As we think about our own local church (her challenges, goals, and resources), I believe it may be quite helpful to put things into perspective. We are a Southern Baptist (SBC) congregation, and we have been since 1919. We are also a rural congregation of about 110-150, depending on the Sunday. These metrics place us in the heart of the SBC.
Our church’s membership (more than double our average attendance) is numerically larger than 60% of all Southern Baptist churches (see charts and data HERE). That means we are in the top 40% of SBC churches right now. This may be one way of reminding ourselves that we are not an insignificant congregation.
However, as you may or may not know, a church’s membership roster is not always an accurate measurement of actual involvement. Our own members-to-attendance ratio (not quite 3:1 right now) is not unusual among SBC churches. In fact, churches across the SBC have been actively raising the expectation of cleaning up and maintaining more accurate membership rolls (see the 2008 resolution HERE). I have been slowly-but-intentionally doing this hard work among my congregation.
While numerical involvement is certainly not a trustworthy measurement of spiritual health, the numbers do not look good for our church or for the SBC in general. Even with our padded membership roster, the trajectory is downward.
The president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary recently wrote about the current state of affairs among the SBC (see article HERE). He pointed out that the 2015-16 Annual Church Profile (ACP) reports marked the lowest number of baptisms since 1946, the lowest number of church members since 1990, and the lowest number of people in worship service attendance since 1996.
Dr. Kelly said, “Consider it official. The SBC is in decline, and it has been so for a number of years. The typical SBC church is struggling mightily to reach people for Christ in its city, town, or community, and it is struggling mightily to keep engaged the members it already has.”
While this is no encouragement to us, it does help us to take a breath regarding our own local “struggles.” Any time there is a perceived lack of success, the right thing to do is look for the hindrance. In our case, at FBC Diana, the decrease in membership involvement and lack of membership growth is certainly influenced by some local causes, but we are foolish to ignore the broader factors.
We do face the challenges of a small-town church who is experiencing a fairly dramatic leadership swing. The pastors before me, so far as I can tell, were men who loved Christ and loved this church family; but it is clear that the gifts I have and the things I emphasize are not the same as what they did.
Our many local challenges are significant, but they are not complicated, nor are they hard to see.
We live in a community full of people who think the local church is irrelevant. Those who still have a positive view of the local church, see the church very much like they see a grocery store… “The church that provides me with the best service and produce is where I will shop, but I will spend as little as I can to get what I want.”
People who faithfully commit to serve Christ in the common bond of the Gospel and in covenant with one another are extremely rare, and I praise God for each of those in my congregation.
So, what do we do? Where do we go from here?
Do we just keep doing the same old stuff, and watch the decline continue?
I don’t plan to… not by a long shot.
Dr. Kelly, the seminary president I mentioned before, said some other stuff in his article that I think is important to note in our attempt to make a plan.
He said, “Every strategy for evangelism from the first century until today assumes the life with Jesus is different from the life without Jesus. We must live distinctively if we are to be fruitful in reaching people for Christ. There will be no growth in evangelism without a growth in Christlikeness…”
I could not agree with Dr. Kelly more. He is saying that we must live like Christians – distinct from the world around us – if we are to have any opportunity to tell people that Jesus and His Gospel are life-transforming. If our lives are not transformed, then we are lying, and the people we live with know it.
Distinct living is the mark of true faith, and we must be willing to acknowledge our sentimental notions of Christianity for what they are. Jesus said, “if you love Me, you’ll obey me…” (Jn. 14:15).
Dr. Kelly also said that once we establish ourselves as distinct from the world, we should intentionally engage our friends and neighbors with the Gospel.
He said, “Southern Baptists must be intentional in seeking opportunities to have Gospel conversations with people outside the walls of the church… It takes focused attention to make and keep evangelism a priority in your own life…” He went on to say that we all should be asking ourselves, “What is my plan for evangelism, and what am I doing today to execute that plan?”
Again, I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Kelly here. He seems to understand, as I do, that the “Come and See” model of evangelism is not the way forward. We do not see many people turning away from sin and trusting in Jesus through events or by simply attending a church service with a friend. While event evangelism has its place, and your friend may be willing to attend a service with you, it is not the primary way forward in our culture today. Instead, we should employ a “Go and Share” model.
“Go and Share” is personally going to meet those who are not now following Christ where they are. And, we do this all the time… They are beside us at the ball fields; their kids and grandkids play with ours; they wave at us when we drive by their yard, and sometimes they even sit at our dinner tables.
The “Going” is something we already do, but the “Sharing” probably isn’t.
What is your plan for personal evangelism? When will you move the conversation from the weather to the Gospel? If you don’t feel equipped to share the Gospel, then when will you make an effort to become equipped?
What are you waiting for?
To quickly recap the plan being proposed here (both for local churches and the SBC generally), we must (1) live holy lives of gratitude before God, as we learn to trust and obey Christ all the more; and (2) we should feel the personal responsibility to share the Gospel with those we know.
One last thing will be the key to our success as a church family: We must pray.
We must pray like we believe we really need God… like we know that we cannot do this ourselves… like we are truly desperate to see people know and love Christ.
God is still in the business of saving sinners; He still delights in giving life to dead things, and He is still the gracious God who offers His salvation to all who will love and trust Him. God is also still in the business of shaping and shepherding saved sinners; He can easily give life to our church family, and He will bless our faithfulness.
He may or may not cause us to grow in great number, but He will most certainly cause us to grow in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ… I know He will because He has promised to do it (2 Pet. 3:18; cf. Rom. 8:29).