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Today’s post is contributed by Jonathon Woodyard, family pastor at Oak Park Baptist Church in Jeffersonville, IN.

Every year the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) of churches puts out the Annual Church Profile (ACP).  This year, the profile shows that the SBC has experienced a decline in membership and baptisms.

When I take a look at these numbers I have mixed feelings.  Should we count?  Is it helpful to look at numbers?  Is it unhelpful not to evaluate our numbers?  I believe we should take an honest look at our numbers, but must also understand that numbers can tell a number of different stories.

I certainly do not want to be counted among those who never look at the numbers.  I evaluate numbers every week. I’m part of a church staff that pays attention to where we are in terms of attendance and growth (or decline).  By God’s grace, we hope to see more and more families and individuals becoming part of the landscape of our church.  Numbers that reveal a decline are numbers that represent individuals who are not being shepherded and are not a vital part of the body.  Increased numbers may encourage us to press on.  Simply put, numbers are helpful when viewed rightly.

Rightly looking at the numbers means that we acknowledge that there are times when simply looking at the stat sheet does not tell the whole story.  There could be more happening than the eye can see upon first glance.  Within our convention this can certainly be the case.  The decline in membership and baptisms may be a sign of unhealthiness or they can be a sign of healthiness (possibly a sign of neither?).  Decline does not necessitate us concluding our convention is unhealthy just as growth does not necessitate concluding that our convention is healthy.

With that in mind, let me suggest some possible reasons for our decline and some ways in which that decline in membership and baptism could potentially be signs of health.

1. Membership is Becoming More Meaningful.

Membership has been reduced to club status in many of our churches.  Come as you please, join if you want, and stay as long or as short as you like.  Take it or leave it, the club really isn’t essential to your life.

But, there are encouraging signs today that membership is beginning to be rightly understood and embraced.  Blogs, books, articles, and conferences are talking about what it means to be a healthy-member of a local congregation.  Churches are adding membership classes and making sure that doctrine, areas of service, expectations, and questions are addressed up front.  Membership may be becoming more meaningful!

How does this affect numbers?  When you can walk an aisle and join without having to articulate the gospel, give evidence that you have been born-again, and have followed the Lord in baptism, then joining is quick, easy, and…meaningless.  In other words, if all that I have to do is walk down front, have a quick conversation, and then have everyone raise their hand for me to be “in”, then sure, I’ll do that.  Multitudes have taken that route.  Our churches have grown quickly and pastors have patted themselves on the back.  It may be the case that our large numbers and continual increase for so many years was indicative of a denomination that was unhealthy in terms of membership.

With the recovery of meaningful membership, as we talk about doctrine, the gospel, and what it means to be part of a local body, we may be seeing those who claim Jesus as Savior but aren’t committed to Jesus as Lord, walking away.  Thus, the decline in membership may actually be a sign that we are doing a better of job of guarding the front door of our faith communities!

2. Baptism is Being Practiced More Carefully

As a convention, we believe in a believers-only church.  That is, we believe only those who have repented and trusted in Christ and subsequently followed Him in baptism can be members.

In the past, it would seem that we have been quick to baptize.  An increasing number of small children have stirred the baptismal waters within the SBC over the years.  It is common to talk to those who are not committed to the church (yet are members) who tell of their baptism at 6, 7, or 8 years old.  (To be clear, I believe God can save at any age and when He does, baptism should follow in a timely, yet faithful, manner.) Perhaps we ushered our children towards the baptismal prematurely in far too many cases.

Is there a move towards healthiness at this point?  Possibly.  In talking about family ministry, we are helping train our parents to discuss things like baptism with their children.  We see churches offering classes that are meant to teach kids fundamentals of the faith.  Churches appear to be making sure that those who come to faith later in life have counted the cost and are clear on what it means to follow King Jesus.  We are not rushing people to the baptistery without making sure the gospel is clear and embraced as far as we can tell.

Now, if it is true that we are being more careful in who we baptize then we would expect the number of baptisms to decrease.  But again, this can be healthy.  It means, or it could, that we are taking the time to ensure we are, as much as we can tell, baptizing only believers.

3. The Gospel is Being Preached More Accurately.

Over the past few decades, we have sometimes communicated the gospel in a way that leaves people thinking that believing a few historical facts will save them. We have reduced the gospel to a “get-out-of-hell-free-card” and failed to connect it to God Himself.

Today, there is a resurgent focus on the gospel message. We are proclaiming that without the gospel of Jesus Christ incarnate, sinless, crucified, buried, risen, and reigning then we are helpless and stand in a horrible condition.  In other words, we are letting the message offend.

When we fail to preach the true gospel, which is offensive, and preach nothing more than God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, without talking of sin, hell, judgment, taking up your cross, hating father and mother, leaving your possessions behind, and bowing your knee to King Jesus, then we fail to communicate the message that saves.

When we preach the gospel accurately, the way Jesus did, we communicate a message that offends.  We talk about a way of life that is narrow and hard.  We call for people to make a choice that will not lead to an easy, trouble-free, comfortable life.  And when we preach that message, many will walk away.  They walked away from Jesus (John 6:60-66) and they will walk away from us. Thus, an accurate preaching of the gospel may repel more than it brings in.  It did in the days of Jesus, why not our day as well?


Maybe our numerical decline is due to unhealthiness.  I do not doubt that this could be the case. Some of our methodological approaches may not connect with this generation.  It could also be the case that our decline is due to the fact that we are moving in healthy directions in areas like membership, baptism, and gospel proclamation.  I pray the cause of our current decline is the latter, but in all reality it’s probably a mixture of both.

Another ACP will come in 2012 (unless Jesus comes back).  We will once again look at our numbers.  And we should.  The numbers can tell us that we are doing some things right and need to press on.  They can also tell us that we need to evaluate our ministries and methods because we are not reaching people with the gospel of Jesus.

I pray that God blesses our efforts as Southern Baptist.  May people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation come to faith in Jesus!  As we evaluate our current state, let’s take an honest and balanced look at the numbers.  Numbers can reveal healthiness or unhealthiness.  Wisdom and discernment will be needed to determine which is the case.

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7 thoughts on “What Do Numbers Tell Us?”

  1. Former SBCer says:

    I see mention of membership and baptism, which doesn’t surprise me since this is regarding the SBC.
    Baptism is the end all of the SBC drive and experience. The numbers matter, not the people. When is the last time you heard anything about discipleship, individual growth, the importance of handling of the word correctly?
    Success is measured by how many you baptize and you are judge accordingly, oh not obviously, but of course everyone looks at everyone ‘numbers’ in that monthly report.
    shame on anyone who works to meet a quota, works to look good, or neglects to care for the souls they are responsible for.

  2. Keith says:

    Outstanding article.

  3. Kevin C says:

    Former SBCer:
    I have some thoughts you can add to your list just in case you post it again in the future:
    -Asians are good at math and African Americans are fast-. Let’s try not to throw out stereotypes across the board. From your post, we can tell your experience in the SBC. However, that doesn’t mean that “baptism is the end all of the SBC” in a negative way. In the end, we are all guilty in some way of those 3 items you end your post with. However, many SBCers are seeking to be faithful shepherds over the flocks with which God has entrusted them.

  4. It is a very deep article. I was impressed reading it. There is a truth here that people hearing the true Gospel, many times reject it, because it does not sound as they want. That is why the number is in a decline (from our perspective).
    But in God’s perspective is the natural way of multiplication, if even our expectations are different.

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