Sunday, May 30, 2010


Recently released LifeWay Research data projects a decrease of approximately 50% in Southern Baptist membership by 2050 if the current 50-year trend continues. The numbers also show that recent membership "growth" numbers have sunk into the negative.

A factor which may be contributing to the latest apparent decline is a resolution adopted at last year's SBC convention encouraging member churches of the denomination to "clean up" their membership rolls by removing names of inactive or non-participating members and those who have moved on to other churches or denominations, so that the rolls reflect a composition of individuals who actually participate in the life of the church. Thus, the latest negative figures may simply be a correction in data that may have already been a reality in terms of actual bodies in the pews. Even so, the trend appears to show that the numbers are not increasing, and may be dropping.

Denominational numbering, while arguably necessary, can be problematic. For example, events such as "high attendance Sunday" can be reduced to a particular congregation's ability to attract people through the front door on a particular Sunday rather than focus on making disciples over the long term on a day-to-day basis. And while downward-attendance trends that last for years may signify an issue of concern, a temporary reduction in attendance over a period of several months because the pastor is preaching some hard truths (albeit "in love"; Eph 4: 15) may in reality signify a church that is being restored to spiritual health.

Good preaching can result in an increase or a decrease in numbers over the short term, depending on the maturity and spiritual perception of the audience. The apostle John describes, in chapter 6 of his gospel, a sermon Jesus preached to an immature multitude that was so difficult "...from that time many of His disciples went back, and walked no more with Him. (v. 66)" Of the twelve who remained was one who would eventually betray Him.

The correct response to the numbers news would seem to be for each congregation to evaluate whether they are faithfully proclaiming the truth of the gospel in love and whether each member of the local body is doing their part to edify the church and make disciples. The response should not be to repeat mistakes of the past in which an emphasis on numbers distracted some shepherds to the point of de-emphasizing doctrine and sound teaching for the sake of an entertainment-focused service designed solely to attract more people.

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