Overview:

Bart Barber wants to keep the SBC decentralized. He also wants them to spend more money and resources on the tiniest rural churches in the SBC's stable. Both ideas are absolutely absurd, but absurd non-solutions are just business as usual for this beleaguered denomination.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) recently elected Bart Barber to be its newest president. Barber hails from a very small country church in northeast Texas, which he thinks is a good example to the rest of the denomination. He’s also the new leader of his faction, the Pretend Progressives, so he’s busy trying to deal with the SBC’s sex abuse crisis. But he’s also trying to push the SBC into providing would-be pastors with the resources to open more churches, as well as supporting existing pastors of small churches, in little towns just like his.

Knowing what I know about the SBC and its demographics, that idea surprised me. It might just be the worst SBC revitalization plan I’ve heard yet, and let me tell you: the list of contenders for that title is a mile long and a few thousand fathoms deep.

Captain Cassidy’s SBC faction fight card guide

The Old Guard wants the SBC to return to its 1990-ish worldview. They’re regressive conservatives to the bone: no women pastors, keep Black people out of power, and fix sex abuse by Jesus-ing harder. An extremist subfaction has risen to power, consuming the entire faction; this subfaction thinks the 1990 reforms didn’t go nearly far enough.

Old Guard leaders emphasize a weird take on unity that means everyone else needs to shut up and let them drive, as well as wanting a return to the SBC’s core values of bigotry, racism, misogyny, and completely-dysfunctional authoritarianism. They will never, ever propose or back any reforms whatsoever that might lessen the possibility of predators gaining power and keeping it. The reasons are both obvious and inescapable.

The Pretend Progressives are just as conservative, control-hungry, and culture-warry as the Old Guard, but they think they can institute mild reforms to the SBC and still maintain their beloved conservatism, control-hunger, and culture wars. They are not actually progressive at all, though the Old Guard snarls accusations like that at them all the time. Their leaders sympathize greatly with sex abuse victims and talk big about racial reconciliation. But they are moving glacially-slowly to make even the most basic of reforms happen. It’s clear that they’re only moving that quickly because they must.

For the past couple of years, the Pretend Progressives have been winning the SBC’s political slapfights. It’s stunning, really, considering the power the Old Guard’s leaders hold in the denomination. Indeed, the Old Guard’s biggest names are getting snubbed at every turn—and they’re getting really cranky about it.

Bart Barber: someone with a small-town hammer sees small-town nails everywhere

Recently, Bart Barber became the newest president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). He is the third Pretend Progressive president in a row, succeeding Ed Litton (2021-2022) and J.D. Greear (2018-2021).

Like almost every SBC president in recent memory, Barber pastors a church. Unlike recent presidents, though, his church is small and located in a teeny-tiny town in podunk northeast Texas. Farmersville, Texas is about an hour’s drive northeast from Dallas. It boasts a population of about 3600 people. About half of them are white, a quarter Hispanic/Latino, and almost 7% Black. Though I couldn’t find religious demographics for Farmersville alone, City-Data thinks that almost half its county’s population is religiously-unaffiliated.

For 3600 people, though, Farmersville seems to have a whole lot of churches. One of those churches is First Baptist Church, which Bart Barber leads.

I noticed it’s got good reviews on Google, with many of them incorporating such beloved Christianese phrases like “not afraid to preach the Bible” and “expository preaching.”

(Christianese 101: “Preaching the Bible” just means giving sermons that completely confirm and agree with the judging Christian’s take on Christianity. “Expository preaching” indicates a sermon that incorporates lots of Bible verses and Christianese to “preach the Bible.” For the most part, this is evangelical lingo. Literally any Christian stance or doctrine can be supported in exactly these ways, but evangelicals have never been able to deal with that fact. They take as obvious that “expository preaching” and “preaching the Bible” can’t possibly support anything they reject.)

The First Great and Magnificent Proposal of Bart Barber: MORE DECENTRALIZATION

In this Religion News article, Bart Barber talks about decentralization. That means he wants all power in the SBC to rest in individual churches rather than any central denominational authority. That’s interesting talk, coming from someone who ran for president of the SBC—and won. He’s certain that decentralization will help make sexual abuse harder to hide—and lead to greater accountability for church leaders. Here’s how the article puts it:

But Barber also talks about shifting the balance “to the people” of the SBC, arguing that decentralization — preserving the historical autonomy of the denomination’s churches — will mean more transparency and vigilance in preventing further sexual abuse.

Religion News

This is a downright alarming thing for any SBC president to say. After all, the decentralized nature of the SBC has proven to be its abusers’ very best friend and ally. However, Bart Barber thinks his little bitty church in his little bitty town is a perfect example of the genre, so naturally he wants more of them all over America. Ain’t no sex-abusin’ goin’ on in his ol’ li’l ol’ church, after all!

And it’s refreshing to see that Religion News all but calls Barber’s blithering nonsense exactly what it is, and they do so immediately at that:

Critics argue the SBC’s decentralized structure makes it more difficult to discover abuse and hold its perpetrators accountable. SBC leaders long emphasized that churches’ independence meant the SBC had no ability to force specific action against abuse, and insisted SBC leaders could not keep a database because they had insufficient oversight. 

Religion News

But this decentralization blahblah is not actually why we’re all here today. I described it here only to give an idea of just how dedicated Barber is to small-town Southern Baptist culture. It’s a prelude. An amuse-bouche. Flavor text. No, THIS is the actual reason we’re here today:

The Second Great and Magnificent Proposal of Bart Barber: GIVING MORE SBC RESOURCES TO TINY CHURCHES IN TINY TOWNS

At the SBC’s recent Annual Meeting, voters adopted a resolution to better support churches and evangelism efforts in small towns.

