Honest Statistics: A Large Convention of Small Churches, Part 2


The overwhelming majority of Southern Baptist church members give little or no sign of spiritual life. Countless studies of our churches’ memberships over the last 20 years all tell the same story. The recently compiled statistics from the Annual Church Profiles of SBC churches indicates that in 2004, we had:

– 16,287,494 members
– 6,024,289 Sunday morning attendance
– 37 percent of the total membership typically attend Sunday morning worship

Of course, that percentage is actually much worse because it does not take into account visitors and children who show up. So we can safely say that on a typical Sunday morning less than 37% of the members in Southern Baptist churches show up.

As I mentioned yesterday, what is now the North American Misssion Board (formerly the Home Mission Board) issued a report in 1996 entitled, A Large Convention of Small Churches by Phillip Jones, which found that the typical (median) SBC church has:

– 233 members (of which 168 are resident)
– 70 people in Sunday morning worship service (30 percent)

When you move beyond Sunday morning worship attendance, the picture becomes even more bleak. Less than 1 out of 4 Southern Baptist church members attend Sunday School and considerably less than that attend any other function of the church. The median church baptized 5 people into membership and added 5 other members during the previous year. Despite this, Jones concludes, the median church is growing by only 1 member a year. Closer analysis indicates that this one member is more likely to wind up inactive than active. Jones concludes, “Although the typical church in the SBC appears to be barely growing, it is, in fact, in decline” (p. 23).

What this means is that the typical Southern Baptist church baptizes lots of people who simply do not hang around long enough even to become regular Sunday morning attenders. This is precisely what Jack Smith, a “soul-winning evangelism associate” for NAMB, has discovered in his own experience with Southern Baptist churches. According to a Baptist Press story, He has found that “only about 30 percent of baptized believers in SBC churches typically are active in Sunday school a year later. When actual retention rates of new Christians are considered from the time of their decision, the percentage often drops to the single digits.”

Now, take note: what the “soul-winning evangelism associate” calls “new Christians” are those people who have been led to “make decisions” in the typical SBC way of evangelism; ie. agree to some facts, pray a prayer, assume your saved. But, notice what he has discovered from this kind of evangelistic approach: LESS THAN 10% OF THE CONVERTS PRODUCED ACTUALLY STICK.

Unfortunately, the solution that Smith proposes is, “better follow-up” of new converts. Certainly intentional discipleship efforts are important in the lives of new believers. But folks, the problem is not a lack of follow-up. If it ain’t alive, it can’t grow.

Jesus talked about the change that must take place in a person’s life before he can enter into or even see the kingdom of God. He spoke of that change in terms of birth. The analogy of birth tells us much about the nature of the change. A birth is followed by a life, except in those tragic cases of stillbirths. But under normal circumstances when there is a birth, we can expect there to be signs of life–eating, crying, breathing, growth and development. Where such signs of life are nonexistent, you can be sure that something has gone horribly wrong.

Too much of modern evangelism is tailor made to produce spiritual stillbirths. We look at the products of such methods and wonder why there are no signs of life and conclude, “It’s because we need better followup.” That is like a pediatrician ordering neonatal care for a stillborn infant.

We are long overdue to have a serious conversation about evangelism and conversion. Such a conversation must begin with a reconsideration of what the Gospel actually is. We cannot afford to assume any longer that we all agree on this.

I determined several years ago that, by God’s grace, I want spend the rest of my life and ministry being clear on three questions:

1. What is the Gospel?
2. What is a Christian and how does a person become one?
3. What is a church?

As I have stated previously, the issues raised by these questions transcend the debates over Calvinism and Arminianism.

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12 Responses to “Honest Statistics: A Large Convention of Small Churches, Part 2”

  1. I would also add that some of our people are still on the rolls of our churches but not attending them, not because they have lapsed, backslidden, etc., but because they got fed up with the churches they were in and are out looking for a church that meets their needs. By “needs” I don’t mean those nebulous, fuzzy, “seeker” needs, I mean the need for real spiritual nourishment, serious-minded commitment to Christ among the membership not just the pastors/elders/deacons. In other words, they realize what’s been going on and their getting off a sinking ship. I also know that this isn’t just an SBC problem, it’s the problem in many churches, and some folks are taking a long time to find new church homes because its just so doggone hard for them to find a church that is significantly different.

    While on this subject, I’d like to share an anecdote about my last church. They had planned a church fellowship for Super Bowl Sunday this past year, in which we’d have our regular evening worship then all go to the activites building to fellowship and watch the game.

    Now, this church is a church with 900 on the roll, 600 enrolled in Sunday School, average attendance of 300 on Sunday morning. (Strike One, I know). They publicized the fellowship for a month or more. They did this specfically to try to boost Sunday evening attendance.

    When that night arrived, the usual 40 to 50 at Sunday night worship (Strike 2) had been whittled down to 25. (Strike 3) Moreover, the youth group, it seemed was off doing its own thing (Ball?)…so no fellowship (You’re out!), and the football game was more popular than the worship service, even among the regular evening attendees. It was that night that I decided it was time to find a new church home.

  2. So how does one respond to such reality without sounding unkind and unloving? And yet, how can silence persist in the face of the stark reality that our “evangelism” is sending multitudes down the broad road to destruction?

    Let’s face it—although this is not an issue about Calvinism and Arminianism, detractors will charge “hyper Calvinism.”


  3. Anonymous

    Do you think the old-boy network that runs the convention will be open to such a conversation? Their suburban megachurches feel pretty good – would they want to rock the boat?

