Sunday, April 27, 2008


Numbers can go a long way in helping to explain things. Sometimes, too many numbers add to the confusion one may already be experiencing. And when it comes to number crunching, surely by now, we are familiar with the concept that two people can view the same data, crunch the same numbers and arrive at differing conclusions. If one likes variety, the commentary in blogland and the media concerning the SBC's LATEST NUMBERS has provided a lot of it.

The data recently released has given one the opportunity to say that the SBC is a dying soldier.(HERE comment #38) And this individual goes on to say that to refuse to acknowledge that the SBC is dying is equivalent to having one's head stuck in the sand.(HERE comment #42) While it is easy to see that the numbers in the area of membership and baptism have decreased, it is not easy to see how this implies impending death. A tree may lose a leaf or three in the winds that blow and it does not mean death to the tree. In fact, a rose will eventually shed all of its beautiful blooms and cycle through a strengthening stage before it blooms again or it may sleep for a winter waiting the God-given cycle of the seasons in which spring will come again and the rose will have opportunity to bloom. Ecclesiastes gives us this comfort that to everything there is a season and the writer of Psalm 1 records that a tree will bring forth its fruit in its season. It would be foolish to deny the fact that the numbers have fallen. It is rash to conclude that the SBC is dying. Unless of course God has given you an extra revelation.

There are some good thoughts about what is taking place in the SBC and to what end the numbers may have an interpretation. The following two quotes of individuals I have pulled from other blogs and will let you read them for yourself. A link to the original is there should you want to pursue these longer.

The following was posted HERE by Morris. Morris writes:

"I guess I have a little different take on the news. Should we not be considering the fact that maybe the Lord is pruning the SBC in accordance with John 15:2? Why does He prune? So that the vine will bear more fruit."

The following was posted HERE by Dave Miller. Dave writes:

"My point is that we need to examine the data rationally and openly. Debbie wants to use the data to support an extremist pessimism about the SBC. You have tried, I think it is fair to say, to downplay the seriousness of the data, at least to some degree.

I think the data demonstrates a problem. The sky may not be falling. We may not be at a Code Blue as Debbie would like to believe, but we do have a problem, which needs to be addressed."

What I like about both of these quotes is that they encourage us to consider other options before we bury the SBC. I offer my own thoughts now as to what we should be considering as well as we digest the information that these numbers contain.

If, as a gardener, my garden begins to produce less and less there are a couple of questions I may ask myself.

1. Did I plant less seed?
2. Did I plant using Good seed?
3. Did I water what was planted?
4. Did I plant in the same field too often?
5. Did birds or insects devour part of my planting?
6. Did I have enough help to reap what I planted?
7. Did I pull up a veggie while pulling weeds or did my weed killer get blown by the wind onto
my veggies?
8. Did weeds choke out the plants?

These are all things that I can assess. But there are other options that stand above the rest. If God is responsible for giving the increase, then...

9. Did God give us increase but we lost more than we gained?
10. Did God just not give us much increase?

Perhaps you have other options to consider. I prefer the garden variety because so much of Scripture has an agricultural background but offer yours whether garden related or otherwise. While considering these possibilities, it is imperative that we do so with hearts interested more in God's working than our own agendas. Surely there is an explanation. It would be wise for us to see the whole picture before we declare a verdict. The Scriptures record that, "He who is first in his own cause seems just, but his neighbor comes and searches him out." Let us search the evidence and seek the Lord. And may God strengthen and mold the SBC that the lost, through the SBC, will hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


Dave Miller said...

Again, as I said on my site, I hope that the decline has noble and honorable causes. I think there could be some.

Here's my experience. I was pastor of a growing church in Cedar Rapids. We were slow to build our building and maxed out two services, so we entered a time of plateau. We blamed it on the lack of space and the transient people (lots of young families came and then moved for better jobs).

Finally, we built our new building and assumed growth would start again. What we found out then was that the church had actually become kind of inwardly focused. We had lost our heart for the community.

My point is this: we had numerical evidence that all was not well. We continued to define ourselves (and others defined us) by what we had always been - a rapidly growing church. But for several years, our numbers were not showing that.

