Baptists have a somewhat uneasy relationship to numbers these days. When we were growing and expanding annually, we pointed to our numbers as proof of God’s blessing. Our recent realization that our statistical decline is not a mere blip on the screen has been taken as a portent of evil in our midst. Dr. Frank Page’s response to the latest report was, “God forgive us and God help us.” There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in Houston this year.
This is not a specifically Southern Baptist problem, of course. In a recent article, “Why Millenials Are Leaving the Church“, Rachel Held Evans references Brookings Institute research and concludes that “millennials” (loosely, those born in the 80s and 90s) are leaving the church in droves. We’ve heard anecdotal evidence about this exodus and seen it analyzed and bemoaned repeatedly. Ms. Evans response is typical of the self-centered, blame-game of this topic. She says, essentially, that people are leaving the church because it is too different from her and the solution is to become more like her (less conservative, more liturgical, more accepting of homosexuality, more open to other faiths and less concerned about issues of sexual morality). She describes evangelical Christianity as “too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”
That is a boilerplate response to the decline of church attendance. We point the finger at those who are different from us and lay the blame at their feet.
- The decline of church attendance is based on a fault or flaw in the church. We are doing something wrong that must be fixed.
- The fault or flaw of the church is that it does not agree with my views on what a church should be. If I’m conservative, the church is too liberal. If I am liberal, the church is too conservative. If I’m Calvinists, its the non-Calvinists, if I’m not Calvinist, it’s those Calvinists causing the problems. The young blame the old, the old blame the young. I discussed this in a recent article.
- The solution to the fault or flaw of the church is to change to become more like what I think it should be.
An Example of Failure?
Let me tell you about a “shepherd” I read about. He was quite the popular man – charismatic, demonstrating spiritual power. He gathered a congregation estimated by some to be in the neighborhood of 20,000 to 25,000 people who listened to his every word and looked to him as their spiritual leader. But then, things changed. He began to say some unpopular things. The direction of his ministry disappointed the people who were following him and within a couple of years, the congregation which once numbered in the tens of thousands was now down to a hundred or so faithful followers.
What a failure, right? That guy should be fire. He must have done something wrong to drive all those people away!
I’m guessing you’ve already picked up on my satire here, right? The shepherd I referred to was Jesus himself. When he was doing miracles and feeding folks miraculously, he was followed by a crowd of 5000 men. If you add the women and children, the crowd had to be ten-thousand, twenty-thousand, perhaps more. He was the most popular man in Israel. But then he began to teach people that if they were going to follow him, they must “deny himself, take up his cross, and follow him.” Terribly strategic move, Jesus. When he claimed to be the Bread of Life whom each man must consume, they got offended and John 6:66 says this,
“After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.”
Using Ms. Evans’ logic, and that employed by many who analyze these trends, Jesus should be judged as a failure because most of the people who ever followed him turned away. He must have done something wrong to cause so many to leave his “church,” right?
I have noticed two very distinct ends on the continuum on this subject.
- Some assert that the lack of numerical growth and results is a marker of spiritual failure in the church. If a church is not baptizing people and growing, it must be doing something wrong. Traditionally, Baptists have associated numerical size and growth with the blessing of God. Therefore, if people leave a church or denomination, there must be some flaw in that church or denomination.
- Others have argued that numbers have no place in discerning a church’s fidelity to the gospel. We are called to be faithful and if we are, it doesn’t matter how many numbers we reach. In fact, I’ve known a couple who seemed to take pride in reducing a church’s numbers! One man I know drove a bunch of people away and trumpeted that he was “purifying” the church.
It is my view that the biblical evidence on numbers and blessing is more subtle and textured than either of these positions. “Numbers show God’s blessings” and “Numbers don’t matter” – neither of them fully accounts for the biblical evidence.
The Bible and Numbers
- Numbers obviously matter in the book of Numbers, which is based on two countings of God’s people. Israel, after forty years in the wilderness, had dwindled slightly. Sin and rebellion had caused a numerical plateau or decline in Israel.
- On the other hand, David was judged for numbering the fighting men in both 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles. The implication seems to be that this numbering is evidence of his arrogance and self-reliance. When we use numbers in a way that leads to pride and self-glory, there is clearly a problem.
- The book of Acts has several numerical reports. The number of disciples at the start was around 120. Then, there were 3000 saved at Pentecost, and not long thereafter, the number was up to 5000 men (or, in Jewish numbering, perhaps “heads of household”). Repeated, God adds to the church and sometimes, he even multiplies the church. Mathematics. Numbers. They seemed to be significant.
