I wrote on this recently concerning the SBC’s statistical struggles, and have addressed the topic several times through the years. My thoughts are developing. As long as Baptists, the ACP, and the Annual Meeting exist, and I’m around, I’ll likely keep thinking about this and perhaps reflecting on it. It is truly a Baptist topic!
There can be little doubt that the New Testament was written by Baptists. The Apostles counted the crowds that Jesus fed with the loaves and fish and carefully quantified the leftovers. I am sure it was all duly reported on the ACP at the appropriate time. Luke counted baptisms on Pentecost and rejoiced often in the statistical growth of the church. Numbers were important to the Early Church.
We modern Baptists, like the Baptists in Jerusalem and Antioch and Ephesus, love our numbers. If it can’t be counted, quantified, reported on the ACP, and statistically analyzed, can it truly be counted as a work of God? We hang our denominational hats on whether offerings or baptisms or memberships tick up or down. It matters.
On the other hand, we know that some of what is going on in some of the bigger ministries in the land just ain’t right. Few of us would shout an amen to a claim that the Joel Osteen’s numbers are evidence of God’s favor. We would pull out our CSBs and read 2 Timothy 4 that promises a time when people would abandon sound doctrine to gather around themselves teachers to scratch the itches of their flesh.
Many of the great men of the Bible had no numerical successes. Cod’s glorious call to Isaiah (Isaiah 6) was accompanied by a promise that the hard-hearted people would not listen or respond. Jeremiah preached faithfully and was rejected universally. Prophets and popularity were inimical.
Then there’s Jesus. He pastored the first megachurch, First Baptist, Galilee. Thousands followed him around the Galilean countryside, hanging on his every word, and marveling at his miraculous power. Then he began to teach hard truths and John 6 tells us that people turned away from him in droves. By the time Jesus made it to Jerusalem, his congregation had gone from well over 5000 to 500 or less. Even our man Ed Stetzer didn’t want to run those stats. Jesus would not be invited to any of our denominational gatherings with stats like that!
On the (other) other hand, there seems something pathetic and gauche about those who revel in their bad numbers. Men have gone into churches, driven away anyone who didn’t kowtow to their agenda, then labeled what they were doing as “pruning the deadwood” or purifying the church. Jesus divided with the truth, not pride or a self-centered agenda.
Baptists and our numbers. Our relationship status says, “It’s complicated.” How are we to think about numbers? What should we think about the SBC’s declining numbers? Are they evidence of God’s displeasure with the SBC or some serious fault on our part? Is church growth always a marker of God’s blessing? If we are walking in obedience as individuals and churches will that always show up on our ACP?
I have more questions than answers. It seems from the Scriptures that you can argue both sides of this.
- Numbers matter. Christians counted converts and the norm of the Early Church seemed to be to see souls saved and churches grow.
- Numbers do not prove God’s blessing. Christians are called to fidelity, not pragmatism. A world that hated Christ will often not like what we do in serving Christ and being faithful may not always be numerically helpful.
Here are some of my thoughts on how we should look at numbers.
- God is in the business of saving the lost and when it isn’t happening it ought to give us pause.
“All we can do is plant the seed. God has to bring the harvest.” Of course, that is true. It is also a weak excuse most of the time it is said. It shifts the blame to God. “Hey, we are doing our part – God is the one who is messing up and not saving people.” No, I know people don’t mean to say that, but that is the implication, is it not?
In the gospel endeavor, there will be times of preparation, times of planting, and times of harvest. But a church that goes month after month, year after year seeing few or no converts ought to stop and ask God why.
It is not normal for God not to be saving people!
- Never draw your identity from numbers.
We have been having a tough time at our church. I will give no details because some of the folks from SHBC read this blog and I’m not going to deal with our issues here. But Shane Hall’s sermon at the PC struck me hard for several reasons. This man, in the middle of his health struggles, said Jesus is enough. “Jesus is all I need.”
That’s easy to say when everything is going well. But is Jesus enough when things aren’t going well in my ministry and the potential for embarrassment exists? I have been the guy who was asked to speak at the state meeting and share what we were doing because our church was growing rapidly and they wanted others to mimic what we were doing. But now I’m the guy whose church is roiling and boiling. Hint: it’s not as much fun and it does not buttress my ego nearly as much! But is Jesus enough is statistics are not bolstering my self-esteem?
Our identity is in Christ who redeemed us and loves us as much if we are successful or if we are struggling.
- Numbers are a significant gauge but not a definitive guide.
It is entirely possible that a church is struggling because it has been faithful to God’s word in a world that is compromising. The concept that if we are doing things right people will always love us does not come from God or his word. Paul made it clear that godliness would bring suffering and might well drive away those who just want their ears tickled.
But when your stats are bad, when numbers are dwindling, when people are leaving, when people are not responding – at the very least these things should drive us to our knees and to the word. What is happening, Lord? Is there something here that is preventing your blessing? Is there something we are doing we shouldn’t or not doing that we should?
Only a fool would completely ignore negative numbers and refuse to seek God as to what they mean.
- Playing to the numbers leads to pragmatism.
- “What we are doing isn’t working, so we have to change.”
- “Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.”
We accept these as absolute truths in church ministry. If something isn’t working, it has to change. But should Jesus have changed his tactics because people turned away? Should Isaiah and Jeremiah have used a different approach because no one was paying attention?
We ought not to ignore pragmatic concerns completely, but our goal is faithfulness to God and his word in all things, not to simply doing what works.
I read the letters of Jonathan Edwards describing the great revival under his ministry in Northampton, Massachusetts. It struck me that he served in that town for 17 years with what he described as no response. No results. Seventeen years! If you have been at a church for 17 years and there had been not a single convert, would you give up? You wouldn’t have to. They’d have canned your kiester long ago for ministry failure. Today, the Second Great Awakening would never happen because Edwards would have been sent packing for statistical paucity.
It is not that we should never consider pragmatic concerns, but we are ruled by God’s word, not by what works.
- There is no liar like a statistic.
Facts are our friends, right? But when statistics come out so does the spin. Mark Twain popularized the idea that there are, “liars, da**ed liars, and statistics.” Actually, it’s not statistics that lie, it’s the way we use the statistics that is the problem.
A while back a friend contacted me with some statistics that demonstrated that one of our SBC entities was in deep trouble. The stats showed a steep decline and something needed to be done. Then I saw the report released by that entity and one could only assume they were looking at a very different set of statistics. Things couldn’t be better!
Look at reports of the Lottie Moon offering this year. Those who delight in making David Platt look bad trumpeted the fact that the offering was showing a steep decline this year. Of course, that ignored the fact that last year was a record-setting anomaly, with the revelation of financial problems and the draw-down. The offering shattered previous records. This year’s offering was a return to normalcy. Statistics served agenda.
If statistics are to have any value, they must be treated with integrity and honesty.
We Baptists will always have a complicated relationship with numbers. It is who we are.