Southern Baptists, an Unregenerate Denomination
by Jim Elliff
“How are you doing?”
“Pretty well, under the circumstances.”
“What are the circumstances?”
“Well, I have a very effective arm. It moves with quite a bit of animation. But then I have my bad leg.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I guess it’s paralyzed. At least it doesn’t do much except twitch once a week or so. But that’s nothing compared with the rest of me.”
“What’s the problem?
“From all appearances, the rest is dead. At least it stinks and bits of flesh are always falling off. I keep it well covered. About all that’s left beyond that is my mouth, which fortunately works just fine. How about you?”
Like the unfortunate person above, the Southern Baptist Convention has a name that it is alive, but is in fact, mostly dead (Rev. 3:1). Regardless of the wonderful advances in our commitment to the Bible, the recovery of our seminaries, etc., a closer look reveals a denomination that is more like a corpse than a fit athlete. In an unusual way, our understanding of this awful reality provides the most exciting prospects for the futureif we will act decisively.
Out of the Southern Baptist’s 16,287,494 members, only 6,024,289, or 37%, on average, show up for their church’s primary worship meeting (usually Sunday morning). This is according to the Strategic Information and Planning department of the Sunday School Board (2004 statistics). If your church is anything like normal, and is not brand new, your statistics are probably similar. In other words, if you have 200 in attendance on Sunday morning, you likely have 500-600 or even more on your roll. Many churches have an even worse record.
Discerning who among us is regenerate is not an exact science, but a closer look at these numbers will at least alert us to the fact that most Southern Baptists must certainly be dead spiritually. That is so, unless, of course, you claim that there is no difference between a believer and a non-believer.
In the average church you can cut the 37% Sunday morning attendance by about two-thirds or more when counting those interested in a Sunday evening service, or other gatherings held in addition to the principal meeting of the church. In 1996, the last time the SBC kept these statistics, the number of Sunday evening attenders was equal to only 12.3% of the membership (in churches that had an evening meeting). One might ask what makes us claim that the rest are Christians, if they involve themselves with God’s people only on such a minimal, surface level? How are they any different from the people who attend the liberal church down the streetthe “church” where the gospel is not even preached?
And remember that the numbers of those attending include many non-member children and guests, often making up a third of the congregation’s main meeting attendance. When all factors are considered, these figures suggest that nearly 90% of Southern Baptist church members appear to be little different from the “cultural Christians” who populate other mainline denominations.
To make matters worse, we tell a lot more people that they are true Christians (because they prayed a prayer sincerely) than we can convince to be baptized. Our largest pizza supper may bring in a hundred new “converts,” but we will likely get only a few of those on the roll. After that, the percentages that I have been mentioning kick in. In other words, if you compare all who we say have become Christians through our evangelistic efforts, to those who actually show signs of being regenerate, we should be red-faced. In the Assembly of God’s 1990s “Decade of Harvest,” out of the 3.5 million supposedly converted, they showed a net gain of only 5 new attenders for every 100 recorded professions. When one considers all of our supposed converts, including those who refuse to follow Christ in baptism and who never join our churches, our numbers are much the same. Doesn’t anybody see that there is a serious problem here?
Let me illustrate in rounded figures by looking at some of the churches where I have preached as a guest speaker. Each could be any Baptist church in any city. In one church, with 7,000 on the active roll, there were only 2000 in attendance on Sunday morning, and a mere 600-700 on Sunday evening. When you account for those attenders who are not members of this flagship church (i.e. guests and non-member children), you have about 1500 actual members coming in the morning and 500 or so in the evening. Where are the 5,500 members who are missing on Sunday mornings? Where are the 6,500 who are missing in the evening?
Another church had 2,100 on the roll, with 725 coming on Sunday morning. Remove guests and non-member children and the figure drops to 600 or less. Only about a third of that number came out on Sunday evening, representing less than 10% of the membership. Yet another church had 310 on the roll with only 100 who attended on Sunday morning. Only 30-35, or approximately 10%, came to the evening worship service.
These are all considered fine churches. All have an extremely competent level of leadership and vision. Some shut-ins and those who are sick, out of town, or in the military, certainly affect the figures a little. But those who are justifiably absent are not enough to alter the bleakness of the picture, especially when we remember that these numbers represent people who have been baptized and have publicly declared their allegiance to God and the Body of Christ. Even if you generously grant that the 37% are all true believers (an estimation that most pastors would say is way off the mark), one still has a church membership that is more dead than alive. If we are honest, we might have to ask ourselves, “Do Southern Baptists believe in a regenerate membership?”
