Ed Stetzer on Reversing Our Decline: Leaders

downward_trend.jpgBack in April 2008, Ed Stetzer wrote a post on how to reverse the decline in the Southern Baptist Churches (SBC). He’s just followed that up with some additional thoughts following a year of experience and reflection.

Stetzer is a consultant to the Southern Baptist Churches, frequent speaker at seminars for many denominations, and has lots of thoughts well worth pondering. And his advice is particularly appropriate to the Churches of Christ because —

* The SBC announced that its numbers were in decline the same year that Dr. Flavil Yeakley reached the same conclusion about the Churches of Christ.

* We are a lot like the Southern Baptists. Deny it all you wish, but we share conservative theology, congregational autonomy, and an evangelistic ideal.

As you read his comments, you’ll find other similarities, some of which may surprise you.

I’m going to alternate his advice with my own reflections and reactions, translating into Church of Christ terms as we go.

APRIL 2008

Leaders

Young leaders

Three issues rise to the top. First, we have to deal with the continued loss of SBC leaders. As we have recently reported in Facts & Trends, we have witnessed a serious (and increasing) depopulation of young leaders at our convention.

The Churches of Christ are wrestling with the same issue. In the absence of any kind of convention, there are no solid numbers, but it’s widely reported that there’s a shortage of qualified ministers. There are several reasons for this —

* Men are marrying later, and many churches won’t hire a single man. Many elderships are quite frank that they expect to hire two for the price of one. Others are worried about the difficulties raised by a preacher who is dating.

* Many churches want a man with an M.Div., and graduate degrees are expensive. Preachers graduate with tons of school debt, and many college students are unwilling to undertake a career that involves low wages and high debt. Imagine trying to pay off grad school loans on a missionary’s salary.

* Men coming straight out of college or grad school will normally start at a smaller church. The big churches want — and can afford — a man with several years of experience. But the smaller churches tend to be conservative, making it very hard for a progressive, newly minted preacher to get started.

* As a result, new graduates tend to start out in youth or campus ministry, but not all great future preachers are gifted for age-group ministry. And we’re losing campus ministries rapidly — because many have been supported by multiple churches that will no longer cooperate due to the progressive/conservative split.

* Some large churches can hire a younger man in an associate position, but our colleges don’t always train men for administrative work.

Until the progressive mindset becomes more uniform among our churches, this will remain a truly tough problem. The debt problem is being addressed by some of our colleges. And I think churches are slowly learning that single men can preach, too — and have fewer responsibilities competing for their time.

Ethnic leadership

Also, ethnic leadership remains absent after decades of ethnic change in America. Vacant seats still exist at the SBC table for the ethnic and generational diversity that matches the America we are attempting to reach.

I don’t see many black men graduating with Bible degrees — certainly not enough. On the other hand, I sure don’t see enough non-black churches hiring black men. I mean, aren’t we long, long past the notion of white churches and black churches? And until we start having multi-ethnic congregations with multi-ethnic staffs, we are not going to relate well to the culture, young adults and teens, or somebody named Jesus.

The reason

The departure by the future leaders of our convention has led to fewer church plants, missionaries, and energetic pastors to lead our faltering churches. We must retain these leaders not because we need them for our churches. We need them to reach the lost whom our churches have yet to touched.

Amen.

