“Ministerially Speaking”

Tim Brister —  March 18, 2008 — 20 Comments

“Though official statements still affirm the doctrine of regenerate church membership, statistics indicate a different reality for the great majority of Baptist churches in North America.”
– John S. Hammett, Professor of Systematic Theology, SEBTS


A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in class when my professor was discussing characteristics of biblical leadership, and during that discussion I learned of a term often used when talking about churches and their statistics. The term “ministerially speaking” is used when someone does not accurately present the facts or stats but rather exaggerates or embellishes the truth to their own benefit.

In Southern Baptist life, numbers and statistics seem to be a big deal. You will hear the defense and argument everywhere from the fact that we have a book in the Bible called “Numbers” to the pragmatic rationale of management principles for ministerial success. Over the course of my experience as a Southern Baptist with the heightened emphasis on numbers, I had become frustrated because of my conviction that we had auctioned the church off to corporate America and unrestrained pragmatism in the pursuit of upholding denominational dominance and triumphalism. Every time for instance, when you hear that we Southern Baptists account for 16+ million people, we of course are “ministerially speaking.” For example, while in 2004 Southern Baptists reported a total of 16,267,494 members, only 6,024,289 (37%) were on average present for Sunday morning worship. The 16 million is the number we report to the secular media, and the 6 million is the number we report to God–and that on a good day.

“Ministerially Speaking” in Focus

But at this particular juncture and season of SBC politics, “ministerially speaking” perhaps is best seen when Baptist Press announces another candidate for an SBC office. At the very heart of their reporting, you will find a lot of numbers, most of which comes from the Annual Church Profile database. For instance, let’s take the most recent candidate for president, Frank Cox, pastor of North Metro Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia.

Baptist Press reports,

“Cox has been North Metro’s pastor for more than 27 years. Under his leadership, the church has grown from 700 members to more than 4,600, with 3,600-plus individuals added to the church fellowship as baptized believers.”

I have to pause for a moment to emphasize a stat that I love, perhaps the most important of them all. Cox has been at North Metro for 27 years and stands as a testament to pastoral permanence in a flighty generation. I praise God for men like Frank Cox who find their life assignment in loving a congregation and leading them to reach their world for Christ.

But notice with me that the church has grown to 4,600 members with over 3,600 added through believer’s baptism. Those numbers are certainly impressive. But “ministerially speaking,” it could be even more impressive if you consider what Bob Terry, editor of The Alabama Baptist recently shared. In the February 21, 2008 editorial, Terry wrote the following:

“Other out-of-state speakers include Frank Cox, who is returning to the Alabama Baptist Evangelism Conference, and Herb Reavis Jr., senior pastor of North Jacksonville Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Fla. Cox, who previously spoke at the 2005 and 1998 state evangelism conferences, is senior pastor of North Metro Baptist Church, Lawrenceville, Ga. During his 25-plus years as pastor, he has led the church to grow from just under 500 members to more than 5,400.”

Now which is it? 4,600 members or 5,400? That’s a significant difference, don’t you think? But we must go on as more numbers await us.

A couple of paragraphs further in the same BP article, they add:

“The most recent information available, Southern Baptists’ 2006 Annual Church Profile Survey, lists 110 baptisms and primary worship service attendance of 1,737 for North Metro.”

According to Baptist Press, North Metro has at least 4,600 members but only 1,737 who show up on any given Sunday. We are not talking here about Sunday School, service, or ministry; rather, we are talking about those who simply sit in a pew on Sunday morning. Doing a little math will reveal that 37% of their membership are visibly present on Sunday (exactly the percentage from 2004 stated above), or put another way, nearly 2 out of 3 members do not attend “primary worship” services. Now the question then, is, why do we not talk about the numbers which are more realistic than the big, bloated numbers which so often get touted on newspaper write-ups and articles? But we must go on as more numbers await us.

