The Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting begins Monday, June 10, in Baltimore. I will not be attending this year, but I will be watching, reading, and listening to many of the sessions and discussions. I have a particular interest in this year’s convention, as many do, because of a recent report (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/29/southern-baptist-convention-membership-decline_n_5411695.html) published by LifeWay Christian Resources revealing a continual decline in overall church membership, church attendance, and baptisms.
Another concern regarding the report is the national media attention the report is generating. The Associated Press, Washington Post, and The Atlantic have all reported on the results. Basically, the concern is that the secular attention brought to the decline of our SBC tribe is a terrible witness to the veracity of our evangelistic efforts as a denomination.
There have already been many initial responses to the report, but the most telling will certainly come on the convention floor as messengers and SBC leaders articulate concerns and resolutions to help curb this decline. Recently, and encouragingly, there have been several pastor-only prayer gatherings nationally, regionally, and locally. It is certainly right for us to be driven to our knees to seek the Lord for a great awakening among His people, particularly those of the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention.
This is where my question comes in: Affection or Affectation?
What is it we are praying for? What are we seeking? What do we think is the appropriate response to the SBC’s obvious decline?
How we answer these questions will be enlightening, as invariably some answers will include an “of course” to what could have been other answers. For instance, we could answer “God’s glory” to just about every question. Many, who would not say that, would certainly say, “But of course it’s for God’s glory. That goes without saying.”
Are we so naturally inclined toward the pursuit of God’s fame in our personal lives and in our church families that we can say “of course” to it? My contention is how we respond to the report of decline in the SBC will say a lot about what we are all about and what we consider to be ecclesiastical success.
Long before we have a gospel-telling problem we have a heart-affection problem.
“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” – Luke 6:45
Our speech follows our treasure. Our affections pour out into words. We can utter resolutions, fashion programs, lavish guilt, and blame theological distinctions all we want, but until our affections are stirred for God’s fame, and His fame alone, we will not see our churches become places where evangelism is the culture, to whatever numerical end God deems fitting. And that is what we need. We need to see the God of the gospel enrapture the hearts of the people more than we need people to be guilted into evangelistic initiatives. What lasts longer, actions based on passion or actions based on guilt? What’s more sustainable, doing what you love or doing what you feel you have to do?
How we answer the questions we ask will show much about whether we are pursuing affection or promoting affectation.
noun: affectation; plural noun: affectations - behavior, speech, or writing that is artificial and designed to impress.
We seem to be concerned with our witness as a denomination before a lost world. We should be. We should seek to promote the gospel as Christ and His apostles bore witness to: Our love for one another; Our discipline of one another; Our pursuit of holiness and joy in the midst of persecution. On the other hand, we can’t worry about impressing the world by the world’s standard. Jesus and the apostles never, to my recollection, validated their ministries by screaming, “Scoreboard!”
The Word, and we are “Word” people, does not validate or invalidate the effectiveness of churches based on numerical grounds. Sure, we can derive that from, perhaps, the amount of fruit on the tree, but the emphasis is on the fruit being healthy and in-kind with its apparent roots.
Take this more to the local church. Pastors, unavoidably, feel affirmed or ridiculed based on numbers in attendance. Regularly we are pushed to, in a sense, take a census of ourselves. In doing so, we quantify our effectiveness in making disciples simply by one part of the disciple-making process, baptism. We seem to be content to have a wealth of Simon Maguses in our numbers without knowing whether or not the fruit lasts. I’m not proposing we don’t celebrate baptisms and most certainly should encourage and feed new believers. However, our mandate to make disciples is well beyond making decisions, making converts, even baptizing believers. We are to teach them…to observe, all along the way, baptizing.
When evaluating the effectiveness of local church ministry, are we more satisfied to see the number in attendance, the annual number of baptisms, or the 5-year trend? Or, are we literally looking at the Scriptures, even plodding along with some decline, and faithfully proclaiming, teaching, admonishing, disciplining, evangelizing, counseling, and praying among the flock in our care?
