Monday, April 28, 2008

A Second Look at the Annual Church Profile (ACP)

As Dale Carnegie said, “Of course, I could be wrong – I often am.” The truth is, I don’t really know what the numbers mean for our denomination. Upon further review, however, I did find one statistic of particular interest. One significant number figured in the ACP is the ratio baptism rate—a ratio which continues to increase. In 2007, the number of baptisms to members was 1:47. In 2006, the ratio was 1:45.

The significance of the year-to-year changes reflected in the ACP report remains elusive. Even the change in the baptism ratio is not easily explained. Looking back at my last post, if I am correct about only the change in who is a candidate for baptism, i.e. we are baptizing fewer people but no less are being genuinely converted, then one would expect the ratio to rise. That is, fewer total baptisms means fewer baptisms per member. If, however, I am correct only about the change in membership reporting, i.e. some churches are cleaning their roles, then you would expect the baptism ratio to decrease. That is fewer members means fewer members per baptism. If I am right about both, then the numbers will off-set to some degree. If I am right about neither, then we have reason to be alarmed. While the year-to-year change may or may not be significant, I am more concerned with the change in ratio baptisms from 1:19 in 1950 to 1:47 in 2007. This seems to me to be a bigger problem than the changes in reporting practices can account for. If Dr. Stetzer is correct, the decline in ACP numbers is part of a 50-year trend. (I highly recommend reading and pondering Stezer's original assessment, whether or not you agree).

Regardless of what the numbers mean, I offer two opinions:

1. We should be concerned about increasing our evangelism efforts.

2. We should be concerned with statistics – that is, the numerical results of our efforts.

No, we should not make statistics an idol. Yet, neither should we ignore numbers as one useful indicator of our faithfulness to the evangelistic task. Results are not faithfulness, but they may indeed be an indicator of faithfulness or a lack thereof. In the face of declining numbers, every church must be willing to ask themselves whether their lack of results is an indicator of a lack of faithfulness. (For more on this, see my forthcoming dissertation).

In response to Stetzer's assessment on our declining numbers, Malcolm Yarnell suggests,

“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.”

Of course, Dr. Yarnell’s scenario is within the realm of possibility. However, should we default to the assumption that we are being faithful without conducting a rigorous examination of our evangelistic efforts? I respectfully offer another “perhaps.”

Perhaps we are NOT busy at the work of evangelism. Perhaps we do not often share the gospel. Perhaps in our evangelism we do not clearly present the cross of Christ. Perhaps we are failing to communicate the gospel clearly, in a contextual manner, without unnecessary social or culture barriers. Perhaps we are presenting facts without pressing for a verdict. Perhaps God is waiting for our obedience. Perhaps we are NOT being faithful.

Are we or are we not? Again, the answer to these questions is not in the ACP. The numbers may mean a variety of things. Of course, we should not base our entire assessment of either our denomination or our local church on numbers alone. Dr. Yarnell is right that we should be focused on being faithful more than on numbers. However, I would suggest that numbers are a good place to start in self-examination. The ACP ought to get us to ask of ourselves the hard questions. Just what IS the significance of the numbers? If we are unwilling to examine ourselves, our motives, our methods, and our evangelistic activity, how can we justifiably claim that all is well?

Let us press on toward the mark. Let us be consumed with the mission of God and his glory. Let us not be satisfied with sagging numbers until we are absolutely sure we are doing all we can for the cause of the gospel.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

SBC Numbers Down

Well, I just finished my dissertation and can return to blogging . . . just in time to respond to the 2008 ACP report. In a nutshell, baptisms are down, membership is down, church planting and attendance is up.

Before offering my analysis, let me affirm that I am neither interested in spinning the statistics for the purpose of preserving the perceived status of the SBC, nor do I wish to overstate the significance of the report as a way of highlighting the importance and urgency of renewing our passion for evangelism as a denomination.

That being said, while the ACP is valuable for self-evaluation and year-by-year comparison, the significance of numbers from one year should not be overblown. The number of churches reporting is not consistent (down 1300 this year), and the way that churches report is in flux. I personally believe that there is a gradual shift in the way that churches are counting. An increasing number of pastors are baptizing less people because they are, rightly or wrongly, raising the bar on who they are willing to baptize. This may account for at least part, if not all, of the decline in the number of baptisms. Further, some pastors are, under the banner of regenerate church membership, leading their churches to clean up their membership roles. An example of this attitude can be seen in the (defeated but widely supported) resolution proposed by Tom Ascol last year on integrity in church membership. That an increasing number of churches are reducing their membership in this way may account for some or all the decline in membership.

It is quite possible that the cumulative ACP statistics are seeing a kind of correction, similar to what happens periodically on the stock market, which could continue over the next 5 to 10 years as more and more church leaders adopt these practices. This, in my opinion, would be a good development in the long run.

The continued use of statistics, however, should not be rejected. Statistics are a valuable tool, but numbers are only as valuable as the facts they represent. While ACP reporting practices are changing, the value of the cumulative annual report may be, for the time being, diminished. However, ACP statistics can be a valuable tool in a church’s self-evaluation process. Since a church tends to report numbers in the same way, significant changes in particular statistics can communicate a lot about a church’s progress or lack thereof. Comparison with other churches, however, will prove useless as long as churches do not report their numbers in the same way. Likewise, when churches vary extensively in their baptism practices, comparison of the number of baptisms is often misleading and unfair. Such comparisons often reflect poorly on churches who may actually produce more genuine converts.

In any case, given the gradual change in the nature of ACP numbers, there may not be anything definitive we can conclude about this year’s ACP report. The report will be seen by some as a positive development, by others as a disaster, but hopefully will remind all of the urgency of our evangelistic task.