On April 21 the Courier-Journal, based out of Louisville, KY, ran this article concerning the state of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. It is hard to tell if the findings are truly representative of all SBC state conventions, or the SBC as a whole, but the numbers quoted by the article are enough to deserve attention at least locally in the state housing our largest Southern Baptist seminary. Here’s a quick run-down from the 2008 profile:
- Total undesignated giving and discipleship training were both up 3% over 2007 numbers
- Annual baptisms in the KBC were up 2% from 2007 to 2008, but still down 12% from 8 years ago
- Total KBC membership decreased by 1.2% in 2008
One positive to be seen here is that if membership is down but giving is up, then either those who are giving are giving more, or simply more are giving in general, both of which are desirable changes. We must be careful not to overreact one way or the other when looking at these numbers though, since most of them are only in comparison to the previous year’s marks. A notable exception to this is the number of baptisms, which the article reports have shown a sizable drop over the last decade. This is something to worry about and probably the single most important revelation from this piece. To be 12% lower than the rate 8 years prior translates into roughly 1500 fewer people being baptized per year. This is significant considering that the average Southern Baptist church has around 140 members in weekly worship, meaning a loss of 1500 people annually would equate to 10 church plant opportunities that the KBC is missing out on per year.
Yet, as much as we will focus on analyzing the percentage changes here and there, I was struck by something else that this article revealed in regards to the church growth philosophy of the KBC. In a world where “size matters,” the church is certainly not immune to falling into this mindset itself. Matt Chandler of The Village Church near Dallas, TX refers to the focus on ever-increasing numbers as an indicator for success as “Capitalist Christianity”- i.e. the church with the most people in the end wins. This is a dangerous mindset because the desire to reach certain peak numbers, mixed with a fallen creation, is bound to tempt towards, if not lead directly to a watering down of the requirements to be counted. The “seeker-sensitive” movement is often criticized in this respect, but it is also visible in our own Southern Baptist Convention as we are constantly reminded that the only population segment seeing an increase in baptisms currently is the Under-5 category.
To that end, the fact that the article brings up the KBC’s annual goal of 25,000 baptisms (now reduced to 20,000) disturbs me. I mean no disrespect to the Godly men who surely put much prayer into establishing that number, but to set a goal of this sort basically says either (1) God is not sovereign and our own human efforts at evangelism are a failure if we fall short of this, or (2) God is sovereign and he is letting us down if he does not provide us with 20,000 baptisms this year. Neither option seems like a good statement to be making in my mind, each being more reflective of a secular business model than committed biblical church growth.
As well, one must be taken aback by the total membership/weekly worshippers disparity found at the bottom of the article. The KBC reports that there are 770,269 people in Kentucky who are members of a KBC-affiliated Southern Baptist church. However, weekly worship numbers show that there are only 255,238 people attending church on any given Sunday. That means that just about one-third of the people that the KBC is claiming as members of local KBC-affiliated Southern Baptist bodies are actually actively attending (one would assume the weekly shift between present and not is negligible). Of course, as far as I’m concerned, if you have 255,238 people attending weekly worship in a KBC-affiliated church then you only have 255,238 members of the KBC. If we used that as our metric, and not simply how many people we could hold under water long enough to constitute immersion, I doubt we would even be having this conversation right now.
Looking at this report on the KBC, the picture is not clearly of a state (and by extension national) convention in decline, but it is also not a ringing endorsement of bright days ahead. We should be burdened by the declining numbers of baptisms and of those claiming membership with the KBC. We should also consider the framework that we operate inside of in trying to do God’s work and make sure that the goals there always line up properly with the emphasis of the Scriptures, lest in following them through we become too much like the world. God has seen to bless our convention for many years, but like the church in Laodecia, we must strive to be either hot or cold in serving kingdom purposes or else we will just grow lukewarm reminiscing on memories of victories past and find our efforts rejected by Christ.