Please don’t allow yourself to think I’m saying all of this is mutually exclusive. It’s never a true question of Faithfulness vs. Fruitfulness. It’s always a both/and situation. But let’s be honest. As Southern Baptists, is our tendency to figure out new ways to boost numbers or rest in “old” ways of steady, faithful stewardship? May God give the increase!
A Nuanced Conversation
This conversation is nuanced. We will prove to be fools if we think the decline in numbers is linear in its cause. There are several factors that should enter into this conversation so we don’t allow allow ourselves to abandon some important developments over the past several years for the sake of just increasing attendance.
Mind the Gap
It’s been calculated for years (by approximation) that the SBC has a membership of 16 million with an average attendance of 6 million. The recent report shows both of these numbers are down somewhat, but the overall gap remains fairly fixed at about 10 million. If we’re going to report numbers, isn’t it a bit disingenuous to inflate them to include those who are never among us?
As well, this enormous gap in attendance to membership seems to support the lack of emphasis on membership responsibilities as well as the baptizing of unregenerate members. I’m not trying to make leap-frog conclusions here, but even if just 5, 10, 20, or 30 percent of the gap is representative of unregenerate members, that’s still thousands upon thousands of souls. Maybe if we gave as much energy to insuring that our membership is healthy as we do to increasing their numbers, the veracity of her witness would bear more (lasting) fruit.
I wonder how much more effective we would be if our total number plummeted to 10 million, but our actual attendance grew to 9 million?
I’m not promoting that our decline as Southern Baptists is a good thing. I certainly believe that a great deal of the decline is directly related to disobedience in NOT evangelizing the lost. However, we need to understand that SOME of the decline could very well be associated with the fact that the 10 million person gap between membership rolls and attendance is being addressed by more pastors than ever on the local level.
Leaders in our convention like Thom Rainer and Chuck Lawless have written on the needs for meaningful membership. Leading pastors like Mark Dever, and by association 9Marks ministry, has helped promote the need for healthy church membership. Because of this, more and more pastors are not simply receiving new members at the end of an aisle. They are requiring classes, testimonies, interviews, and more. Some have said it’s harder to become a member of some churches than it is to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. True and “Amen!” I say that simply because I’m not the Holy Spirit, and neither are any of our other pastors or elders. We need the kind of information that churches needed in the Scriptures, a credible testimony and evidence of true repentance. The Holy Spirit, frankly, knows more.
We need to continue to push our churches to embrace meaningful membership because the veracity of our public testimony as a church depends on our mutually held agreement that we are among the redeemed, and love each other accordingly. We have to keep this as part of the conversation regarding declining numbers. In the midst of all the negative, we also might find some encouragement (without ignoring the issues).
Another nuance to the conversation about decline should be baptisms themselves. The greatest number of baptisms in the SBC are children. As well, among adults who are baptized, most of them are re-baptisms. Now, I’m not saying that the totality of the re-baptisms were children baptized as Southern Baptists. However, some were. I mean, it’s not like we go back and correct historical figures once a person is re-baptized after, hopefully, a genuine conversion.
I was one of those. I was baptized at 10, had a ton of doubts, and was re-baptized at 18 in the same church before I went to college. In retrospect I actually believe I was genuinely converted at 10, but just wasn’t clear on how to see real fruit, which was present even at a young age.
One troubling statistic, at least to me, is that in 10 years of recorded decline (2001-2011), including the lowest baptism numbers in 40 years, we have the highest number of recorded baptisms for children under the age of 6. How far under, God knows. I’m not questioning whether or not God can save the young. I’m questioning our practices.
In 1971, the SBC recorded a total number of 409,659 baptisms.* Of those, there were 1,899 baptisms of children under the age of 6. In 2010, with a total number of 331,008 baptisms, 3,356 were under the age of 6. Is there a real revival going on amongst the young or are we pressing for more decisions.
From 1971 to 2010, the next age group of 6-8, has increased from roughly 38,000 to 42,000. As you get older, from pre-teens to adults, the numbers generally stay fixed or decline. We have tended to emphasize decisions amongst the young while overall numbers have gone down. At least, this is suggested by the data provided by NAMB.
