Thus far I have discussed two important principles for understanding SBC data. The numbers are the numbers and basic SBC data are accessible to any curious Southern Baptist. The third principle is especially important for Southern Baptists to understand the data reports they read in Baptist Press or hear at conventions. SBC data reports are rarely incorrect, but they are very often incomplete. What many, if not most SBC data reports lack is a context other than the present and the immediate past. Such reports offer a snapshot of where the SBC is now, but they give little indication of where the SBC has been or is going.
As noted in earlier blogs, from its earliest years, the Convention gathered, reported, and preserved basic data on what was happening in its many churches and its entities. Through the years, Southern Baptists developed a characteristic approach to reporting their basic statistics in typical monthly and annual reports. Monthly reports compared this month’s numbers to last month. Annual reports compared the numbers this year to last year. Most financial reports compared the actual dollars of income or expense to the amounts projected in budgets. Almost never were annual or monthly reports put in the context of a five or ten-year timeline. Nothing is wrong with this approach if the primary purpose is to report the state of the Convention and its churches at one moment in time. Absent from this format is any sense of progress or the lack thereof. A progress report must include data in the context of a multiyear timeline. The unspoken assumption of the traditional report is that all is well with Southern Baptists. The Convention expected to keep moving in a positive direction and anticipated a future as filled with growth as the past. The basis of this assumption was the enormous growth of the SBC following World War II and its longtime status as the largest Protestant denomination in America. Time proved the growth assumption to be false.
Unfortunately, this traditional philosophy of reporting does not provide a “tripwire” or warning if all is not well with the SBC, and the likely future facing the Convention and its churches is decline. When the statistics were down in a given month or year, many assumed it was a “hiccup” of sorts, a temporary aberration that time would correct. Given their illustrious past, growth was supposed to be inevitable for the mighty Southern Baptist Convention. Instead, time revealed an unexpected reality to Southern Baptists. Putting SBC statistics in the context of a timeline painted a very different picture of the state of the SBC. For more than a decade, the Southern Baptist Convention has been in decline, a decline that accelerated following the adoption of the Great Commission Resurgence proposals. Compare Convention data from the past decade with decadal data from any previous decade in SBC history and the picture turns scary. Few imagined basic SBC statistics could be down this much for this long.
Adding to the problem of misperceptions about the true state of the Convention, SBC data reports tend to isolate statistical categories and rarely provide a complete look at the big picture. When you report and emphasize the good news, people tend not to notice or think about the categories you do not report. Many organizations track a “dashboard” of data comparing regularly the statistical categories that are most critical to the health of the organization. Talking about one category, is done in the context of the whole dashboard. Southern Baptists need to consider this approach. The habit of statistical isolation is not a problem when nearly everything is growing, but when the growth stopped in multiple categories the tradition of reporting isolated statistics inadvertently blinded Southern Baptists to the onset of decline. As long as there was at least some good news, there was little concern about the implications of bad news. Thus, the emerging reality of decline felt like a shocking revelation. Here are two examples of the magnitude of what can go unnoticed when data reports are incomplete.
First Example: When you read a report of baptisms being down for a year, that is disappointing. If you were to read a report that baptisms, church membership, worship attendance, church planting, the number of SBC missionaries, and the number of churches supporting the Cooperative Program are all down significantly and that all those categories have been trending down for the last decade, you would not think it merely disappointing. You would likely find it very concerning. You would wonder what is going on in SBC life, and how can these declining numbers be turned around. Putting an annual report in the context of a data dashboard and including ten years of data will change how you interpret the report.
Second Example: NAMB recently announced 10,000 new church plants were started in the last twelve years. That is exciting news in an isolated context. Now, fill in the unreported context around that number. In 2013, NAMB told SBC messengers that we needed to start 1,500 hundred new churches every year, 15,000 in the next decade to keep up with population growth and the number of churches that closed their doors. With that goal in mind, we should have started 18,000 churches in the last twelve years. Starting 10,000 new churches in twelve years means we are eight thousand churches short of the goal NAMB considered necessary to impact lostness in the nation. In addition, NAMB fell hundreds of churches short of starting 1,500 new churches in every year since that goal was announced. Also missing from the big announcement, how many of those 10,000 new churches are still in operation and still active in the SBC and contributing to the Cooperative Program today. SBC data reports are rarely incorrect, but they are very often incomplete.
Many people were quite surprised by the SBC data reports in my new book The Best Intentions. The data I shared is not new data. It is SBC data previously published in isolation, without a timeline, or buried in the Annual of the SBC. I simply put the data in a context far more complete than normally seen. Given the context of a decade and a “dashboard” reflecting all the most important categories, the SBC is clearly a Convention in decline. The “all is well” mantra heard so often in SBC reports needs to be replaced with honest conversations about where we are, where we want to be, and what adjustments we need to make in order to get there. The deeper decline gets, and the longer decline continues, the harder it is to reverse. Because Southern Baptists waited so long to have this conversation, we now face our own version of Mission: Impossible. If growth returns to the SBC, it will take all of us giving focused, diligent attention to the task of winning the lost to Christ and discipling both new converts and present members. It will take sacrifice and passion over an extended period of time. Most importantly, it will take God’s intervention. The Lord did it once through the impossible success of the Conservative Resurgence. Do we want Him to do it again? The final blog in this series on SBC data will address the question: Where do we go from here?