I remember my introduction to Southern Baptist churches. My parents had just moved down to Atlanta and were attending Charles Stanley’s church (First Baptist). I had listened to Stanley on the radio while driving to work over the past year and was eager to see this bustling church with 15,000 members. I was amazed at the size of the building and quite impressed by the size of the sanctuary. But as it began to fill I came to realize that it could not seat more than a couple of thousand people. I knew there were two services, but even with that number there would not be anywhere near to 15,000 people attending. My parents assured me this was typical. This was an odd concept to me. I had only ever been a part of Reformed churches where attendance was near 100% each Sunday. If a family or individual did not attend for any length of time, the elders would be sure to follow-up to find the reason. If the reason was not biblically sound, the church would begin the painful process of discipline. It was assumed and enforced that believers both need and want to be a part of their local church fellowship. Yet here I was at a huge church, a church that was the envy of many, that had only a fraction of the membership sitting in the seats on a Sunday morning.
It was only later that I learned this is typical for Southern Baptist churches. A few months ago I read Richard Belcher’s book A Journey in Purity, a theological novel in which the primary character, a young pastor, combats the problem of bloated membership rolls. He faces all sorts of pain and trials as he attempts to make membership in his church meaningful. As hard as it is to believe, the conflict he faced is drawn from real-world examples.
Jim Elliff has written an article which is sure to draw the ire of many Southern Baptists. I assume Jim is not concerned as I know this is not the first time he has done that. The article is entitled, “Southern Baptists, an Unregenerate Denomination.” Ouch. Elliff suggests churches should reexamine the way they introduce other pastors. How’s this for an introduction? “Here is Brother ______, pastor of a church of 15,000 members, 5500 of whom do not bother to come on a given Sunday morning, and 12,000 of whom do not come on Sunday evening. He is here to tell us about how to have a healthy, evangelistic church.” Ouch again.
Take a look at some of these statistics:
- Out of the Southern Baptist’s 16,287,494 members, only 6,024,289, or 37%, on average, show up for their church’s primary worship meeting (usually Sunday morning). For an average church this means that if you have 200 in attendance on Sunday morning, you likely have 500-600 or even more on your roll.
- In 1996, the last time the SBC kept these statistics, the number of Sunday evening attenders was equal to only 12.3% of the membership (in churches that had an evening meeting).
- When all factors are considered, these figures suggest that nearly 90% of Southern Baptist church members appear to be little different from the “cultural Christians” who populate other mainline denominations.
- In the Assembly of God’s 1990s “Decade of Harvest,” out of the 3.5 million supposedly converted, they showed a net gain of only 5 new attenders for every 100 recorded professions. SBC statistics are startlingly similar.
- In one church Elliff preached at, which he considers quite typical, there were 7,000 on the active roll, but there were only 2000 in attendance on Sunday morning, and a mere 600-700 on Sunday evening. When you account for those attenders who are not members of this flagship church (i.e. guests and non-member children), you have about 1500 actual members coming in the morning and 500 or so in the evening out of 7,000 members.
Clearly, and this comes as no great surprise to those who are part of or are familiar with the Convention, there is something wrong here. Elliff suggests five steps to begin to combat the problem.
First, pastors must preach and teach on the subject of the unregenerate church member. People must be made aware that they can be in a church but be unsaved. They must be encouraged to examine themselves in a way that will show if they are sincere or sincerely deceived.
Second, pastors must address the issue of persistent sin among their members, including their sinful failure to attend the stated meetings of the church. This can only be done by reestablishing the forgotten practice of church discipline.
Third, churches should be more careful on the front end of church membership. Membership must only be extended to those who show evidence of conversion rather than to those who have merely walked down the aisle or ticked the appropriate box on a card.
Fourth, pastors must stop giving immediate verbal assurance to people who make professions of faith or who respond to their invitations. Assurance of salvation is a work of the Spirit, not a task for the pastor.
Fifth, finally, and most importantly, pastors must restore sound doctrine. Elliff points out, correctly, that revival is largely about the recovery of the true gospel. True conversion and true revival follows the recovery of the true and full gospel message.
Elliff points out one further interesting fact. In the 18th and 19th centuries, attendance at Baptist churches was often two or three times larger than membership. So a church with 200 members could expect to have 600 people attending in the 1790’s and over 400 in the 1830’s. Today a church with 200 members would expect fewer than 70 attenders (and only 20 in an evening service).
Elliff concludes in this way. “The next time someone asks how your church and your denomination are doing, tell the truth. Tell them that we have a new confidence in the inerrant Bible. Tell them that we have seminaries that promote orthodoxy, and new evangelistic fervor among the true believers. Tell them we have a lot to be excited about. But also tell them that when considered as a whole, most Southern Baptists need raising from the dead.” And truly the evidence indicates that this is the case. The SBC is a largely unregenerate denomination.
One observation I have made about Baptist churches is that there is an obsession with numbers. This is something I have not seen in Presbyterian or other Reformed churches. Baptists love to gather numbers and compare the size of their congregations. The pastors with the biggest churches seem to have the greatest influence among peers. This obsession with numbers cannot be healthy. Which army would you rather have? Gideon’s first army or his last? No church, and no denomination, should call itself healthy unless more people attend than are on the roll. Elliff says, “We would be closer to the revival we desire if we would admit our failure, humbly hang our heads, and seek to rectify this awful hindrance to God’s blessing. When we boast of how big we are, we are bragging about our shame.”
Amen. How many churches boast about their shame? How many pastors are respected for what they should be ashamed of?
The Southern Baptist churches have incredible potential. But there is such a rottenness in the churches that surely they are achieving only a tiny piece of this potential. Elliff’s five steps may be a great place for churches to begin shaking off their shame and to recover a biblical perspective on church membership.
If you’d like to read Elliff’s article, you can find it here.