The Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting wrapped up last week. As usual there have been several statements and statistics which are causing at least minor stirs. Their announcement of a court petition to uphold the traditional definition of marriage may attract the most cultural attention, but within the church, particularly Baptist circles, it will be the news that the SBC has suffered the largest annual decline in baptisms in more than 130 years (236,467) all while increasing the number of SBC churches to its highest level ever (46,449) that will undoubtedly create the most conversation.
Here’s my two cents: The SBC is planting more churches than ever before while apparently reaching fewer people. Go figure. Conservatives should fully expect the tombstone dance many progressives are no doubt preparing. There were likely not a few conservatives doing one after the recent Pew report showing a continued dramatic decline of mainline churches while the total number of evangelicals has stayed pretty consistent over the past few years. Progressives will say, “See! We’re not the only ones. Your conservative theology isn’t doing any better than ours!”
Once we get past that, though, we can start to really think about what this means. My take is this: the SBC is getting more enthusiastic about planting churches (I’ve seen that enthusiasm in the Baptist General Association of Virginia as well), but most of those churches are competing for the same group of people. Not many are truly doing what Andy Stanley did with NorthPoint in going after unchurched people. They may proclaim such a desire in words, but their methods usually suggest otherwise.
Now, part of me is concerned about this for all the obvious reasons. We are in the baptism business and a lower number means we’re not doing one of our most important jobs. Fewer baptisms may mean fewer people are taking up the journey of following Jesus, which isn’t good. The cultural impact of the church is waning and we are not capturing imaginations as we once did. On and on this kind of thing goes.
The other part of me isn’t as concerned, though, and here’s why: my personal passion is ministering to long-established and often entrenched churches and seeing them come alive again. Unfortunately, that probably describes most of the churches in the country right now, SBC or otherwise. Well, we should certainly root for more baptisms as a part of that process, but the kind of renewal it takes to do that takes a lot of time — especially if we want it to last. We have to dig up old foundations, repair and replace things at the base, and then begin to build new structures (i.e., ideas about what the church is and what it means to follow Jesus). Building the new structures itself might require tearing out old stuff with lots and lots of paint on it.
I remember helping some friends who were renovating their house one night. Our task was to pull off the old wooden paneling in the living room. When we did, we discovered another layer beneath it. It took us twice as long to do the work because past renovations hadn’t been done right and we had to fix what they did before moving forward. That takes time.
One of the things the Pew report showed and which Ed Stetzer highlighted in some of his analysis is that the church in America is going through a period of refining and purification. Nominal Christians are showing their true colors and identifying themselves honestly as “nones.” Expect this to happen more and more. When it is finished the church will be leaner but healthier and ready to start showing some real growth.
We have some blueberry bushes in our backyard. They’re really old bushes — 25 years or more. In the first couple years we were here we didn’t know anything about them. We didn’t know that the soil had changed and wasn’t suited well for growth in the state they were in. All we knew is that we saw some impressive looking growth — which didn’t ever seem to bear much fruit.
Those first few years we got more berries than we knew what to do with. We literally couldn’t pick them fast enough. But then the soil change caught up to them and we went through several years of essentially no fruit. We thought we had lost them. Their time was past. We did a few things we thought made sense, but it never seemed to help.
Then a wise gardener who understood both the bushes and the soil came to help. She pruned back an incredible amount. We thought we had pruned before, but it was nothing like this. The bushes were almost half the size as when we had arrived.
She took out all kinds of old growth that had apparently to us been producing lots of fruit and left a bunch of new stuff that hadn’t done anything before (and we had routinely written it off, pruned it, and didn’t think twice about it). She also added some fertilizer to the soil. Then another year went by with basically no berries. Then this spring came. The time came for blossoms to show up and the bushes were white with them. As the plants have continued to grow we have more berries than we have ever had. We are salivating after the day they finally ripen. We thought we couldn’t pick fast enough before ….
The church will survive this and come out stronger. It doesn’t need a fundamental change as many allege. It needs to get back to its fundamentals, encourage wise cultural engagement from that position, keep practicing the love of Christ in new and creative ways, and be patient. Growth takes time, especially when it hasn’t happened in a while. If people don’t panic (which always leads to silly behavior and poor decision-making), watch for a dramatic turnaround in those numbers (by percentage anyway) in the not too distant future.
There are lots of reasons for hope. And patience. And kingdom work. God’s not done with the place yet and we’re the gardeners.