Keeping Sheep
By Nick Rynerson

Springfield | The question is a familiar one. Most pastors and church leaders have asked it at some point: Why are people leaving the church? Every denomination has felt the effects of decline, even Southern Baptists who had maintained growth overall until recently.

To find out why people are really leaving the church, Rodney Harrison set out to interview former Southern Baptist church members and get the real story. He rode his motorcycle all over the country and visited more than 500 former church members in Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Texas, Washington, and California.

The Dean of Online Education and Director of Doctoral Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Harrison explained his findings at the 2015 Midwest Leadership Summit in Springfield.

Harrison observed that not all churches are losing members, but churches in decline have some characteristics in common. Here’s his summary of what the 500 former members told him.

1. People left churches where they didn’t feel the presence of God.

What Harrison said he most often heard in his research was “I just didn’t feel the presence of God [in that church] anymore.” Former members often described their former churches as nice places, but lacking, as Harrison put it, “the manifest presence of God.” People left churches “where they don’t feel like God was showing up” more than for any other reason during his qualitative study.

“God’s manifest presence is conditional,” Harrison said. “Rampant sin hinders God’s manifest presence. Often times we invite people to a church that has ‘the flu’—it’s spiritually sick—and we wonder why people come and don’t stay.”

2. People left churches that didn’t value women.

The second most common reason cited for departures among the 500 people Harrison interviewed was disagreement over the roles of women in church life. Some reported feeling that women didn’t have the opportunity to exercise their gifts in fulfilling ways in the churches they attended.

According to him, this does not mean people left because they rejected the complementarian view of men and women. Instead, he said the former SBC church members felt women were under-valued and their contributions weren’t meaningful at the churches they had attended.

Harrison argued there is a biblical precedent for women serving in meaningful ways in the church, citing the examples of Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Martha, and Lydia. His research shows, however, that in our time, the roles of women in the church deserves further study before it becomes even more divisive.

3. People left churches that focused on debatable issues.

Specifically, in Harrison’s research, disagreement over alcohol use was an issue for some who left. Harrison heard stories of people who chose to leave after they began to serve in leadership, but were asked to sign a covenant forbidding alcohol use.

Harrison recalled a story of a man that was involved at a Southern Baptist church for a while and began serving in leadership roles as a layperson. When he was asked to sign a covenant, the man had to make the difficult decision to leave the church because he was employed in the wine industry.

Churches certainly have the option to ask members to abstain from certain things, even if the Bible does not expressly forbid them. But Harrison said many ex-church members they did not feel that this issue was properly handled in their former churches. Doubts raised in one theological debate raised questions over other issues and caused growing distrust of their leaders.

4. People left churches in conflict.

When strife breaks out in a church that has nothing to do with matters of orthodoxy or faithfulness, people get burned and leave, Harrison said. Many of the churches people left did not have plans in place to deal with church discipline and conflict.

Without a process in place, conflicts often escalated and became antagonistic. Harrison found that conflict came from both the pulpit and the pews. Anecdotally, his interviewees reported that antagonistic members were rarely dealt with in a healthy manner, and pastors often felt unequipped to deal with conflicts.

5. People left uncaring churches.

Ultimately, if a church doesn’t care for its people, people don’t end up caring much for it. Ex-members interviewed told stories of feeling neglected. One of Harrison’s anecdotes told of an elderly woman who spent six months in the hospital without a single visitor from her church.

“Are we ministering to our members?” asked Harrison. “If the answer is ‘no,’ be prepared for diminishing numbers.”

Back to Church SundayHEARTLAND | The kids have gone back to school, so now let’s go back to church. That’s the idea behind National Back to Church Sunday, September 20. After Labor Day is one of those times when the number of church visitors increases. How can we prepare?

Smiles, everyone. Practice your greetings. Put it plainly: let’s make people feel welcome, not just at the assigned hand-shaking time, but before and after the service, too.

Two-minute warning. As with the last moments of an NFL game, assign the greeting to the last two minutes of the service. Encourage people to stick around and talk, or invite the guests to lunch at a local restaurant.

Check the signage. Invite a stranger to assess the effectiveness of the signs in your buildings, especially for the restrooms and children’s area.

Paint the entryway. The rest of the place may need it too, but at least spruce up the lobby.

Best face forward. Assign the friendliest greeters for the month of September in a variety of ages. Review the basics of making people feel welcome and giving directions.

