The Responsibility For Southern Baptist Decline And What To Do About It
Last year, 2012, was not a banner year for Southern Baptists. According to the ACP report we baptized fewer people, attendance declined, and the baptism ratio itself went down (it now takes 50 Southern Baptists to lead one person to Christ and see them baptized).
Quoting the Baptist Press article:
Although the number of SBC-related congregations grew, reported membership of those churches declined more than 100,000, down 0.7 percent to 15.9 million members. Primary worship attendance declined 3.1 percent to 5.97 million Sunday worshippers.
Although baptisms were a bright spot in last year’s report, increasing 0.7 percent, this year’s report shows a decline of 5.5 percent to 314,956 people. Reported baptisms have declined six of the last eight years, with 2012 the lowest since 1948. The ratio of baptisms to total members increased to one baptism for every 50 members.
“While we celebrate every new baptized believer represented by these numbers, fewer reported baptisms is heartbreaking,” said Thom S. Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay.
What are we to make of such decline?
Honestly, it is not a one year trend but it is a steady decline. This 2011 chart is but one piece of evidence of our dropoff. We are headed in the wrong direction and we are headed there quickly.
If we are careful, our decline will become our demise!
Now, let’s do what all good folks do and let’s look for someone to blame. (wink, wink)
Who is to blame for the decline of our Convention?
- How About Let’s Blame The National and State Conventions?
When we talk about the Southern Baptist Convention or the [insert your state here] Baptist Convention it is real easy to cast blame at them and their “direction.”
We look at Nashville and we use pronouns like “them,” “they,” “their”, and “those.” We sit in groups and drink our coffee and write our blogs and talk about what the SBC ought to be doing to turn things around.
However, the problem with blaming the Convention is 2 fold:
1. The first problem with this is actually a word we love: autonomy.
Now, I’m for autonomy. I think every church should be autonomous.
However, autonomy also stops me from casting blame at the Convention level. If my church is autonomous, then how can the Convention stop or hurt me from doing evangelism?
The answer is – it can’t.
Oh, we can say our branding is bad or our name recognition isn’t what it needs to be, but truthfully, as grandaddy used to say: that ain’t it.
The guy your church member sits next to at the office knows nearly nothing of our branding, our history, or our shortcomings. He knows the score of the ball game from last night and he’s thinking about where to fish this weekend. The ins-and-outs of the SBC are not even in his sphere of awareness, much less his sphere of concerns.
2. If we blame the convention we create something called “Diffusion of Responsibility.”
That is, if we can blame everyone, then we can blame no one.
If it is everyone’s responsibility it is no one’s responsibility. The fact is, we can’t lay the decline at the feet of the convention in general.
- How About Let’s Blame Our Culture?
“That’s it!” you say. “It’s the dark, immoral, Godless, culture we live in that is the cause for the decline in our baptisms. Society and government are against us and people just aren’t as open to the gospel as they once were.
Do we live in culture that is becoming increasingly anti-Christian? Yes. But that fact was also present in the early New Testament era when the Christianity was expanding the fastest.
The gospel has always flourished in difficult days. Bear in mind, the pastor of the first church in Jerusalem gave his life for the Gospel’s sake and the message still spread and thousands were continually saved.
Again, the problem with blaming the culture is 2 fold:
1. First, if culture were to blame, then all religions would be in decline.
According to the latest Census information some religions are growing rapidly. From 2000-2010 Islam grew at 66%. Mormonism grew 45%.
2. Secondly, if it were the culture’s fault no church would be reaching people.
However, I come in contact with churches all the time that are reaching people. I interviewed a pastor this week whose church runs around 500 and baptized 129 last year. They are reaching people at a surprisingly successful rate.
The cause of the decline is not a culture problem.
So what is it? Where can we legitimately place blame?
Great question. Glad you asked. Here we go…
- Lack of a Lay Witness
We have nearly 16 million Southern Baptists on the books. About half of those couldn’t be rounded up by the FBI. I know how church rolls work – probably one-fourth of those are deceased and haven’t been taken off a church’s roll yet.
Let us assume we have 8-10 million Southern Baptists who attend church regularly. We have about 6 million in church weekly and we all know attendance happens in “shifts.”
Are these lay people the reason we aren’t baptizing more? Is it because our people aren’t as evangelistic as they used to be?
Well, a Barna report for the greater Atlanta area seems to bear that out.
According to Barna, only 21% believe it is their responsibility to tell others about Christ. And, shockingly, 46% strongly disagree that it is their responsibility.
Clearly we have a problem. Is the problem in the pew, though?
I’ve discovered that most churches do exactly what their leaders lead them to do. When I was getting my John Maxwell leadership coaching certification, one thing they kept emphasizing again and again is that everything rises and falls on leadership.
Could it be that the pews are no more evangelistic because they haven’t been led to be?
Think about it. In the average SBC church…
Has the vision been cast?
Has the training been given?
Has the passion been caught?
Which leads me to my last point as to where the responsibility lies for our decline:
- You. The Pastor. The Leader.
Please don’t stop reading.
I am NOT going to sit here and say it’s your fault.
I’m asking you to do that. I am asking you to take your part of the responsibility, just as I and anyone else who directly leads in any local body of believers needs to do.
Do Convention, culture and pew have something to do with it? Certainly!
Ignore that part. That’s right.
Just ignore it.
Don’t talk about it.
Instead, take responsibility.
Take the blame.
Assume the fault.
Go do something about it!
Here’s the cold hard fact: Unless the pastors of our churches, the men who stand in the pulpit week after week, take responsibility for the decline nothing will happen to change it.
But when they do take responsibility as the God-ordained leader in our local churches, something WILL happen… something that will lead to more converted to Christ.
If you the pastor would lead in sharing Christ and teaching others in your church to do the same, it wouldn’t matter the flaws at the national or state level, it wouldn’t matter what is happening in the culture, and it wouldn’t matter that many in your church are apathetic or indifferent toward lost people.
Something would begin to happen. You and I both know it.
So, here’s my final question.
Will you get passionate about growing your church and reaching people with the Gospel and then lead your church to do the same?
If you will, decline would reverse and Convention reports would all be about the increase of souls into the Kingdom.
You are not alone. Here are some suggestions on how you can take the responsibility of evangelism and do something about it:
1. Pastor your Church.
I don’t mean “pastor” in the noun sense. I mean “pastor” in the verb sense. Spend less time worrying about the Convention (national and state) and spend more time pastoring your church. Spend more time writing evangelism blogs for your church than you do writing blogs about the decline of the Convention. Pour your creative energies and work ethic into reaching people for Christ and watch what happens.
2. Attend your State Evangelism conference.
I can’t speak for other states, but in Georgia we can help (and I know the other states can too). We have four conferences next year that will light your fire for evangelism (it wanes in all of us from time to time) and give you the strategies to do it.
Here’s the lineup:
Bremen, GA – Inspirational preaching conference
Albany, GA – Inspirational preaching conference
Jekyll Island, GA – Evangelism Leadership conference (open to only 100 churches)
Maysville, GA – Evangelism Strategy conference (open to only 300 people)
You can find out more here: GBCEvangelismConferences.com
To get the latest info on any of these, get on our instant notification email list or take out your phone and text reach2014 to 72727.
3. Call us. We are here and capable to help you.
The last church where I served as pastor grew for 10 consecutive years. The evangelism staff is equipped, experienced, and ready to help.
Here are just a few of the things we can help with:
- Developing an evangelism strategy for your church
- Helping you improve your Sunday morning experience
- How to use technology for outreach and ministry
- Training you on the 6 methods of evangelism every church can employ (starting immediately)
Go to www.EvangelismGA.com and connect with us from there.
Pastor, what can you do today to be a part of the solution and start stemming the tide of decline?
(And there comes the invitation…)
Why not start by taking a moment to bow your head and whisper a prayer of dedication to God. “Lord, I WILL lead my church to be evangelistic and reach our community and the world for Christ. Fill me. Empower me. Renew me. Help me. I will start today.”
Then, go. And having God’s help, put legs on that prayer.