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BAPTISTS: Reflections of the stats guy

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, will join the faculty of Wheaton College beginning July 1 as The Billy Graham Distinguished Endowed Chair for Church, Mission, and Evangelism; executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism; and chair of the Wheaton Graduate School’s evangelism and leadership program.

NASHVILLE (BP) — My upcoming career change means — for the first time in a long time — I won’t be employed by an SBC entity (although I’m still a Southern Baptist). In other words, my long history of being the bearer of bad news as the denominational stats guy is coming to a close.

But, facts are still our friends. And, the SBC Annual Church Profile has been a bearer of unwelcome facts for a long time.

As I look back over my years of tracking SBC statistics, a few things are worth saying on the way out.

Dispelling the myth

Several years ago, our team brought attention to the fact that the SBC was in a long-term trend that would involve long-term decline. It was — and remains — a multi-decade decline, and it is accelerating. I wrote about it in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012. As I had noted, “The membership decline of the SBC is not a matter of debate. It is a matter of math.”

I had to write that (and I used that exact phrase at the SBC Pastors’Conference at that time) because some in the SBC claimed the decline wasn’t real. Articles were written to demonstrate there was no decline, as if math has some nefarious motive. But there was a decline that is continuing.

Although the number of congregations in cooperation with the SBC increased last year, membership declined more than 200,000, down 1.32 percent to 15.3 million members. Additionally, average weekly worship attendance declined by 1.72 percent to 5.6 million worshippers.

We also experienced a decline in baptisms, down 3.3 percent to 295,212. Reported baptisms have fallen eight of the last 10 years.

So, even though the number of churches continues to increase, the number of people attending SBC churches continues to decline, and the number of people baptized in SBC churches continues to decline.

It isn’t a pretty picture.

Now that the decline is unmistakable, some are blaming the percentage of churches reporting their ACP numbers. Doing so is just another way to refuse to face reality.

The reporting percentage this year is about the same as last — and the numbers continue to decline. SBC President Ronnie Floyd is correct in his analysis and warning, “Be careful in your assessments, evaluations and statements. Yet, let’s be honest with ourselves; these trends are unhealthy and undeniable, demanding immediate action.”

And, now, as Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, predicted a few years ago, Southern Baptists are shrinking faster than United Methodists.

Change is needed. And praying for an awakening without making the needed change, and engaging in the needed work, is basically asking God to do what He called us to do.

There are issues that still must be addressed.

Generational issues

Although generational division isn’t as evident nationally today, it still abounds in many places across the SBC. Join me at many state Baptist conventions and you’ll see.

Many younger believers have left the SBC, but they aren’t leaving the faith or becoming Wiccans. They are becoming nondenominational evangelicals who still believe like us but now want to go on without us.

We should continue to ask why.

The SBC needs to determine how to help all generations engage in the mission of God, together, before the Southern Baptist Convention grays even more.

Church planting

Any denomination that grows will increase in both church planting and evangelism. Currently, church planting is a bright spot in the SBC. As Carol Pipes wrote for Baptist Press, the number of churches cooperating with the Southern Baptist Convention grew by 294 to 46,793, a 0.63 percent increase over 2014 — the 17th year in a row the number of Southern Baptist churches has grown.

However, generally denominations must plant 3 percent of the total number of churches just to maintain. That means the SBC needs 1,403 new churches in 2016, substantially more than the 800-plus in 2015, to maintain as other churches close or disaffiliate.

Yet, NAMB’s church planting emphasis has received pushback, as if we are doing too much! We plant a substantially lower per capita number of churches than the Assemblies of God, for example — and they just celebrated 25 years of consecutive growth.

The SBC isn’t planting too many; in fact, it must plant more. It needs new churches that reach men and women in different communities, of different ethnicities, and across the generations.

Cultural challenges

A negative view of engaging culture, and being negatively viewed by culture, remains a thorn to SBC effectiveness. And, to be honest, some leaders have exacerbated this problem.

Many think being on the front line of the culture wars for decades is “fighting for the faith.” There are things worth a fight, but we’ve sure found a lot of fights to wage.

For many of our neighbors, our warring is interpreted as being against them. You can’t reach a people and war with a people at the same time.

As of yet, we’ve not made it to the point where we have, as SBC Executive Committee President Frank S. Page has suggested, become known for what we are for rather than what we are against.

Yet, we simply cannot continue building walls between ourselves and the culture, then castigate people on the other side for not climbing over.

That means our churches need to change, and part of that change has to be a renewed emphasis on evangelism.

Effective evangelism

The fact is, we seem to have lost our passion for evangelism. Baptists love evangelism as long as somebody else is doing it.

Baptists love baptisms so much that we named our denomination after them. Yet, there are fewer and fewer. Evangelism, and the baptisms that flow from Gospel proclamation, must be our focus again or we need a new name that does not involve the waters of biblical baptism.

And, yes, that evangelism has to change in some ways, and innovation and change are just not bad things, Southern Baptists.

The Gospel needs to be proclaimed, and Southern Baptists need to get more serious about proclaiming that same Gospel in new ways.

As I leave denominational service, I’m a bit relieved to drop the role of statistical truth-telling to Southern Baptists. It’s not a fun job, I assure you, as telling the statistical truth is often controversial in our denomination.

And, some have a vested interest in saying things are fine, since they are (at times) the ones in charge.

But all is not well. Sure, there are other issues to address like how Southern Baptists treat one another, organizational challenges, character issues, and more.

However, at this point, might I suggest that we need the truth and we need change.

The truth is the SBC is declining, the decline is accelerating, and if something does not change, the denomination will depopulate itself in a matter of decades.

The change is more focus on sharing the Gospel, planting churches, engaging the culture, and joining Jesus on mission.

    About the Author

  • Ed Stetzer