DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Deep Change and Decline in the Southern Baptist Convention

Written by: on May 10, 2018

Babies with dirty diapers like change, yet most of the rest of us aren’t very excited about it.  Even when individuals and organizations see the necessity of change, excuses are often fielded which keep much-needed changes from happening.

Why is it so difficult to change?

That question is the subject of The Deep Change Field Guide: A Personal Course to Discovering the Leader Within1 by Robert E. Quinn.  This workbook, written in 2012, is based upon Quinn’s 1996 book Deep Change.2  While the format of this “field guide” is more interactive, the message is the same.  Quinn’s premise is that leaders need to change themselves first before attempting to change their organization.  He states:


“When we choose deep change, we enter the fundamental state of leadership.  In that state, we experience exponential growth, and we become living attractors, pulling some of those around us into the same state.”3


In other words, we change ourselves internally before we seek to help others make changes.


The Deep Change Field Guide inspired me with several quality anecdotes.  Chapter two talks about a failed General Motors (GM) plant in Freemont, California which was closed because of a lack of productivity. The GM executives felt that most of the employees were dysfunctional.  Later, GM worked a deal with Toyota to reopen it with the same employees, but with Toyota’s management.  Toyota changed the culture of the plant into one that was a beacon of productivity and positive morale.  Formerly listless employees were on fire with a desire to make a quality car that they could be proud of.  The GM execs could have had a successful plant with the same employees, but they were unable to make the deep changes that were needed to turn the plant around.


Essentially, Deep Change is not about replacing old leaders with new leaders.  Deep Change is about inspiring leaders to change internally so that they will not have to be replaced.  In chapter three, Quinn tells the story of a group of executives that required significant changes for their employees which did not increase productivity.  He then asked them “Identify one time during your planning for a culture change when one of you said you were going to change your behavior.” 4(48)  Not one executive responded.  The lesson is clear…Leaders who want to change an organization without changing themselves often find their attempts futile. 


As I read The Deep Change Field Guide, I began thinking of the evangelical denomination that I have been a part of my entire life, The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).  Last year, an article in Christianity Today summarized the struggle faced by America’s largest Protestant denomination:

There’s no denying the decline of America’s largest Protestant denomination any longer. The SBC lost almost 78,000 members in the past year, according to the Annual Church Profile (ACP) released ahead of its upcoming annual meeting. Southern Baptists have now lost a million members since their peak of 16.3 million in 2003.

The denomination is down to its “lowest baptisms since 1946; lowest membership since 1990; lowest worship attendance since 1996,” according to historical analysis from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.5


The article goes on to quote the former president and CEO of the SBC executive committee:


“Virtually everyone who sees these figures will react negatively and lament the poor state of our churches, our lack of evangelistic fervor, and our increasingly irrelevant programs.” 6


To be honest, I spent the first 20 years of my ministry in the world of youth work.  During this time I had a general aversion to any discussion of denominationalism. Putting it bluntly, denominational politics turned me off.   Yet, when my career changed from youth ministry to missions ministry, this changed a bit.  I had a wakeup call in 2015 when the SBC International Mission Board made dramatic changes in response to low finances that resulted in the loss of over 1,000 foreign missionaries.


As I dug a little deeper into the current state of the Southern Baptist Convention, I discovered…


  • 60% of our adult members are over the age of 50.
  • Only 13% of our adult members are under the age of 30.
  • 85% of our members are white.
  • Only 4% of our members are first or second generation immigrants.7


Basically, the demographics of the SBC is older and less diverse than the general population.  This is especially true when compared to my state, Texas, where non-Hispanic whites make up only 45% of the population8 and only 12% of the population is over the age of 65.9


What changes should the Southern Baptist Convention make?  I do not have the answers, but applying the lessons learned in Deep Change, I would guess that the first step might be for pastors and denominational leaders to look inward.   Maybe should be asking ourselves:


“What changes should I make in my life that will make me a better leader?”

“Am I afraid to make changes that might involve personal sacrifice?”

“Am I doing the same things year after year and expecting different results?”


Southern Baptists have one of the greatest missionary forces in the world.  Their seminaries have trained hundreds of thousands of church leaders.  The SBC North American Mission Board in engaged in church planting in some of the most difficult cities in North America.  With over 15 million members in the U.S., Southern Baptists have the potential to make an ever increasing impact in communities across our nation for the sake of the gospel.  Yet, it is easy to become comfortable with doing what we have always done… unwilling to embrace meaningful change with eyes set on the future.