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8 Responses

  1. It is important to point out that Ed Stetzer also receives significant criticism for his thoughts and actions from the staunch institutional loyalist in his own religious group. Sound familiar also? In the last SBC convention one of the most virulent debates that were ever documented occurred. It was over the moderate consumption of alcohol. The younger contended that only drunkenness was the sin while the older strongly opposed any at all. This scenario is representative of several things that Ed and many like him across the denominational spectrum have not addressed. There are significant theological differences that the present institutional loyalists in power will not acknowledge and choose to ignore. This is evident in the debate over alcohol in recent SBC convention. These theological differences are the single most important issue facing the broader scope American Christianity. Ed mentioned the exodus of the young and younger leaders from church and leadership this is symptom not the root cause. This specific exchange also shows that the traditional theology in the American church was widely based on outward piety even to the point of twisting scriptures around to fit in to the white middle class context. While the emerging generations are innately anti-institutional they lend themselves to a theology that focuses on the inner being, personal transformation, self discovery, and community. Until conservative traditional American Christianity is ready to seriously re-think their theology there is no amount of effort, coercion, money, or institutional wrangling that can change the present course. I wish Ed and Yeakly and all the other so called leaders that many listen to would spend more time digging into the real issues rather than attempting all this inane institutional posturing of offering more cost effective graduate school to keep ministers in the church or any of the other programs of late that really just put a band aid on the real problem. Believe me, theological differences have caused more of the brightest most talented younger ministers to leave than money, education and so on. Tony Jones who wrote the book “The New Christians” explained in his research of the newly formed community churches the main reason cited for those who left older denominations had nothing to do with the old church score card issues but was rooted in theological differences. There are several other researchers who have confirmed this as well. The disproportionate representation of the church to surrounding demographics is also the result of poor theology. Most Christians who attend church do not feel called by the Gospel to integrate their lives with others who are different than them by race, age, ethnicity, socio-economic group etcetera. Until the average church going person is not only willing but takes up the mission of making friends with people who are different than they are, the church in America is doomed. I usually mention that until we are willing to have people over to our house to eat who are poor and of a different race there will be no real integration in the church. There is no program or ministry that can make up for this problem only better theology and transformed hearts. God is impartial! He gives special attention to the outcast and forgotten. He invites people over who cannot invite him back. He blesses those who cannot return the blessing. He prepares a banquet for the beggars, homeless and down trodden. It is important to note the disproportionate demographics from church to the general population is a strong suggestion that religion has gone from strong principles of faith that affect ones core character to a contextualized religion of a specific sociological culture.

  2. It is also important to note that even after their vigorous church planting campaign they are still in decline. I believe this tells a very important story. It shows that the root problems still exist. In fact I would suggest that planting a church now that resembles the old traditional American church is really a waste of time and money. It is perpetuating a broken system. Why don’t we put as much effort into fixing our theology as we are trying to save our own religious institutions? Then our church plants might be and do something different.

  3. “Unless things change, we are about to enter a time when we grow accustomed to decline and think back to the good ol’ days of growth.” – Ed Stetzer

    It seems to me that many of our churches (particularly those of the more conservative persuasion) have already found themselves in the condition that Stetzer describes. Aging congregations continue attempting to invoke the glory days of the 1940’s and 1950’s by doing church exactly the same way they have for the past half-century. Subsequently, the decline is met with the rejoinder that “people just do not tolerate sound doctrine the way that they used to.”

  4. Jay wrote:

    “Many churches want a man with an M.Div., and graduate degrees are expensive. Preachers graduate with tons of school debt, and many college students are unwilling to undertake a career that involves low wages and high debt. Imagine trying to pay off grad school loans on a missionary’s salary.

    “Men coming straight out of college or grad school will normally start at a smaller church. The big churches want — and can afford — a man with several years of experience. But the smaller churches tend to be conservative, making it very hard for a progressive, newly minted preacher to get started.”

    I can identify with both of these observations. I am a M.Div graduate and my college debt is staggering. I have no regrets. I did receive some scholarships but not nearly enough to keep me from plunging into an ocean of debt. The only aspect that irks me is how our schools never seem to run out of scholarship money for athletes but never enough for those perparing to serve God in full-time ministry/missions (one has to wonder at times what kingdom is being served by the disproportion of scholarships).

    As for the traditional churches not wanting someone with a progressive education… After attending my last Harding University lectureship, I told one of my undergraduate professors that I feel like we (Bible students) are being sent out on a diving board with someone behind us cutting the board off at its base. As an undergraduate student, I heard so many traditional views question; was taught a better approach to preaching and biblical exegesis; an incarnational approach to missions and ministry; and so on but then at the lectureships where the university has the opportunity to share some of the same stuff with members of the supporting CoC’s, what do they do?… Feed them the same old answers they have always heard which makes it appear as though everything being taught to the Bible majors is the same as it always has been — which is certainly not the case.