Missing Christians are No Christians
What do these facts and figures, as general as they are, suggest? First, they reveal that most of the people on our rolls give little evidence that they love the brethrena clear sign of being unregenerate (1 Jn. 3:14). It is impossible to believe that anything like real familial affection exists in the hearts of people who do not come at all, or who only nominally check in on Sunday morning as a cultural exercise. Love is the greatest mark of a genuine believer (1 Jn.3:14-19). Attendance alone does not guarantee that anyone is an authentic believer, but “forsaking the assembling,” is a serious sign of the unregenerate heart. The phrase: “They went out from us, because they were never of us” (1 Jn. 2:19) may have doctrinal overtones, but it nonetheless represents many on our membership rolls.
Second, these numbers suggest that most of those who do not attend (or who only come when it is convenient), are more interested in themselves than God. To put it in Paul’s words, they are “fleshly-minded” and not “spiritually-minded” (Rom. 8: 5-9). The atmosphere that most pleases them is that of the world and not God. They can stand as much of God as makes them feel better about themselves, and they find a certain carnal security in “belonging” to a local church. But beyond that, they will politely resist getting involved. They use the church, but are not really a part of it. For some, the extent of what they can take is an Easter service now and then; for others it is an occasional sterile (and somewhat Pharisaical) trip to church on appropriate Sunday mornings as fits into their schedule. But their apathy towards regular and faithful church attendance betrays their true affections. The fact is, you do what you love to do.
Third, the numbers indicate that some people have joined other denominations and our churches have not kept up with their movementsa sign of inadequate pastoral oversight and the built-in deficiencies of the “inactive membership” concept. I’m quite certain Paul never dreamed of “inactive membership.” Embarrassingly, some left on the rolls are deadphysically! It goes without saying that a dead person is about as inactive as one could be! But others, though presumably alive physically, have disappeared without a trace. I believe it was our beloved Dr. Roy Fish of SWBTS who said, “Even the FBI could not find some of them.” Yet, if we want to claim them as members, we are responsible to keep up with them.
All of these people have “prayed the prayer” and “walked the aisle.” All have been told that they are Christians. But for most, old things have not really passed away, and new things have not come. Most are not new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). In too many cases, obvious signs of an unregenerate heart can be found, such as bitterness, long-term adultery, fornication, greed, divisiveness, covetousness, etc. These are “professing believers” that the Bible says are deceived. “Do not be deceived” the Bible warns us concerning such people (see 1 Cor.6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21; 6: 7-8; Eph. 5:5-6; Titus 1:16; 1 Jn. 3:4-10; etc.).
Jesus indicated that there is a good soil that is receptive to the gospel seed so as to produce a fruit-bearing plant, but that the “rocky ground” believer only appears to be saved. The latter shows immediate joy, but soon withers away (Mt. 13:6, 21). This temporary kind of faith (which is not saving faith, see 1 Cor.15:1-2) is rampant among Southern Baptists. In The Baptist Faith and Message we say we believe that saving faith is persistent to the end. We say we believe in the preservation and perseverance of the saints (once saved, always persevering). In other words, if a person’s faith does not persevere, then what he possessed was something other than saving faith.
In John 2:23-25 Jesus was the center-piece for what turned out to be a mass evangelism experience in which a large number of people “believed” in Him. Yet He did not entrust Himself to even one of them because “he knew their hearts.” Is it possible that we have taken in millions of such “unrepenting believers” whose hearts have not been changed? I say that we have. Our denomination, as much as we may love it, is on the main, unregenerate. Even if you double, triple, or quadruple my assessment of how many are true believers, we still have a gigantic problem. It is naive to believe otherwise.
There are those who would say that such people are “carnal Christians” and don’t deserve to be thought of as unregenerate. It is true that the Corinthian believers (about whom this phrase was used; see 1 Cor. 3:1-3) acted “like mere men” in their party spirit. Christians can commit any sin short of that which is unpardonable.
