NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The statistical profile generated from the Annual Church Profile reports submitted by cooperating Baptist churches each year is a numerical snapshot of what is happening at the local church level. Though these numbers do not tell the whole story of ministry, they have value for the Southern Baptist Convention in a number of ways.
First, these numbers help us measure our overall effectiveness in terms of church planting and evangelism. These have always been areas of particular interest to Southern Baptists and have been the object of much of our strategic focus over the past few years. While we are disappointed that our number of baptisms has declined, we rejoice that the total number of our churches has increased. We would anticipate that an increasing number of churches will yield an increase in evangelism over the next several years.
Second, these numbers help us see the continuing faithfulness of our churches in discipleship and nurture. In recent years, there has been an increasing call to give greater attention to discipleship. This renewed focus seems to be reflected in our increase in discipleship enrollment. For this we are thankful.
Third, these numbers help us gauge various levels of participation in specific ministries of the church. The flagship of these ministries for many years has been Sunday School, the basic Bible study unit we have traditionally measured. Enrollment in this area of church life has declined. Seeing this will lead us to reexamine how many of our newer churches are conducting and recording participation in small group Bible study in their respective church ministries and monitor over time whether there are new trends we need to examine with our local churches.
Fourth, these numbers enable us to monitor church giving, stewardship and support for our primary ministries of missions at home and abroad. The Southern Baptist Convention primarily exists to promote Christian missions at home and abroad. Total giving from our churches to support these ministries remains strong.
Fifth, these numbers help us measure the total number of individuals who actively relate to churches as members. A member is one who has confessed faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and been baptized by immersion as a believer in one of our affiliated churches. With the mobility of our society, it is often difficult to keep track of each member who moves to a new location. There has been a renewed emphasis on tracking members who have left their home areas. With a decline of less than one-fourth of 1 percent in total membership, it is too soon to tell if this decline in membership is a result of churches “cleaning up” their church rolls or if it is the beginning of a trend that should give us cause for greater concern.
Clearly, some of these numbers are disappointing. They will provide an additional catalyst for evaluating how we can better assist churches in fulfilling their ministries on the local level. Other numbers continue to be encouraging. At every level of Baptist life -– local church, associational, state convention, and SBC -– we will be examining what we can learn from these numbers as we seek to fulfill the Great Commission of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Roger S. Oldham is vice president for convention relations for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee.