If you only read the headlines that appear in the media, you would conclude the sky is falling on American Christianity. That is not true. Glenn Stanton has summarized several legitimate studies of religion in America to give us a hopeful assessment in his new book The Myth of the Dying Church. Here are some of the facts not being reported.
The percentage of Americans who are evangelical has grown by 5 million since 2007. Evangelicals could be defined as those who believe the Bible is inspired and true and emphasize a “born again” experience.
Where are the losses in church attendance mainly occurring? Liberal mainline churches lost 5 million members over the same time period.
Since 1972, the liberal churches have declined from 32 percent of America’s population to 12 percent. The rise of the “nones” has come almost exclusively from those who are leaving those denominations.
Stanton has reported that the only evangelical denomination that is reporting a loss is our Southern Baptist Convention. Why are our numbers declining when the rest of evangelicalism is growing?
I believe a clue to this transition comes from another factor Stanton documents: the rise of the number of evangelicals who now attend “non-denominational” churches. One out of five evangelicals attend what they believe to be a non-denominational church. They are still evangelicals, but they have left denominational nametags behind.
I believe the growth of non-denominational churches is one of the factors influencing our numerical decline. Here are some things to consider about this new trend.
Many of the non-denominational churches are baptistic. They practice believer’s baptism. They believe in the full inspiration of the Bible. Doctrinally, Southern Baptists find themselves at home quickly in these churches.
Some of our people may think they are attending non-denominational churches when they are actually attending SBC churches. Most of my children attend churches affiliated with the SBC that do not have Baptist in the name. Some of our strongest churches and leaders use mission or values-oriented names, rather than traditional or descriptive names.
They are strong churches that actively participate in Southern Baptist missions and ministries, but do not emphasize their ties to the SBC. Their goal is to attract people who may not attend a Baptist church because of what they feel is the baggage attached to that name. When pollsters like those used in Stanton’s book contact them, they may identify as non-denominational.
Let me throw out one more possible factor in our numerical decline. Some of it may be due to the fact that fewer SBC churches are taking the time to fill out the Annual Church Profile. This report is the only way we have of knowing how many people attend our churches, how many we are baptizing and so on. To be honest with you, the report is long, and takes valuable time to fill out. It is concerned with many programs that were more a part of our past than our present.
We have around 800 churches in North Carolina who give to Southern Baptist causes through our state convention, yet did not fill out the Annual Church Profile. How many baptisms took place in those churches? Are we underreporting our attendance and membership because we lack the data?
What can we do in response to these trends?
1) We should make it simpler to report the major facts about a church each year: number of baptisms, attendance and more. I would recommend a post card sized Annual Church Profile. If more churches reported data, we would have a better grasp on the facts.
2) We need to help people understand the value of giving to Southern Baptist missions and ministries. An evangelical church will want to give money to missions. When a church gives to missions, they try to find causes they agree with. The Mormons send out many missionaries, but I will not support them because I strongly disagree with their teaching. If your financial support goes through Southern Baptist channels, you can know the doctrinal bedrock underneath that mission work will include a strong belief in the Bible and an accurate witness to the gospel.
3) We need to do a better job in communicating what we are doing through the lifeline of Southern Baptist missions – the Cooperative Program (CP). The CP gives every church a way to impact the world. It involves every church in a balanced set of ministries that go from reaching the nations, reaching our state, helping make people’s lives better through benevolent causes and training future leaders.
I will attempt to explain the great work being done by the Cooperative Program in a future article.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Steve Scoggins is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Hendersonville and president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.)