Undoubtedly, however, Paul did suspect that some of the Corinthians were unbelievers, for he later warns them about such a possibility in 2 Cor.12:20-13:5. A long-term and unrepentant state of carnality, is, after all, the very description of the unregenerate (Rom. 8:5-14, 1 Jn. 3:4-10, etc.). In calling some people “carnal” Paul did not mean to imply that he was accepting as Christian a lifestyle that he clearly describes elsewhere as unbelieving. He wrote, in the same letter: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God. Do not be deceived” (1 Cor. 6:9-11, etc.). Apparently there were some, even then, who were deceived into thinking that an unrighteous man or woman who professes faith in Christ could really be a Christian!
Is Follow-up the Problem?
A great mistake is made by blaming the problem on poor follow-up. In many churches there is every intention and effort given to follow-up, yet still the poor numbers persist. One church followed up “by the book,” seeking to disciple people who had been told they were new converts during the crusade of an internationally-known evangelist. The report of the pastor in charge was that none of them wanted to talk about how to grow as a Christian. He said, “In fact, they ran from us!” I have known some churches to go to extreme efforts to disciple new believers. We must do this. Yet, like the others, they generally have marginal success. They have learned to accept the fact that people who profess to have become Christians often have to be talked into going further, and that many, if not most, simply will not bother. Authentic new believers can always be followed up, however, because they have the Spirit by which they cry, “Abba Father” (Rom. 8:15). They have been given love for the brethren, and essential love for the beauty and authority of the Word of God. But you cannot follow-up on a spiritually dead person. Being dead, he has no interest in growth.
It was the preaching of regeneration, with an explanation of its discernible marks, that was the heart of the Great Awakening. J. C. Ryle, in writing of the eighteenth century revival preachers, said that they never for a moment believed that there was any true conversion if it was not accompanied by increasing personal holiness. Such content was the staple of the greatest of awakening preaching throughout the history of revival. Only such a powerful cannon blast of truth could rock the bed of those asleep in Zion.
Facing the Dilemma
What must be done? I suggest five responses:
1. We must preach and teach on the subject of the unregenerate church member. Every author in the New Testament writes of the nature of deception. Some books give major consideration to the subject. Jesus Himself spoke profusely about true and false conversion, giving significant attention to the fruit found in true believers (Jn. 10:26-27; Mt. 7:21-23; Mt. 25:1-13, etc.). If this sort of teaching creates doubt in people, you should not be alarmed, nor should you back away from it. Given the unregenerate state of so many professing Christians, their doubts may be fully warranted. In any case, as one friend told me, “Doubts never sent anyone to hell, but deception always does.” Most will work through their doubts, if they are regenerate and if we continue to preach the whole truth. Contrary to popular opinion, all doubts are not of the devil. Speak truthfully the whole counsel of God. You cannot “unsave” true believers.
It is true that there may be some who are overly scrupulous and overwhelmed by such examination. But most who will be affected are those who are too self-confident, having based their assurance on such shaky platforms as their response to an invitation, praying a perfectly worded “sinner’s prayer,” or getting baptized. If they are unregenerate, they may take offense and leave. But if they are truly regenerate, patient teaching and care will help them to overcome their doubts and gain biblical assurance. Such preaching may even result in true conversion for some who are deceived. And don’t forget that the overconfident ones are not the only ones at risk. Quiet, sensitive, insecure people can be deceived also.
2. We must address the issue of persistent sin among our members, including their sinful failure to attend the stated meetings of the church. This must be done by reestablishing the forgotten practice of church discipline. Each church should adopt guidelines that state just what will happen when a member falls into sin, including the sin of non-attendance or very nominal attendance. Such discipline for non-attendance is clearly found in the history of Baptistsbut more importantly, in the Bible.
Everyone in the church, including new members, should be made familiar with the biblical steps of church discipline. Jesus said that a person who was lovingly, but firmly, disciplined by the church, and yet failed to repent, should be thought of as “a heathen and a tax collector” (see Mt. 18:15-17). Though David committed atrocious sins, he was a repenter at heart (see 2 Sam.12:13; Psalm 51). Every Christian is a life-long repenter and church discipline brings this out. (See “Restoring Those Who Fall,” in Our Church on Solid Ground: Documents That Preserve the Integrity and Unity of the Church, www.CCWonline.org)
Leaders must get into the homes of all our erring church members, seeking either to bring them to Christ, or to reluctantly release them to the world which they love more than Christ. Nowhere in the Bible are we taught to keep non-believers on the rolls. As a side benefit from church discipline for the SBC, remember that when we reduce our membership to what it actually is, we will be amazed at the statistical improvements in the ratio of members per baptism and members to attenders. Of course, statistics are not worth dying for, but obedience to God’s Word is.
