A recent report from Baptist Press detailed the 2018 Annual Church Profile (ACP) for Southern Baptist Churches. The ACP provides annual numbers in a variety of categories and is compiled by Lifeway Christian Resources. Here is what Baptist Press had to say:
Although Southern Baptist congregations reported increased giving, reported membership of those congregations declined by 192,404, down 1.28 percent to 14.8 million members. Average weekly worship attendance declined by 0.43 percent to 5.3 million worshipers… Southern Baptist congregations baptized 246,442 people in 2018, a 3.02 percent decline from the 254,122 reported in 2017.
These numbers are, of course, not what Southern Baptists want to see. A few prominent SBC leaders have offered helpful thoughts on the report, such as this article from Dr. Albert Mohler.
As the pastor of a mid-size church in central KY, I have a slightly different view of the ACP, or perhaps it would be fairer to say that I can think of a few reasons why we might be optimistic when considering a couple of the categories in which there were declining numbers.
The Decline in Reported Membership.
Southern Baptists have long been aware of their persistent membership problem. Most SBC churches have two to three times the number of people on their church membership rolls than people who are faithfully attending. Though there may be several factors contributing to this trend, the SBC has identified the most significant and the most spiritually problematic factor – the reality of an unregenerate church membership. In 2005, Jim Elliff wrote a powerful article called “Southern Baptists, An Unregenerate Denomination” where he lays out the facts of the SBC membership struggles and offers 5 suggestions on the how to reverse the trend (you can read an updated version of the article here).
Three years later at the SBC Annual Meeting, Southern Baptists voted in favor of a resolution titled, “On Regenerate Church Membership And Church Member Restoration.” Two sentences are of particular interest:
RESOLVED, That we humbly urge our churches to maintain accurate membership rolls for the purpose of fostering ministry and accountability among all members of the congregation
RESOLVED, That we humbly encourage denominational servants to support and encourage churches that seek to recover and implement our Savior’s teachings on church discipline, even if such efforts result in the reduction in the number of members that are reported in those churches (emphasis mine).
At my church in Graefenburg, KY, we are currently in the middle of a process to address our own membership problem. We are taking the time to work in multiple stages in order to have a membership roll that accurately reflects the covenant faithfulness of our flock. We are primarily engaged in this effort because of our biblical convictions on church membership, but we also find support in the Convention herself, with denominational leaders and messengers encouraging and praying for churches to restore their rolls to a regenerate status.
I say that to say this – in 2020, I have every expectation that the membership numbers we will be reporting in the ACP will be dramatically lower than our 2019 numbers. Although I certainly hope and pray that over the next several years we will see those numbers rise again due to baptisms and new members, I nevertheless see the initial reduction as a sign of health for my church, not a sign of disease. Is it possible that faithful, hard-working pastors and churches are doing the same? Is this at least a partial reason to be optimistic about the reduction of church membership reflected in the ACP? I believe it is.
The Decline in Baptisms
I have previously written on my conviction that churches should baptize children without a prolonged probationary period, a trend that seems to be gaining momentum. Nevertheless, children should only be baptized upon a credible profession of faith. Taking the time and energy to build a relationship with the child, discussing the gospel and the cost of discipleship, and walking with the young boy or girl before moving too quickly toward the baptismal waters are essential pastoral responsibilities.
The first reason for optimism listed above – that churches are working to ensure a regenerate membership – overlaps with this second reason for optimism. More pastors are taking seriously the need for credible confessions of faith before dunking children at a young age. Again, although I am concerned about the concept of extended probationary periods in order to observe fruit in a young person’s life, I eagerly affirm multiple gospel conversations and assurance of both understanding and conviction before adding another baptism to the books. If the ACP baptism numbers reflects, in part, a tendency for pastors to be cautious with baptizing our younger folks, then I am optimistic about that trend.
I’ve never been a big numbers guy although I recognize their place and purpose. We do not want to ignore the annual ACP but neither do we want to fret. God’s faithfulness is unquestionable. And so, let us continue to be faithful to preach the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ!