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Study updates stats on health of Southern Baptist churches

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–For some 20 years, a disturbing statistic has left its mark on Southern Baptists -– 70 percent of Southern Baptist churches are plateaued or declining. A new study now has examined whether the statistic remains true.

The new study, led by Bill Day, associate director of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health, ranked congregations in the Southern Baptist Convention according to frequently used definitions for growing, declining and plateaued churches. Growing churches are those whose total membership increased at least 10 percent over five years, while declining churches are those whose total membership decreased at least 10 percent over five years. A plateaued church is one that is in neither the growing nor the declining category.

From 1978 to 1983, the Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources) found that 30.5 percent of churches were growing, 51.9 percent were plateaued and 17.6 were in decline. In the years studied by the Leavell Center, 1998—2003, 30.3 percent of churches were growing. And though that statistic has remained basically unchanged for 20 years, the number of declining Southern Baptist churches has increased by 6 percent from 17.6 percent to 23.9 percent. Plateaued churches now compromise 45.8 percent of all Southern Baptist churches.

According to the SBC’s website, there are more than 42,000 Southern Baptist churches in the United States. Using the Leavell Center’s findings, fewer than 13,000 of them are growing churches. In other words, 70 percent of Southern Baptist churches are still plateaued or declining.

However, there are some bright spots among the statistics.

NOBTS President Chuck Kelley said the study found a few churches that recorded enormous growth between 1998 and 2003. Percentage growth in these churches ranged from 24.9 percent in Orlando’s First Baptist Church to a whopping 3,122.6 percent in Stonegate Baptist Church in Midland, Texas.

“It is possible in this day and time to have a growing church,” Kelley said. “However, the good news of 30 percent of our churches growing is really not that good.”

Kelley said the Leavell Center’s study unearthed a problem with the current definition of a growing church. Just because a church records a growth in total membership does not necessarily mean that church is healthy.

“Here’s the reality: 1,409 churches in the growing category reported no baptisms in 2003,” Kelley said.

Those churches account for 11 percent of all “growing” churches. After removing those churches from the growing category, there are still “growing” churches that have a member to baptism ratio of more than 1,100 to one. Kelley’s interpretation of this statistic: “That’s shuffling Baptists from one church to another church.”

Day, who also is associate professor of evangelism and church health at NOBTS, said he was shocked “to learn that a definition of a growing church that our denomination has been using for over 20 years had such serious flaws. It became obvious to me that a new definition was needed.”

Day outlined a potential new standard for a healthy growing church during a meeting of the Southern Baptist Research Fellowship in Atlanta in September:

— a 10 percent total membership growth over five years.

— at least one baptism for the first and last years of the study.

— a member to baptism ratio of 35 or less to one in the final year of the study.

— conversions accounting for at least 25 percent of the total membership growth during the final year of the study.

What happens when these new criteria are added? Using the proposed definition, only 11 percent of all Southern Baptist churches (or little more than 4,600) qualify as healthy and growing.

The study also looked at church size, church age, church location and pastor tenure to identify any effects they might have on church growth. Only 7.3 percent of churches with 100 members or less qualified as growing. However, of churches with between 101 and 5,000 members, between 13 and 14 percent were growing. As for church age, approximately 30 percent of SBC churches 10 years old or less are experiencing healthy church growth. This percentage declines steadily with increasing age until only 9.1 percent of churches over 50 years old are in this category.

“Church location was found not to influence whether a church is experiencing healthy church growth,” Day said. “It is a misconception to think that only metropolitan churches are growing. Churches are experiencing healthy church growth in all types of communities.”

The length of a pastor’s tenure, though, was found to have a direct correlation to the health of a church. A church’s likelihood to be healthy was much greater when the pastor had served there between five and 20 years.

Though many of the challenges the church faces may be traced back to the ills of society, Kelley said Southern Baptists are culpable for the epidemic of unhealthy churches.

“And what we are seeing right now out on the field … is that the passion of Southern Baptists for reaching lost people for Christ is fading,” he said. “That focus on the necessity of people to be born again through faith in Jesus Christ is fading in Southern Baptist life.”

Kelley said every denomination in America has experienced what Southern Baptists are currently going through. Every denomination has grown, plateaued and drifted into decline. However, he said he believes Southern Baptists can avoid the tragic decline that other denominations have faced.

“I believe that God is capable of doing a great and mighty work such as this nation has ever seen,” he said. “God is able, and God is willing. The question is: ‘Are we available?’”

Bobby Welch, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., likewise issued a call to action in his 50-state bus tour this fall.

One conclusion Welch came to during the tour is the necessity for a united effort by Southern Baptists to place evangelism at the center of the denomination’s purpose.

“We cannot wait any longer,” Welch said to the SBC Executive Committee Sept. 20. “We have got to get serious about it [evangelism] and put our shoulder and heart to this wheel.”

“The Bible tells us how,” Kelley said about evangelism. “The Lord has shown us the possibilities. The cold reality is that the only hindrance to greatness is the hindrance of my heart and yours.”
Those interested in obtaining a copy of the study may contact Bill Day at the Leavell Center by phone at (504) 282-4455, ext. 3320, or by e-mail at [email protected].

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  • Michael McCormack