We SHOULD have looked at the numbers and seen the trends. Then, I could have done something about it earlier. We blamed our numbers on all kinds of "noble" reasons.

But we had a problem. The numbers showed it. We missed it.

I am afraid that the SBC is doing the same thing.

If you read Ed Stetzer's site, you can see a couple of graphs. One shows the percentage growth on a long (50 year) downward trend. The membership numbers show a decade long plateau with a one-year decrease.

I think these numbers should at least cause us to examine ourselves deeply.

Your blog is well-written (and not just because it mentions me - but that is always a positive)

Dave Miller said...

Your comment on my site is interesting. I have been spending a lot of time on certain sites interacting with people who seem more interested in demeaning others than debating ideas.

Yesterday I was going through a site (SBC voices) looking for some new sites. I think I am going to abandon some of the conflict oriented sites (I am tired of the battle - except when I am in a certain mood) and find some new sites of people that have interesting ideas and are interested in discussion.

I am tired of the "You are attacking me" dance that goes on. Wade complains about being attacked while attacking. Ben Cole is Ben Cole. Some of the "Baptist Identity" people moan about how bad they are treated, then use ridicule and condemnation to attack Wade and others.

I either get everyone mad at me when I try to confront what I consider to be inappropriate conversation, or I get frustrated and fall into the same trap.

Your site is the kind I want to read. Also, David Rogers. It still like Bart Barber, who is pretty sharp and usually collegial.

Luke said...

In keeping with the content of my post, I do believe the numbers are decreasing and that the decrease is not necessarily good. When I was in college, we were taught to enroll anyone at anytime in Sunday School and that the Sunday School roll was to be the "seedbed" for the evangelistic efforts for the church. I have heard it mentioned that some see the Church Roll as having the same function to a degree. I'll admit that there are people presently on our roll that are considered MIA. Some cannot be found, some do not want to be found and others, they are not opposed to church, it just does not fit into their busy life schedules right now. Our church roll will soon reflect though only those who are active and I have not yet thought of a what to do with the others. If your church were to visit them, they would claim a relationship with ours but I would say it is Light Year relationship. FAR FAR AWAY.

One point I did find hopeful though is this. If our actual numbers are inflated by say 10 million and we actually have fewer members, then our evangelism ratio of salvations to members would go up and maybe give a more accurate number of what is truly taking place.

I think your illustration of your church is more appropriate with the numbers issue because you had at your disposal, a complete understanding of the numbers from the human side. There are, however, so many factors in the Conventions numbers and so many discrepancies in the numbers that I believe it is much harder to track church growth through membership.

BUT, the decrease in evangelism does more than raise my eye-brows. That is the number that truly "bothers" me. And I think, probably, that to a degree, our decrease in baptism may be a reflection that we have turned inward rather than outward. Complicated by the fact that we are engaging an ever increasing hostile community toward Christianity of the SB sort, I still wonder why God would not be giving the increase. But perhaps that is not the right question. Perhaps the increase has slowed because we are nearing the end of the harvest.

I could postulate on this all day. I think that the calls for true reporting and accountability are valid. I think calls that examine the Gospel we are sowing would be valid. I think calls that examine the Discipleship that is supposed to be taking place would be valid. But in the end, I think it will be old fashioned, hearts poured out before God in prayer beseeching the God of the harvest to give us victory with men that will be the turning point if these numbers are to ever rise again.

Thanks for adding in here. I wish others that come by would either affirm, confirm or contest this in a civil manner.

Luke said...

As far as trying to correct those who behave in ways that are less than appropriate, I try to pick my battles there very wisely. There are some who are bent and steadfast in their ways and unless the Lord changes them, they will remain that way. Better men than I have tried to reason with them and to no avail. It just reveals to me what it is that we are actually facing. And I really try to stay away from the threads when my flesh wants to jump in. If there is any consolation, staying out of the coop as kept me from wearing a lot of egg.

Dave Miller said...

I don't think the SBC numbers are inflated. It is church rolls that are inflated. I assume that is what you meant.

An Iowa church I know reports a membership in the 700-800 range. Last I knew they were struggling to reach 100 in attendance (after several years of trouble).

