NASHVILLE (BP) — With more than 80 percent of churches participating, the Southern Baptist Convention’s yearly statistical survey of cooperating congregations is seen by many as a model of denominational record keeping that plays a vital role in formulating missions strategy.
Known as the Annual Church profile, the survey is a report churches voluntarily submit to the Southern Baptist Convention, usually through their local association and/or state convention. Associations that receive ACP reports pass them along to state conventions, which, in turn, report the data to LifeWay Research. LifeWay compiles ACP data for the entire SBC.
Based on a survey of 10 Baptist state conventions with more than 20,000 cooperating churches, Baptist Press estimated that 82 percent of Southern Baptist churches report their ACP data each year. That percentage is better than the 66 percent threshold that some other denominations with autonomous churches aim for in their statistical surveys, and it is nearly as good as the reporting rate in some denominations with top-down authority structures, a representative of the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB) told BP.
“Southern Baptists often serve as models for other groups, especially those primarily relying upon voluntary reporting systems,” ASARB secretary-treasurer Dale Jones told BP. “Even those of us in the more connectional groups learn from the Southern Baptists in the areas of technology and appropriate phrasing. Within the framework of their denominational practices, their annual report rates and data sets appear to be very good by ASARB standards.”
Of the 10 state conventions surveyed, seven reported an ACP response rate between 70 and 90 percent for 2013. One convention reported that 95 percent of its churches submitted an ACP report, and another reported participation at just over 90 percent. The lowest response rate reported was 48 percent.
“National ACP statistics provide trends in how many people Southern Baptist congregations are reaching and impacting each year,” Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research, told BP. “This includes important statistics such as the number of congregations that are related to the Southern Baptist Convention and the number of people related in membership and participation to those churches.”
In 2013, the last year for which a report is available, Southern Baptists recorded a record number 46,125 churches, with an additional 4,789 church-type missions, for a total of nearly 51,000 congregations.
Data for the 2014 ACP is being collected this fall by associations and state conventions.
Some Baptist state conventions have gotten creative in their efforts to inspire participation in the ACP. This summer the Kentucky Baptist Convention gave $200 to the first director of missions to submit completed ACP reports from all of the churches in his association. All Kentucky associations that return ACP data to the KBC will be entered in a drawing to win another $200, and the association with the greatest improvement in its participation rate will also receive $200.
In Tennessee, the Baptist and Reflector newsjournal publishes a recurring graphic on its front page during the fall showing the percentage of Tennessee Baptist Convention churches that have reported their ACP data. The graphic is updated each issue to show the convention’s progress in compiling a complete ACP report.
The Illinois Baptist State Association lists submission of an ACP report as one of two requirements to be considered a cooperating church.
In the same vein, a proposed amendment to Article III of the SBC Constitution does not require ACP participation by cooperating churches but states that “the regular filing of the annual report requested by the Convention” may be one indication of cooperation with the convention. The amendment will be adopted if messengers approve it for a second consecutive year in Columbus, Ohio, next June.
At least two state convention executive directors have blogged about the ACP, urging their churches to participate.
Paul Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, called the ACP “an essential measuring tool.”
The ACP “helps me do my job,” Chitwood wrote. “How so? The KBC was created by churches to help churches. To effectively carry out our assignment, we need to know what’s working and what’s not. And the ACP is perhaps our best measure of that.”
Rick Lance, executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, compared the ACP to a “report card” that tracks churches’ health.
“Most local churches keep records so they can measure progress or track areas of needed attention,” Lance wrote. “Although there is no Biblical requirement for this record keeping, it does make good sense. As a pastor, I made sure we kept good records and I also led the way for my churches to do an Annual Church Profile (ACP), which was sent to the State Board of Missions each year. At least one Baptist commentator has called the ACP a ‘church report card.'”
Other state executive directors told BP they value the ACP because it helps them identify local church leaders and determine what ministries are most needed to assist churches. Among their comments:
— John Yeats, executive director of the Missouri Baptist Convention, said “the data mining” of church leaders’ contact information “is the most important thing we do in the state conventions with regard to the ACP. It enables us to provide the value added service of a state Baptist paper in the homes of those church leaders so that they are informed. The old adage is ‘an informed Baptist is a better Baptist.'”
— Leo Endel, executive director of the Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist Convention, said ACP data allows state conventions, especially in pioneer areas, to see “the strength of our churches in certain areas so that we are able to take a broad, strategic view of where we need more churches.”
— Nate Adams, executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association, said, “The three primary ways we detect and meet the needs of churches and their leaders are through personal relationships, through surveys of churches where they can express their needs and through the Annual Church Profile where we can objectively assess the results of our work together with churches. While all are important, the ACP is the most objective and historically consistent tool we have to answer the question, ‘How are we doing, really?'”
— Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention, said, “The ACP is a valuable tool for evaluating ministry effectiveness and developing future mission and ministry strategy. It’s like an annual physical to determine the health of our work throughout the state and the SBC as a whole.”
The value of statistics
Record-keeping is a time-honored biblical practice, said Roger S. Oldham, SBC Executive Committee vice president for convention communication and relations. “Four millennia after the fact, we know how many members of Jacob’s/Israel’s family travelled to Egypt and we know how many left Egypt more than 400 years later during the Exodus,” he said.
“Two millennia later, the biblical writers were faithful to report the number of people Jesus fed in the desert — about 5,000 men plus women and children — and how many were baptized on the Day of Pentecost – about 3,000,” Oldham said. “In addition, in Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the soils, He indicated that qualitative soil produces quantifiable, measureable growth – some thirtyfold, some sixtyfold and some one hundredfold.”
Still, some Southern Baptists hesitate to report their church statistics for a variety of reasons, McConnell said. “Some leaders do not want to respond when their numbers are not particularly good or if they are unusually good. Still others want their church to function in privacy. It is important that users of ACP data not use the data to look down on anyone,” he said.
Among those who choose not to submit ACP data is Washington, D.C., pastor Mark Dever, who believes numbers without accompanying explanation and analysis are not a biblical way to measure church health.
“You never see Paul asking about the size of a work, or in any writing we know saying, ‘We had 47 at our church in Rome on Sunday,'” said Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church.
Citing Acts 15:36, where Paul and Barnabas discussed visiting churches to “see how they are,” Dever said, “Having to weigh rather than count to me feels spiritually safer and more biblical as a way to discern and estimate the health of a church than numbers. Written numbers can be idols as well as carved figures.”
The best way to report church statistics is within a narrative account of a congregation’s ministry with explanation of the spiritual realities behind the numbers, Dever said, adding that heretical churches can increase in size at times and faithful ones can dwindle. He cited minutes of early Baptist associations and David Benedict’s book “Fifty Year Among the Baptists” as examples of helpful statistical reporting.
McConnell acknowledged that some Baptists share Dever’s opinions but said the value of the ACP outweighs its shortcomings. He compared it to a “family photo” of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“In the same way one family member horsing around during a family photo can ruin the moment, when a church does not report statistics the annual family photo is not as focused as we would all like,” McConnell said. “Some statistics can be estimated by using the prior year’s number, but others such as baptisms only reflect activity reported for that year.”
Churches, associations, state conventions and the SBC have an opportunity to be healthier when congregations report their data and Baptists analyze ACP data responsibly, McConnell said.
“We don’t need a family photo filled with fake smiles. But we all want to see our family,” he said. “Some accountability to share how you are doing each year is wise for any leader or family member.”