By Dr. Chuck Kelley
Here is the thing about bad news. Life brings it to everyone eventually. When it is your turn, do not be afraid of it. Do Not avoid or run away from it. Do Not ignore it. Do Not look for someone to blame for it. Do let it change your behavior, if necessary, so that the bad news can eventually become good news again. It is a call to action more than a call to judgment.
Southern Baptists got some bad news this week. LifeWay released the Annual Church Profile report (ACP) that provides a statistical snapshot on how the Southern Baptist Convention and its churches are doing, and the news was not good. Baptist Press has provided a summary of the report here. The SBC did have a larger number of churches, and that is truly good, encouraging news. However, SBC churches baptized fewer people, had fewer members, and fewer of the members actually attended worship services in spite of adding new churches. Those are extremely important statistical categories. The report compared the numbers for the year ending September 30, 2016 to the year ending September 30, 2015, and nearly all the numbers were down from the previous year. That is not the true bad news. The true bad news is that when you put last year in the context of all previous years, it indicates the SBC is in the midst of a decline that shows no signs of either slowing down or turning around. To the right is a chart by NOBTS professor Dr. Bill Day. It shows the total number of SBC churches and the total number of SBC baptisms since 1881.
You can see quite clearly the gap between churches and baptisms that began in the year 2000 and has grown steadily wider ever since. You can see there is no comparable gap in all our previous years. You can also see there is no indication the decline is slowing down or turning around. The gap between the number of churches and the number of people responding to the gospel and being baptized grows steadily wider. It isn’t the number of baptisms. In 2015-16 the SBC had the smallest number of baptisms since 1946, the smallest number of members since 1990, and the smallest number of people in worship since 1996. And those smaller numbers are in spite of a steadily growing number of churches.
What do these things mean? 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 present members engaged. Pastors, please know you are not alone in your struggles, and nearly everyone leading a church is facing some variation of the same challenges you face.
Also, discipleship is at the root of our struggles. SBC churches must find strategies to help their people look and live like Jesus in observable ways. 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 in how Southern Baptists live.
Finally, Southern Baptists must be intentional in seeking opportunities to have gospel conversations with people outside the walls of the church. There is always a current nudging us away from sharing our faith. It takes focused attention to make and keep evangelism a priority in your own life and in your church. All of us need to ask and answer these questions regularly: What is my plan for evangelism, and what am I doing today to execute that plan?
God still moves. We must never forget He is able to awaken the sleeping church, invigorate the tired church, and resurrect the dead church. We must cry out for Him to do these things in, with, and for all of us now.