All of these numbers occur over a period when household births has regularly declined. Certainly the importance of the home is tremendous, and if you account for those in the age ranges of children still at home, this accounts for 67% of all annual SBC baptisms. We need to train parents to witness in the home, as well as work with them to discern the fruit of their children’s professions.
Many churches today are less willing to baptize young children. I am certainly counted among them. While stopping short of arbitrarily assigning an age, and affirming God’s ability to save young children, we are encouraging and training parents to examine fruit and clarify understanding of the gospel message. Historically, we have just too quickly heard the sweet confession of 4, 5, or 6 year olds and baptized them. Unlike a repentant adult, who has a greater opportunity to show repentance in lifestyle, children are ready to affirm the stories and truths of Christianity.
Certainly this isn’t a bad thing, as we are to come Christ with the simple faith of children, and children are to inquire of Him. However, if the new believer cannot clearly articulate the gospel PERSONALLY (including what they’re repenting from and turning in faith to), then we’re not helping them, but confusing them by putting such a memorable religious rite in their memories like baptism. At the least I’m saying we should walk children and their parents through an informed, encouraging process of rightly understanding conversion before we baptize them.
As many have slowed down on the baptism of young children, not necessarily a bad thing at all, certainly this will eat into the numbers of the largest group (by percentage) that Southern Baptists baptize.
The World at our Doorstep
While there are other nuances, the last one I’ll mention in this post is the increase of world populations at our doorsteps. We are not as “southern” looking as Southern Baptists once were. This is certainly not a bad thing. Because of this, basic cultural understandings of Christianity are more and more absent in our cities and towns. Again, not a bad thing because when we see conversions we will see more true conversions, by God’s grace. However, they would most certainly seem to be fewer in number.
This is healthy for us who live in “the belt.” Instead of presuming upon some level of gospel understanding, we have to present a whole gospel, assuming no knowledge of the gospel among our constituents.
Part of this nuance is our eschatology. Now, without getting into all “that” we can still include the subject in our conversation about declining numbers. While Southern Baptists have differed on eschatological positions (dispensational pre-mil, historic pre-mil, amil, etc), very few of us would hold to a more contemporary understanding of post-millenialism, that society is actually going to improve, culminating in the reign of Christ. Most of us understand that things are going from bad to worse; that persecutions and “birth pangs” will increase, and are increasing now. In fact, if many of us lived in a different part of the world I’m certain our eschatology would be different.
So, if things are declining, and the anti-Christian sentiment rising, why would we expect larger, raw numbers to increase? As persecution increases, even in our country, we will see a greater division between those who conveniently pose as Christian and those who are truly Christian. It’s less and less convenient, even in Western society, for anyone to be a Christian.
We must not give in, especially on the local level, to how we appear to others based on our numbers. We need to repent of our lack of evangelism. We should strengthen the gospel in the home. We should slow down on baptizing the extraordinarily young, and continue to teach them gospel truths (they can handle more than you think).
We must, however, look at what gives us greatest satisfaction. If we focus on numbers alone, it sounds like we’re saying, “Lord, Lord, look at all we did in your name!” That doesn’t turn out so well. Instead, let’s bolster our affections for Christ. Let’s preach Christ from the Scriptures alone so as to stir men’s hearts to joy in complete satisfaction in Him alone. Let’s practice Christ in our churches in faithful discipline, seeking to restore wayward brothers, and perhaps save some who mistakenly believe they are His. Let’s pray to the Lord of the harvest to send laborers (us), to go into the fields, knowing He sends happy laborers who spread His fame even if rejected, reviled, and refused.
That said, the world IS at our doorstep! We have the opportunity to share the gospel with people from every country on the planet in closer proximity than ever. While I still encourage you get on a plane for a mission trip, make disciples right where you are, because the world is there. You no longer live in a culture that is socially friendly with Christianity. Do not assume gospel understanding. Know the gospel yourself! Preach it to yourself! Live it in your homes! Then, as you go about your life, share Christ with your kids, neighbors, baristas, clerks, waiters, and teachers.
Be faithful with great effort. Proclaim Christ with great joy. May God give the increase, and may that increase be lasting fruit!
* Statistics provided by Center for Missional Research of the North American Mission Board