Learn more about Back to Church Sunday

The BriefingTHE BRIEFING | Southern Baptist leaders including Thom Rainer and Ed Stetzer are taking notice of the repercussions that have followed the release by hackers of names of subscribers to the Ashley Madison website, which boasts the tagline, “Life is short. Have an affair.” Rainer, president of LifewWay wrote about the revelations on his blog, ThomRainer.com. “As the list of names on the Ashley Madison list began to unfold, pastors and other church leaders received word that some of their own members were on the list,” he said. “Some of the names included elders, deacons, pastors, church staff, and laypersons in the church.”

Rainer said the pastors he spoke with “were struggling with how they were going to respond to the families impacted, other church leaders, and the congregation as a whole.” He offered some ways church leaders and members could deal with the scandal if it touches their church.

Stetzer, LifeWay Research President, used his blog, The Exchange, to blame the culture for the Ashley Madison site and the behavior that supported it. “Many are reaping what they have sown individually, but we are also reaping what we have sown culturally…Though what was in the dark is now in the light, and though those who share our faith face utter embarrassment, our place is not to gloat. Perhaps, rather, we should grieve at what sexuality has become in our culture.”

Stetzer went on in another post to estimate a wave of up to 400 ministry resignations due to the hackers’ list. He noted however, “Not everyone on the list signed themselves up. Among those who did, the sin and circumstances will be different. Many likely signed themselves up and didn’t actually go through with adultery. Regardless, though, trust has been shattered and hearts have been broken. But before we assume a name on a list means adultery has taken place, we must confirm all things and seek the full truth.”

Late Monday (Aug. 31) night, the news broke that theologian RC Sproul, Jr, had admitted that in a “moment of weakness, pain, and from an unhealthy curiosity” he left an old e-mail address on the site.


Supreme Court rules against Kentucky clerk in gay marriage case

The Supreme Court ruled Aug. 31 against the Kentucky county clerk who has refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses, and today, Sept. 1, the clerk has refused to issue licenses to same-sex couples who have arrived at her office.

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis may now be found in contempt of court and face fines or be ordered to go to jail.

Morehead County Sheriff Matt Clark told the couples there was nothing he could do, saying the matter was in the hands of the federal courts.

“She will likely be found in contempt, as we know,” the sheriff said.


42 IMB missionaries appointed; Platt addresses trustees

Even as the International Mission Board prepared to announce a reduction of up to 15% of its staff and missionaries, the organization held an appointment service Aug. 26 for 42 new missionaries. IMB President David Platt addressed the missionaries and attendees, speaking on Matthew 4:18-22, where Jesus is calling His first disciples, and particularly verse 19: “And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’” (ESV). Read about the appointment service at BPNews.net.

SBC President Ronnie Floyd addressed the announced staff reduction on his blog, writing, “Regardless of our thoughts or feelings on the International Mission Board’s budget announcement, now is the time to go to the Lord in prayer about it more than ever before. We are a people that believe in our powerful and providing God, and no one is more committed to reaching the nations than the Lord Himself. When His people fasten their eyes to joining Him in this eternal task, God will move powerfully and provide generously. He always has and will do so again.”


Christianity Today cover highlights ERLC’s Moore

Russell Moore’s five meetings with President Obama and a personal objection to displaying the Confederate battle flag that predates Moore’s public stance on the issue are among the highlights of a Christianity Today cover article profiling the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission president.


Same-sex marriage ruling used to defend polygamy

We knew it was coming. The stars of the reality television show “Sister Wives” used the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent same-sex marriage ruling to support their case against Utah’s polygamy ban, court records show.

The filing with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by Kody Brown and the four women he considers his wives – Meri Brown, Janelle Brown, Christine Brown and Robyn Sullivan – came in response the Utah Attorney General’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling in their favor.

Sources: Baptist Press, Christianity Today, Fox News, Reuters, ThomRainer.com, USA Today, Washington Post

Q. Why should I give to the Mission Illinois Offering? My church already gives to missions through the Cooperative Program. And we give to Annie and Lottie. Should I give to Mission Illinois too?

MIO: GiveA. Good question. The Mission Illinois Offering is the most direct channel Illinois Baptists have to support the missions in our state that are really important to us here. 

While Cooperative Program is the most balanced method of supporting national and international missions, planting churches in the US and Canada, and preparing missionaries and ministers, it is special offerings like Annie, Lottie, and Mission Illinois that encourage special mission work that touches our hearts.

The Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions helps the North American Mission Board (NAMB) focus on church planting, especially in the 32 metropolitan “SEND Cities” largely unreached with the gospel. And the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering gives International Mission Board (IMB) workers tools they need on foreign mission fields.

But it’s the Mission Illinois Offering that funds mission work close to home. Our denominational partners have their responsibilities, and we have ours. Illinois is our mission field. And Illinois’ 8 million (or more) lost and unreached people are our responsibility.

They’re our neighbors, and they need Jesus.