    Yeah I’m a bit cynical of the Convention these days….

  4. Bill:

    I am reminded of something I heard Adrian Rogers say one time: “I would rather be judged unkind while being kind than to be judged kind while in reality being unkind.” His point was that it is kind to tell people the truth. Again, the challenge comes down to me to this: to speak the truth in love. You are exactly right: countless numbers are being led to hell with decision cards in their pockets due to the shallow, man-centered evangelism that predominates our evangelical and Southern Baptist culture. This must be addressed. The truth needs to be spoken clearly, loudly and repeatedly. What I have discovered through the years is that there are many–MANY–pastors, church leaders and others who recognize that much of what takes place in the name of evangelism is not right. Some of the stories are horrifying. Such people–and they are by no means all Calvinists–need to be encouraged to step forward and speak. I am hoping and praying that many of us who share these concerns can encourage to them to do so. I think the old Baptist Press slogan, “Tell the truth and trust the people,” is very apt at this time in our history. It is high time for the truth behind the dishonest statistics to come out.

  5. In 1996 90% of all Southern Baptist churches had fewer than 250 in worship on a typical Sunday morning. That figure has probably changed a little since then, but not much. We are still a “large convention of small churches.” I think this provides a great opportunity to have a significant conversation about biblical evangelism and true conversion.

  6. • 233 members (of which 168 are resident)
    • 70 people in Sunday morning worship service (30 percent)

    Note this is the median number, not the average number. The median is calculated along the number line with the number in the literal middle being the “median” number. The average number adds all the numbers together and divides by the total integers in the series. The average and the median aren’t necessarilly the same or even similar if a sample is lopsided one way or the other. The median number in this case is much more honest and reflective of the trend in the Convention as a whole (much more so that a calculation of 233 churches to the total 40,000 in the Convention last week…I’m still reeling from that one).

    Now, consider the size churches the Good Ol’ Boy network actually respresents. While I don’t think they are necessarily out of touch with reality, (having served in one of comparable size at one time, speaking for that one I have to say that particular one did have its act together) I do think it would go a long way to showing they were willing to deal honesly with statistics like this if the Convention would put up a slate of candidates for higher office (president, the vice presidents, etc) in the near future who don’t pastor the tremendously large churches. The mega church pastors don’t serve as presidents of their state conventions all the time, and, in NC where I am, mega church pastors are few and far between as it is, so it’s not as if pastoring a church of great size is any indicator of one’s qualifications for the offices. It’s time we had a leadership that is representative of the SBC’s structure.

  7. It’s amazing what a clear preaching of the true gospel can do for the salvation of God’s elect. I was a youth pastor in a church for 7 years that had the traditional SBC altar call with very few people coming forward–the invitations were man-centered with the idea that Jesus is the gentleman waiting for you to ask Him into your heart… As a youth pastor, I rarely issued an altar call but clearly invited people to trust in CHrist alone for their salvation. I saw the Lord convert many youth through personal conversations in my office, in the car, and even on the basketball court. Most of the salvations and baptisms that came out of our church were youth who never went forward during the service. Now I am a senior pastor at a church and have been there three months and have not chosen to do the altar call/invitation but to press people to trust CHrist all through my sermons and to present the whole gospel of GOd’s sovereignty in salvation. We have baptized 7 people already and it has been in conversations in my office and through our new members class. WE are seeing God bring many lost people to our church and yet I am convinced even more about His sovereignty in that people are seeking me out to talk about spiritual things. One of the taboos in SBC life is the public invitation–in COlorado out here in the WEst, many non-reformed churches are not using it anymore more for cultural reasons than theological. Will there ever come a day in our convention where those of us who don’t use the public altar call will not be labeled as non-evangelistic. God has done more through my ministry in authentic conversations with lost people who have heard the challenge to trust CHrist in my preaching than through the man-centered altar call system. Our traditions bread decisionism and false converts. May we all embrace Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron’s evangelism series “Way of the Master” and push for that to be our evangelism strategies in SBC life.

  8. A.D. Kummer

    These three questions you settled on are excellent. As a twenty something my wife and I have always been sick of “going to church” when we wanted to “be the church.” Keep asking these questions.

  9. Ray Comfort has written a book entitle Hell’s Best Kept Secret that teaches that we have lost using the Law (ie: Ten Commandments) in our evangelism and have produced so many “converts” who are not showing any evidence of a regenerate experience in Christ. He argues that modern evangelism is man-centered in that we are using phrases like “God has a wonderful plan for your life”..”All you have to do is accept CHrist…” Ray preaches repentance and faith by using the Law to bring the weight of sin to a person’s conscience. Kirk Cameron of “Growing Pains” fame has hooked up with Ray and they have produced DVD training videos using the Law in evangelism–you can go to http://www.wayofthemaster.com and preview them. I have used them extensively and read their book “Way of the Master”–their main arguement is that the modern “mass crusade movement” and “shallow evangelism” have created the largest number of false converts in the history of America. If you have read Walt Chantry’s “Today’s Evangelism–Authentic or Synthetic” or Will Metzger’s “Tell the Truth”–the Way of the Master is in the same vein–these guys are Baptistic in theology while not 5 point Calvinists–I would assume they are not all the way on particular redemption, but their videos are intriguing, relevant, Biblical, and a great tool to open people’s eyes to doing true evangelism using both the Law and Gospel.

  10. There is a summary of the ACP available on the Baptist Press website. I do not have the address at hand, but you can easily search their site for the pertinent articles.



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