In Major League Baseball, 38% is outstanding. If you can hit .380, you will be an All-Star and if you can do it year-after-year, you’ll be a Hall-of-Famer. Sadly, the same may be true in the church. If your church brings in 38% out of its members every week, as the average SBC church does–according to the “SBC 2008 Annual Church Profile Summary”–it may be regarded as a thriving mega-church and the pastor a successful soul-winner. Yet beneath the active veneer (or trendy website), something more pernicious may be at work.
Revelation 3:1 warns, “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead,” and in his article, “Southern Baptists, an Unregenerate Denomination,” Jim Elliff explains why this warning to Sardis applies to the churches of the SBC.
Elliff writes honestly about the condition of our Southern Baptist Churches, and calls for churches to stop playing number games and to find the millions that are missing. Appealing to the New Testament church, not the neo-evangelical church, he shows from Scripture how every author of the New Testament warns of false conversion and spiritual deception. He makes the case that if a church is healthy and regenerate, attendance should outnumber membership. And he points to our baptists forefathers as prime examples. Citing the work of Greg Wills, he writes:
In the Philadelphia Baptist Association Minutes, our first association, our initial American statistical record shows that five times as many people attended the association’s churches as were on their rolls. Greg Wills in Democratic Religion in the South (Oxford University Press, 1997, p.14) reports that three times the number on the rolls attended Baptist churches, then located mostly along the eastern seaboard when surveyed in 1791 by John Ashlund. In 1835, the Christian Index of Georgia recorded that “not less than twice the number” of members were in attendance.
Today, in rough numbers, it takes 300 people on our rolls to have 100 attenders. In the 1790s, it took only 33. Or, to put it in larger figures, it now takes nearly 3000 people, supposedly won to Christ and baptized, to result in a church attendance of 1000. Then, it took only 333. Our potency has diminished to such an extent that we must “win” and “baptize” over 2,000 more people to get to the same 1000 to attend.
Churches today, who possess the same Holy Spirit, should expect nothing less. And in truth, we should long to follow in the wake of these Great Awakening churches.
While his article points out a number of depressing features about the health of churches in the SBC, he also points out the possibility for great recovery if we will be honest about the problem and return to preaching the Word of God and applying its principles of church discipline and evaluating sinners according to biblical standards, not decision cards.
Consider, for instance, Elliff’s comments about preaching on regeneration:
It was the preaching of regeneration, with an explanation of its discernible marks, that was the heart of the Great Awakening. J. C. Ryle, in writing of the eighteenth century revival preachers, said that they never for a moment believed that there was any true conversion if it was not accompanied by increasing personal holiness. Such content was the staple of the greatest of awakening preaching throughout the history of revival. Only such a powerful cannon blast of truth could rock the bed of those asleep in Zion.
Love for the brethren, longing for the Word, and desire to serve others are necessary marks of the genuinely converted. Failure to assemble is a mark of God’s judgment (cf. Heb 10:25-39). Thus 38% attendance bespeaks of our great need for humility to be honest about our numbers and the condition of our churches. Only once we properly assess the problem, can we petition God for the solution — a fresh outpouring of his Spirit and a harvest of lasting fruit.
Though it is a bitter pill to swallow, Jim Elliff’s argument points us in the right direction, as he points us to the mirror of God’s word. The glory of Christ’s church is at stake, as well as the souls of millions of missing “believers.” May we labor with contrition and confidence for the sake of Christ’s church.
To read the whole thing, see his CCW article “Southern Baptists, an Unregenerate Denomination.” For more on the nature of a healthy church see Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church and Thabiti Anyabwile’s What is a Healthy Church Member?
Soli Deo Gloria, dss