I dont even know the membership of my current church. We probably had around 300 in worship Sunday (in Iowa - that's a megachurch!). We have probably 400 to 500 who attend this church on a regular basis (at least once or twice a month.)

I wish they would define what number they want us to report. What would be an accurate number?

300? Average Sunday attendance
450-500? The number of people who attend here regularly and consider this their church
600? Our actual membership

I would suggest that the most accurate number that represents the size of the church is the number of people who attend at least an average of 2x per month and consider this their church.

Luke said...


Now we're getting to something we can work with. I think that I could agree with your 2x a month proposal. This would require us to pay more attention to who actually shows up, does wonders for ministry, and would more accurately reflect what is taking place in our churches.

And while this would not be a exact account, it would be about as close as one could get without getting to hair-splitting.

But as you have pointed out, it is our churches that have roles that are inflated and reporting 700 when roughly 100 attend does reflect something. It sure doesn't sound as successful to say I pastor a church with a membership of 120 as it would to say I pastor a church with a membership of 800.

So, would this even need to be addressed by the Convention or would the "Inventory" group simply need to readjust how they phrase their questions or is it also going to take a resolution admonishing pastor's to address these inflated numbers in a Christ honoring way and charging the powers that be to rephrase their request for stats?

Dave Miller said...

It's been years since I did the ACP, so I don't know all the questions asked.

I wonder if they have changed?

Luke said...

I have not done one though my secretary does and she will bring questions to me from the questions on the form. She is no dummy and when she doesn't see the rationale, there isn't an obvious one. We have trimmed our numbers to give a more accurate view but there is another trimming coming up as well. That does not mean we will just toss the names. We'll keep them as prospects but if they do not attend in a year and they live nearby and keep saying they will come, it is obvious that something is more serious to them than the church. Bart has a post about a resolution. It is worth the read but we also know that resolutions are non-binding upon the churches. So I still think part of this needs to be addressed from the paperwork end. Forcing churches into a mold in the SBC will be impossible and not necessarily the needed help. But on the paperwork end, should we have a section that deals with "normal weekly attendance", then we might be able to make headway with some of these numbers.

Dave Miller said...

Let's face one reality, Luke, that we would probably all like to NOT admit.

One of the reasons we overreport numbers is that we preachers WANT to. There is nothing more important to a preacher's ego than reporting good numbers. It shouldn't be, but it is.

Inflation of numbers may well be as much a product of pastor's ego as a denominational issue.

Luke said...

I agree and disagree with you. I personally would like to have larger numbers but I am not going to inflate them to make myself look good. In fact, to be honest, without looking at the ACP, I cannot tell you how many Resident Members we have. But I can tell you how many show up in the average month. But we are planning to clean up our roll. I started looking through it and there's people there that I do not even know who they are. I think what has happened for many of us is that we just leave the rolls the way they are and with the exception of the church clerk, do not ever open the book. At least that is the way it is for me.

But one good thing that can emerge from purging the numbers is that our ratio of baptisms per member will go up. That ought to be a little encouraging.

Dave Miller said...

There are probably 37 very significant causes for our "numbers crunch." None of them explains the whole thing.

When I was a pastor in Virginia, we had monthly associational pastors meetings on Mondays at different churches. Every church had a numbers board in the front. So, when it came time to host the meeting, I went in and changed the numbers around. Our attendance the previous Sunday had been over 900 (the building would have trouble seating 250). Our Sunday school attendance was 600 something.

As we were leaving, I said, "Oops, I guess I got the numbers mixed-up" and corrected them.

The pastors admitted to looking and wondering.

Look at Wade's latest blog (or his next-to-the-last one). He dismissed the "Baptist Identity" movement (which I also have some issues with) because the pastors were mostly small church pastors. He dismissed a movement because it did not include large-church pastors.

There is no question that many pastors see numbers as a sign of status, like others do with fancy cars, etc.

Luke said...

I do not dispute with you one moment that there are pastor's who have the view/s that you presented. I guess I'm a little more of the glass half full kind of guy. I have seen what you are talking about but I have seen others who boasted not in numbers but in the work of the Lord in the members lives and even their own.

