The blogosphere (at least the miniscule percentage of it concerned with Southern Baptist life) pulsates with the release of the 2005 Southern Baptist Convention Statistical Summary. I’m hardly a statistician, but with an accounting degree/background I can make my way through some numbers. Here are my interpretations:
- The summary reports total SBC membership at 16,270,315 among 43,699 churches. This equates to an average church membership of 372 people.
- The summary reports total SBC membership at 16,270,315 with “primary worship attendance” being 6,052,321. Therefore, of the total membership only 37.2% participate in the public worship of the church. (Undoubtedly, the 6,052,321 worshipers includes “regular attenders.” But let’s assume they offset the “shut-ins,” military folk, and college students who are included in the total membership, but for whom we often make exceptions. In the end, the difference is-as we say in accounting-immaterial.)
- If the average church membership is 372 people, and the average worship participation is 37.2%, then we can “ball park” that on any given Sunday the average SBC church has 138.4 people in attendance.
Questions for consideration based on the above data: (1) If the average SBC church is 138 people strong then why is the leadership drawn mainly from the “mega churches”? Is what we see “at the top” really representative of Southern Baptist life? Or are we basking in the shadows of the big steeples?
(2) Why do we insist on deceiving the public about the total membership? Nearly every SBC article in the mainstream media mentions the 16 million members. Yet when I read an article about Dell computers they don’t exaggerate the number of employees. They report how many people who are on the payroll and show up everday to contribute to company profits. They don’t report folks employed 15 years ago who showed up for 3 weeks but were fired for theft. Would Microsoft tolerate only 37.2% of its workforce showing up for work any given day? Would any of the SBC CEOs or business owners tolerate an employee who only shows up 37.2% of the time? Of course not! So, why do we insist that there are 16 million members when most of them are AWOL?
(3) Do we not more resemble old covenant Israel than the new covenant Church? Old covenant Israel was largely unbelieving with a small remnant of believers. The new covenant Church is (in the earthly sense) largely believing with a small group of unbelievers (that we don’t want, but simply misjudge). Perhaps I will overstate this. But, assuming faithful local church participation is an indicator of conversion, Southern Baptists are largely an unbelieving people. Further, unless things change and we obey Bobby Welch’s 1,000,000 baptism mandate we will potentially prepare 628,000 more people for hell. I have goosebumps.
(4) Do we not fear what God has said and will say to our churches? If you would allow some (okay, a ton of) latitude, let’s play out a scene on judgment day. Let’s assume God deals with everyone by denomination that day. Southern Baptists stand before God to present the return on those he entrusted to us. The SBC president proudly hands God the statistical summary that shows 16,270,315 members. We all gleam expectantly to hear God’s commendation. He then says that he only sees 6,052,321 standing there (obviously God counts real fast). “Where is the other 62.8% of your folks? By baptizing and welcoming them as members you testified they were Christians, right? So where are they?” Fumbling, bumbling and stumbling Mr. SBC President mumbles, “Well, they must in the back somewhere with the “inactive” folks. You see, we didn’t want to offend them and jeopardize our membership roll. So rather than take your gospel seriously, we let them think they were Christians. But, that’s really not important, Almighty Sovereign. What matters is that we let the world know that we Southern Baptists were 16 million strong.” And the throng rejoices. God rebuts, “Well then it seems only fair to give you 37.2% of your eternal reward . . . enjoy.” God doesn’t like liars, especially conspiratorial ones.
There are a few more statistics worth exploring that I’ll save for another day. I hate that I am so egotistically cynical about this.
If Lifeway would listen, I would love to help write/publish material on how to practically pare down church membership rolls. I haven’t seen such material, but it must be out there somewhere. Pastors simply can’t go slashing names left and right to the detriment of the church. There are practical, healthy ways to do it that our churches can support. But, considering our church has only 61 members (who are all active!) I doubt I’ll make it past Lifeway security.
DISCLAIMER: As an alumnus of Arthur Andersen I reserve the privilege to summarily shred any supporting numerical documentation without notice.