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May 06, 2005

A Resurgence Not Yet Realized ...

Obviously, this is about Thom Rainer's newest report on the status of evangelism in the Southern Baptist Convention. Dr. Rainer has found, through interviews with local Southern Baptist churches, that while the conservative resurgence has had great success, especially in changing the course of the SBC's seminaries, the expected evangelistic growth has not happened.

The full article is published in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology for Spring 2005, and I got my free copy today. Unfortunately, it's not available on Southern's web site yet, so you can't actually go there and read it -- and I'm not sure about copyright restrictions, or I'd offer to send anyone who wants it a copy. It is a rather revealing look at the Southern Baptist Convention -- and not a very flattering one.

Dr. Rainer uses two statistics as indicators of evangelistic effort and growth: the total number of baptisms reported, and the ratio of baptisms to church members. His data shows that Southern Baptists baptized not many more people in 2003 than they did in 1950 -- 376,085 in 1950 vs. 377,357 in 2003. The data also shows that there has no real sustained growth in baptismal rates since 1950 -- throughout the 47 year period, total baptisms never go above 445,725 and never dip below 336,050. We are, if nothing else, consistent.

The ratio of baptisms per church member is an interesting statistic. It purports to show how many people it takes per church to reach one person with the Gospel. Obviously, the fewer members it takes to result in one baptism, the better. Southern Baptist churches averaged 43 church members to 1 baptism, as opposed to 36:1 in 1978 and 19:1 in 1950.

Dr. Rainer then contrasts the SBC statistics with those of the CBF (Cooperative Baptist Fellowship). For those who don't know, the CBF is seen as a sort of anti-SBC: moderate (and some outright liberal) churches who were upset at the conservative turn of the SBC left and formed their own group. The CBF and it's association with the Baptist World Alliance was a factor in the SBC pulling out of the BWA. (Add a few more acronyms to THAT sentence and you have alphabet soup!) The statistics he was able to compile from the CBF shows that they are actually doing worse than the SBC is doing.

Dr. Rainer admits that the data that he collected isn't the best. Data from the CBF is problematic because of the difficulty in getting a full list of CBF member churches. Their web site lists some churches, but clearly says that the list isn't a membership roster. 638 churches affiliated witht he CBF were included in the study: the CBF claims membership of 1,800 churches.

Assuming that the data is accurate, I think that Dr. Rainer's interpretations are correct. The conservative resurgence hasn't had the impact on evangelism that it was expected to have, but without it, things could be much worse -- judging from the CBF data.

Dr. Rainer has several hypotheses concerning why this has happened. I think that the truth lies in a mix of a few of his ideas. The US has become less receptive to evangelistic outreach -- people are more likely to think of faith as "a personal thing". There are unsaved members in our churches -- church membership is still considered a status symbol in some areas, and church membership is seen as something "good people do." Pastors are discouraged from making sure that members are, in fact, Christians because of the numbers game that we play. At the very least, we have many nominal Christians in the pews every Sunday. We need to focus on making sure that our church members are, in fact, Chrisitans -- make them aware that membership in the local church does NOT gaurantee them membership in the body of Christ. Then we need to make them aware of the responsibility they have to the lost -- the duty that we have to tell them of Christ, and the salvation available in Him.

{EDIT} Other places that are covering this story: GetReligion, Emerging SBC Leaders, and Amy Welborn. Click here for the Baptist Press article.

Posted by Warren Kelly at May 6, 2005 10:58 PM | TrackBack
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