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FIRST-PERSON: Stats & numbers don’t lie

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–I was the only Southern Baptist at a particular gathering of Christian leaders in a community in Kansas.

We were meeting to form a strategy team for a Luis Palau crusade. As we waited for the meeting to begin, I visited with two men, a mainline Protestant denominational leader and the representative from the Palau evangelism organization. During the course of the conversation, the representative began to quote some horrible statistics about the outreach of some of the denominations represented. Then he turned to me and out of the blue said, “But nobody keeps as many statistics as Southern Baptists.”

One of the trademarks of Southern Baptists is that we maintain statistical data about our churches and cooperative ministries. This information is vital to our understanding of trends occurring in our churches and necessary for tracking, to some measure, the effectiveness of our cooperative ministries.

The primary “keeper of the stats” is LifeWay. Earlier this month, Polly House, the editor for Facts and Trends, a publication of LifeWay, reported in a Baptist Press story a compilation of the 2003 statistical data from the Annual Church Profile (ACP). She stated in the report, “The Southern Baptist Convention reported a record membership of 16,315,050, up .41 percent over 2002, and grew to 43,024 churches, an increase of 249 new congregations … The number of new churches represented a .58 percent growth.”

There are a couple of ways we could look at the new national figures. One, we could boast and compare ourselves to the other Christian groups that are experiencing serious decline and say, “At least we are not like them.” This sounds a little reminiscent of Jesus’ parable about kingdom life in Luke 18. Baptist Press readers are familiar with the passage about two men who went to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself, “God, I thank you, that I am not as other men are.”

Tragically, some of these denominations were once growing and experienced the blessing of God on their churches, but have fallen prey to theological impotency and evangelistic slothfulness. However, their demise does not give Southern Baptists the right to boast of our stats. This is not a game where we keep score. Before we start strutting our growth numbers, perhaps we need to understand that every number represents a person created in the image of God.

Secondly, Southern Baptists also should learn from the new statistics that most of our spiritual lives could use some diet and exercise. While many of us are starting to gain physical victory in the battle of the bulge, we have become far too obese with spiritual talk and have failed to exercise our faith in the marketplace, the schoolhouse and the neighborhoods.

We have littered the ecclesiastical landscape with the casualties of the worship wars and, yet, failed to see that we were actually placing our own comrades for the cause of Christ in the crosshairs of friendly fire. Can we be characterized as convictional disciples with a sense of urgency for the souls of men and women who live and work in proximity to our own lives? Except in a few state conventions, Southern Baptists have regained the high ground of theological orthodoxy. However, as a whole, have we recaptured the passionate fire of evangelism that once burned in our hearts? What do the statistics say?

Stats don’t lie. The LifeWay data indicates that although Southern Baptist membership grew, the number of baptisms decreased for the fourth consecutive year. The 2003 total was 377,357, reflecting a 4.44 percent decrease from the 2002 totals. House points out in her article, “This indicated a baptism ratio of 1 to 43, meaning that, statistically, it took 43 existing church members to bring in one new member.”

This is horrific. However, what is more unthinkable is the fact that more than 10,000 Southern Baptist churches didn’t baptize one person. While there may be some extenuating circumstances, a continued pattern of no one making public their devotion to Christ through the ordinance of baptism does make one wonder if the church has ceased to be a New Testament church.

When we look at these statistics, we should do so with broken hearts. Not because of our failure to meet numeric goals, but we should weep because somewhere we “jumped the track.” Are we individually and collectively participating in the Lord’s purposes each day? Is there a lost person on the top of our prayer lists? Remember, the cross of Jesus demonstrates the passion of God for sinners like us and like the people who live in our homes and communities.
John Yeats is editor of the Oklahoma Baptist Messenger and recording secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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  • John Yeats