Taking the same ACP data Baptist Press uses for their statistics, I have compiled the relevant data from 2000-2006 regarding North Metro as it is not really fair to look at a church over one year. So I wanted to see the church over a decent period of time, so I choose this seven-year period, and here is how the numbers shaped up:



3980 members
2636 resident members
141 baptisms
185 other additions
2003 primary worship attendance


4000 members
2921 resident members
209 baptisms
246 other additions
2000 primary worship attendance


4488 members
2960 resident members
140 baptisms
229 other additions
1425 primary worship attendance


3931 members
3164 resident members
193 baptisms
219 other additions
1496 primary worship attendance


4055 members
3278 resident members
140 baptisms
214 other additions
1676 primary worship attendance


4188 members
3396 resident members
162 baptisms
199 other additions
1944 primary worship attendance


4302 members
3486 resident members
110 baptisms
228 other additions
1737 primary worship attendance

Total Baptisms 2000-2006 1,095
Total Other Additions 2000-2006 1,520
Membership Growth from 2000-2006 322
Attendance Growth from 2000-2006 -266
Number of “Inactive” Members 2,565
A/A Differential* 2,615/-266
UCM Index** 60%

* A/A Differential = Total additions 2000-2006 / Total attendance growth 2000-2006
** UCM Index = 2006 Inactive Membership divided by 2006 Total Membership

The last paragraph is the totals of 2000-2006 combined. Take a moment, and consider these numbers with me.

First, while North Metro added 2,615 through baptism and “other additions,” their membership increased by only 322. What are we saying about the relationship of baptism and church membership? Ministerially speaking, the church grew by 2,615 members; biblically speaking, church membership increased by 322.

Second, again while North Metro added 2,615 during those seven years, they had a net decrease of -266 in primary worship attendance. What are we saying about the gospel and conversion when we baptized 1000+ people only to see a church decline in attendance during that same period? Ministerially speaking, the church added 2,615 people; biblically speaking, the church declined by 266 people.

Third, the total membership in 2006 was not 4,600 or 5,400 as Baptist Press reported but 4,302. But even with that number, the average attendance of 1,737 divided by 4,302 comes to 60% of the church not fulfilling their basic responsibility of worshiping God and hearing the Word preached on any given Sunday (a total of 2,565 “inactive” members. What are we saying about church discipline and the covenant community we call the local church? Imagine a corporation (if we go that route) where only 4 out of 10 of its employees ever showed up to work. How would it continue to function? So ministerially speaking, the church is comprised of 4,302 members; biblically speaking, the church has 1,737 members.


I could go on, but you do not need more numbers or my analysis to get the point. Numbers do matter – even the ones we cringe to look at and accept. But we must accept them. We must not be “ministerially speaking” but “biblically speaking”. My dean, Dr. Chuck Lawless, has a great blog entitled “Biblical Church Growth,” and I believe that is what we need today. I think it is clear to us all that adding 2,600+ members to one’s church should result in something more like 2,600 regular attenders (roughly speaking), not a decrease of 266 attenders. You see, behind these numbers tell us a lot about how serious we examine our churches, church membership, church discipline, the gospel, conversion, and a whole host of other things that distinctively make us Baptist. But more than being Baptist, we must be biblical, and to be biblical, we must begin with a humble confession and a honest assessment of where we are today. The problems we face will never be solved by denominational politics or presidents or anyone else “ministerially speaking.” They will be solved when we take a look at the Bride of Christ and say, “I will give my life for her that she may be pure, holy, and devoted to Christ our Head.” The reports in heaven will set the record straight, but God forbid that we wait until then to see our great need in the here and now.

It just doesn’t have to be that way, and we don’t just have to be “ministerially speaking” either.

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  • Timmy, thanks for the post. I brought up a similar point about the BP report in a previous post and got a few defensive comments (http://weheartnepal.wordpress.com/2008/02/15/sbc-presidency-and-membership-integrity/). I agree with everything you wrote; the 7 years of statistics speak for themselves. One question I have though is do you think that North Point represents most of our SBC churches today?

  • WOW! Those numbers shout volumes!!! And to think the 1,737 in attendance probably includes visitors. Something certainly doesn’t add up somewhere…maybe they count those who are pregnant as carrying triplets until otherwise notified.

    Thanks for putting the facts out there for us to examine.

  • “Ministerially speaking” = “lying”. To ourselves as much as to others.