1 Robert E. Quinn, The Deep Change Field Guide a Personal Course to Discovering the Leader Within (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2012).

2 Robert E. Quinn, Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1996).

3The Deep Change Field Guide a Personal Course to Discovering the Leader Within. 160.

4Ibid. 48.

5 Kate Shellnutt et al., “Hundreds of New Churches Not Enough to Satisfy Southern Baptists,” Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church, , accessed May 10, 2018,

6 Ibid.

7 Benjamin Wormald, “Religious Landscape Study,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, May 11, 2015, , accessed May 10, 2018,

 8 “Majority Minority,” Wikipedia, April 10, 2018, , accessed May 10, 2018,

9 “U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Texas,” U.S. Trade with Haiti, , accessed May 10, 2018,


About the Author

Stu Cocanougher

9 responses to “Deep Change and Decline in the Southern Baptist Convention”

  1. Lynda Gittens says:

    Well Stu, you really shared deep information about the SBC.
    I want to thank you for this comment, ‘Deep Change is about inspiring leaders to change internally so that they will not have to be replaced’.
    Inspiring and not making someone to change is a much successful route. A leader should receive less resistance from the employee. This could be a Win Win situation.

  2. Mary says:

    Stu, thank you for this information. How do you think the Southern Baptists should change? Are they racist as some in an organization called CBE (Center for Baptist Ethics) claim? Or, are they just comfortable with the status quo?
    My picture of a Baptist is someone who is very zealous for God’s word and taking the Gospel to the lost. I pray with you that changes can be made to continue that legacy.

  3. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    What a powerful post, Stu. You’ve diagnosed the SBC trajectory well. As I mention in my post, every organism has a life cycle. As Lowney wrote in Heroic Leadership, the Jesuits had to evaluate and reinvent themselves and transformed into a vibrant movement. Sounds like the SBC is at that moment. You and I in our dissertations are both hoping to help our churches reimagine how they engage with the world. As leaders but not leaders at the top (you as a missions pastor, me as a woman) don’t have a ton of influence on our denomination/movement as a whole, but we can (continue to) model the change, and influence those in our circles. Not for the faint of heart, but the SBC would be stronger if they (listened to you) were open to inward assessment.

    • Stu Cocanougher says:

      If you look at the article from Christianity today that I quotes, at the same year that the SBC lost so many members, they saw 500 new churches planted.

      The IMB seems to be on a positive trajectory again.

  4. Stu,
    once again, Presbyterians are leading the way….. we have been hemorrhaging members for almost two decades now – we can definitely give you some great pointers……….
    But seriously, I love how you looked at the SBC through the deep change lens. It was an honest and insightful post.

    I think the quote/picture at the end really gets to the heart of the issue…. we often just want a better version of right now – which, in my experience, really means I want everyone and/or everything to change BUT ME!

  5. Jim Sabella says:

    Wow, Stu, what an excellent post. Looking inward with retrospect and respect is an important exercise. I appreciate the way you applied Quinn your denominational challenges. The SBC is truly a great organization that has been used mightily by God. I’m sure that will continue into the future. Of course, the SBC is not the only church struggling with these issues. Your admonition to begin to address the future by looking inward applies across the board. Thanks, Stu.

  6. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Thanks, Stu for your informative and thoughtful blog. I liked this: “Deep Change is about inspiring leaders to change internally so that they will not have to be replaced.” Profound summary and made me think deeply about the importance of fostering change in my life so God can be more revealed in me and I can be best used to accomplish His purposes. He is my ultimate employer, as He is for His church. I wonder how He feels about His church and their priorities? It sounds like your concerns are echoing God’s concerns. How would suggest producing deep change in your denomination?

  7. Kristin Hamilton says:

    Stu, those numbers for the SBC are similar to those of many other denominations who are struggling to make the deep changes necessary to remain vital in our communities. Your point that the leadership needs to look inward is a crucial one. There will always be resistance to change but it cannot come from leadership if an organization is going to survive. In the past couple of weeks, the SBC leadership has made some missteps that will hopefully be corrected. The same has happened (with different circumstances) in many denominations this past year. No one wants churches and denominations to die out because they are stuck in an inability to grow and change. This week I have been praying that those of us who have been learning this will have the courage to speak truth to power.

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