LifeWay has released the compiled statistics from the most recent Annual Church Profile, and they show that, for the first time, the Southern Baptist Convention has seen a decline in total membership over the previous year.
Some suggest that this decline has the potential to be a good sign, if it could be determined that it is the result of churches working toward the ideal of a regenerate membership. Others, predictably, would have us believe that the sky is falling and the apocalypse is at hand, and that the blame lies with those who would resist the sacrifice of our distinctives in order to be accepted by the burgeoning ecumenical mindset pervading much of the wider evangelical world.
But in reality, it is too early to tell precisely what these numbers mean. Dr. Ed Stetzer has provided some analysis on his blog. There are some rather broad assumptions contained within Dr. Stetzer’s post, and in the comment section of that blog post, Dr. Malcolm Yarnell has offered some challenges to those assumptions that will be helpful for us to consider as we seek to place this news in its proper context. To that end, I encourage everyone to read Dr. Stetzer’s post, as well as Dr. Yarnell’s comment, which is reproduced below:
Thanks for this post. As always, you do provoke thought. However, there are so many assumptions that have gone into your statements, that it is impossible to evaluate them with any depth. Perhaps you would be willing to spell out your thoughts more with detail. For instance, consider these five issues raised in your post:
- Why should we assume that the Conservative Resurgence has not led to a Great Commission Resurgence in the hearts of conservative Southern Baptists? Perhaps there is a passion for the Great Commission that is already existing in our churches. Perhaps the churches are busy proclaiming God’s Word, but the Spirit in His sovereignty has not yet seen fit to bless us with the numbers we desire to see. Perhaps our focus should be less upon meeting statistical goals and more upon simply being faithful with what responsibilities we have been granted.
- Exactly who are these “young leaders” that we are losing? Are they the leaders that God has brought to the fore amongst our churches? If so, have their churches left the SBC? Moreover, may not the elevation of these “young leaders” actually be the very source of the “young vs. old” division that is decried? Moreover, in promoting young leaders, do we not take the risk of downplaying the elders who the churches have chosen to lead them?
- Exactly who among our churches has lost their focus upon the gospel? Is the implication that somehow our churches have forsaken the gospel? How do we verify this rather sharp claim, which, if true, indicates that our churches are no longer, in essence, churches? Needless to say, this is perhaps the most troubling issue raised, for without the gospel, we have no hope of salvation.
- When did we ever decide that our theology was “in order”? Can any of us really claim to have reached perfection in the development of doctrine, apart from standing complete in our salvation before the heavenly throne? Should we not always be about promoting the truth and defending the faith? Is the theological task ever truly finished this side of the Second Coming?
- Exactly what “parameters” have been narrowed in the SBC? Have we not, at our best, been about preserving the faith once for all delivered to the saints? Who, among us, are busy about narrowing parameters of cooperation? Could it be that the parameters have stayed the same but those parameters are no longer appreciated by everyone?
Thanks, my old friend, for raising these important issues. I look forward to our clarifying theology and practice together as Southern Baptists who believe that this is a truly great convention of churches. Let us be the best disciples we can be to the Lord who died on a cross and rose from the dead for us by going, making disciples, baptizing, and teaching all things that Christ has commanded us, even when those things are resisted, even when those very things bring us to frank yet friendly conversations.