  • Great post Timmy, one of the best ever. I too am a student of Dr. Lawless (phd cohort group) and these kind of numbers drive me nuts! At the same time they serve to demonstrate to us a true picture of just how unhealthy our ecclesiology is in SB life. Keep up the great work, and congrats on the move to Grace.

  • It’d be great to see more honesty in this area.
    When we moved into the city we now live in, last summer, someone told me that a church has seen 3000 converts last year… but no-where can I find this huge church… people seemed impressed but where are the converts?

    Makes you want to examine the megachurches… whether Hybels, Warren… and likewise Piper, Driscoll, Keller, Harris, Dever’s churches… how do the books look compared to what’s actually happening on the ground.

  • Timmy, I agree that there is a problem. It puzzles me that SB people are so proud of the big attending numbers, thinking it means something about good leadership, but they fail to look at what the bigger missing numbers mean. And if one is not trying to peddle their influence to the world, why would large numbers even matter? Maybe it’s an appeal to popularity.

    Two other statistics are missing from this serious matter. How many members officially separated from the church during the year? How many of the baptisms were rebaptisms from within the congregation? Oh…a third…how many were baptisms of children under (pick an age, say 8).

    Last year, I saw an announcement of a prominent pastor speaking at a church I was close to, tauting the membership of 5000+ and over 2000+ attending. I pointed out to them that 3000 were missing; did they really want to advertise that way? They changed the announcement. ;0

  • OFF TOPIC, but I couldn’t find an email address:

    Joshua and Cari Vincent have a second son, John William, born yesterday. Joshua is serving as associate at FBC, Clewiston, FL, about 60 miles from where you will be.

  • Dewayne

    One, I do think that we should be careful of taking these numbers and declaring the pastor, Dr. Cox in this situation, dishonest. I imagine if you talk to Dr. Cox about numbers he will talk to you about the actual attendance numbers more than he will membership.

    To Wheelj79, according to the accurate fugures, North Metro is a little above the convention average. You have to remember that a church that has 300 members and runs 120 is percentage wise no different than having 4,000+ members and only running 1,700, it just looks a lot worse. Also, I am not sure about North Metro’s situation, but it seems that once you hit that 1500 to 2000 mark it is hard sustain the same growth and even attendance as the Pastor has to rely more on other staff and lay people and space can become an issue. You just aren’t going to have 4000 people every Sunday in space that holds 2000 (which is what I understand North Metro has).

    Now, I agree that this is a concern. But what do you do with those every other week members or once a monthers? How big of a difference does the demographic of the area make (Gwinnett County in this situation is supposedly one of the busiest and fastest growing counties in our nation)?I do not have a great answer for any of these questions, but I do admit that it is a tough situation that we are in as a denomination.

    My only concern with this post is that readers may take it as a direct attack on Dr. Cox and his integrity, and I do not think that is fair. I have no reason to doubt that he reported the numbers that the convention asked him to report honestly and accurately. How others interpret, quote, or misquote those numbers is not the fault of the church or of Dr. Cox.

    Again, you made some good points and did good research that should concern us overall as a convention, and as the church in general. I just don’t think we should misinterpret this as placing the label of “dishonest” on a man that has been a very upright and godly leader across the state of GA as well as our nation.

  • Will,

    I read the comments from your post and noticed that one gent was from sbc.net. The arguments they proffered were as weak and biblically untenable as the argument in Greensboro for inactive church members “prospects”.

    Are you referring to North Metro or North Point? If you mean North Metro, I do believe it represents on average where most SBC churches are today. I say that not from mere speculation but from raw data and research. In general there are churches whose stats are much worse while they are some that are encouraging. But for every church seeking to practice regenerate church membership and biblical church growth, I would say that there are 50 that aren’t.

    I really would like to see a president of the SBC turn the tide on this matter but leading the way in this matter. Imagine if Dr. Cox goes the route of humbly seeking to restore regenerate church membership as a model for other pastors what that would do to encourage others!

  • Mark,

    Well, I once said at a Baptist Conference that the problem in the SBC is not telling the truth, and I got laughed (and scoffed) at.