    I will credit my graduate seminary, Harding University Graduate School of Religion, with doing a better job of having forums for non-student church members to hear and consider different perspectives. And it has paid off. I have found that members of the CoC who are familiar with HUGSR have some idea of who I might be as a minister because of where I attended. Am I progressive? Yes and they have an awareness of that. Yet they also understand (and my reputation speaks for this as well) that I am respectful enough and sensitive enough to know that not every one of my beliefs on every little issue needs to be dumped on everyone else.

    Just some thoughts…

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  5. Ethnic leadership reminded me of the need for congregations to also be about intentionally training up leaders of all ages within the congregation. So many times people think help has to come from “over there” when in reality there are many capable people in most congregations. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen congregations take a young person who wants to be a minister and give them absolutely zero support or encouragement. My brother is someone who was in that situation growing up and it was a shame to see how the leaders in one particular congregation handled his desire.

    I am not pointing fingers at all here, merely stating that we have to pinpoint young people in our congregation who have a desire for more and help them at least grow up into vocational ministry if not full-time ministry. What ends up happening instead is that only a few make it through all the hoops to go from youth group to minister. The result is a shortage. I think the answer is right here at home in each and every congregation and to realize that the solution may be a decade in coming but starts right now in how we train, treat, and encourage our young people.

    Leaders don’t happen by accident.

  6. Great postings.

    My observations are that the young talented graduates for church positions are more than capable of reversing the trend. My observation is they do not work very well with the often more experienced men and women who lack divinity degrees but certainly not the understanding of God’s will to grow.into a loving community of people who mingle with all age groups. Many of these have degrees in many disciplines, are retired but never called because we are not relevant to the issues, or so the leaders and staff believe.

    To be relevant in this world today we need to get out of the box we are in and let the Spirit direct us all together not as committees, elder groups and staff groups.

    I believe every congregation have very capable people who when in the business world were a whole lot more succesfull in getting things done right than what i have seen for the last thirty years in the church with preachers and other ministers who have never been in the business world. I am not being critical but am certainly concerned that we are letting a young staff rule with out input from a more experienced so called laity

    I want to reach all people through friendship evangelism, then loving them all into Christ into a a community like Ray Vander Laan describes

  7. Great postings.

    My observations are that the young talented graduates for church positions are more than capable of reversing the trend. My observation is they do not work very well with the often more experienced men and women who lack divinity degrees but certainly not the understanding of God’s will to grow.into a loving community of people who mingle with all age groups. Many of these have degrees in many disciplines, are retired but never called because we are not relevant to the issues, or so the leaders and staff believe.

    To be relevant in this world today we need to get out of the box we are in and let the Spirit direct us all together not as committees, elder groups and staff groups.

    I believe every congregation have very capable people who when in the business world were a whole lot more succesfull in getting things done right than what i have seen for the last thirty years in the church with preachers and other ministers who have never been in the business world. I am not being critical but am certainly concerned that we are letting a young staff rule with out input from a more experienced so called laity

    I want to reach all people through friendship evangelism, then loving them all into Christ into a a community like Ray Vander Laan describes
    OH! You’re my new favorite blogger fyi

  8. Bob,

    I strongly agree that we need to get all our members more involved, especially our older members. In fact, in my church, as we’ve gotten our small groups involved in community service, we’ve seen the generation gap begin to evaporate, as the emphasis has been on service and bringing the lost to Jesus rather than the percentage of old songs vs. new songs being led.

    Involvement in service changes everything. It also takes away the perception that it’s important to get on the right committee to have real influence, because the members begin to have real influence among the hurting and lost — which is vastly more rewarding than getting to pick songs and class topics.

    Hence, I’m more and more persuaded that the cure for most of our ills is getting nearly all the members involved in service to others — and minimizing the committees and such that manage the church’s internal affairs so our most committed members have time to serve the lost and hurting.

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