Jerry Rankin, outgoing president of the International Mission Board, is making a strong case for change within his denomination as he prepares to step away from the helm of its missions arm following17 years of service.
"Why change? Because the world is changing and Southern Baptists are changing. When the changes external to an organization exceed internal changes, the organization is moving toward irrelevance and ineffectiveness," he writes in the latest entry of his weblog.
Rankin, whose tenure is the second longest of any IMB president in the last century, has been overseeing the mission board's second wave of restructuring in 12 years, which he says– like the first – is not the result of past ineffectiveness but to assure its relevancy in the future.
"It is a mistake to assume that continuing methods that were successful in the past will continue to be effective in the future," he says.
Unfortunately, there are many leaders within the conservative denomination who aren't so open to change.
"Everyone is saying, 'We need a Great Commission Resurgence.' But the voices continue, 'But don't touch the state conventions, don't change our SBC entities, don't think about tweaking the Cooperative Program,'" Rankin reports.
The Southern Baptist Convention, according to the IMB head, is structured by a legacy of historic bylaws that make it immune to change.
In fact, he says, it is designed to resist change.
"We are in bondage to leaders of the past who established how we would do things in the 19th century, in 1925, and ever since," Rankin says. "Generations of inhibiting policies have continued to accumulate over the years. Proposals for innovation or change are readily deflected as 'out-of-order' or referred to the Executive Committee or the authority of the relevant board which readily dispenses with anything that would change its status quo."
So rather than asking "What next?" or what will make the SBC relevant and effective now, Southern Baptists are asking "How can we hold on to the past?"
"We must ask the right questions. What does the current situation and trends call for us to do right now? If we make the right decisions, where is this going to lead?" Rankin poses.
"We cannot wait until we get there, confronted with new obstacles and challenges; we must anticipate what will come next and be positioned to make the next innovative and strategic decision. And of course, to do what needs to be done and assure our relevancy in the future, we have to be courageous in deciding what we cease doing, no matter how effective it might have been in the past," he insists.
Presently, the Southern Baptist Convention is the nation's largest evangelical denomination, claiming more than 40,000 churches with over 16 million members.
In its last membership report, however, the SBC reported a second straight year of decline, dropping down by 0.24 percent.
Although the percentage loss is small compared to the total membership of the churches, the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, which annually reports the membership figures of church bodies throughout North America noted in SBC's first year of decline that it and the Catholic Church had "grown dependably" over the years and "now they join virtually every mainline church in reporting a membership decline."
The Catholic Church, unlike the SBC, however, reported growth following that year.
The two-year drop in membership within the SBC followed a third straight drop in baptisms.