    Thanks for the kind words. Unhealthy ecclesiology, you are right. All the denominational politiking and maneuvering on peripheral issues are ignoring the elephant in the room.


    I have been doing the same statistical analysis of the top 100 fastest growing and largest SBC churches in the same fashion I did North Metro. I am not completely finished yet, but what I have found is quite alarming to say the least.

  • Bill,

    The research I mentioned in my last comment is a study that I have appropriately entitled, “Every Number Has a Story.” If you have listened to the IMB promos, this is their slogan, but it is used to promote the numbers we like to hear. Yet no one wants to mention the numbers we do not want to hear. Yet those numbers have stories too, and I think someone should tell them too. Every number counts, right?

    I talked to another brother who has either undertaken or considering undertaking the churches leading in baptism and finding what percentage are under the age of six. I think that will say a lot. On a personal note, I know of a church who led their association in baptisms two years ago, but no one mentioned that over half were repeat baptisms (some multiple times).

    RE: Josh Vincent,

    That’s great news. Josh and I had several classes together, including Gentry’s Elementary Hebrew. I look forward to looking him up when we head down to FL.

  • Dewayne,

    With all due respect, nothing I have said in this post was directed to Mr. Cox. If you look at the title of my post, it is “ministerially speaking” and refers to the way in which, as Southern Baptists, we are bragging about our unhealthy ecclesiology. Cox was one of a number of examples I could have given in this case. I chose him because of the BP report and the fact that he is nominated to be president of the SBC. It goes without saying that someone running for president of the SBC will be given a little more attention than your average Joe who is pastor of a rural SBC church.

    For the record, I have never implied that Dr. Cox is dishonest. What I have said is that our reporting and use of statistics is dishonest, and that fact is undeniable. I am not responsible for how the readers respond to the facts. So to say that presenting the information as support for an argument that might not be to someone’s liking does not make a legitimate argument. The truth is, the information isn’t good. We don’t like. I don’t like it. But are we to just shove it under the rug and pretend there is no problem? Not discuss this for fear of someone responding in an appropriate manner? What is not fair is making an argument that one is being unfair simply because you do not like the results. If that was the case, then nothing could ever be said, knowing that someone somewhere is not going like my argument or conclusion.

    You said,

    “It seems that once you hit that 1500 to 2000 mark it is hard sustain the same growth and even attendance as the Pastor has to rely more on other staff and lay people and space can become an issue. You just aren’t going to have 4000 people every Sunday in space that holds 2000.”

    Do you realize that you are implying that the church stops growing because of the incompetence of the staff and space limitations? But this is besides the point. Here’s the point. North Metro added 2,615 to their membership in seven years, 1,095 by baptism. And during that same time, they decreased in attendance by 266. How do you account for that? Merely staff incompetence and space limitations? Surely not.

    Lastly you said,

    “How others interpret, quote, or misquote those numbers is not the fault of the church or of Dr. Cox.”

    That may be true, but again that is besides the point. I will ask a simple question. Do the stats provided in my research reflect biblical church growth, a healthy ecclesiology, and a sound understanding of the gospel and conversion? If they don’t, then the place where the fault lies is obvious to all.

    I have no reason to doubt that Dr. Cox is an upright and godly man. If you noticed, I lauded him in the article the only time I mentioned his name. Nevertheless, the facts speak for themselves. I didn’t make them up, and I would love have been able to seen numbers that reflected regenerate church membership and biblical ecclesiology. I am hopeful that the discussion raised will not turn us to bitterness but brokenness. If there is ever a time to get it right, why not now?

  • KC


    Can you let me know where I may access this statistical information?


  • My professors called it “evangelastically speaking.” I hate the lies. God does not dwell in lies, why should the SBC? And this is LYING. Maybe our SBC wants the numbers for political clout.

  • Dewayne

    “My only concern with this post is that READERS may take it as a direct attack on Dr. Cox and his integrity.” (my quote from my first post)


    If it came across wrong, I didn’t mean for it to sound that way. I honestly do not believe that you were attacking Dr. Cox’s integrity at all. I just fear that some of your readers will turn it into that as they have even in there comments used the term “dishonest” and “lying”. Again, I don’t think that is fair.

