Churches come in all sizes. Across the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) there are churches that will see a dozen people in weekly worship attendance. Then there is the largest SBC church, NewSpring Community Church in Anderson S.C., that reported 27,158 in weekly attendance last year.
Every year Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, collects the data churches submit in the Annual Church Profile (ACP) and publishes a list of SBC churches that report 1,000 or more in weekly church attendance. His complete list of the 563 largest churches can be found on ThomRainer.com.
We identified 31 North Carolina churches on Rainer’s list and published them on page 10 of this week's print issue. Many will rejoice with these churches. I am among them. But I know that some will look with skepticism on methods employed to reach the lost, unchurched and disillusioned. Some will criticize them and even attack the churches’ leaders or elements of the churches’ styles. I’ve learned that I should not to be surprised at what people say and how harshly some believers will criticize other believers.
At the risk of being the target of such critics, I would like to put some things in perspective.
Let’s begin by stating the obvious: churches are very different. Each is unique and does ministry in a variety of ways. I believe that’s why we call our churches “autonomous.”
A church does not have to be large in order to be strong in missions involvement, plant new churches or send someone from the congregation to an overseas assignment. A church does not have to be large to give generously to the Cooperative Program (CP) or mission offerings. Being a large church is not a prerequisite for winning the lost or making disciples.
In fact, some will be quick to say that a significant number of churches on Rainer’s list do not give the largest sums to CP or national and international missions. Many other churches shine brighter than the largest churches in that category.
Some large churches excel in church planting and disciple-making. For others this is a serious weakness. And let us be quick to point out, the same can be said of smaller churches. Strengths and weaknesses abound in churches of every size. There is no perfect church. There are great small and medium-size churches, and there are great large churches.
Worship attendance does not tell the whole story. Numbers represent people gathered for worship in one location, or, in some cases, in multi-site locations. But there is more to talk about in the big picture of Kingdom activity.
For this reason, I asked LifeWay to provide additional numbers that look at all Southern Baptist churches. The chart on this page lists the information they shared.
A casual glance of the second column from the right shows that when comparing the numbers against the total number of churches, those with less than 100 in weekly attendance make up approximately 49 percent. Those who count 100-999 in weekly services total 26 percent. Churches above 1,000 represent 1.2 percent of reporting SBC churches.
If you study the figures carefully, you will notice that the totals do not add up to 100 percent. The first column shows the total number of reporting churches is 35,130. But there are 46,125 churches who identify with the SBC. The difference is the 11,000 churches, almost 24 percent, who did not complete the ACP last year.
The last column shows the percentage of churches in each size category if the percentages are calculated based only on the churches who submitted the ACP. This is a more accurate picture. In this case, 64 percent have less than 100 in weekly attendance, 34.4 percent count 100-999 in weekly services and 1.6 percent average more than 1,000 weekly attenders.
The absence of reporting from 11,000 churches creates a very broad “we don’t know” factor. It is an information gap that leaves an incomplete picture and invites speculation.
Some have suggested that perhaps our baptisms and attendance numbers have not declined, as many have reported. The ‘perceived decrease’ is lost in the uncounted 24 percent. That’s my point – speculation always grows in the absence of facts.
We can fix that. Between now and the first of October every Baptist church should give attention to completing their ACP. This simple action will provide an honest picture of who we are.
I know there are some who break out in hives over reporting statistics. The aversion to reports is typically justified as more spiritual.
There is nothing uniquely spiritual about filling out the ACP. But neither is it unspiritual. It is simply a truthful list of basic information.
Some pastors have said, “I refuse to play the numbers game.” Sounds spiritual, doesn’t it? Well, not really. Has anyone called for the removal of the book of Numbers from the Bible?
Consider this hypothetical conversation: “When I visit my doctor all he cares about is numbers. He wants to know my weight, height, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, triglycerides and a long list of other numbers that I don’t understand. He doesn’t really care about me. He just wants my numbers!” Such a statement about your doctor would be absurd.
Of course your doctor cares. That is the very reason for gathering the necessary information. It provides vital data so medical professionals can make an intelligent, informed diagnosis of one’s physical condition. Numbers are a not just a helpful assessment tool – they are absolutely essential. Without accurate numbers, serious – even fatal – decisions are possible.
Let’s be reasonable. Everyone gains when a church completes the ACP.
Your church will have a valuable record of information to track your history and envision your future. The local association can do a better job of developing a mission strategy and designing ministries for your community.
The state convention will have necessary data for planning and evaluating mission partnerships with churches and associations. The Southern Baptist Convention will know where we stand – factually – instead of guessing between information gaps.
Thank God for churches of every size who are faithful to the Word of God, impacting their community with the gospel, making disciples and taking the gospel to the ends of the earth!
If you have any questions about completing your church ACP and filing it with your local association or with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, please contact Russell Schwab at [email protected] or (800) 395-5102, ext. 5582.