are southern baptists asking the right question?

A friend of mine named John holds a prominent post in southern baptist life. I love his heart to want to see southern baptists living sent and loving the world as the church should. I also appreciate some of the questions he is asking. Here is a clip from a recent email he sent out:

Consider some very sobering statistics. 56% of the growth in Florida Baptist churches from 1960 to 2008 has been through transfer growth. We all know that transfer growth may increase membership or attendance in a specific church, but the Kingdom of God hasn’t grown when people leave one church for another. The mission Jesus gave His church is very specific. We are called to “seek and save that which was lost”.  A church’s attendance and membership can increase through transfer growth while hell’s population increases also. Transfer growth doesn’t de-populate hell. We’ve got to be more missional in our churches and convention of churches.

In 1960 the population of Florida was  4,951,560.  There were 1257 churches and missions in the Florida Baptist Convention at that time.  They gave $2,584,840 to the Cooperative Program.  50% of the Cooperative Program giving stayed in Florida.  There were 62 Florida Baptist Convention staff members. There were 480,407 in total Florida Baptist Convention church membership who witnessed 25,517 people come to Christ and follow through in believer’s baptism.  They baptized .52% of the population of Florida.

In 2008 the population of Florida was 18,807,219. There were 2907 churches and missions in the Florida Baptist Convention at that time.  They gave $38,654,690 to the Cooperative Program.  60% of the Cooperative Program giving stayed in Florida.  There were 154.5 Florida Baptist Convention staff members. There were 1,016,726 in total Florida Baptist Convention church membership who witnessed 34,414 people come to Christ and follow through in believer’s baptism. (Not including approximately 7000 people baptized in our Haiti partnership.)  Our churches baptized .18% of the population of Florida.

We praise God for every witness given, every soul won to Christ, and every dollar given to missions through the Cooperative Program!! We praise God for every staff member who has served our local churches and local associations.

Statistics are not always a true indicator of everything that is happening.  Praise God He knows all that is going on for His glory!!! At the same time, we can learn some things from information we as baptists have desired to gather and report through the years through our Uniform Church Letters and now the Annual Church Profiles.

We are obviously not keeping pace with the population boom of Florida!!  Just last week, I learned from Dr. Tola, Director of Language Missions for the Florida Baptist Convention, that 60% of the population growth in the past five years in Florida is Hispanic. What a wonderful opportunity God is placing before us!!

We must ask ourselves what we see when we consider these kinds of statistics? What do the numbers show? If reaching the lost is truly our mission, how successful have we been?  Are there reasons we are falling behind in reaching our state?  Are we willing to ask hard questions that may lead us to be more effective and efficient in fulfilling the Great Commission here in Florida and globally?  These are just a few questions that come to mind, there are no doubt many others.

When you ponder the stats from the last forty years, several questions typically come to mind. These are the ones I most commonly hear. Why aren’t we baptizing more? Why are so many churches dying? Why aren’t our churches growing at a faster rate, or even growing at all? However, these may not be the proper questions. We’ve been asking these for some time now, and arriving at their answers has not affected change. Could it be that we are not asking the right question? Could it be that we are asking these questions with the assumption that our measurement systems are exactly what they should be? Could it be that the answer to these most commonly asked questions are not helping us focus on the right answer?

A friend of mine was actually on the team of engineers that helped to launch the first space shuttle. He told me the story one time, with a proud smile on his face, of a brainstorming session his fellow engineers and he had before that first launch in order to solve a very small but important issue with the shuttle. It weighed too much to get off the ground. The force of the blast off was not going to be capable to lift the weight of the shuttle and all its accessories. It wasn’t enormously overweight, but like most baptist pastors, it needed to lose just a bit. A change of some sort had to be made.

The engineers looked at the situation from all angles. Most were angles that people who completed only 10th grade geometry would not understand. A simple matter of weighing too much, and these educated engineers could not come up with a possible solution. They finally settled together that they would find something to take out of the cargo bay. However, nothing that could be spared weighed at or above the amount of weight that needed to be shed. They were baffled.

