ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (BP)–I have served as a Southern Baptist pastor and denominational leader for almost 35 years. I have served churches of all sizes and economic makeup. I had no greater joy and felt no higher calling than serving a local church. I love the church and the Southern Baptist Convention, yet today am deeply concerned about her direction. I fear that her direction is being driven by several conflicting forces and mixed messages. In this first-person article, I hope to share my observations on “The State of the Church in the Southern Baptist Convention.”
It is impossible to read the word “church” the 114 times where she is mentioned in the New Testament and not be optimistic about her future. I have finished the Book and say without hesitation or qualification that the church wins. Revelation 22:17 cries out that, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!'” I have not given up, nor will I, on the special place and mission that God has given the local church. My purpose in writing this is to speak both a word of encouragement and caution.
There is a new disorder that is overtaking the thinking of Christian America. We live in a super-sized culture that has been duped into thinking that bigger is better. This phenomenon has even spilled over into the model describing the church. Yes, there is a place for large mega-churches, but there is also a place for small rural churches. What does the average church in the SBC look like, and is the mega-church really the model that should be embraced in seeking to evangelize the world?
First, allow me to suggest that mega-churches did not originate in America. Europe is filled with empty buildings that housed the mega-churches of yesteryear. I would go so far as to suggest that some mega-churches are a reflection of a congregation’s affluence. The statement by Peter that is found in Acts 3:6, referring to the lack of “silver and gold,” is not the type of statement that is publicized by the majority of churches in America today. By and large, our churches have wealth far beyond any congregations in the New Testament. I believe that God intends for us to use the resources afforded us to further His Kingdom’s work. I also believe that the best way to accomplish that task is by working together. Cooperation in mission work and the Cooperative Program are special gifts of God and should be valued.
Second, my conviction is that what the world classifies as “smaller churches” are making a huge impact and are often overlooked. I pray that the facts will speak for themselves. The following is data from the Annual Church Profile gathered by Southern Baptists. I do understand that there are thousands of churches that did not report, but based on what we have may we consider the following.
The following information has been compiled from the 2009 ACP with a total of 36,208 churches reporting.
— 61.72 percent of SBC churches run fewer than 99 in their average worship attendance. Their per capita baptism ratio is 1 to every 15.
— 21.14 percent of SBC churches average 100-199 in worship attendance. Their per capita baptism ratio is 1 to 16.
— 7.33 percent of SBC churches average 200-299 in average worship attendance. Their baptism ratio is 1 to 17.
— 5.33 percent of SBC churches average 300-499 in morning worship. Their per capita baptism ratio is 1 to 18.
— 2.10 percent of SBC churches average 500-749 in worship attendance. Per capita baptism ratio is 1 to 18.
— 0.086 percent of SBC churches average 750-999 in worship attendance with a per capita baptism ratio of 1 to 19.
— 1.05 percent of SBC churches average 1,000-1,999 in worship attendance. Their per capita baptism ratio is 1 to 18.
— 0.39 percent of SBC churches average 2,000-4,999 in average attendance. (Total number of churches is 142.) Their per capita baptism ratio is 1 to 17.
— 0.06 percent of SBC churches average 5,000-9,999 in worship attendance (a total of 20 churches). Their per capita baptism ratio is 1 to 13.
— A total of seven churches, or 0.02 percent, of SBC churches averaged 10,000+ in worship attendance. Their per capita baptism ratio is 1 to every 10.
— In the SBC, there are only 169 churches that would be classified as “mega”-churches with the standard being those that run 2,000 or more in attendance.
— 66.16 percent of all Cooperative Program giving comes from churches that run fewer than 499 in attendance.
— 93.87 percent of Cooperative Program giving comes from churches that are not classified as mega-churches.
Whatever size of church that you serve in, may I encourage you to be faithful. I do not believe that the size of one’s congregation is ever a focus in any New Testament passage. The way I understand my Bible, every church is precious to our Lord as we collectively make up His church.
Joseph Bunce is executive director of the Baptist Convention of New Mexico.