Update: I have posted a response from Dr. Patrick at the end of my post (with his permission).
I don’t go over to SBC Today all that often, but a tweet referencing Ed Stetzer and the use of quotations from non-Southern Baptists in The Gospel Project curriculum caught my attention and led me there. While there I saw the April 2 post, “Ten Traits of a Southern Baptist President,” by Dr. Rick Patrick. In it, Dr. Patrick lists traits that he feels should be held by prospective Presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention. I have no real beef with the list per se, except his fourth trait:
4. COOPERATIVE DISCLOSURE
His church submits a fully completed Annual Church Profile each year.Disclosure is very important to me since it clearly reveals that there is nothing to hide. One might compare the completion of a congregation’s Annual Church Profile with the completion of a citizen’s Annual Tax Return. It may be administratively challenging and even a bit unpleasant, but responsible and cooperative participants recognize the value in reporting such information. I want to vote for a president who willingly volunteers the kind of information denominational leaders track and report in order to assist our churches in the fulfillment of our Great Commission task. I do not value Lone Rangers, renegades or other non-conformists who offer the smokescreen of some lofty principle to avoid the accountability necessary to verify denominational support and involvement.
I strongly but respectfully disagree.
For many years now, I have refused to fill out one portion of the Annual Church Profile, only one: the total membership section. I gladly fill out the actual attendance, the Sunday School average, and all the rest, but not total membership.
I do not intend in this post to restate my reasons for not doing so since I have already done so here. Suffice it to say that my not doing so has literally nothing to do with not wanting accountability. If you were to read the ACP of Central Baptist Church you will get an accurate picture of what’s happening at our church. In fact, it is precisely because I feel accountable to 400 years of Baptist witness in the world that I do not report that number.
I know not if Dr. Patrick’s allusion to those “who offer the smokescreen of some lofty principle to avoid the accountability necessary to verify denominational support and involvement” applies to people like me. In truth, I rather suspect he is referring to guys who don’t report their Cooperative Program, Lottie Moon, or Annie Armstrong giving so as to avoid scrutiny. If he is referring to that, I agree with him. Those are actual numbers and should be reported. But as he paints with a rather broad brush, insisting that all sections should be filled out, it applies to folks like me nonetheless. So let me simply say this:
The principle of regenerate church membership predates the Annual Church Profile. The principle of regenerate church membership has been cherished by the vast majority of Baptists for 400 years. That principle has been abandoned to such a shocking extent that we now apply the term “member” to people to whom virtually no earlier generation of Baptists would have applied that term: non-attending people who have no relationship with the church at all and, in many cases, have not had a relationship with the church for years. Then, on the basis of grotesquely inflated and fictional numbers, we bear false witness to the world in reporting these inflated figures (i.e., “There are 16 million Southern Baptists!”). Thus, to fill out that block when your total membership number is still largely fictional is to contribute to a dishonest reckoning. (To those who would say, “Well, then, fix it!” I would only say that we reached this point of numerical inflation through a fairly slow process of denominational erosion, and there are numerous congregational realities that keep the rectifying of the problem from being simple and instantaneous. That being said, many of us are on the long, slow journey of trying to build a culture that understands and reclaims regenerate church membership, but we would prefer not to destroy our churches through rash, sweeping changes in the process. Thus, while on this journey, we prefer, at least, to do that which we can to protest our current church and denominational malaise regarding the concept of membership and the accounting thereof: namely, refuse to print a number with no integrity.)
I agree with Dr. Patrick that we should fill out the ACP, but I would add that we should do so only insofar as we do not violate the truth or our own consciences.
There is one thing I would value in a prospective President of the SBC more than his commitment to filling out the entirety of the ACP…namely, a commitment never to contribute to a numerical farce that violates the most cherished principles of Baptist congregational life and identity, never knowingly to prop up a failed and skewed system of numerical accounting by contributing to that system, and never to bear false witness to ourselves and the world by saying that we are more than we actually are.
For me to report to the world that we have over 1,000 “members” simply because that many names are on a roll is to violate the meaning of the word “membership” that would have been assumed and understood by the Baptist family throughout the world for the better part of our 400 year history.
The congregation that I pastor is free to make a motion and vote to include it. Fine and good. But I, personally, will not do so until/unless that happens…because I wish to be accountable.
A Response from Rick Patrick (posted with permission)
Thank you for your outstanding article. Yours is the most principled and compelling reason I have ever heard for not reporting fully on the ACP. As a matter of conscience, I would certainly not ask anyone to bear false witness. I join you in grieving the thousands of people who have given testimony of a relationship with Christ, but are either false professors or seriously disobedient in their sabbath observance. To call them church members may indeed be a stretch.
Your instincts are correct that my intention was to address those who fail to report out of a desire to avoid scrutiny. I appreciate and affirm that your principled explanation stems instead from a desire for greater accountability. Thank you for your post and for your courtesy in letting me know you had written it. Your approach in addressing our disagreement exemplifies the manner in which brothers in Christ should address their concerns. Thanks again for your helpful article and Christ-like exchange.
My Concluding Response
I’m grateful for Dr. Patrick’s generous and understanding response. As the psalmist wrote in Psalm 133:1, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”