By Dr. Chuck Kelley
Has a quote ever grabbed you and pulled you in close to make you pay attention? Here is one that stopped me in my tracks. The name of the book is: The Myth of the Dying Church by Glenn T. Stanton. The purpose of the book is to debunk the many stories published in various news outlets about the decline of Christianity in America following a 2015 report from the Pew Research Center, one of the more prestigious research centers in the nation. The name of the report is “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” The Pew Center summarized the report as follows: “Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow.”
Stanton wrote his book because he believes that the Pew Research Center summary is misleading, particularly in light of the findings of multiple studies from other significant centers of social science research into the current state of religion. While the report does reveal mainline denominations are clearly declining, Pew’s research actually indicated evangelical and non-denominational churches are holding steady or growing as a share of the national population.
Knowing Stanton’s purpose is to demonstrate how well conservative and evangelical churches are actually doing makes this quote even more riveting. Here is what he said:
The Southern Baptist Convention churches were the only conservative ones that showed a decline between 2007 and 2014. All the other major traditional/ evangelical denominations either remained precisely steady or increased just a bit as a percentage of our nation’s population.(p. 28)
In other words, while other conservative, evangelical churches are stable or growing as a share of the population, SBC churches are in fact declining. One cannot help but wonder: Why?
My adult life has been spent in research, reflection, teaching, and speaking on Southern Baptist evangelism. For more than a decade, I have been teaching, speaking, and writing about the evangelistic crisis unfolding in the Southern Baptist Convention. As a seminary President, I did so frequently in private conversations with SBC leaders. As an evangelism professor and evangelist, I addressed the topic publicly in classrooms, churches, and multiple state conventions and regional conferences. While many have thanked me for putting an uncomfortable topic out there for discussion, others have been frustrated to the point of anger that I would speak so openly and frequently of Southern Baptist decline and the growing evangelism crisis.
Today, I am more convinced than ever that we must have conversations about the realities of SBC decline if we are going to find a path forward to fresh growth. Toward that end, I am launching a series of nine blogs on “The Dilemma of Decline in the SBC.” Beginning tomorrow one new blog will be posted each week for the next nine weeks. Please note these suggestions.
1) These blogs are about starting conversations, not proving a point. Assume there is substantive research behind each blog. I chose to be brief and not describe my points at length.
2) Please do not look for a person or persons to blame for where we are now. The coming blogs will identify several attempts to deal with this issue in the last two decades. None have turned the ship around yet, but passionate efforts were made. I cannot describe the various attempts to turn things around without identifying the people involved, but don’t let names be a distraction. Respect the passion and the efforts of those involved. Stay focused on asking how we can get better results.
3) Let’s work together to create a healthy assessment culture around those things we choose to do as a Convention. In its annual meeting, the SBC often votes to do big things. Rarely do we ask later what happened when we did them. As a Convention we should follow up on major SBC initiatives after a reasonable period of time and ask: How did that initiative actually work? Does it need tweaking? Have we learned anything for the next time we address this or other issues at the Convention level? SBC polity makes any assessment process of Convention action a complex problem. Having at least five years of data to assess is my practice, but by then in the SBC, we are at least 3 Presidents removed from the launch point. However, being a complex problem does not mean it is an impossible problem.
4) You can hit delete on my brief assessments if you desire, but please look around and do your own assessment. Talk about where we are with your friends. Look up the baptism history of your church. Go online to the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives (www.sbhla.org) or the SBC Executive Committee (www.sbc.net) and access editions of the Annual of the Southern Baptist Convention, and get your own information. The official statistics of the SBC are in every edition of the annual, always included in the Executive Committee Report.
I do hope that after reading this series of blogs we will all be able to agree that we must do better. Also, I hope we will all agree that we are more likely to do better if we work on the Great Commission together. That is the distinctive Southern Baptist way. Again, Part 1 of the series will be posted tomorrow. Each Wednesday thereafter another part will be released.
Pastor’s Take Away: Open analysis and honest conversations about where you are as a church can be a catalyst for fresh progress and growth. Consider looking carefully at what has happened in the last ten years in your church and ask, “Where are you now?”