Pastors and churches should feel “very confident” in the trends Annual Church Profile numbers indicate, Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research, said.
“When we get together with other statisticians, Southern Baptist participation in the Annual Church Profile (ACP) is the envy of other denominations,” McConnell told SBC LIFE. “Even denominations that have a top-down authority over their churches cannot get the level of cooperation that we, with autonomous churches, get in the Southern Baptist Convention.”
The ACP is an annual statistical report churches voluntarily submit to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The reported numbers provide an annual snapshot of the impact Southern Baptists are making through their local churches in penetrating their communities with the gospel.
In 2013, the last year on record, Southern Baptists reported a record number 46,125 churches, with an additional 4,789 church-type missions, for a total of nearly 51,000 congregations.
“Every SBC congregation has an ID number that is used by the denomination at the local, state and national level so we can all work from a single identifier for a congregation,” McConnell said.
History of the ACP
Early on, associations gathered information from their cooperating churches to measure effectiveness in their local areas of ministry. Efforts began to be made to gather the associational reports at the state and national levels of convention life; but the information gathered by the various associations was not always comparable.
“Pretty early in the process, the effort was made to begin to have a common set of questions,” McConnell said. “One of the challenges is to make sure that as many associations and state conventions as possible are asking exactly the same set of questions with the same definitions each year.
“We try to make sure that it is not a long list of questions,” McConnell said. “Currently, it is just 14 questions that are asked nationally.”
Value to the church
The ACP gives pastors an annual “report card” to give themselves “a clearer picture of where they are,” Frank S. Page, long-time pastor and current president of the SBC Executive Committee, said. “Pastors are well-known for guessing and wondering and, yes, sometimes exaggerating. The ACP gives real, clear information” that helps the local pastor to “make changes in programming, staffing and budgeting that better reflects where they want to go.
“For example, I remember one year, we saw a deep need in our singles ministry and we were able to move financing and staffing and programming to help fill that niche, meet that need,” Page said.
Another year, “I was able to say, ‘Look, we’re baptizing our children. We’re not doing a very good job of reaching the population,’” he said.
The ACP would “help me in evaluating the various programs and ministries in the church.”
McConnell agreed. The ACP provides churches, associations, state conventions and the SBC “a health scorecard,” he said.
“Things tracked in the ACP should be part of the picture that church leaders consider when they are looking at the health of their church,” McConnell said. “They represent disciples, and the church exists to make and teach disciples.”
The ACP also provides the church “an invaluable record” that helps a new pastor and staff get up to speed quickly about the church’s priorities, key moments in the church’s history, as well as some challenges the church might be facing, he said.
In addition, the ACP establishes “annual accountability” and gives independent credibility to financial institutions when the church may need to borrow money for construction, McConnell said. “The bank would much rather see a printout of a time-series report from the ACP than numbers the church might type into a blank spreadsheet and bring into the bank.”
Just the act of submitting the ACP demonstrates cooperation with a broader group, Page said. “It helps churches understand who they are as a family of Baptists. It’s helpful in the local area to say, ‘Do you know this about Baptists, do you know this is happening?’ It gives a lot of validity and affirmation of a local ministry to say we are part of a broader group and here are some statistics about that group,” he said.
Value to the convention
Page brings a unique perspective on the value of the ACP, having served as a pastor, SBC president, vice president for evangelization at the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and president of the SBC Executive Committee.
“As president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the ACP helped me in making appointments to various committees,” he said. “I said at the beginning of my tenure as president there were several criteria I would use for appointments. One was, were they soul-winners? Well, the ACP helped me know. … Are you a Cooperative Program (CP) champion? Well, if they were, I saw it. If they weren’t, I saw it,” he said.
As NAMB’s vice president for evangelization, ACP data helped in developing God’s Plan for Sharing, “a 10-year multi-faceted, flexible ministry of evangelism,” Page said. “It showed us areas of great evangelistic need across the country. We used a lot of mapping information that was based on the ACP to see where we were, where our strengths were and where our weaknesses were,” he said.
“Now in my role as president of the Executive Committee, we live and die by good information,” Page said. “It is extremely important as we deal with our entities that we have good information as we look toward the future, to see the trends, to know the average CP gift from the churches. It shows us where our strategies need to be.
“I love this quote I recently read: ‘If you see a fish go belly up in a lake, you try to find out what’s wrong with the fish. If you see a thousand fish go belly up in a lake, you better take a look at the lake.’ When you get good ACP information, you look at the lake,” he said.
The ACP requests two types of information, McConnell said. “Some items on the ACP indicate long-term relationships with a church, like membership. We consider that relationship exists until either the church or the individual says the relationship has been broken. So if the church skips reporting in a given year, we will carry forward total membership numbers from the previous year in our totals for the convention,” he said.
“Other questions, though, represent one-time events. Baptisms are things that only happen once. We do not carry forward information from one year to the next because we do not know if a similar number occurred in the next year or if it was higher or lower,” he said.
So the greatest challenge the ACP faces is keeping the response rate as high as possible each year, McConnell said. “A lot of the value individual churches get from doing the ACP really comes from them doing it every year. … Each year, when we see some churches not reporting, the vast majority of them do report the following year.”
ACP response rates remain very high, McConnell said, and Southern Baptists can be confident of the trends they show and the summaries they represent. “The large response every year frankly makes response rates to any other survey that you see in the newspaper put to shame. This is a very good indicator of what is going on in the convention,” McConnell said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Roger S. Oldham is vice president for convention communications and relations with the SBC Executive Committee. This article first appeared in SBC LIFE.)