In Part I of this series we looked at the declining pattern of SBC membership. Then, in Part II, we focused on the fact that younger generations seem to be abandoning the SBC en masse and suggested some steps that may alleviate the problem. Here we will pause to consider why we are seeing these trends.
Statistics like the ones we have seen have causes, especially those that are this long-lasting. “A church membership roll that runs two or three times the number of people actually involved is a symptom of a much-deeper problem” (Kelly 2008). And we Baptists have deeper problems. In fact, the numbers have gotten so bad that we have started categorizing our membership to make things sound better. Today we talk about “non-resident members” and “inactive members” and we keep both on our rolls. Padding numbers seems to have become more important than focusing on the maturation of church members. For non-resident members the common sense thing to do is not to keep them on our rolls to make the church seem bigger but, rather, to stay in contact with those who have covenanted with us until they are able to find a new community of believers where they now reside. Inactive members should be contacted as well and encouraged to come back to the community or else removed from the rolls. “One thing worse than people being lost in their sins is lost people who think they are saved because their names are on a church roll” (Ibid.).
Our focus, then needs to be less about numbers and more about spiritual maturity. How’s that going? Well, the best predictor of spiritual maturity is daily Bible reading (Rankin 2011). A recent study showed that only 16% of churchgoers read their Bibles daily (Ibid.). A full quarter don’t bother to read their Bibles at all (Ibid.). This means that over half of the parishioners in the average SBC congregation only read their Bibles occasionally (Ibid.). And those numbers only take into account hearers of the Word. In terms of being doers of the Word, only 37% of churchgoers say that studying the Bible has made a difference in their lives (Ibid.).
Selling it Cheap
Taking together all of the numbers that we have looked at so far in this series you are probably wondering how things in our churches could get to this point. My question, on the other hand, is how could they not. Think about it. We live in a time where the focus has become numbers, numbers, numbers. Some, not all, churches even go so far as to create new member categories so they will have an easier time padding the rolls. And another great way to bump up your numbers is to make sure you are as inclusive as possible by getting rid of all that hard doctrine stuff. This way people can feel like they are part of a community without having any of their false beliefs challenged. Instant church growth plan. The downsides, of course, are that the rolls increase much more quickly than actual attendance and spiritual maturity takes an even bigger hit.
The good news is that it does not have to be this way. We do not have to continue in decline but, through a return to faithful biblical/doctrinal exposition, we can reverse these trends. Let’s look at a couple of examples starting with Secret Church. Secret Church is held at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama. It is an intensive six-hour Bible study in the night. The entertainment so typical of churches these days is stripped away and the study of God’s Word is all that is left. This sounds like a recipe for a church collapse.
So what happened? Secret Church started with 1,000 people, then grew and grew until Brook Hills had to start taking reservations (Platt 2010, 27). Today Secret Church has grown to the point that it has to be simulcast online. So solid doctrinal Bible study draws people in and transforms them. I would say that teaching doctrine and edifying believers is a novel concept except for the fact that churches and church leaders are charged with it in Scripture (2 Tim. 4:1-5). We should not be surprised when God shows up and uses the work of his servants to glorify himself when we do the work in the way he has decreed.
Another good example of this principle is Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Over the past few decades this church and its leadership have made extraordinary efforts at becoming more biblical in everything from their preaching to their leadership structure. The result is a church that was on the verge of stagnation and possibly death morphing, by God’s grace, into a thriving international ministry that affects the lives and strengthens the faith of so many Christians.
What this discussion really comes down to is whether Christians, and baptists in particular, should spend more of our time trying to increase our numbers or more of our time proclaiming Jesus Christ and him crucified. Teaching the truth may indeed cause some people to leave our churches. It may cause an even steeper drop in favorable statistics temporarily. It may even cause the world to call us “narrow.” But we can never forget the price that was paid to purchase our salvation. The blood of Christ is infinitely valuable and we cannot fall into the error of treating his sacrifice like a common thing. Our salvation by grace through faith is a free gift to us but it certainly wasn’t cheap (Eph. 2:8-10).
Kelly, Mark. 2008. SBC reality more complex than one number. Baptist Press. June 5. http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=28197 (accessed February 23, 2012).
Platt, David. 2012. Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream. Colorado Springs: Multnomah.
Rankin, Russ. 2011. Lack of Bible literacy is spotlighted. Baptist Press. April 25. http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=35125 (accessed February 23, 2012).