Editorial: Strength, decline & the future of the BGCT

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The Baptist General Convention of Texas will continue to decline unless Texas Baptists resolve one of the great paradoxes: The source of strength often leads to downfall.

The BGCT decline may be irreversible. But for certain, Texas Baptists won’t pull out of our spiral unless we confront our strength-becomes-weakness condition.

knox newEditor Marv KnoxDavid Hardage, the BGCT Executive Board’s executive director, hinted at this during the board’s winter meeting. He quoted a young pastor: “I don’t think you’re (BGCT) obsolete. I’m not sure you’re relevant.” And also an elder statesman: “We’re still doing convention as we have for 100 years,” adding, as if anyone wondered, “That was not a positive statement.”

Texas has changed, and Texas Baptists have changed, Hardage acknowledged. Consequently, the BGCT must change to meet the challenge. So, he will propose reconfiguring the convention, “and it may be pretty radical.”

To which Texas Baptists should respond: “Bring it on.”

I couldn’t help but think of Hardage’s announcement as I read David and Goliath, the latest book by best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell.

David and Goliath

Gladwell illustrates strength reduced to weakness in the ancient battle story. According to conventional military wisdom, a boy shepherd like David never should prevail against a behemoth soldier like Goliath. But Goliath’s outlandish size, poor eyesight, ominous battle attire and overweening pride made him a sitting duck for a fearless, fleet-footed boy who could sling a stone and kill a lion 200 yards away.

“There is an important lesson … for battles with all kinds of giants: The powerful and strong are not always what they seem,” Gladwell writes. “David came running toward Goliath, powered by courage and faith. Goliath was blind to his approach—and then he was down, too big and slow and blurry-eyed to comprehend the way the tables have been turned.”

This is a theme worthy of Bible stories, great novels and even Baptist reorganization plans. A tremendous strength often contains within it the seeds of its own destruction, the DNA of its own demise. The trait, characteristic or ability that leads to greatness also carries or covers an inherent flaw that results in failure.

A patina of invincibility

Vaunted strength provides a patina of invincibility. So while situations, adversaries and even the strength-bearer change, belief in the power and durability of the strength persists. That’s why decline goes unrecognized. It’s why leaders don’t realize their strategies and tactics no longer match their mission and vision or, worse, their mission and vision no longer relate to their reality.

For generations, Texas Baptists reflected a key characteristic of our state’s prevailing culture. “Everything’s bigger and better in Texas,” Texans boasted. Baptists, too. We meant it about our convention, our institutions, our churches and, maybe most importantly, our ideas.

We believed we were the ideal of a Christian convention. With good reason, actually. When I attended seminary out of state more than three decades ago, I sat under a retired Southern Baptist Convention executive who understood the Baptist denomination better than anyone. Period. He spent an entire career working with SBC agencies and state Baptist conventions.

My chest swelled when he said of my home-state brothers and sisters: “The Baptist General Convention of Texas is the gold standard of denominationalism. They have the most creative leaders. They have the biggest vision. They put the greatest amount of resources behind fulfilling that vision. They think they can take on any challenge. And they’re usually correct.”

That was long ago. Since then, the SBC split and the BGCT split. Baptists, particularly pastors, grew weary of strife and—often simultaneously—turned their attention toward meeting needs in their communities and networking beyond the conventions to accomplish missions and ministries.

Dissatisfaction at both ends

The Baby Boomers, maybe America’s most selfish generation, have led churches for a generation. Many churches have become like them—interested in what’s in it for them. This created an interesting overall divide: Strong churches have grown more independent of the convention, because they’ve figured out how to “do church” without assistance and, frankly, have seen the convention lag behind spiritual and cultural trends. Simultaneously, many weak churches have grown more dependent upon the convention and frustrated by its inability to meet their needs. So, dissatisfaction has swelled at both ends of the continuum.

Oh, and then there’s our historic strength. For decades, we stewarded vast resources of money, people and institutions. We became a lot like Goliath—powerful, feared and respected, if not liked; but also slow, lumbering, near-sighted and unduly proud. We believed our own hype, so we couldn’t fathom we weren’t as fast, strong, agile and state-of-the-art as we once were.

The Davids haven’t whacked us with a stone and chopped off our head—in fact, they don’t want to attack us, really—but nimble nonprofits, focused institutions, creative churches and other spiritual entrepreneurs have run circles around us, picking up followers and doing remarkable ministry.

Our executive leader, David Hardage, knows we need to change. He said: “The future—not just of the Texas Baptist convention, but of Texas and of what we need to do for (God’s) kingdom—weighs in the balance. We must adjust our mindset and our hearts to do whatever it takes to impact Texas for the gospel.”

He’s trying to break us out of the malaise of relying on bygone strength, God bless him. He told the Executive Board: “Send me your thoughts. Send me your ideas. Think. Pray. Dream. Let’s put something out there that will be exciting for the future of Texas Baptists.”

Whether you’re on the Executive Board or not, let Hardage know what you think. Click here to send him an email.

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