One of the main topics of concerns presented during the Southern Baptist Convention"s annual meeting this year was the "plateauing" or declining level of membership in the denomination"s 42,000 churches. While the 16-million member denomination as a whole has not suffered membership loss over the past years, 70 percent of their churches have, according to a new study released by the associate director of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS)"s Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health.
According to the Southern Baptist"s news service Baptist Press, Bill Day "ranked congregations in the SBC according to frequently used definitions for growing, declining and pleateaued churches." The results showed that only 30.3 percent of the congregations showed 10 or more percent membership growth over the past five years.
Baptist Press noted that "although that (30.3 percent declining) statistic has remained basically unchanged for 20 years, the number of declining Southern Baptist churches has increased by 6 percent from 17.6 percent to 23.9 percent." "Declining congregations," as defined by Day, are those whose memberships decreased by a level of 10 or more percent. Plateaued churches, those between the absolute value of 10 percent growth/decrease, comprise 45.8 percent of all SBC churches.
During a presentation of the statistics in mid-October, the NOBTS President Chuck Kelley noted some "bright spots" for the church, according to BP. Kelley said some "a few churches" grew enormously between 1998 and 2003; the Stonegate Baptist Church in Midland, Texas, for example, grew 3,122.6 percent.
"It is possible in this day and time to have a growing church," Kelley said during his presentation.(BP) "However, the good news of 30 percent of our churches growing is really not that good."
However, on the downside, Kelley noted that even of the 13,000 "growing" SBC churches, some 1,409 of them reported "no baptisms in 2003."
To account for the surveying flaw, Day said he wished to set a new standard to define the meaning of the "healthy" SBC church.
The new standard would incorporate "a 10 percent total membership growth over five years,at least one baptism for the first and last years of the study, a member to baptism ratio of 35 or less to one in the final year of the study, and conversions accounting for at least 25 percent of the total membership growth during the final year of the study."
Under the new potential guidelines, only 11 percent of all Southern Baptist churches would qualify as healthy and growing, Day noted.
Kelley, meanwhile, explained that the way to reverse the dangerous trend was for Southern Baptists to regain the passion for evangelism.
"And what we are seeing right now out on the field ... is that the passion of Southern Baptists for reaching lost people for Christ is fading," he said. "That focus on the necessity of people to be born again through faith in Jesus Christ is fading in Southern Baptist life."
Added Kelley: "I believe that God is capable of doing a great and mighty work such as this nation has ever seen. God is able, and God is willing. The question is: "Are we available?".