Paige Patterson has offered what I believe is an insightful analysis on the ACP report and the wealth of punditry that has followed. Patterson concludes by suggesting four real reasons for the numeric decline. I believe Patterson is spot-on (Patterson’s words appear in italics with my comments following).
1. The first failure is the busyness of the age, which has robbed churches of serious prayer . . . Prayerlessness is foe number one.
Two comments: First, one unintentional aspect of the church growth movement has been a dependence on methods rather than on the power of God. This, of course, was never the attention of McGavran or of the second generation of CGM leaders. Nevertheless, more than fifty years later, McGavran has been largely forgotten and his God-dependent principles with him. I am personally an advocate of Church Growth and its emphasis on removing manmade barriers to the gospel and church growth. However, as McGavran would agree and Patterson alludes in his column, no method can advance the kingdom apart from absolute dependence on God. To the extent that prayerlessness is a characteristic of our churches, we should not be surprised at a decline in our numbers. Patterson rightly calls Southern Baptists to a return to prayer and complete dependence on God for success in ministry.
Second, prayer is not the only casualty of the busyness of the age. Christians have, by and large, abandoned the mission of God for other pursuits. It is time that Christians reject the busyness of the age that centers on the mundane and get consumed by passion for God’s mission. We must reorient our lives around the Great Commission rather than our own self-interests. This leads to Patterson’s second point.
2. The second culprit is our failure to witness. We are so adept at "marketing" and "programming" that we have failed to share Christ individually on a consistent basis. In fact, because meaningful church membership has been traded for numerical addition, most of our people hardly witness at all.
Again, another unintentional and non-McGavranite consequence of some modern mutations of the church growth movement. Numerical addition was never intended to replace meaningful church membership. In fact, McGavran argued for numbers that were meaningful. McGavran states,
“It is not adding mere names to the roll or baptizing those who have no intention of following Christ. Roll-padding, aside from being dishonest, is useless. The numerical increase worth counting is that which endures from decade to decade. Roll-padding and dishonest baptizing will never produce lasting growth.”
To the extent that numerical addition has replaced meaningful church membership, churches ought to repent and return to the growth principles centered on abundant, unhindered, contextual evangelism.
Second, as Patterson has so rightly reminded us, we must return to the actual practice of witnessing. As many have noted, the conservative resurgence has not yet resulted in a Great Commission resurgence. In my opinion, part of the problem among conservative evangelicals, is that we have pursued Christ-likeness in terms of character but not in terms of mission. Certainly, we must pursue the one without abandoning the other. We have forgotten, however, that to become truly like Him, we must allow God to work not only in us, but also through us. How can we know Christ and truly be like him without pouring out our life for his mission to reach the lost? Baptists must renew our commitment to evangelism, not only in theory, but in practice.
3. Third, the shallow state of preaching has exacerbated the lethargy of the church and left the lost with no real Word from God. The pastor ought to be the major source of theological understanding and the most able teacher of the Bible. Anemic pulpits create anemic churches and denominations.
I’ll let Patterson’s words stand on their own here. I will only add to my last point that we must return to preaching the full counsel of God so that our preaching is God-centered, cross-centered, and mission-centered rather than merely self-help, self-actualizing, felt needs preaching. Certainly, we need to preach those texts that help believers become better Christians, but even then the preaching must be centered in Christ and his cross.
4. Finally, our churches, in their hot pursuit of cultural adaptability look more and more like the culture and the world. Even at its best, the church is not good at being the world. In looking like a faint imitation of the world, the holiness of God and a thirst to be like Him have apparently been lost. And with the loss of holiness has come the corresponding loss of power and appeal!
Hear Patterson correctly here. I do not believe he is saying that we must abandon contextualization. He is, however, saying that not all contextual methods and models are God-honoring and faithful to him. We must approach contextualization critically and approach evangelism in away that both communicates to the culture and at the same time remains faithful to the biblical gospel. To the extent that churches have capitulated to the culture and abandoned the offense of the cross, we must return to the true gospel and to biblical models and methods.
In the final analysis, Patterson has offered wise words that should be considered by all Southern Baptists. We must recommit ourselves to the prayerful, powerful, critically-contextual, abundant proclamation of the gospel. Until we do, we should not be surprised when our statistics are not what we wish them to be.
Lord, send a revival and let it begin in me.
 Donald A. McGavran, How Churches Grow: The New Frontiers of