The Kingdom Solution to the SBC’s Membership Decline / Alan Streett, PhD

by Alan Streett*

Church membership has plunged for the seventh straight year in our Southern Baptist Convention. When a similar thing happened in the United Methodist Church in the 60s and 70s, we were quick to point out that liberalism was the culprit. Now it’s happening to us and there’s not a liberal in our camp!

The Methodists tried many ways to shore up their membership, but without success. Now we are the ones bleeding numerically with no apparent remedy in sight. If the SBC were a person with a seven-year illness, the doctor would diagnose a “chronic condition,” which means there is an ongoing problem.

Reactions have been swift in coming, but few solutions. To stay the present course is not an option. We all know the definition of insanity!

If you ever played organized baseball, you likely experienced a slump. You can’t get a hit for trying and your numbers decline sharply. Before long you lose your confidence, only making things worse. To reverse the trend, you need a breakthrough! After trying every solution imaginable without success—changing bats, moving up in the batter’s box, altering your stance—you come to realize in order to break out of the slump you must get back to the basics.

The SBC is in a slump.

A PLAN FOR THE FUTURE

In the days when the SBC was on the rise—before it took its steep downhill turn——a plan was conceived to keep the Convention on an upward trajectory. Here is the backstory.

In late 1999, facing a new millennium and an ever-changing postmodern culture, an historic meeting was convened that brought together state executive directors and SBC executives for the purpose of developing a long-term cooperative strategy to maintain steady growth and to reach the nations for Christ. A task force on “Cooperation” was elected —composed of four SBC entity presidents, Bill Crews (GGBTS), Jerry Rankin (IMB), Bob Reccord (NAMB), and Morris Chapman (Executive Committee); and four state executive directors, Wyndell Jones (IA), Carlisle Driggers (SC), Anthony Jordan (OK), and Bob White (GA)—and commissioned to investigate and recommend ways to achieve sustained growth. After numerous meetings that centered on spiritual and scriptural reflection, a consensus emerged that the Convention needed to get back to the basics found in Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God.

The task force examined a successful kingdom-oriented model developed and launched in the early 1990s by Carlisle Driggers, Executive Director of the South Carolina Convention that turned the nation’s oldest Baptist convention around and brought unprecedented growth to local churches. It was called Empowering Kingdom Growth (EKG).

Driggers had no doubt that the good news of the kingdom was the central theme of all first-century preaching. Consequently, he felt it should be the Convention’s focus as well. When asked in an interview, “If you could give one word of encouragement to every Baptist minister what would it be?” he responded, “Wrap your heart and mind around the Kingdom of God on this earth.”

The kingdom of God had so captured Driggers’s imagination he couldn’t get away from it. For him the kingdom of God was the most basic ingredient of Christianity. As a result he was able to convince his colleagues that the Convention should embrace a kingdom focus.

EKG Becomes the Foundation of the Future

The task force was so impressed with the SC kingdom initiative that it decided to recommend to the messengers at the upcoming annual convention that they adopt the kingdom model of ministry and adapt it for use throughout the entire Convention.

In an article describing the task force’s recommendation, Bob Terry wrote in The Alabama Baptist:

The vision is magnificent, the message clear and simple. All who cooperate with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) can and should work together with God to empower growth of His Kingdom.

Empowering Kingdom Growth is not only the goal, it is the motto or slogan recommended in the report. The abbreviation — EKG — points to the seriousness of the effort. In medicine, an EKG examines the status of the heart. The new report contends that Empowering Kingdom Growth — EKG — should be the heart of every expression of convention life from cooperating churches to joint efforts expressed through SBC entities.

Empowering Kingdom Growth will be a phrase heard and read often in Southern Baptist life in the months and years ahead.

During the 2002 SBC meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, at the recommendation of the task force, the messengers voted overwhelmingly to approve the new spiritual initiative, which called upon Southern Baptist churches and members everywhere to concentrate singularly on the kingdom of God. The vote was not simply to adopt another “program,” but to support an entirely new direction for the Convention. Henceforth, all SBC programs, boards and agencies were to commit their full energies and resources on kingdom-oriented ministry alone. Every SBC entity would be expected to realign its mission with the new EKG emphasis.

