Southern Baptists and The Numbers

Years ago, when I was a student in Dr. J.P. Dane’s Church Administration class at Grand Canyon University, which was then a Southern Baptist-related school, he made a statement that I will never forget.

“Southern Baptists are intoxicated by numbers.”

Having been raised in a Southern Baptist church, I was shocked that we could be intoxicated by anything, but his statement made the point.  My home church, like thousands of others, had a board at the front of the church which announced the Sunday School enrollment, attendance, last week’s attendance, the offering, and the number of reported contacts.  Things were good when the numbers were increasing, not so good when they weren’t.  For a small church in a small town well outside the “Bible Belt” South, the numbers were usually pretty good.  The ministry tenure of several pastors was evaluated by that attendance figure, which reached 50 about half the time, hit 60 on special days like Easter and the Sunday before Christmas, and could drop as low as 35 in the summer time.

For several years now, the topic of the numbers, particularly the membership and attendance numbers, have been a topic of discussion at the annual gathering of the SBC.  The number of baptisms has been trending downward for quite some time, and it is something considered a measure of the health of churches.  The total membership, which includes a sizeable number of individuals characterized as “non-resident members,” (meaning that the church they belong to doesn’t see them or can’t find them), has also been in decline for almost a decade now, and the number is getting larger as each succeeding year passes.  This has caused a lot of distress for the convention’s leadership.

Declining membership and attendance is not rare among Christian churches in America.  In fact, most denominations and most churches are declining in both membership, and participation, in some cases, a steep decline.  Along with that, the churches are “graying,” with the median age becoming higher as fewer younger people find the church worth bothering with, or fail to become convinced that the religious values they are taught as they grow up are serious when compared to the secular humanist perspective they get every day in school.  Thomas Reeves, in his book, The Empty Church, lays the decline of mainline Protestant churches at the feet of liberal theology, and documents the exodus.

Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in a recent article in the Baptist Banner, noted the following, regarding a recent Pew Report:

The Pew report reveals an increasing number of Americans who identify with no church or religious commitment. At present, one of five Americans is now “unaffiliated” and disconnected from any church or organized faith. More shocking is the fact that fully one in three Americans under age 30 report themselves as unaffiliated. “In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15 percent to just under 20 percent of all U.S. adults,” the report reveals.”

This trend is now having an effect on Southern Baptist churches as well.  A denomination once insulated by its close association with Southern, Bible Belt culture is now losing its cultural identity, and large swaths of its membership, especially younger ones.  And if you take a look at the numbers in the SBC, out of 16 million members, the average weekly worship attendance is slightly less than 6 million.  That means that 10 million individuals who still identify themselves as “affiliated” with a Southern Baptist church rarely, if ever, attend the church they belong to.  If the percentages of attendance to membership are similar in other denominations, and most studies show that they are, then only about 30-35% of the American population is actually in attendance at church on Sunday.

In the SBC, the decline isn’t the result of liberal theology.  So why is this happening?  I have some theories.  And is there something that can be done to reverse the trend?

1.  Southern Baptists focused heavily on evangelism in the 50’s, 60’s and into the 70’s.  The focus on discipleship didn’t match up.  This produced a gap, especially in places where being Southern Baptist is embedded deep into the local culture.

2.  In most towns and cities in the South, the First Baptist Church used to be the largest church with the largest youth group.  Now, non-denominational churches are larger and younger.  The worship style in most SBC congregations has remained traditional, and whether or not that should be a factor in where you go to church, it is one.

3.  Most young people leave the church they grew up in by the time they graduate from college.  The curriculum of the public school they attend five days each week is written in such a way that it contradicts many things that the church teaches and believes, and undermines what kids learn for the two hours a week they average in church.  The church has not figured out a way to keep this from happening, or how to effectively teach against it.

4.  The mega-church movement has created a culture within the church that is focused on inwardly directed ministry.  Churches do things to “attract people.”  Generally, what is happening is that membership is shifting from small churches to larger churches which offer more in the way of a cafeteria of programs to their members.  And yet, on the local level, small churches are more effective at reaching people than large churches are, in terms of evangelism, that is.  So as small churches disband when their members leave to go to the mega down the road, neighborhoods are left without a ministry that touches them.  In one particular area of a city where I once lived, two large SBC churches relocated into a part of the city where they, one by one, sucked the life out of a dozen smaller congregations.  Only one small church remains, but collectively, the two mega churches have a smaller total membership than the dozen or so churches they put out of existence.

5.  Churches sometimes tend to lose their focus.  For a long time, Southern Baptist churches, most of them fiercely independent and staunchly autonomous, knew what they were about.  But social issues, right wing politics, and a host of other influences have led them to compromise their time and resources, and the focus has blurred for many churches.

Several years ago, the Barna organization came out with a book by Dave Kinnaman called unChristian:  What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why it Matters.  It’s a researched based book that really provides a lot of insights into what is going on.  I think, when reading it, that you need to be careful not to associate everything that the researchers found with something the church has to do in order to grow numerically.  Remember, it is the result of research.  When you use research to help your church, you must still remain true to your mission and purpose, and the Bible, not the research, is still the guide for your ministry.

So is the Holy Spirit.  Neil Cole wrote, in his book The Organic Church, about some Korean church leaders who, in visiting a large church in the US, remarked about how amazing it was that they could do all of that ministry without the Holy Spirit.  The discernment required to sense that was amazing to me. The fact of the matter is that we try to do almost everything we do in church without relying on, or seeking, the Spirit’s leadership.  We’re too afraid that we will either drift into the extremes we see, or that he might actually show up, and then what would we do?

The American Christian church is going to see, I believe, over the next couple of generations, what it is like to minister in a culture where we are in the minority, and where we cannot depend on our reputation, our sheer numbers, or worldly power of any kind, in order to be effective.  I think we will see continued decline, as congregations with two thirds of their membership past 55 begin to lose both their numbers and their resources.  That will change a lot of things.  It will especially affect the ability of churches to provide recreational mission experiences to exotic locations, or high quality religious entertainment for their congregation.

But it may be the best opportunity for real revival that we have seen since the Second Great Awakening.

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