Finally, my friend asked a question. “How much does the paint weigh on the fuel tank of the shuttle?” The amount was calculated. It was just over the amount that needed to be taken away in order to get the shuttle off the ground. A simple problem. So many complicated solutions proposed. The right question. An answer so obvious it is missed. The problem solved. And the shuttle went up with an unpainted fuel tank.

We see the problem. Are we asking the right question? The question that helps us to arrive at the appropriate solution and affect change? What if “why aren’t we baptizing more?” is not the right question? Don’t get me wrong, baptizing is important. That public confession of our personal commitment is a beautiful expression of faith. But asking that for the last forty years has created an emphasis that has not created the desired result. What if the right question is simply this – HOW MANY PEOPLE WHO ARE PART OF A SOUTHERN BAPTIST LOCAL CHURCH FAMILY HAVE MEANINGFUL RELATIONSHIPS OUTSIDE OF THAT LOCAL CHURCH FAMILY? I’m talking about with those Jesus called “lost.” Are there lost people who would introduce that local church member as “my friend.” Sadly, we have been the salt of the earth by acting as a preservative of our church stuff rather than being the church daily as “salt” that brings out the flavors of God in the lives of the lost around us. That’s the only way they’ll taste Jesus. This may be why we are not baptizing more. This may be why churches are dying and not growing.

We see the problem. Are we asking our common questions with the assumption that our measurement systems are exactly what they should be? Take a look at the annual report forms. How many baptized? How many in worship? How many in small groups / Sunday School? Again, all important. But measuring these for the last forty years has not created the desired result. Our measurement systems always indicate our definition of success. How many are coming has been our measurement system. This means that the number of people “coming to church” is our definition of success. However, Jesus sent the church. We all agree that the church is not a place or an event, and yet we keep wanting more and more to “come TO church” or “be AT church.” Both “to” and “at” are prepositions that when used with the word “church” indicate that we do not define church as people. She is a who, not a what. And how many people “come to church” may be the wrong measurement system. After all, “in worship” and “in small groups” are both INward focuses. The church was intended to be sent. How many are living sent? Are our strategies pushing people out the doors of our church buildings to be connecting with the lost or trying to get the lost into a “place” that they don’t want to go? This may be why we are not baptizing more. This may be why churches are dying and not growing.

We see the problem. Are our most commonly asked questions helping us focus on the right answer? Almost all suggestions given for church growth strategies are focused on changing aspects of the church. Better music. Better preaching. Better media. Better visitation programs. Better small group curriculum. Better facilities. Can we really make the church better? Can we make her more beautiful? Can we adorn the bride any more beautifully than Jesus already did at the cross? The answer is simply NO. And we weren’t intended to. Jesus did not expect the world to become infatuated with His church. Jesus did not intend the world to be attracted to something better. He wants no one else courting His bride. He wants the world to fall in love with Him and become His bride. Are people staring at Jesus when they look at your local church, or just some place or event you have attempted to make more attractive? Maybe that’s why we are not baptizing more. Maybe that’s why churches are dying and not growing.

Because people can become engaged with church and not meet Jesus. However, if they become engaged with Jesus, they will be His church.

These statistics are alarming. If we do not make a shift from “come and see” approaches to “church,” then I am afraid the statistics will tell a far worse story forty years from now. May we ask the right questions, define success the way Jesus did, and focus on Him.

13 thoughts on “are southern baptists asking the right question?

  1. I echo your sentiments. We have been asking the wrong questions. Change of thinking is difficult and slow for those who have grown up asking the wrong questions. But we are called to lead them there. I am praying for you.

  2. I would ask then, what are the right questions? On the living sent, I do remember having to fill out sections of my Annual Church Profile that dealt with how many people were working on a local, state and international missions. Not all of the questions are good. However, until we have better questions to go to, the ones we have offer us a mark. If we have no mark, we will shoot for nothing.

