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.