    Again, your concerns and points are well taken, but some of your readers as they have commented on it translated this post into pastors and (since this post is a direct reslut of North Metro’s numbers and Dr. Cox) Dr. Cox being “dishonest” about his numbers, and I just wanted to try to combat that interpretation.

    I apologize if you took my response as an attack towards you, it definitely wasn’t. I feel that in this particular situation it is the system that is broke more than the person or pastor. Again, thank you for your research.

    This is one thing I hate about blogs, nobody can hear the tone in your voice, so many things can get taken the wrong way.

    May God Bless you in all of your ministry ahead!

  • Dewayne,

    Having done this blog thing now for over three years, I completely understand how you could be misunderstood or taken the wrong way. I welcome your comments and even criticisms as I hope to provide an open, balanced, and level-headed discussion on these matters which seldom seem to be treated with any degree of serious concern. I believe that we all have in mind what is best for our churches, though we come at it at different levels, and hearing different perspectives can be challenging and eye opening at times (I am speaking as one who has learned much from others in the comments).

    I hope you feel comfortable with commenting in the future and know that I do not consider your comments an attack. I just want to keep the focus on the issue at hand and not individuals (or resorting to ad-hominem statements). Thanks for your comment and clarification, and also for your kind words about my ministry.

    Grace always,

    Timmy B.

  • Timmy,
    I appreciate the post. In my own experience discussing this matter, there seems to be some sort of underlying superstitious attitude towards church membership. People get very defensive when it is implied that a person (who isn’t dead) be taken off of the church books for something as basic as lack of attendance. It’s like they believe that being on the roll makes or breaks that person’s salvation. Maybe that’s where we get the whole “Have a hot dog roast and baptize everybody who will show up” mentality towards baptism. We think that baptism and church membership have some sort of saving effect.

    In the church where I serve, one of the most helpful things that we have implemented is a new member’s class. This class is a prerequisite to church membership/baptism. It helps me (associate pastor of worship) and our senior pastor get to know these prospective members instead of having them come down the aisle, and vote them in on the spot, never to see them again. Since we have begun this, we have had very little trouble with members becoming inactive. It also gives us the opportunity to share with these people about the heart, vision, and even theology of our church, so that there are no surprises once they have joined. While I think we have a long way to go in being completely responsible about our attendance vs. roll, I think we are moving in the right direction. I hope that the Convention as a whole will realize that being biblically responsible with our membership is more important than numbers.

    Finally, I can’t help but remember the SBC meeting in ’06 where so much emphasis was given to a resolution on total abstinence from the abuse, advertisement or consumption of alcohol, and virtually no consideration was given to a resolution about this very matter.

  • Josh,

    I have never thought about the superstitious aspect of it. One of the things that comes to my mind is the justification and rationale that supports unregenerate church membership, playing on percentages that for ever “x” number you reach, you keep “y” number. The idea is to have as many people join the church, knowing that “z” percentage of them will stay around. Of course, this raw pragmatism has devastating consequences for a church, not the least of which is turning the souls of men into raw statistical data rather than image bearers of our Creator. Secondly, we are saying that the God saves and keeps only a fraction of those who join the church. For Southern Baptists who believe in eternal security, what are we saying when the majority percentage fall away from the church? The implications are serious, and I am looking to elaborate on those in the future.

    What your church is doing is great. There are some very practical ways of trying to restore regenerate church membership, and having a new members class is a great place to start. Thanks for sharing that.

    Regarding the SBC, yes, we often have our priorities wrong. We have shown we that we are more concerned about whether a Southern Baptist has had a glass of wine than whether they are going to hell.

  • I think we’re afraid that if we reveal true numbers than we’ll have to admit something isn’t working. At that point the old guard will blame it on the liberal “new” guys and then realize the the “new” guys are themselves leaving. We’re already seeing a vacuum of under 40’s in denominational life. The bad thing is that you can’t fix a problem if no one is willing to admit there is one.

  • Matt

    The actual number of members who attend would be substantially less than 1737. The 1737 number would include visitors, kids, regular attenders who are not members, etc. Once you subtract all those people from the 1737, the actual % of members who attend the church would likely be below 30%.