Southern Baptist in Decline, Pt. 1
This week, Ed Stetzer, part of Lifeway research, published an article on his blog titled, The end of the Beginning. The article is a response the news published by Lifeway that Baptism numbers have dropped for the third straight year.
NASHVILLE, Tenn., 4/23/08 (Lifeway.com)– The number of people baptized in Southern Baptist churches fell for the third straight year in 2007 to the denomination’s lowest level since 1987. Although the SBC added 473 new churches and gave more than $1.3 billion to support mission activities around the world, there’s no escaping the disappointing fact that Southern Baptists are not reaching as many people for Christ as they once did, according to Thom S. Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, which gathered the information on the denomination’s behalf.
According to LifeWay’s Annual Church Profile (ACP), baptisms in 2007 dropped nearly 5.5 percent to 345,941, compared to 364,826 in 2006. Baptism is a public act administered by the local church in which new followers of Christ are immersed in water. Baptism symbolizes believers identification with Jesus in His death, burial and resurrection; signifies their new life in Christ; and anticipates the day in which Christ will raise them from the dead, demonstrating His victory over sin and death. Therefore, the number of baptisms is a key measurement of the SBC’s effectiveness in evangelism.
For those who do not know, Lifeway is the book and curriculum division of the Southern Baptist Convention. It was once called The Baptist Sunday School Board. Ed Stetzer is currently the Director of Lifeway Research and Lifeway’s Missiologist in Residence. In other words, he is an expert.
I have been a pastor for twenty years and served as a staff member before that. And I have been preaching for thirty-six years. I am not easily impressed by experts. This is not to put down Dr. Stetzer in any way but to speak of certain realities. I am an experienced pastor. And I have noticed that experts don’t listen to experienced pastors. And what is more important, at least to me, I am a theologian by training. This means that to this day, I still take biblical studies and doctrine very seriously. I tend to think that when churches are in trouble, they first need to turn to Scripture for answers, not to demographic and statistical studies. So, I wrote the following on his blog and he graciously published it. I reproduce it here.
In the 1940s and 50s, Southern Baptists became institutionalized, we came to believe that the larger body was more important than the local church. So, we looked to the denomination to tell us how to do things and when to do it. By the end of the 1960s every Baptist worship service, every Sunday School class, every Wednesday night service were all alike.
In the 1970’s cutting edge Baptists bought into the Church Growth movement with all its statistics, studies and public relations models taken from the business world. Instead of focusing on preaching Scripture and teaching doctrine, we relied on worldly models to define church outreach.
In the 1980s the church growth movement morphed into the seeker sensitive service model of church. Soon Baptists were importing charismatic worship into Baptist churches with the claim that we must be relevant to society.
The institutionalizing of Baptist churches set us to be gullible to any kind of movement passed on to us by experts. We became consumed with pragmatic concerns. Whatever works became our mantra no matter what damage such programs may inflict on our churches. The concepts that we bought into, Church Growth Movement, the Seeker Sensitive worship, etc. has all lead to decline. It seems obvious that these things made church members self-centered consumers and not Christians. Instead of preaching the Word and relying on the Holy Spirit to call people out of their sin, we figured the Holy Spirit was weak and needed our help. Self-centered consumers do not go out and bear witness to Christ.
The fact is we have been in decline for decades. The FBI could not find half of the Southern Baptist membership. This has been true for the last forty years. We have been hiding behind numbers. So, we baptized more in the past years? How many of those baptized stayed in church? When you scare people into converting or make it so easy that no repentance is required, what should we expect? Which is better, fake converts whom we baptize or lower baptisms?
Pragmatism does not work, an ironic statement. Looking like the world, acting like the world, sounding like the world, does not work. If we are going to look foolish to the world, then let it be because we live as those who have been crucified and let us preach the scandal of the Cross.
Church is not a political action committee, it is not a self help group, it is not entertainment, it is not a place for self actualization. The local church is the people of God. And the people of God are aliens and strangers in a foreign land, we are not of the world. We need to be more like strangers.
I do not have confidence in numbers and in experts who spin them. I do have confidence that if we live holy lives before our living and holy Lord, then we will bear much fruit. But if we are not faithful to the call of Christ, why would he bless us? We do not need our own pragmatically induced revival. We have a great need for repentance and the willingness to remain in decline until we have God’s blessing.
Note, I intend to address this subject further in another posting.