Thom S. Rainer on Baptist Conventions & Church Health
Date: July 14th, 2013
Prolific author and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, Dr. Thom S. Rainer, joins us today to talk about a various number of issues affecting Southern Baptists and American religion writ large. We start with the recent convention of the Southern Baptist Convention that was held in Houston in June, 2013. Not knowing much about the history of these gatherings, Tony asks Dr. Rainer how far back these conferences date, how often they are convened, and what purpose they serve in guiding the denomination. Thom explains the history of them, the organizational structure of the Southern Baptist denomination, and how individuals are selected to attend the yearly confab. We also review the recent history of the “Conservative Resurgence” (circal 1979-92), also known as “The Battle for the Bible,” that moved the SBC in different directions. Unlike many other conferences that bring out the goofiest in behavior of attendees, Thom points out that there were no funny hats or water balloons at this recent meeting.
We then turn to the particular issues that were raised during the June 2013 gathering, from the trivial to the important, and to some issues that didn’t make many headlines. The trivial issues include some nitpicking over types of products and services offered by the various vendors at this convention. Thom also points out an interesting event that occurred at the conference, namely the presence of the Wetboro Baptist Church (WBC) protesting outside the convention doors. He was encouraged by the presence of these protesters outside their meeting as it demonstrated to the public that WBC is not in any way affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. We then move on to some of the bigger concerns that were raised in Houston, including how individual congregations should handle their charters with the Boy Scouts of America (given the new policy on openly gay scouts) and the issue of mental health. While the former issue garnered more headlines, Thom notes that discussions about mental health — prompted by the recent suicide of Rick Warren’s son — had more profound implications for the direction of the SBC.
Following our discussion on the SBC Convention, we shift gears to discuss what constitutes a healthy church, starting with an examination of some of the major trends that have affected America’s religious landscape in the past few decades. To Tony’s surprise, the first trend that Thom raises is the increasing consolidation of church attendance in megachurches as compared to medium-sized congregations. This is coupled with an increasing tendency to create “multi-campus” or “multi-site” churches. The issue of “religious nones” also comes up and Thom makes the observation that many of the “nones” are coming from what he calls CEO Christians — i.e., religious attendees that only showed up on Christmas and Easter Only. He also observes that attendance among the “millennials” (individuals born after 1980) has also slid, but those among that age group who remain active in the church tend to be extraordinarily committed. Tony challenges Thom regarding the declining faith of youth by noting that nearly every generation has wrung their hands about the moral decline of youth; Thom responds and we both agree that there are various ebbs and flows in the history of Christianity.
The last quarter of our interview focuses on what makes a church grow and what makes a congregation stagnate, starting with the latter. Thom notes that it is fairly easy to identify what causes churches to stagnate, namely a sense of comfortableness and self-centeredness that inculcates a culture opposed to constant change. Tony asks Thom how he advises churches who are in this stagnation mode, and he notes that the first thing is to assess the clergy and members’ willingness to change. Interestingly, he notes that about 90% of congregations that have this problem do not want to make any significant changes to change the direction of stagnation. Nonetheless, there are 10% who do make changes and “breakout,” to which Thom provides a few examples of congregations that make changes without firing the pastor (as the most common way a church deals with stagnation is to toss the minister at the podium). This discussion includes thoughts on what it takes to motivate “tired” clergy and includes a personal story that proved very important in Thom’s own life. Finally, we finish with a few seemingly “trivial” details about what makes for a successful church, but which can have a major impact on attendance and the vitality of a congregation. Such things include the proper size for the sanctuary so that the services feel well-attended but not over-crowded, the number of parking spaces available, how to encourage an appropriate level of giving, and the width of chairs! Recorded: June 18, 2013.
Thom S. Rainer’s biography at his personal blog website.
LifeWay Christian Resources.
I Am a Church Member, by Thom S. Rainer.
The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation, by Thom S. Rainer.
Transformational Church, by Ed Stetzer and Thom S. Rainer.
Breakout Churches: Discover How to Make the Leap, by Thom S. Rainer.
Simple Church, by Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger.
Please consult Thom Rainer’s personal blog above to access other fine books he has authored.
Reflection on the Houston Southern Baptist Convention, Day 1 and Day 2.
Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism.
Larry Osborne on Church Finances and Growth.
Marc von der Ruhr on Megachurch Recruitment and Retention.
Dave Travis on Megachurch Myths.
James Brettell on Trends in American Christianity.
Steve Pfaff on Denominationalism, Sin, and Other Stuff.
Gordon Melton on Mega-Trends in American Religion.
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