Honest Statistics: A Large Convention of Small Churches, Part 1

In 1995 the Home Mission Board (now known as the North American Mission Board) of the Southern Baptist Convention issued a research report entitled, A Large Convention of Small Churches. It was authored by Philip B. Jones and employs standard statistical-analytical procedures to give insight into the reported membership and growth patterns of Southern Baptist churches using the Annual Church Profile. It is, in my opinion, a devastating report. Devastating in the sense that it confirms in bold letter the very kinds of concerns that Founders Ministries has been trying to address for more the twenty years.

The great problems that I see in many churches–Southern Baptist and otherwise–is not a lack of Calvinism. It is a lack of Christianity. I believe that the Gospel has been lost and that Christ is absent from many churches. There is no way to state that conviction without it sounding harsh, pharisaical and unkind, but I at least want to go on record that I do not want to be any of those things. My heart breaks when I see and hear what goes on in the name of Christ in many churches and Christian institutions. Souls are at stake. Heaven and hell are at stake. If the Gospel is missing, it does not matter what else is present.

Let me cite two reasons that I can make this statement with some sense that my assessment is at least not eccentric. The first support that I have for thinking this way is historical. John Dagg, the first writing theologian among Southern Baptists, said this: “When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it” (p. 274). You may read his Treastise on Church Order here.

The other reason that I think we must be willing to consider the possibility that Christ is absent from some churches is because He Himself warned that such could happen. In his letter to the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2 He threatens to remove the lampstand from its place among them (v. 5). That is, He threatens to unchurch them. I have often wondered what such an unchurched church would look like? Would it affect their activities if Christ withdrew? Would it change their schedule, their priorities, their worship, their prayers, etc? Probably not. Because the very reasons for which Jesus threatens to unchurch them are the very patterns of living with which they have already grown comfortable. A question I have put to myself and to our congregation is this: “If Christ were to leave our church, would we even notice?”

My fear is that some churches have become so dependent on so many resources other than Jesus Christ that if He withdrew, it really would not matter in their life and schedules. Obviously, determining whether or not Christ has left a church is at best a very difficult matter. However, it is not difficult to evaluate whether or not discipline has left a church, or if the Gospel is known and believed and preached in a church. These are objective, discernible realities that can be analyzed by simple Scriptural criteria.

Here is a question to put to your church, or the churches you know about and care about: “What if John Dagg is right?” How many churches–churches where Christ is present–would that leave us with?

Well, I have gone on longer than I intended in giving my justification for stating my fear that in many churches and Christian organizations, the Gospel has been lost. So I must wait until a later post to give you the information from the HMB report I mentioned above. You might try to secure a copy of this report for yourself. I have been told by some that it is no longer available. If that is true, it is a shame. The insights it gives are very instructive.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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