On October 6, 2014, I posted a Request to NAMB Trustees regarding our partnerships with non-Southern Baptist organizations in church planting. The Trustees were kind enough to offer their Prompt Reply, in which I discovered new information about our church planting process. Listed below are my comments and observations in light of their recent correspondence.
Gratitude for NAMB’s Response
I am grateful for NAMB’s courteous and prompt reply. My letter was not ignored, and although we disagree on certain matters, it does appear that NAMB continues to take such requests for information seriously. I am encouraged that further dialogue is both possible and welcome. My concerns were neither ignored nor dismissed, but addressed in a forthright manner.
Assumption Regarding Send North America
I found it peculiar that the first paragraph assumed my affirmation of the Send North America strategy although I wrote nothing about it in my letter. I merely noted I was happy to partner with NAMB in planting new Southern Baptist churches, something I was doing long before the Send North America strategy ever existed. The fact is, I do have concerns that this strategy may be unbalanced in favoring urban locations over rural ones, northern locations over southern ones, and Calvinistic church planters over Traditional ones. Also, since we have over 45,000 churches, why is NAMB celebrating only the 3,000 involved in Send North America? If the other 42,000 churches are not on board with it, then what does that tell us?
Transparently Sharing Incomplete Data
In the second paragraph, NAMB’s transparency in reporting is celebrated. In fairness, they do try to share what little information they have at their disposal. However, later in the letter, they admit such disclosure is limited by (a) church autonomy and (b) current reporting practices. They are simply unable to gather such data: “NAMB cannot provide that precise information for church plants.” I believe we must better track our co-denominational churches and plants.
We’ve Been Over This
For some reason, the third paragraph informs me that all of this information has been shared “many times” before. Am I being shamed for asking questions? Is this some kind of rebuke for not paying attention? (“Come on, Patrick. Try to keep up, will you?”) This attitude is reminiscent of NAMB President Kevin Ezell’s quip at the convention, “I would be happy to answer any questions, but would prefer not to.” Really? The weight of that contradiction is on the latter statement. I may be wrong, but I get the impression that NAMB really doesn’t like having to interact with the churches that support them. They seem burdened with the chore of repeating information. They may assume that all of this knowledge is making its way down the chain of command to the churches, but it is not. I read everything about SBC life, and this letter is the first I have heard about the plantingprojector.com project, the voluntary nature of church plant reporting, and the widespread co-denominational ethnic church plants.
Partnerships or Funding Sources
My strongest objection to the reply is in the first bullet point where NAMB denies any formal or informal partnership with any church planting network outside our 42 state conventions. My position is that co-funding actually creates a partnership. When two parties each contribute financially to a third, they enter into a partnership or cosponsorship—whether or not they recognize it as such. Because it is fairly common for the third party, at some point, to side with one or the other of the cosponsors, it is normal to initiate such partnerships with safeguards in place to prevent the loss of investment by the partner eventually losing favor. This was never an issue when we planted missions that were 100% SBC sponsored. I prefer such “Pure SBC Church Planting” because I believe most Southern Baptists expect that their offerings are starting new Southern Baptist churches rather than an indefinite number of “Hybrid Churches” with leaders who are also accountable to other networks and denominations outside SBC life.
NAMB Evaluates Autonomous Churches
The second bullet point had little to do with my questions, but sounded a bit like a commercial for Mobilize Me—which itself sounds like a commercial for wireless telephone service. The only sticking point here is that Southern Baptist Churches are now being “evaluated by NAMB to determine if they are healthy enough to participate as a sending or supporting church.” One wonders which churches, if any, have been branded by NAMB as being “too unhealthy” for involvement in church planting. In terms of hierarchy, this raises the question: “Does NAMB evaluate churches or do churches evaluate NAMB?” In light of all the other concerns over local church autonomy presented in this letter, why not leave to each local church the privilege and responsibility of determining whether or not they are healthy enough to plant a new church?
New Technology To Compile Incomplete Data
The fourth bullet point comes closest to responding to my concerns by promising an exciting new piece of technology to monitor the co-funding sources I consider partners. This looks like very good news. Upon reflection, however, it brings up additional concerns. First, why must a “sending church” be responsible for monitoring and reporting donations? Can we not request this information directly from the church plant? Second, by empowering dependent church plants with the same autonomy as fully constituted churches, they are not required to report anything at all, and the data becomes meaningless. Kudos to NAMB for trying to get data on these funding sources. Mega-kudos if they will simply make it mandatory for financial support. Third, there is a peculiar irony in our application of the principle of autonomy. On the one hand, our established churches do not possess the autonomy to determine whether or not they are “healthy enough” for church planting. But on the other hand, our dependent church plants do possess the autonomy not to report their funding sources. I would argue that autonomy belongs to the established church and not to the dependent church plant. Because we are giving them money, our questions can be mandatory and not voluntary. We have the same right to demand information about their other sources of income and their outside associations as parents have to ask about their teenager’s income and friends—as long as they live under our roof.
Ethnic Co-denominational Church Planting
The final bullet point introduces additional questions concerning the affiliations of our ethnic church plants. While Acts 29 denies that it is a denomination—an assertion I disaffirm—many ethnic church plant funding sources admit quite freely that they are indeed denominations. Southern Baptist church planting dollars are being used to plant a number of cross-denominational churches. I don’t believe most Southern Baptists are aware of the preceding sentence. No, we have not yet partnered with the Methodists or the Presbyterians, but our offerings are being poured into a joint church planting kitty along with the offerings from outside denominations and networks. Is it at least possible that this practice of Hybrid Church Planting might eventually weaken our denominational loyalty over a period of time by watering down the distinctively Southern Baptist identity of new churches?
Survey to Compile Incomplete Data
The letter concludes with news of yet another survey of 2,500 church planters—one that is totally voluntary, which therefore means it contains incomplete and unreliable information. The letter does not make clear if 2,500 is the total population or the number of respondents. Perhaps fewer people actually responded, in which case data might need to be extrapolated for an estimate of the entire population. In any event, of those who did respond, and chose to volunteer this information, 30 indicated an Acts 29 affiliation. This number does not tell us very much at all. Certainly, we have a floor, but we have absolutely no clue about a ceiling.
In conclusion, while I am grateful for NAMB’s response, we disagree on (1) the meaning of the term partnership, (2) the conferring of autonomy to dependent church plants, (3) the right of NAMB to evaluate the church health of autonomous churches, and (4) the wisdom of using our Southern Baptist offerings to plant cross-denominational churches with leaders loyal to other networks and organizations outside the Southern Baptist Convention. In evaluating whether the Send North America strategy is “healthy enough” to receive our church’s autonomous support, two criteria emerge: (a) can our church funds be channeled in such a way that we are able to promote only Traditional Southern Baptist theology in our church plant, and (b) can our funds avoid being co-mingled with those of outside denominations and networks that exclude us from membership? With regard to transparency, NAMB appears to be attempting greater disclosure, but their level of information gathering is subpar. They have more power to compile this list than they realize. If they truly want to acquire information from the church plants we financially support, they can make these church plants an offer they cannot refuse.