry out our calling to reach our community with the gospel?” What is true of churches ought also to be true of the SBC. We cannot simply assume that, because of what we believed in 1845, or 1891, or 1919, or 1925 to be the best methodology for carrying out our mandate, that such a methodology will be perennially right for us into perpetuity. It is always good to reevaluate methodology. Not message. That IS perennial. So, we should trust the Task Force to be good stewards of their mandate, and to give due consideration to their recommendations at the right time.

The economic challenges before us are real. Cap and Tax. The Bailouts. Health Care Reform. If all of these were pushed to the limits that some in Congress would like to see happen, there is little doubt that we as Americans would be more and more impoverished in the years and decades ahead. Already the printing of currency to stave off the economic crisis has seriously devalued the dollar and created an impending new crisis. Has anyone in Washington ever taken Economics 101? Has anyone in Washington any sense of historical perspective about what Germany went through in the 1920s? I wonder. The challenges of the future could be far more profound than we anticipate even now.

On the other hand, the IMB difficulties, severe as they are, could be easily solved. The shortfall was $29 Million. There are about 8 Million Southern Baptists who attend church at least once a month. Do the math. That is less than 4 dollars per person. If we can’t get Southern Baptists to pony up an additional 4 bucks a person for our mission offering every Christmas, then the problem is not the economy.

L. Frank Baum seemed dubious about the prospects of the future, but at least he could entertain the children. Let us hope we can do far more than that. There is much at stake.

Chad Owen Brand


  1. Chad:

    You said: "All of those are commendable, and those who have criticized these efforts (and many, especially on the left wing of the SBC, have been critical) have done so out of an agenda that is mainly bent on bashing the Southern Baptist Convention."

    The above sounds to me as if you are bashing as you call it the "left wing of the SBC."

    Surely after the successful CR over the last 30 years there is no left wing of the current SBC?

    So many want to say the Right is Right and it is just not that simple.

    But surely we can thank the two PP's for the current state of affairs of the SBC.

    It is really just the chickens coming home to roost.

    It will not get better for the SBC.

  2. I don't buy the whole "economic difficulties" deal. It's smoke and mirrors. I moved from TX to IL last year to take on a new pastoral position. The church I left was bigger and in DFW TX where the unemployment rate is half that of the rest of the country, they have a $10+ BILLION (with a b) budget surplus on the state budget (with no state income tax), more fortune 500 companies reside in TX than any other state, and they now have the 3rd largest city (Houston) in the US with 3 in the top 10 (SanAn + Big D). The church I left is scaling back their budgets, even reduced the budget they had previously passed and are quaking in their boots...

    Now, a new scene. Illinois. A church half the size IN ILLINOIS (one of the more tax oppressive states) with unemployment touching the double digits. Our pastor was murdered while preaching the gospel one year ago March 8. Last Sunday night we voted to go ahead with plans to build on to our current facility because we can't hold all the people.

    in 2009 (yes, 2009) we grew in attendance by 17% and our giving was up (yes up) 15%. IN ILLINOIS!

    If Southern Baptists would simply be faithful with the resources that God has already given them, every church could triple their budget and mission giving would be through the roof.

    We don't need structural change as much we need a gut check (but we might need structural changes too).

    That's just my 2 cents (maybe more, keep the change, we've got it to spare).