As far as Wade's blog, I do read over at it but do not comment. I read the part you are referencing. I think what this row is turning into is that different parts of the body are beginning to boast against different parts of the body. Maybe our numbers are "down" because our body is sick. Until the body is in harmony, it will not function well. If it is true that some want to dismiss small churches, then I guess I'll fall under the umbrella of one to be dismissed. But I think the conversation has taken an unfortunate turn. It used to be about who we could send out as missionaries. Now the conversation is turning out to be what is/is not an acceptable SB church. Maybe Bart was prophetic in that we needed to take some time away from the blog. Things seem to be taking a turn for the bitter.

Dave Miller said...

I am currently preaching a series from Matthew 28:18-20 and then Acts 1-2 on the nature and purpose of the church. It is very possible that your very apt questions listed in this post may find their way into my sermon.

But I have a question or problem about #10. I know that salvation is a sovereign act of God and that there are seasons of planting and season of harvesting.

But, God seems to be in the saving business. In scripture, when God's people walked in obedience and did God's commands, He acted to save the lost.

I have railed often against the idolatry of numbers, but I am not sure that the last question will ever be the real, true problem in the SBC.

If we obey, do evangelism and discipleship, walk in holiness and submission to him, I doubt we will wonder why the numbers are going down.

That which blesses God tends to increase.

What say you?

Luke said...

I appreciate your peering into my question number 10. It might be helpful to explain that I am of the pretrib persuasion. Believing that God gives the increase, I must acknowledge that toward the end of times, we are told that the love of many will wax cold. And so my number 10 is fleshed out in my mind that we may be entering into a time where we are given fewer souls. I know that not everyone holds to my view of eschatology and so to some number 10 may be hard to grasp, but at the end of times, I see a falling away predicted in Scripture,not a building up and in my mind, that would translate into fewer salvations.

I would agree with your last statement that that which blesses God tends to increase. Though at times, this may be preceded by cleansing.

Dave Miller said...

We may be the last two pre-tribbers in the known world.

Luke said...

You got a chuckle out of me on that one. God's Spirit and power be upon you as you preach this day.

Byroniac said...

I just heard a visiting evangelist preach an excellent sermon on "God gives the increase."

There are only two kinds of people in the world, those that belong to the Lord and those that do not. I believe just about every other category has been invented and utilized by man, including denominations such as the SBC. This is why I believe very strongly in the Universal Church, though on earth it is always expressed in the form of the local church as a gathering of fellow believers.

If the numbers of the SBC decline, in my mind, it can only mean that professed believers are proving unregenerate. I realize that sounds harsh, and perhaps it is, but I think it is the truth. Those that are in God's family cannot decline, and our numbering systems will never count all the sheep perfectly without missing some or including false sheep.

So in the end, though the decline in numbers is a human concern of mine, ultimately this too is in God's hands.

Luke said...

Fortunately for us, the power for any success comes from the hand of God.

Surely, John teaches us in his first epistle that there would be those who would go out from us because they were not of us. And that may explain some of the decline.

Surely, there are people who are on more than one roll. That would be an interesting stat to get a hold of. Just how many people are on the church roll of more than one church?

Numbers are important. They do tell a tale. But in the area of adding to or subtracting from the church, it is finally in the Lord's hand to give the increase to which we should all be grateful.

Have a blessed Monday.

Byroniac said...

Hi Luke. That reminds me, my mother has been gone for almost fifteen years now. But while she was alive and I was a fairly young teenager, she told me she had to take her name off the roll of a Baptist church in Burkeville, TX, since she no longer lived any where near there. She suggested I visit and do the same. I mention all that to say this, our names had been on the roll as non-active members for probably ten years!!! (perhaps longer). I never have, but someday I would love to go and hear, "well, let's see here. You were last here in... 1980?!?"

And as for Mondays, I notice that in Genesis Monday is the only day about which there is nothing God says is good. Most Mondays I tend to agree! :)

Luke said...

Maybe we should call you Garfield?:) I do not mind Mondays at all. Come to think of it, there is no day of the week that I really do not like. Wednesdays do seem to last longer but I don't mind them either.

Your illustration is exactly what I'd like to know. Just how many stats are doubled or maybe even tripled due to neglect in bookkeeping, not an evil intent to inflate numbers?

