Honest Statistics: A Large Convention of Small Churches, Part 2

The overwhelming majority of Southern Baptist church members give little or no sign of spiritual life. Countless studies of our churches’ memberships over the last 20 years all tell the same story. The recently compiled statistics from the Annual Church Profiles of SBC churches indicates that in 2004, we had:

– 16,287,494 members

– 6,024,289 Sunday morning attendance

– 37 percent of the total membership typically attend Sunday morning worship

Of course, that percentage is actually much worse because it does not take into account visitors and children who show up. So we can safely say that on a typical Sunday morning less than 37% of the members in Southern Baptist churches show up.

As I mentioned yesterday, what is now the North American Misssion Board (formerly the Home Mission Board) issued a report in 1996 entitled, A Large Convention of Small Churches by Phillip Jones, which found that the typical (median) SBC church has:

– 233 members (of which 168 are resident)

– 70 people in Sunday morning worship service (30 percent)

When you move beyond Sunday morning worship attendance, the picture becomes even more bleak. Less than 1 out of 4 Southern Baptist church members attend Sunday School and considerably less than that attend any other function of the church. The median church baptized 5 people into membership and added 5 other members during the previous year. Despite this, Jones concludes, the median church is growing by only 1 member a year. Closer analysis indicates that this one member is more likely to wind up inactive than active. Jones concludes, “Although the typical church in the SBC appears to be barely growing, it is, in fact, in decline” (p. 23).

What this means is that the typical Southern Baptist church baptizes lots of people who simply do not hang around long enough even to become regular Sunday morning attenders. This is precisely what Jack Smith, a “soul-winning evangelism associate” for NAMB, has discovered in his own experience with Southern Baptist churches. According to a Baptist Press story, He has found that “only about 30 percent of baptized believers in SBC churches typically are active in Sunday school a year later. When actual retention rates of new Christians are considered from the time of their decision, the percentage often drops to the single digits.”

Now, take note: what the “soul-winning evangelism associate” calls “new Christians” are those people who have been led to “make decisions” in the typical SBC way of evangelism; ie. agree to some facts, pray a prayer, assume your saved. But, notice what he has discovered from this kind of evangelistic approach: LESS THAN 10% OF THE CONVERTS PRODUCED ACTUALLY STICK.

Unfortunately, the solution that Smith proposes is, “better follow-up” of new converts. Certainly intentional discipleship efforts are important in the lives of new believers. But folks, the problem is not a lack of follow-up. If it ain’t alive, it can’t grow.

Jesus talked about the change that must take place in a person’s life before he can enter into or even see the kingdom of God. He spoke of that change in terms of birth. The analogy of birth tells us much about the nature of the change. A birth is followed by a life, except in those tragic cases of stillbirths. But under normal circumstances when there is a birth, we can expect there to be signs of life–eating, crying, breathing, growth and development. Where such signs of life are nonexistent, you can be sure that something has gone horribly wrong.

Too much of modern evangelism is tailor made to produce spiritual stillbirths. We look at the products of such methods and wonder why there are no signs of life and conclude, “It’s because we need better followup.” That is like a pediatrician ordering neonatal care for a stillborn infant.

We are long overdue to have a serious conversation about evangelism and conversion. Such a conversation must begin with a reconsideration of what the Gospel actually is. We cannot afford to assume any longer that we all agree on this.

I determined several years ago that, by God’s grace, I want spend the rest of my life and ministry being clear on three questions:

1. What is the Gospel?

2. What is a Christian and how does a person become one?

3. What is a church?

As I have stated previously, the issues raised by these questions transcend the debates over Calvinism and Arminianism.