Church health ideas take flight
JEFFERSON CITY—Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) Interim Executive Director David Tolliver began to lay out a church health initiative Sept. 4 that positions the MBC Sunday School / Discipleship Team in a place where its research and ideas will be circulating for months to come.
Speaking at the monthly In-Office Day in the Baptist Building, Tolliver said an “ongoing, major” discussion of church health would be taking place over several sessions. The goal is for MBC staffers to work through a series of seven questions in order to develop a statement on what makes up a healthy church in Missouri. The first session consisted of brainstorming various definitions and characteristics of church health.
“I think this is a major issue for Missouri Baptists,” said Tolliver, who asked MBC Sunday School / Discipleship Team Director Bruce Morrison to prepare a basic overview on church health for the opening meeting.
At least five different church health models are being considered, ranging from Rick Warren to Christian Schwarz to Stephen Macchia to Mark Dever to George Barna. Another model, the 11 characteristics of a healthy church listed on the Baptist General Convention of Texas web site, may provide a clue as to where this Tolliver-led process is headed.
“I want to see us come up with a curriculum that we can use to help Missouri Baptist churches become healthy,” Tolliver said.
“In months, we will have a sense of direction. It will take more than that to have a real long-range plan.”
He said that while he is quite serious about completing the initiative, it is actually nothing new. About 1½ years ago, he said, “We got started, and we stopped. We don’t want to stop. We won’t finish it today (Sept. 4), but we will finish it sometime. I want to continue a discussion of healthy churches.”
There is a new dynamic this time. Morrison is retiring Dec. 31, and Michael Cooper, MBC discipleship ministry specialist, is being promoted into his position. The wording in Cooper’s new title is a work in progress as the new church health initiative begins to build momentum. Tolliver called it a reshaping.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to really plug church health as a part of what we do as a Convention—how we can help resource the local church to become more healthy,” Cooper said.
Tolliver became interim executive director April 10. Since then, the MBC has gone from three associate executive directors to one, requiring Tolliver, a former associate executive director, to do more. He now directly supervises the Communications and Development Team, Collegiate / Student Ministries, Family Ministries and the Sunday School / Discipleship Team. He explained the philosophy behind his prioritizing of church health at this time.
“We’re not going to back up an inch in church planting,” Tolliver said. “We’re not going to slow down in evangelism. But I’m convinced that healthy churches will plant more churches and more healthy churches. I’m convinced that healthy churches will do evangelism on a regular basis, and we’ll see more people saved.
“I think that we do the best that we can to measure what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. However, I think that a lot of times we measure the wrong thing. We measure baptisms because we can count baptisms. What we ought to be measuring is how many of our people are witnessing. If you’ve got a healthy church, your folks are witnessing.
“If evangelism genuinely is witnessing in the power of the Holy Spirit, leaving the results to God, then if we’re doing what we ought to be doing, it doesn’t matter how many baptisms we’ve got. That’s up to God.”
Tolliver is accountable to the MBC Executive Board. He sent an email to board members Sept. 5 informing them of the new church health initiative, and he indicated in a Sept. 7 interview with The Pathway that the initial response to that email has been entirely positive.
“When I was asked to serve as interim, I was given the parameters of the job,” he said. “The parameters were simply this: ‘Be the executive director.’ So I’m being the executive director.”
The previous administration emphasized evangelism, church planting and missions, directing much in the way of resources toward those stated priorities. One of the outcomes was a four-year slide in baptisms that raised the levels of concern and disappointment in the minds of MBC leaders. Baptisms in 2003 were 13,325. They dropped to 13,243 in 2004 and 13,060 in 2005 before falling to 12,503 in 2006. The dip below 13,000 was particularly painful because the stated MBC goal at the time was 20,000.
“Healthy church doesn’t mean 100 baptisms a year,” Tolliver said. “It means that and a whole lot more other things. Who is the audience of the Convention? It’s not the lost world. It’s the church. We exist for Missouri Baptist churches. Our audience is the church. Their audience is the lost world, and the church, too. The church is a place where Christians come together to get discipled, to get edified, to get built up, so that they can go out into the world and reach the lost.”
Many Missouri Baptist churches are plateaued or declining, according to MBC staffers who travel the state. Morrison cites a statistic from the 2006 Annual Church Profile (ACP) where 42 percent of MBC churches had no additions of any kind; Tolliver calls that “losing the battle.” The church health initiative is designed to stop the bleeding.
“My reasoning boils down to the fact that we are indeed losing the battle,” he said. “In a non-offensive way, we’ve got to alert Missouri Baptists to this issue.”