Let's see. Today is Tuesday. God saw that it was Good. What say ye Byron?

Byroniac said...

Luke, good point.

My mindset is usually "guilty until proven innocent" when it comes to numbers on the church roll.

If you know anything at all about Burkeville, TX, it is one of the smallest towns in Texas that I know about. I have no idea how diligent they were/are in bookkeeping, or how frequently they report their numbers. In fact, I do not even know if the church still exists, or even where it was (exactly, but it wouldn't take long to find). But I cannot help but wonder if people believe that having that piece of paper buys them or the church something spiritually (there are a few people I know who think like that, and I too was one of them!). That's why it feels like you have to die three times and present your death certificate in person, then hope for a unanimous congregational vote to get your name off the church roll, and after all that, you've still missed a Wednesday or a Sunday at wherever you belong.

Of course, Creation Tuesday was good, because God said so in Scripture. But this is not Creation Tuesday. And there is no scripture I would personally accept that says May 13th, 2008, is good. So far the jury is still out on that.

Luke said...

Ah but there is a Scripture for today and everday...

Psalm 118:24 This is the day the LORD hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.

Back to church membership. In all of my time in Bible College and Seminary, I was never taught to use the church roll as an evangelism list but I was taught to enroll anybody in Sunday School and to use the SS roll as an evangelism list. I do think it is important that a church know who is on their roll and perhaps going through it may bring evangelistic opportunities. But we also know that the roll is used to determine how many messengers can be sent and the like and so there is definitely a need for responsible church reporting. We are making a move towards that here where I pastor, but we have not completed it as of yet.

Maybe soon I can drive over to Beaumont and we can talk over lunch.

Byroniac said...

From the ESV:

Rom 14:5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.
Rom 14:6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.
Rom 14:7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.
Rom 14:8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's.

Psalm 118:24 does not mention May 13, 2008, anywhere in the text. I'm pretty sure of this. I even went back and re-read it just to be sure. :) In context, the passage is talking about salvation (note the preceding verses). In all fairness, I'm using my passage out of context also, because mine is in the context of Jewish traditions.

As I've mentioned on Peter Lumpkin's blog, I'm just marginally SBC. Our church doesn't participate in reporting numbers as far as I know. We are officially SBC, and have nothing against them, but we are a small church that does not participate in the conventional politics and government. I'm not sure if we should or not--maybe we should--but I have been there for years and we have not. For all intents and purposes, we are basically an independent church (not entirely by choice, but our Reformed theology is not well received in this area).

Luke said...

Ah, you did pick up on the context there. I am quite sure I chose that passage with salvation in mind. Today is the day of salvation. Chew on that one.

You also bring up another point about church reporting. I wonder how many SB churches that used to report just did not. Some, maybe due to oversight. Others, like your church, it just is not that important of an issue. All of these things worthy of consideration when we look at those figures.

When it comes to the Reformed issue, I do not like it when either the Reformed or non-Reformed are so militant as to imply that the other is not/can not be saved. But when both agree that it is only through faith in Jesus Christ and not by works, I just do not see the need for being so divisive. Different we are. But divisive, if we agree that Jesus does the saving, is unnecessary. I said all that to say this, I lament the fact that ya'll have to feel unaccepted by the area, especially if it is coming from Christians. I will be really glad when we get to heaven and there will be no distinctions as such.

Byroniac said...

Well the relevant Scriptures (Isaiah 49:8, and 2 Cor 6:2) mention no calendar dates, and the context is again salvation, so yes, God's salvation is wonderful when He brings it. Even if it is on a Monday. Some people I'm sure have gotten saved on Mondays---I bet it's the only saving grace that day had. ;)

Luke, you said, "When it comes to the Reformed issue, I do not like it when either the Reformed or non-Reformed are so militant as to imply that the other is not/can not be saved."

I'm afraid that is what it will eventually come to, at least in the SBC. I don't believe it must be that way, and I'm not trying to be prophetic and say it will be that way. I like what a fellow friend (a very strong Calvinist) told me, "I'm a three pointer. Death, Burial, and Resurrection." Amen!

Luke said...

I can amen those three points in a heartbeat.