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.