For a people as tied to numbers as the Southern Baptist Convention, another statistical report such as the one we hear is coming in the next week here in Phoenix is inevitably going to lead to the rending of garments and great weeping and wailing, accompanied by gnashing of teeth on an enamel destroying level.
And the lack of numbers should give us pause, at least. I have heard too many men point to their church’s dwindling attendance as separating the sheep and the goats or somehow “purifying” the church. I’ve seen guys drive anyone who disagrees with them out of the church with smug satisfaction.
I will be honest. My church is not been prospering numerically recently. I’ve identified several reasons for that, but the point here is that it bothers me. I am praying about it. Working on it. Self-examination. Structure and program evaluation. I am not satisfied with numbers that do not reflect growth.
By the same token, it is not biblically warranted to always assume that the presence of bad numbers is de facto evidence of problems any more than the rapid growth is a de facto evidence of God’s blessing.
I would make the following assertions.
- Churches (and denominations) should hope and plan to see numerical growth indicating the work of God as they obey the Great Commission and God saves the lost and the lost grow in obedience.
- Churches (and denominations) should be concerned by a lack of growth or a decline and ought to seriously consider why they are not growing if they are not.
- The presence of numerical growth in a church (or denomination) should never be see as as proof of God’s blessing. The flesh can imitate the Spirit. Numerical growth can occur without divine blessing or approval.
- The absence of numerical growth (even the presence of decline) in a church (or denomination) should not be seen as proof of sin or spiritual infideltty. It should be a cause of concern, but not a proof of unfaithfulness.
We err when we assume that numbers are a sign of God’s blessing or disfavor. They ought to be taken seriously, but perhaps not as seriously as we take them.
Jesus had, at one point, many thousands following him. John 6 tells us that when they fully understood his message, most of them turned away. MOST OF THEM. Was Jesus less perfect when his following was dwindling? Did the Annual Meeting of the Disciples Baptist Convention wring their hands over the falling numbers?
2 Timothy 4 promises a time when people, having departed from the true faith, would gather around themselves teachers who will tell them what their “itching ears” want to hear. They deny truth but gather in large numbers to hear preachers who tell them what they want to hear.
God told both Isaiah and Jeremiah that they would prophesy and no one would listen. Were they unfaithful? Of course not.
In the Bible, numbers are often a signal of God’s blessing, but they are not always a sign.
Are Southern Baptists’ numbers a concern? Of course. We would be fools to ignore them. But they are not necessarily an evidence of disobedience, of spiritual decay, or of sinfulness.
Permit me some observations.
1. Our numerical problems are older than me.
As Ed Stetzer has demonstrated, our numerical decline is nothing new. It actually started about 60 or 70 years ago. We were experiencing huge growth. The rate of growth has been steadily dropping and eventually we plateaued (around the year 2000) and then entered decline in the last few years.
2. The blame game is just plain foolish.
Everyone wants to pin the tail on the donkey of whatever they don’t like about modern SBC life..
- It’s the CR.- that’s a favorite of the moderates, liberals, SBC haters, and those who felt hurt somehow in the CR. The statistical decline preceded the CR (sorry, the “Bold Mission Thrust was winnning the world” is a nice meme – not true) and the trends of liberal denominations shows that we are likely better off than if the leftward drift in our seminaries had coniinued.
- It’s them Cals – the rise of the modern Calvinist movement happened about the same time we hit the plateau. Blame those evangelism-hating Geneva boys with their beards and Piper books. Again, the trend precedes this.
- It’s all this new-dangled stuff- I have heard this more than once from someone old enough to remember those days of rapid growth, “If we would do today what we did then we would see today what we saw then.” It’s the drums, guitars, casual dress – all that contemporary nonsense. In one sense, this is the most cogent of the arguments, because it touches at the heart of the issue. But it is as wrong-headed and destructive as it can be.
We find a bogey-man, whoever we don’t like, and find a way to blame the problems on “them.”
3. We are cultural orphans.
The SBC grew rapidly for godly reasons. It preached the saving grace of Christ and honored the word of God. It grew in spite of problems with racism. It grew because it was part of and identified with its culture. The SBC of the middle part of the 20th was interwoven with the culture of the Deep South.
Then came the 60s, the 70s, the ecclesiological revolution at the turn of the millennium – suddenly the homogenous Southern culture was dying and the SBC was a cultural orphan. Many of our troubles are not over theology, but over trying to find a cultural home.
Who are we?
4. We are in an increasingly secular, hostile culture.
We no longer live in a world sympathetic to our values and morals. This world thinks we are dangerous. Did you see Bernie Sanders’ recent comments?
- We hold exclusively to Christ in a world that is exclusively inclusive.
- We call things sin in a world which does not tolerate our brand of righteousness.
- We old the authority of the word in a world that believes in “following your heart.”
Everything we are is now culturally and practically at odds with the world we live in. And it is no longer required for a person to be a church goer to be a respectable member of society.
5. This world is not going to get easier.
Sorry, eschatology alert. You amils can sit this one out. But the teachings of scripture about the end times promise an increasingly wicked, spiritually unresponsive world. Should we be surprised that what the Bible promised is actually happening?
6. The world will tell us that to survive, we must become more like them. RESIST.
The drumbeat is heard over and over. If we are going to survive, we must get on the right side of history. We must give up our intolerance, our homophobia, our outdated dogma, and join the modern way. It is interesting that those churches that have done this are dying rapidly, isn’t it?
I am currently preaching through 2 Timothy, where Paul admonishes his protege to become more faithful, more tied to truth, more obedient as the days get worse. We must stand against the tide.
But that may cost us some folks sometimes. There are people who won’t come back if you don’t scratch their itching ears.
7. If you aren’t evangelizing, don’t make other excuses.
There are churches which are simply not telling people about Jesus. If you aren’t, don’t look for other excuses. Fix that first, then look for other reasons.
There is an undeniable conundrum here, one we will deal with as the days march on. We are in difficult times and ministry is not going to be easy. There are churches that grow rapidly, but many of them grow by draining smaller churches. Some grow through methods and practices we don’t approve of. And some grow by serving God and doing it right. Growth is neither a badge of God’s blessing or evidence of some kind of “downgrade.”
This coming week we will hear much about the numbers crunch in the SBC. It is a legitimate cause for concern. But we must look at this biblically as well. There may be some reasons for our numbers being down that do not warrant dismay. There may be a few that point toward fidelity in a world of compromise.
Numbers are a tricky thing.