- On the other hand, we are warned that it is possible to build a church for all the wrong reasons. Paul warned us (2 Timothy 4:3) that people would abandon sound teaching and gather around teachers who would tell them exactly what they want to hear. You can build a big church the right way, doing biblical ministry. You can build a church the wrong way, as well. Give people what they want and they will tend to swarm to your church. Bigger may or may not be better.
- We ought not forget the Savior’s warning that the road to destruction is wide and has many travelers, while the way of righteousness is narrow and few find it. We ought not cater to public opinion, because public opinion will usually not reflect the will and way of God.
1) It is wrong to assume that people leaving the church is always the church’s fault.
Rachel Held Evans venerates the millennial generation as if it is a model of all virtue – at least compared to previous generations. She claims her generatio has “highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.” They are more concerned with social justice than their elders, more compassionate toward sinners (ie, less judgmental), more authentic and more substance-driven.
But is it possible that the millennials are not the paragons of nobility after all? Maybe their disdain for the church has something to do with their spiritual condition as much as it does the church’s. Could it be that they have compromised, abandoned truth and been shaped more by the world around them than the Word of God? Maybe some of their self-congratulatory greatness is a manifestation of a willingness to be guided by culture more than Christ. Is that possible?
I do not want to argue that my generation or any other generation is better than or more godly than the “millennials.” My generation was shaped by a sinful culture as well, as was the generation before mine, and as will be those that follow the millennials. My point is that they are not inherently more virtuous either. They are sinners, just like the rest of us.
The church is flawed today, just as it always has been. Traditional churches are flawed. Contemporary churches are flawed. Emergent churches are (seriously) flawed. Liturgical churches are flawed. And the millennial churches that Ms Evans longs for will be flawed as well. Sinners gather in churches and those churches are flawed.
But, perhaps at least one reason that people are leaving the church is the sinfulness of their desires and preferences; their resistance to biblical truth. Maybe, sinful human beings find genuine, biblical Christianity to be offensive and are driven away by it. Ought we to ignore the Bible’s teachings on sexuality simply because this generation finds them old-fashioned and out of date? Do we ignore the claims of Christ to be the only Savior because millennials or anyone else finds that offensive?
Maybe, sometimes people leave the church because it is preaching the truth and they “can’t handle the truth.” The church ought certainly to see how it can change its externals to attract and keep the next generation. But it ought always mold itself to Christ and not to the vicissitude of cultural preference.
2) It is wrong to ignore statistical decline.
On the other hand, it is foolish to be casual and unconcerned about statistical decline or the lack of numerical growth in a denomination or congregation. It is nice to fall back on the old saw, “we are only called to be faithful,” but that can be a form of passing the buck. “Hey, we are doing our job. It is up to God to save souls.” Our lack of numbers is really God’s fault. We can only be faithful, but if God is unwilling to save people, there’s nothing we can do about it.
The problem is that the NT shows that God is pretty enthusiastic about saving souls. Perhaps, a church that is faithful might not see growth and conversions for a time, but a church that is not seeing conversions and baptisms for year after year ought to admit that they have a problem and not pretend that they are being faithful while awaiting the activity of God. Chances are really good that if your church or our denomination are reaching no one on a consistent basis, the fault lies more with us than it does with God.
3) So, numbers are a better negative indicator than they are positive indicator.
We ought to resist the temptation to use our numbers as markers of God’s blessing. We can gather numbers using human, manipulative, flesh-driven techniques, and those numbers will be anything but a sign of God’s approval. We can gather numbers by compromising truth and scratching people where they itch. On the other hand, negative numbers should at least provoke us to prayer and self-analysis.
- A church that is plateaued or declining year after year should be deeply concerned about that and examine itself in the light of Scripture. It ought not ignore that decline or excuse it with the “we can only be faithful” line.
- The SBC should be deeply concerned about its 60 year statistical slide. Perhaps, it is all because we have been faithful as the society has drifted into wickedness. Perhaps. But maybe there is a little more to it. Maybe we have grown evangelistically disinterested and spiritually apathetic. Perhaps there are some real spiritual, structural, or strategic problems we need to address. I’m not sure. But we ought not to just ignore the problems.
This will certainly not be the last word on Southern Baptists, churches, and statistics. The ACP is in the SBC DNA. We are a numbers-analyzing bunch. I do not believe we should abandon the ACP or numerical monitoring. It can help us identify issues of concern. We ought to be very careful, though, about assuming that good numbers are a sign of God’s blessing or that bad numbers are a sign of fault in the church. Neither is fully supported by God’s Word.
We ought to be interested in numbers as identifiers of issues. But ought never idolize numbers as sure measures of either God’s blessing or our failure.