Through the Mission Illinois Offering, we are guaranteed that our giving to missions will reach our mission field with the gospel. As IBSA Executive Director Nate Adams has pointed out, there are many good missions works we can support, but through MIO, we can be certain that—

  • Mission Illinois encourages the work of local congregations. Through equipping and mobilization, IBSA is a partner with your church.
  • Mission Illinois carries the gospel with all its mission work. Not only is there the compassion ministry in downtrodden communities, children’s ministry, collegiate outreach, church planting among unreached people, and aid after disaster, Mission Illinois shares Christ in every setting where IBSA missionaries serve.
  • Mission Illinois is built on solid Baptist doctrine. We gladly work in the larger evangelical world, but we are Baptists and we hold to sound Baptist beliefs. Mission Illinois is the outward expression of our Baptistic commitment to the Great Commission, starting right here in Illinois.

Will you encourage your church to give generously to state missions through the Mission Illinois Offering? Our neighbors are counting on it.

DR vounteers at work in Sublette.

Disaster Relief Supervisor, Jamie Kincaid, works with 2 Texas volunteers to pull a loose branch out of damaged tree in Sublette.

NEWS | Morgan Jackson

When an “act of God” takes place and overwhelms a community with destruction, a genuine act of God is the response through Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Teams. When a DR call out is given, volunteers respond to offer physical labor, but more importantly, spiritual healing through sharing the gospel.

Two months ago, an F2 tornado struck the southern end of Woodhaven Lakes, the world’s largest privately owned camping resort located in Sublette, IL. Disaster Relief teams have been offering aid in the area ever since, the most recent group during the week of August 16-22.

120 individuals from Illinois, Missouri, and Texas traveled to Sublette to do mostly chainsaw work – cutting trees, taking care of hanging limbs, etc. Volunteers also cleaned up multiple properties and carried debris to designated spots where it could be properly disposed of.

Damage from an F2 tornado

The F2 tornado that struck Woodhaven Lakes 2 months ago left some camping facilities unscathed and others in ruins.

Woodhaven Lakes is for many either a weekend house or vacation spot. This made it difficult to get in touch with owners who weren’t there in the middle of the week. DR Supervisor from Springfield, Jamie Kincaid, said that a work order needs to be signed before anything is done to the property. “Without that, we can’t touch it.”

Despite this hurdle, by the end of the week the 120 volunteers completed a total of 146 job orders. Less people on the property, though, also meant fewer individuals to share Christ with. But God opened spiritual doors nonetheless.

Wendell Romans from Texas, a Disaster Relief volunteer of 23 years, said the DR chaplain had a chance to share the Gospel with a couple on Tuesday. He also explained that if a family is home, once the team is through working on their property, they sign a Bible, present it to the owners, and pray with them.

Unlike the majority of Disaster Relief trips, though, the group doing most of the witnessing this time was the laundry team. Woodhaven Lakes had a laundromat on the facility that they allowed volunteers to use for free. While pouring detergent and folding clothes, Ruth Ann Lusk had multiple opportunities to pray with people.

She said, “We’re actually the ones doing the talking this time. People come in, and we just start talking to them. Or they see our shirts and start talking to us first.” The number of spiritual conversations during the week were numerous, and so far there are two known salvation decisions.

To read another story from this Disaster Relief trip, check out the August 31 issue of the Illinois Baptist.

IMB President David Platt addresses staff and missionaries in a town hall meeting Thursday, August 27. Photo courtesy IMB

IMB President David Platt addresses staff and missionaries in a town hall meeting Thursday, August 27. Photo courtesy IMB

Richmond, Va. | The International Mission Board announced it will be eliminating 600-800 of its staff and missionaries in an effort to eliminate the board’s revenue shortfalls, which also includes a complete reset of the organization.

The plan was announced at an Aug. 27 town hall meeting that included senior leadership and missionaries and staff. Missionaries and non-field staff joined the meeting via digital media. Trustees were briefed on the plan at their Aug. 25-26 board meeting.

“With a really heavy heart, I announced to the staff this morning that the only viable way forward involves a great reduction of personnel and staff,” shared IMB Executive Director David Platt in a press conference following the town hall meeting. “We need a major adjustment in the number of personnel, to reduce the total number by 600-800 people.”

“These are not just figures. These are faces, brothers and sisters, who have spent their lives spreading the gospel to those who’ve never heard it,” he continued. The IMB currently has approximately 4,800 missionaries in the field and 450 staff which together equal 80 percent of its budget. The reduction represents up to 15% of the organization’s staff.

While giving through the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering has increased in the last few years, the IMB projects it will fall $21 million dollars short of its current budget this year. This follows several consecutive years of budget shortfalls and six years of expenditures totaling $210 million dollars more than has been given to the IMB.