We are never to aggressively pluck the supposed tares from the wheat as if we had absolute knowledge (Mt. 13:24-30; 36-43). We might be mistaken. However, loving church discipline is a careful process by which the obvious sinner in essence removes himself by his resistance to correction. The church is made up of repenting saints, not rebelling sinners (see 1 Cor. 5). The slight improvement in the disparity between membership and attendance in the last couple of years is likely due, in major part, to some churches beginning to practice church disciplinea matter of obedience that thankfully is regaining credence among us. Some have removed hundreds from their rolls in this process, and regained some also.
3. We should be more careful on the front end of church membership. In my estimation, the public altar call (a modern invention) often reaps people prematurely. Others will disagree or can perhaps make significant improvements on the traditional “invitation system.” We have used this method in our evangelism because of our genuine zeal to see the lost converted. But in our zeal, we have often overlooked the fact that many who do what our method calls for (i.e. respond to our invitation) may not be converted.
Though sacrosanct to Baptists, careful study should be done related to the historical use of the invitation system evangelistically. For eighteen hundred years the church did not use such a method. It was not until its principle originator, Charles Finney, a true pelagian in his theology, promoted his “new measures.” Earlier preachers were content to let true conviction play a greater part in conversion. They needed no props for the gospelno persuasive techniques to prompt people to make a “decision.” Instead of relying on a method, their confidence was in the preached Word and the Holy Spirit. Baptist giant, C. H. Spurgeon, for instance, saw thousands converted without the use of an “altar call.” His message was his invitation. We should always offer a verbal invitation in our gospel preaching, meaning we must invite people to repent and believe. But there is no real benefit, while there is much potential harm, in our inviting them to the front of the church and then assuring them that their short walk or tearful response proves their conversion.
We don’t need better methods to get people down to the front. What we need is more biblical content and more unction in our preaching. You cannot beat sinners away from Christ when God is bringing them in (see Jn. 6:37, 44-45). When as many as 70-90% of “converts” are giving little, if any, evidence of being saved after their first weeks or months of emotional excitement, questions should be asked, both about our understanding of the gospel and about our methods. Forget the fact, if you must, that there is no clear biblical precedent for the altar call. Even considering the matter pragmatically ought to make us quit. Though prevalent in our churches for decades, it has not helped us. (See “Closing with Christ,” www.CCWonline.org/closing.html)
The dangerous practice of receiving new members immediately after they walk the aisle must finally be abandoned. Also, more careful counsel should be taken with those entering in as members from other churches. And add to this a need for much deeper thinking concerning childhood conversion. An alarming percentage of childhood professions wash out later in the teen and college years. For unconverted yet baptized church kids, the more independence they are granted, the more they live out their true nature. (See “Childhood Conversion,” www.CCWonline.org/cconv.html)
4. We must stop giving immediate verbal assurance to people who make professions of faith or who respond to our invitations. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to give assurance. We are to give thebasis upon which assurance can be had, not the assurance itself. Study 1 John in this respect. What things were written so that they might know they have eternal life? (1 Jn. 5:13). Answer: The tests given in the book. The Bible says that the Holy Spirit testifies to our spirit that we are children of God (Rom. 8:16).
5. We must restore sound doctrine. Revival, I am finding as I study its history, is largely about the recovery of the true gospel. The three great doctrines which have so often shown up in true revival are: 1) God’s sovereignty in salvation, 2) justification by grace through faith alone, and 3) regeneration with discernible fruit. Revival is God showing up, but the blessing of the presence of God is directly affected by our beliefs. God most often comes in the context of these and other great doctrines, preached penetratingly and faithfully, and with the unction of the Holy Spirit.
As an illustration of our doctrinal reductionism, repentance is often forgotten completely in gospel presentations, or else it is minimized to mean nothing more than “admitting that you are a sinner.” Also, “Inviting Christ into your heart,” a phrase never found in the Bible (study the context of Jn.1:12 and Rev. 3:20, the verses used for this), has taken the place of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. The doctrine of God’s judgment is rarely preached with any carefulness. And comprehensive studies of the meaning of the cross are seldom heard. Merely looking over the titles of the sermons which awakening preachers preached in the past would surprise most modern pastors.