At the time of the vote, SBC president James Merritt called the decision as significant for the Southern Baptist Convention as the decision made in 1925 to launch the Cooperative Program. One cannot overstate the importance of this statement. Merritt saw the vote as a defining moment in the annals of the Convention.

A newly formed “Empowering Kingdom Growth Task Force,” co-chaired by Merritt and Driggers, wrote that the Empowering Kingdom Growth initiative “could prove to be an unprecedented turning point in American history.” Never before had such a large body of evangelicals decided to put aside secondary issues to concentrate solely on the kingdom of God.

DID SOMETHING GO WRONG?

Enthusiasm and anticipation filled the air at the start. In personal correspondence with this writer on August 18, 2003, Driggers wrote:

I can tell you for a fact that our EKG Task Force for the Southern Baptist Convention met earlier this week, and we are hearing from many persons around the country and even overseas who are also being deeply impressed to study the teachings of Christ on the Kingdom of God on this earth. There is no doubt in my mind but that God is at work bringing many believers to a fresh and new encounter with the teachings of Scripture on the theology of the Kingdom of God, especially as it implies to the here and now and not only to Heaven or the Second Coming of Jesus.

Three months later he wrote to say he looked forward to working with Ken Hemphill, the newly-chosen National Strategist Director for EKG.

But somewhere along the way, EKG lost its momentum. The initiative, upon which the Convention based its future, could not get up enough steam and devolved from being essential to the Convention’s future to just another “program.”

Additionally, for EKG to work it was assumed that everyone within the SBC sphere would put aside their theological peculiarities and embrace a kingdom agenda. But unfortunately the divide was too great.

BACK TO THE BASICS: A KINGDOM SOLUTION

Driggers and the EKG Task Force were correct in believing that the future of the Convention must be linked to the Kingdom of God. If Merritt’s assessment was accurate that the decision to adopt the EKG initiative was as significant as adopting the Cooperative Program in 1925, we should NOT abandon the kingdom agenda.

The kingdom of God is the central theme of all evangelistic proclamation in the New Testament. John the Baptist preached “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” (Matt. 3:2). And Jesus did likewise: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark1:14-15). According to John and Jesus, the kingdom was not some distant hope, but within the grasp of their contemporaries. Jesus defined his mission in these words: “I must preach the kingdom of God to other cities also, because for this purpose I have been sent” (Luke 4:43). Everywhere he went he proclaimed the “glad tidings of the kingdom of God” (Luke 8:1). When he sent forth the Twelve, he instructed them “to preach the kingdom” (Luke 9:1-2). He then sent out seventy others to go and “heal the sick there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near you’” (Luke 10:1, 9).

After his death and resurrection, Jesus spent forty days with the apostles “speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). If the glorified Jesus devoted the entirety of his time explaining the kingdom, shouldn’t we? He then commissioned the disciples to take the gospel to the ends of the world (Acts 1:8). It is not surprising to find them preaching the same message: “the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus” (Acts 8:12).

The apostle Paul, likewise, taught “concerning the things of the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8). He reminded the elders at Ephesus of his three years “preaching the kingdom of God” (Acts 20:25, 31). During house arrest in Rome, “many came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God” (Acts 28:23). The book of Acts closes significantly with these words, “Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him” (Acts 28:30-31).

The Kingdom of God is the “open secret” of the NT and missed by many. In my opinion the kingdom is the essential core of Christianity. If you miss the kingdom, you end up with a truncated gospel.

The kingdom is so important that Jesus links the success of the church’s evangelistic mission to it: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14). Yet, most pastors and parishioners alike would be hard pressed to define the “gospel of the kingdom.”

We need to get back to the basics—back to the kingdom of God! How do we expect to evangelize the world in these last days if we cannot identify and explain the gospel of the kingdom?

EKG was a valiant start and should not be abandoned. But we must recapture our vision of God’s kingdom plan for the world.

A kingdom solution is needed if we ever expect to reverse the present downward direction of the Convention.

*Alan Streett, PhD
W. A. Criswell Endowed Chair of Expository Preaching
Criswell College, Dallas, Texas.
Dr. Streett is author of
Heaven on Earth: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now
The Effective Invitation
Subversive Meals