What is the end result of a struggle for control?  Is it a process of cleaning the weeds so the garden can flourish?  Or is it more like topping the tree in an attempt at keeping it from overtaking the landscaping – to keep in under control?

In the early 1980s, the Southern Baptist Convention began to come apart.  The argument was couched in spiritual terms – that teachers in the colleges weren’t doctrinally pure enough.  There were even heresy investigations of some who challenged their students’ faith in the classroom to give them tools to counter opposition in the real world.  The result was an intellectional split in the theological direction, and a physical split in some parts of the convention.  Texas and Virginia now have two theologically different Southern Baptist Conventions.  Some who consider themselves historical Southern Baptist now belong to a new Cooperative Baptist Convention.

At the time, there was a charge that it was a grab for money.  The SBC had become the largest Protestant denomination in the country and the largest Baptist convention in the world, with billion dollar budgets.  It sponsored 5 national seminaries and sub-convention associations supported dozens of colleges, hospitals and orphanages.

As it happened, the SBC, formerly the fastest growing provider of the Gospel in the world, stopped growing.

Except for the years following the Civil War, an analysis of growth trends show a 3%-5% year-to-year growth rate that tapered off after 1980 and began to top out in the mid 90s, turning to actual declines in total membership in 2005.

So when the US economy hit a bump in 2009, that decline in membershp began to take a financial hit.

And so comes a realization from denominational leaders that, just perhaps, they overdid their zealous enforcement of their brand of orthodoxy.  The realization reminded leaders of ousted Southern Seminary faculty member  Bill Leonard, who had predicted that once the conservatives took control of the SBC’s massive infrastructure, they would soon turn on one another.   And so they have. 

In a bid to shore up funding of missions agencies, the central funding organism, called the Cooperative Program -an innovative approach to pool voluntary church contributions to accomplish common activies, is now at risk.  Churches are beginning to fund individual missions and missionaries, or reserving funds for local actions.  There is also suspicion that most money is going for maintenance. (One trusted source said that an estimated 60% of weekly tithes goes to repay loans on buildings.)

This is an intersting object lesson for individual churches.  If you drive off your most passionate dissenters, does it change your core message?  Are you still focused on reaching your whole community for the Gospel, or are you seen as only after their money?  Are you inclusive or exclusive?  Choose wisely; you will have to live with the future you create.