Southern Baptist Growth Plan Teeters

December 19, 2008 at 3:25 am Leave a comment

Baptisms reached a 20-year low. Church membership dropped, prompting fears the Nashville-based Baptist body was on a downward slide. And its outgoing president warned that within 20 years, more than half of Southern Baptist churches could die off.

In response, the Baptists announced a new national evangelism strategy called “God’s Plan for Sharing.” Nicknamed “GPS,” the new strategy would spread the Gospel throughout the U.S. and Canada by 2020, said Geoff Hammond, president of the North American Mission Board.
“Just imagine if every believer in North America started sharing the Gospel and every person heard that Gospel by the year 2020,” Hammond said at the convention’s annual meeting.
But critics within the denomination say the new initiative is in danger of failing. Some blame a lack of funding. Others wonder if the mission board leadership is up to the task.
The agency’s 2009 budget seems to support the first group’s concerns.
Among $130 million in planned expenses are $367,000 in travel for board trustees, $975,000 for technology upgrades and $250,000 for mission board headquarters near Atlanta.
And the national evangelism initiative? That line is blank.
John Avant, former vice president of evangelization at the mission board, believes the board has lost sight of evangelism as its first priority.
He says he supports the GPS strategy, which aims to turn every Southern Baptist into an evangelist. But without significant funding, he also worries that the initiative will fail.
“You can’t have a vision that doesn’t have a funded budget,” said Avant, now pastor of First Baptist Church in West Monroe, La.
Ex-Volunteer Is Critical
The lack of funding caused at least one key volunteer for the evangelism initiative to step down from his volunteer post in protest.
In his resignation letter sent to Hammond and to state evangelism leaders, Alan Quigley cites funding as a key frustration. In particular, Quigley, an evangelism specialist for Oklahoma Baptists, worried that the mission board did not plan to buy any national advertising to support the GPS initiative.
“The decision by Geoff Hammond not to purchase media time has undermined the entire strategy,” Quigley wrote. ” … This and other areas of the National Evangelism Initiative that are virtually unfunded make the idea of embracing NAMB’s attempted strategy unlikely.”
Hammond, the board president, is traveling this week and was not available to comment.
But Brandon Pickett, a spokesman for the mission board, said the agency plans to spend substantial amounts of money on the campaign — including $551,855 so far this year and, in 2009, at least $750,000 left over from a previous special offering.
Pickett also said that the GPS initiative is radically different from approaches the mission board has tried in the past.
Early Efforts Succeeded
Since the 1950s, the Southern Baptist Convention has run national evangelism campaigns.
The most famous was “A Million More in ’54,” which swelled Sunday school rolls by more than 880,000 people, said Chuck Kelly, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
In recent years, the campaigns have been disappointing.
The mission board spent $343,700 on a strategy called “What Now” before pulling the plug. Another campaign, called “Who Cares,” also fizzled.
Those failures prompted the board to try a new approach, said Tim Patterson, trustee chairman.
“What we have done in the past has not been effective,” he said. ” … To do one single broad campaign, it would fail and it would be a poor use of God’s resources.”
The criticism over GPS is the latest worry for the mission board. In 2006, former President Bob Reccord resigned after clashing with the board over the direction of the agency. Reccord had been criticized for not paying attention to day-to-day operations.
By contrast, Hammond, a former missionary, is more hands-on.
New Leader Under Fire
A relative unknown with little administrative experience before being elected in March 2007, Hammond was the senior associate director of the smaller of two Virginia state conventions.
The transition to the board has not been easy.
The agency has more than 200 employees and 5,000 missionaries. Most of the board projects are done in partnership with state conventions and regional associations, making change difficult.
Because every Baptist congregation is autonomous, the mission board relies on donations and volunteer cooperation to get its work done.
“Working with Southern Baptists is like herding cats,” Kelly said.
The board wanted Hammond to pay more attention to the details, and that’s what they got, Patterson said.
That was a shock to some of the staff, he added.
Some trustees wonder if Hammond went too far in trying to micromanage. In April of this year, the trustee officers met with staff behind closed doors to hear their concerns about Hammond’s leadership.
Those concerns were addressed at a May board meeting.
Patterson said that Hammond took the board’s feedback seriously, which he said was a breath of fresh air.
“All I can say is that Geoff Hammond listens to us,” Patterson said. “He is sensitive to what we say; he does not try and push back; he doesn’t try to manipulate us. I can’t say that was the case with the previous administration.”
At least one former trustee hinted that questions about Hammond’s leadership remain.
Illinois minister Doug Munton said he believed that Hammond is a man of integrity. When asked if he felt that Hammond was the right person to lead the mission board, Munton did not give a vote of confidence.
“No comment,” he said.
Mike Glenn, pastor of Brentwood Baptist Church, wondered if the mission board is able to lead the kind of evangelistic revival that Southern Baptists need.
“Sometimes when things aren’t working, rather than being honest, we just work the old thing harder,” he said. ” … Once, there was a time when these big, national campaigns would work. But those days are over. They mean well and they’ll peddle this thing as hard as they can peddle it, but it’s for the 1950s and 1960s, and that world is gone.”
Source: The Tennessean

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