In recent years, the organization has covered budget shortfalls through cash reserves and selling property. These measures along with plans set in place by previous leaders to reduce its staff and missionary size through attrition are “no longer viable in light of current reality,” stated Platt.

“We praise God for the reserves and property sales that made this possible and for leadership which chose to spend these resources for the spread of the gospel,” he said. “But we cannot continue to overspend. For the sake of short-term financial responsibility and long-term organizational stability we must act.”

Phase one of the plan is the voluntary retirement or resignation of missionaries and staff. Platt stressed no one would be pressured to leave during this first phase.

Phase two is the conclusion of the reset where decisions will be made to work through how missionaries will be used. “We must hold each other accountable in higher standards in our work…We can’t employ everyone who wants to work for the International Mission Board,” said Platt. The goal is to finish the reset by early 2016.

Platt encouraged everyone to boldly ask God where he was calling them to move. “God is not sidelining anyone in this process,” he said, noting opportunities for Christians to move overseas for their professions, education and retirement while they can also share Christ and plant churches.

“These realities, while they are financial, are ultimately spiritual,” Platt said. “God is ultimately orchestrating everything for his glory.”

The reset will be completed on knowledge IMB senior personnel will gain in coming days and months, as they evaluate what is needed around the world in various fields. “I certainly don’t have a forecast for what all that looks like,” said Platt. In all this the IMB is “trusting God to lead and re-direct 600-800 people in the days to come.”

The goal of the reset is to “get to a healthy place in the present in order to be in a healthy position for the future,” Platt said. “We want to move forward with innovative vision, wise stewardship, and high accountability to the churches we serve, the peoples we reach, and the God we worship.”

The IMB has provided a FAQ sheet related to its organizational reset that is available on the IMB website.

The 170-year-old organization is the primary international missions sending agency of the Southern Baptist Convention.

By Lisa Sergent with additional reporting by Morgan Jackson.

The BriefingTHE BRIEFING | More than 65,000 protesters gathered outside Planned Parenthood Clinics across the U.S. August 22. The protesters demanded the halt of government funding for the organization which performs abortions, provides birth control medications, and other women’s health services.

The protests follow the release of several videos produced by the Center for Medical Progress which show Planned Parenthood employees bargaining over the sale of aborted infants’ body parts to research facilities.

The reported 342 demonstrations were organized by the Pro-Life Action League.


Gov. Rauner signs gay-conversion therapy ban into law

With little to no fanfare, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has signed a bill into law which bans therapists from trying to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of anyone younger than 18.

Providers who don’t comply could face disciplinary action which could include losing their license to practice in Illinois.

California, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia already have such bans in place. Read more in the next issue of the Illinois Baptist newspaper on Aug. 31.


Chick-fil-A blocked from Denver airport

A committee of the Denver City Council has stalled what was expected to be routine approval of a Chick-fil-A restaurant at the Denver International Airport after at least four council members expressed disapproval of the company’s alleged opposition to same-sex marriage.

During an Aug. 18 hearing, council member Robin Kniech said she was concerned about a local franchise generating “corporate profits used to fund and fuel discrimination,” The Denver Post reported. Councilman Paul Lopez compared the pro-family stances of some Chick-fil-A leaders to presidential candidate Donald Trump’s comments about immigration and other issues, calling opposition to the airport restaurant “really, truly a moral issue.” Read more at BPnews.net


Critics ask president to abolish faith-based hiring bias

A coalition of 130 groups have petitioned President Obama to eliminate what they believe to be a faith-based hiring bias for organizations receiving federal funding.

The groups cite a “flawed” 2007 Justice Department memo which said the Religious Freedom Restoration Act provides for an override of nondiscrimination laws for government-funded religious organizations. They request the president direct a review of the memo by Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Signatories include Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.


Injunction extended while GuideStone awaits appeal

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Aug. 21 it would keep in place the preliminary injunction won by GuideStone earlier at the District Court level while GuideStone’s appeals it case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The preliminary injunction, which protects certain ministries from providing abortion-causing drugs or devices in their health plan, or face crippling fines, was first issued by a federal judge in December 2013. Upon the government’s appeal, a three-judge panel of the Tenth Circuit of Appeals ruled 2-1 to end the injunction. GuideStone, along with its co-plaintiffs appealed the Tenth Circuit’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court in July.

Churches and integrated auxiliaries of churches, including GuideStone, are exempt from the mandate and its penalties as religious employers. The current litigation was sought to protect other ministries it serves, such as children’s homes, colleges and other ministries not controlled by a church or association of churches, from the mandate and its penalties.