    • Hey Mike – thanks for the response! I agree, we have to emphasize what Jesus values or else our values will not be shaped and then our lives will not change. I do suggest a few questions in the blog post. Not sure if you noticed them. I was curious what you think would be a good question or two? Let’s continue the dialogue. Thanks man.

  3. I thank God for giving you this insight and your willingness to share it. May we go back to the Founder and Author of our Faith!

  4. Live Sent. Simple. Clear. Mostly untried. As I intentionalize the process in my life I am finding the very joy for which I entered minstry 20 years ago. I am becoming more aware of God’s “already inprocess” work all around me. I am seeing real life change in the people who I do life with in the life group I lead at Chets Creek Church. I am finding my heart grateful to be allowed to participate in what God is already initiating instead of feeling like I have to do my duties as a religious professional.

    This story captures it for me. Tina, my sweet wife, and I were not going to be home on Halloween evening to passout candy to kids who would come by. So as we left she came out to the car with a large bowl with individually wrapped bags of candy. She wanted us to take candy to the families she is trying to build a relationship with in our neighborhood. So we went around reverse trick or treating. As we did that I thought wow I get to see God working in the heart of my life partner as she builds relationships in ways I never would think of. I love it when God shows off in the lives of people I know.

    Jason, your writing, friendship and life have been a part of that transformation. thanks

    • Thanks so much, Bob. You have been a HUGE encouragement to me. So respect you as a friend and leader, and I am blessed to be walking together with you as we live sent. Thankful.

  5. Good word Jason. We, the church, tend to base our success on an attractional level. “How many people showed up” or “how many people have we dunked”.

    If we really want to see people changed and see a movement happen, we have to start building relationships and seeing lives changed. As those lives change and as those new converts begin living out the great commission, then we start seeing change happen.

    So our questions should not be “how can I baptize more people” but should be focused on how we can live sent and take the gospel to the community and allow it to begin shaping the culture.

  6. I am the master teacher this Sunday for my middle school department and the lesson is on the Great Commission: your article hit my lesson head on. Thank you and God bless!

  7. Hey Jason,

    Love this post. As I was reading it I kept thinking about how Jesus was accused of being a friend of sinners. Could we be accused of such? I grew up hearing more about “inviting people to church” than I did about being the Church. Going to church is not a bad thing; however, I think the statistics show that people can go to church for years, but stumble right over Jesus. They look like a good “church member” and they may even do a few activities that we call “outreach”, but they may not have a personal, growing relationship with Jesus. SAD.

    Another thing to consider is this…….some may have met Jesus, but leadership has grossly misunderstood their role and many have adopted the idea that pastor’s are “the paid professionals” and lay people just need to leave it all up to them. I mean isn’t that what pastor’s are being paid to do? This idea is not just pastor’s misunderstanding their role, but congregations buying into that mentality too.

    Pastors need to give their congregations permission to be on mission. This may mean that people witness to people on a side of town that may NEVER attend our particular church. We must be more concerned about building God’s Kingdom than are own.

    Lately, I’ve heard the Lord ask me some pretty tough questions as He has recently redirected my family to another local gathering.

    Are you more loyal to that particular church or to me?

    Are you more loyal to a certain group of people or to me?

    Are you trying to build your kingdom or mine?

    Will you follow me wherever I lead?

    Am I still your first love?

    I think so many times I get distracted by what I think is MY ministry, not much room for Jesus when I have that attitude.

    GOOD, good stuff you have written. Love your book. Keep writing.

    We need to be continually reminded.

  8. A link to this website came up on Facebook tonight and I’m so glad I followed it. Lots to chew on here. Thanks! Jason, it’s been years. I’m from Union. I think you were a year…maybe two ahead of me. Not sure if you remember me, but I appreciated this post and wanted to say thanks.

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