“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:
2636 resident members
185 other additions
2003 primary worship attendance
2921 resident members
246 other additions
2000 primary worship attendance
2960 resident members
229 other additions
1425 primary worship attendance
3164 resident members
219 other additions
1496 primary worship attendance
3278 resident members
214 other additions
1676 primary worship attendance
3396 resident members
199 other additions
1944 primary worship attendance
3486 resident members
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.