(It’s downright hilarious that the resolution writers offer only one Bible verse to support this idea: Matthew 2:23, which has the anonymous Gospel writer identifying Jesus’ hometown as Nazareth. But evangelicals gonna evangelical. As we learned in The Hunt for Red October, They don’t take a dump, son, without a plan Bible verse.)

The resolution positions such churches as mission fields in and of themselves. It also pledges Cooperative Program money to help these “mission fields.” And Barber is completely on board here, describing an online meeting he hosted to explain the resolution to his flocks:

“It was like, ‘How is it that we haven’t done this resolution yet?’” he said.

Religion News

And, purely because I’m feeling super-duper-mega-riffic helpful, I thought I might help him out by spoon-feeding him the answer to his question.

First and foremost, the SBC has in fact already “done this resolution” before. In 2017, small churches got a whole lot of attention right before the Annual Meeting.

And just last year, an initiative called Small Church America began offering all kinds of advice and resources to the pastors of small churches. Also in 2021, Lifeway offered a comprehensive study of small churches, for whatever their research is worth.

Why the SBC doesn’t give a ton of support to tiny rural towns’ tiny rural churches

As it is, the vast majority of SBC churches have small congregations.

As the Small Church America link tells us, about 25% of the SBC’s 47,000 churches have fewer than 24 people attending every Sunday. Another quarter have fewer than 49. And 66% of SBC churches have fewer than 75 people warming their pews.

The 2017 small churches link tells us that almost 90% of SBC churches average fewer than 250 people attending Sunday services. The average SBC church has 145 people attending, while the median is 70. In fact, only 1500 SBC churches in 2017 had over 500 people attending weekly services. And only 180 of its churches qualified as actual megachurches, with 2000+ congregants attending.

It seems clear, from the Lifeway link, that the smallest churches also function with way tighter budgets than larger churches enjoy. They blow the biggest percentage of those budgets on their buildings, while their staff often must volunteer. Meanwhile, their pastors often get to sample the ineffable joys of bivocationalism, which is Christianese for needing a day job.

If these pew-warmers were actually significant donors to the SBC’s big projects, as Lifeway tried to claim last year, then the SBC would have been courting them long ago. Say what you want about these guys, but they have never been known for leaving money on the table. These churches must not put a lot of money on it, is all.

So it’s easy to understand why the SBC doesn’t tend to show a lot of love to tiny rural churches: They provide poor returns on investments (ROI).

Remember, always, of course, that we must base even that pessimistic conclusion on partial reports from churches who are not at all obligated to report at all. I’ve seen many hints over the years that churches with wall-to-wall bad news just don’t bother reporting anything. One idly wonders just what analysts would make of the real picture, were all SBC churches required to report every year.

But I suppose that’s just too centralized.

Poaching and cannibalization: The other problems with tiny rural churches

Tiny rural towns are full of churches, as Bart Barber’s own hometown demonstrates. No matter their affiliation, every one of them struggles to survive in the new post-Christian American landscape.

Small towns are full of very opinionated people, for good or ill. If they’re the type to join an SBC church and love being there, they’re already there. If the local SBC church offended them so much that they withdrew, they might consider joining a new one that starts up locally. But that’s not the same thing as that new startup bagging a brand-new convert. At most, it’s recruiting an existing Christian who just wasn’t attending church previously.

All of this ignores the very real phenomenon of church cannibalization, which is what happens when a big, flashy new church opens nearby. These flashy churches open with loads of programs, amenities, and staff, big buildings, and plenty of parking. And they absorb congregants from churches all over their towns, all of them attracted to the new church’s sheer size and spectacle and stuff-to-do that’s on offer. It’s like what happens to a small town’s local shops when a Wal-Mart opens nearby. And it’s been happening for years.

Oh sure, church hoppers always warble piously that Jesus totally ordered them to switch churches. There’s not a way for their previous church leaders to argue with that, now is there? All their previous pastors can do is mutter bitterly about how inferior the Jesus-ing must be at that new big church, and how un-Jesus-y church hoppers totally are.

(See also: Wait, HOW many churches close per year?)

All that said, I’m all for the SBC wasting money and time on poor ROI

I’m excited about this new initiative. No sarcasm, no exaggeration. It has the potential to be a big huge big-talk-no-action nothingburger that just makes the pastors of small churches feel even more ignored and pushed aside.

Alternately, it could turn into an utter catastrophe as successful decentralization efforts lead to sex abuse reformists finally getting the message that the SBC doesn’t plan to do much of anything to make sex abusers’ lives more difficult.

Whatever happens, it’ll be a drastic overcorrection, a solution-in-search-of-a-problem, that won’t actually solve the SBC’s core problems:

  • hopelessly tainted brand name
  • known history of shielding and protecting sex abusers
  • shocking racism and sexism reaching to the denomination’s beginnings and their highest levels of leadership
  • decidedly authoritarian leadership style that allows no changes to their dysfunctional culture

But sure. The Big Problem Here is that the SBC doesn’t spend enough money and time on tiny rural churches! Yes, that must be what will totally steer their Titanic away from that iceberg!

For real, I’m here for it.

Describing this young woman’s headgear to my husband has had me laughing for a few minutes now. It is a bumblebee dealy-bopper, if you’re wondering, and this fact has opened up whole new vistas of Southern slang to him that he had not hitherto suspected existed.
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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...