My spiritual story has its roots in a denomination called the Southern Baptist Convention. I’m certainly not the only individual whose journey to God began in an SBC church. As the largest protestant denomination in the United States, literally millions of people have found hope and peace through an SBC ministry. With all of her warts, historical sins, infighting, and public failings, no other protestant denomination in our country has had as much of a spiritual impact on our nation as the Southern Baptist Convention.
However, to quote Bob Dylan: The times, they are a changin’.
An article published last week by Christianity Today highlights the decline in Southern Baptist membership. This year’s Annual Church Profile revealed a sobering fact: the nation’s largest protestant denomination has fallen in membership to its lowest level since 1987. While peaking at 16.3 million members in 2006, SBC membership has declined by 1.5 million in the last 13 years. A quick google search reveals that in 1987, the population of the United States was approximately 250 million individuals. The population today is over 325 million. Meaning, as a percentage of our population, SBC membership is much lower (4.5% versus 6%).
Total membership is not the only discouraging statistic. Baptisms are down to a historic low, total weekly worship attendance has declined, as well as the total number of churches in the SBC. The one bright spot is financial giving. Thanks to a healthy economy, giving by SBC church-goers has increased. There are a few other positive stats in a handful of state conventions, but overall the picture isn’t good. In fact, it’s quite dismal.
The Titanic is sinking. Notre Dame is burning. The Goths are destroying Rome. Pick your favorite ruinous image, and apply it to this situation.
You may think I’m being an alarmist, but the facts prove otherwise. By the time I retire — assuming this trend continues — the influence of SBC churches on our nation and world will be minimal. When my children are in their golden years, the Southern Baptist Convention will be relegated to the history books and as important to our culture as the Whig party is to our political system today. The majority of SBC church buildings will either be demolished or used for purposes other than worship and ministry. The annual SBC national convention will be held in a medium-sized hotel conference room. And — most sadly — those with spiritual stories like my own will be far fewer in numbers.
I’ve not seen much written on the “why’s” behind this decline. I’m sure it’s a myriad of reasons. The increasing secularization of our nation and the rise of nondenominational churches are perhaps at the top of the list. However, those are reasons outside of our control and, many times, used as excuses for laziness and an unwillingness to change. I’m not a fan of excuses. I like solutions. We need to take a serious look at our own failings and determine what major changes need to be made in our churches.
A Helpful Lesson From the Past
Hopefully, this latest report will cause pastors and church leaders to do some serious introspection. The greatest source for lessons on church growth is the New Testament book of Acts. The early church grew exponentially amid two very different cultures. Initially, the gospel was preached to and accepted by those with a Jewish background. These were men and women who knew God and respected the Bible. They had lots of context for understanding the “why” behind Jesus coming. Original sin, God’s judgment, and blood sacrifices were all familiar themes to this group. While many refused to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, they didn’t disagree with the foundational tenet of the gospel: that we all have sinned and have a broken relationship with God. The first growth of the early church happened within this Jewish community. The second, larger wave of growth happened among the non-Jewish, Greek/Roman population. These individuals did not have context for the coming of Jesus. One creator God, original sin, sacrifices, and the authority of scripture were all foreign concepts to these individuals.
Acts describes for us two very different approaches by the first Christians in sharing the gospel with the Jews and the non-Jews. For example, in Acts 13, Paul and Barnabas find themselves in a place called Pisidian Antioch. On the Sabbath, they go to the local Jewish synagogue and share the gospel with those gathered. Paul first gives a brief summation of their history as God’s people, and then quotes four verses from their Bible — what you and I call the Old Testament. The response of the people was very favorable. The next week, the entire city came to hear Paul preach. This church growth method was extremely effective in that context.
Then, you turn just a few pages to Acts 17, and once again Paul is sharing his faith, trying everything he can to add to heaven’s population. This time, though, he is speaking to a crowd of Greeks. Paul easily could have said, “The evangelism method I used in Acts 13 worked really well. Surely it will be just as effective here in Athens.” Instead, Paul shares the gospel using no Bible references or Jewish jargon. Instead, he points to their own statues as an illustration and quotes a couple of Greek poets. He took a very different approach with this crowd than the one in Pisidian Antioch. While the core of his message was the same, his verbiage changed completely. Yet, once again, individuals responded positively to his message, became followers of Christ, and the early church continued to grow.
Are We Four Chapters Behind?
Are we using an Acts 13 approach to church growth in an Acts 17 culture? Perhaps this is a major reason behind the declining numbers of the Southern Baptist Convention. We have decided — either intentionally or simply through an unwillingness to seriously examine the issue — that what worked decades ago in engaging the culture should continue to work today. Hopefully these latest statistics will be the impetus to embrace the harsh truth that these methods are no longer effective. We are losing our voice in the culture, and I believe it is because we are speaking a language those around us don’t understand. We are talking to those in our communities like they have an Acts 13 background, when reality shows us that are far more comfortable in an Acts 17 world.
A few years ago, I heard a pastor say to his congregation, “The Bible says it, so that settles it.” While I appreciate his view of the Bible as God’s truth, statements such as this no longer resonate with our culture. For the vast majority of those outside of the church, “the Bible says so,” settles nothing. No longer is the Bible viewed as truth by your neighbors. The days of simply quoting a few verses and expecting a positive response are gone. We must seriously rethink our approach to sharing Christ with a highly secular, Biblically-illiterate culture.
I realize that I’ve provided no tangible methods for pastors and church leaders to embrace in this endeavor. The reason is that those methods will vary depending on a particular church’s resources, community needs, and particular calling. My desire isn’t to offer specific solutions, but rather to see fellow pastors and leaders embrace a “whatever it takes” attitude toward engaging our culture with the gospel. Instead of continuing with the same programs and plans that are now failing us, I would love to see our denomination say, “We are willing to do anything short of sin to share the message of Christ with those around us. We will work hard, we will pray hard, and we will try new approaches to engage our culture. And, if what we try doesn’t work, then we’ll try something else, anything else, and ask the Lord to show us what we need to do to effectively reach those around us.”
Not a New Message
I can hear the critics now: “The gospel is enough. The Bible is enough. Just preach the Word, and lives will be changed.”
I understand your heart in that perspective. I love the Bible and the gospel is the most wonderful truth in the world. The issue, though, is that thousands of churches and pastors across our denomination are doing exactly that, and yet membership, baptisms, and worship attendance continues to trend downward. Ours is not a denomination in decline because we have abandoned the truths of Scripture. Most mainline protestant denominations have declined because they’ve embraced the values and beliefs of the culture around us, thus offering no real alternative to what people can get just by watching Netflix or hanging out with a friend at a local coffee shop. They have — in my opinion — shifted to preaching a gospel that is really no gospel at all (Galatians 1:7).
Thankfully, the issue with churches and pastors in our tribe isn’t an abandonment of truth. It’s an unwillingness to be flexible and innovative in our methods. We are still doing what worked decades ago, it’s not working now, and yet we continue in those same approaches. Something needs to change, and quickly.
I think this heart and mindset shift is no longer an option. If we want our churches to thrive in the future, we must embrace the reality of our changing culture. While staying completely true to the gospel message, we need to take an Acts 17 approach in our ministries.
Then, perhaps, through lots of work and the grace of God, the Titanic won’t sink. Notre Dame will be rebuilt. The Goths will be defeated and Rome will live again.
I pray it will be so.
Kevin Mills is the Lead Pastor of Northway Church in Macon, Georgia.