Be Healthy or Be Ashamed
Which army would you rather have? Gideon’s first army or his last? No church, and no denomination, should call itself healthy unless more people attend than are on the roll. This is a standard kept by most of the world, and was kept by our great-grandparents in Baptist churches as well. We would be closer to the revival we desire if we would admit our failure, humbly hang our heads, and seek to rectify this awful hindrance to God’s blessing. When we boast of how big we are, we are bragging about our shame.
In the Philadelphia Baptist Association Minutes, our first association, our initial American statistical record shows that five times as many people attended the association’s churches as were on their rolls. Greg Wills in Democratic Religion in the South (Oxford University Press, 1997, p.14) reports that three times the number on the rolls attended Baptist churches, then located mostly along the eastern seaboard when surveyed in 1791 by John Ashlund. In 1835, the Christian Index of Georgia recorded that “not less than twice the number” of members were in attendance.
Today, in rough numbers, it takes 300 people on our rolls to have 100 attenders. In the 1790s, it took only 33. Or, to put it in larger figures, it now takes nearly 3000 people, supposedly won to Christ and baptized, to result in a church attendance of 1000. Then, it took only 333. Our potency has diminished to such an extent that we must “win” and “baptize” over 2,000 more people to get to the same 1000 to attend.
Apparently, being orthodox in terms of inerrancy and infallibility is not enough, though without these doctrines we have no foundation for true evangelism. A lot has to be done, and a lot undone. And, sadly, we have been actively transporting this mainly American problem overseas for many years.
To conclude, I suggest two remedial steps for the convention as a whole, in addition to what was suggested for the churches:
1. We might reverse some of our proclivity to continue as normal if we introduced our preachers more accurately in our evangelism meetings and convention settings. Try using this introduction: “Here is Brother ______, pastor of a church of 10,000 members, 6400 of whom do not bother to come on a given Sunday morning, and 8600 of whom do not come on Sunday evening. He is here to tell us about how to have a healthy, evangelistic church.”
It might be better to ask a man to speak who shepherds 100 members, all of whom attend with regularity and all of whom show signs of regenerationa man who, in the last year, has baptized 5 people who stickrather than a pastor of 10,000 members, 7000 of whom do not comea man who has baptized 1000 in the past year, 700 of whom cannot be found. The smaller, but more consistent numbers of the first pastor reveal a far more effective ministry and thus a far better example for other churches. (Please understand that I don’t like this talk about “numbers,” but this is the main way we evaluate people and churches as Baptists. I am sure God is not really impressed with any of our statistics.)
2. We should establish a study group to explore our presently deplorable situation and to track its history. This group should also seek to re-examine the biblical mandate to have a regenerate church. Then this study group should report back with a strategy to help us out of the dilemma. They should be painfully honest. I am hopeful that individual churches will act without this prompting, but this would be an added stimulus to getting us to our fighting weight as a denomination. Some church leaders will not act without this sort of backing since independent action would be a departure from the status quo.
Our only alternative is to carry on in the old waythe way that produces 70-90% fallout. By continuing on as we are, we will gradually blur, and eventually obscure altogether, any distinction between the professing and the authentic Christian. In the end, we will look like every other mainline, liberal denomination. We are only one-third to one-tenth alive now. If we want to avoid complete deadness, we must take dramatic measures immediately. Like cotton candy, our apparent size does not add up to much.
Our forebears, especially those who died for the biblical concept of a regenerate church, would hardly recognize our compromised condition. It will admittedly take us down a notch or two, in the estimation of the rest of professing Christianity, when millions are removed from our rolls. But humility and a new reality might be the starting place for God’s greatest blessings on us yet!
The next time someone asks how your church and your denomination are doing, tell the truth. Tell them that we have a new confidence in the inerrant Bible. Tell them that we have seminaries that promote orthodoxy, and new evangelistic fervor among the true believers. Tell them we have a lot to be excited about. But also tell them that when considered as a whole, most Southern Baptists need raising from the dead.
Jim Elliff is the president of Christian Communicators Worldwide and the former resident consultant for the Midwestern Center for Biblical Revival at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He speaks to conferences in the states and overseas, and often leads churches and pastors in the subject addressed above. For additional free booklets on this subject, write Christian Communicators Worldwide, 201 Main Suite #3, Parkville, MO 64052, or phone (816)584-8601.
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