Last week the Southern Baptist Convention reported declines in baptisms, church memberships, and worship attendance. The declining numbers of the SBC are not just of concern to Baptist congregations, they should be troubling to all evangelical churches in America. But troubling is not the same as hopeless.
Christians should always be a people of hope, continually reminding ourselves that “the gates of hell will not prevail” against the church.
The solution to our spiritual problems will always be the same spiritual solution – Christ and His gospel. Numerical decline is often a symptom of allowing our gaze to drift from Jesus to other things.
Therefore, in order to reverse the decrease, it is a matter of returning our eyes to the cross and all the implications of the salvation Christ has procured for us.
That does not mean, however, the solution will remain purely theoretical. Spiritual is not the same as theoretical.
A spiritual change should have practical results. One of which, in this case, will be a culture change among believers that recognizes the value of commitment to the local church.
The Missing Members
Part of the problem stems from Nominals becoming the Nones.
Nominals are those who are Christian in name only. If they were asked what religion they belong to, they would answer “Christian” merely because they have some type of cultural affinity and familial connection to Christianity.
They are no longer an active part of any congregation, but many of them are still counted as members of churches because of a purported decision they made as a young child or teenager.
As the cultural price for being a Christian rises, these individuals begin to see as more attractive selecting “None” as their religion on a survey.
In a blog post entitled “The State of the American Church: Hint: It’s Not Dying,” Ed Stetzer, president of the Lifeway Research Division, explained it this way:
As I see it, the numbers of people who those of us in the church would say are actually committed Christians—those who are practicing a vibrant faith—are not dying off. The Church is not dying. It is just being more clearly defined.
The “Nones” category is growing quickly, but the change is coming by way of Cultural and Congregational Christians who no longer feel the societal pressure to be “Christian.” They feel comfortable freeing themselves from a label that was not true of them in the first place. Convictional Christians are not leaving the faith; the “squishy middle,” as I like to call it, is simply being flattened.
People who are only loosely connected to the church are leaving it completely. They are not unchurched, but rather dechurched. They have not seen the church as necessary or even worthwhile.
The first step to correcting the downward trend in the SBC and elsewhere is to demonstrate the value of being committed to a local church.
Closing the Church’s Back Door
Church observers have long spoken about people coming through the front door, making a profession of faith, but then walking right back out the back door, often never to be seen again.
There has been no real sense of commitment, no understanding of what it means to belong to a local church body. Quite frankly, many Christians have no idea what it means to be a church member.
Even for those denominations and churches that do not use membership, they still seek to connect individuals to their church body and have them serve Christ, each other, and those in their community. This should be the desire of every church.
But too often, the back door remains gapping and people leave with little or no attempts by those remaining to bring them back.
In his book, I Am a Church Member, Lifeway Christian Resources president and CEO Thom S. Rainer details what it truly means to be part of a church family. There should be a level of commitment involved.
He includes a pledge at the end of the book. Here is an excerpt, taken from his blog:
I am a church member.
I will seek to be a source of unity in the church. I know there are no perfect pastors, staff, or other church members. But neither am I. I will not be a source of gossip or dissension. One of the greatest contributions I can make is to do all I can in God’s power to help keep the church in unity for the sake of the gospel.
I will not let my church be about my preferences and desires. That is self-serving. I am in this church to serve others and to serve Christ. My Savior went to a cross for me. I can deal with any inconveniences and matters that are just not my preference or style.
I will pray for my pastor every day. His work is never-ending. His days are filled with constant demands for his time; with the need to prepare sermons; with those who are rejoicing in births; with those who are traveling through the valley of the shadow of death; with critics; with the hurts and hopes of others; and with the need to be a husband and a father. My pastor cannot serve our church in his own power. I will pray for God’s strength for him and his family every day.
I like the metaphor of membership. It’s not membership as in a civic organization or a country club. It’s the kind of membership given to us in 1 Corinthians 12: “Now you are the body of Christ and individual members of it” (I Corinthians 12:27). Because I am a member of the body of Christ, I must be a functioning member, whether I am an “eye,” an “ear,” or a “hand.” As a functioning member, I will give. I will serve. I will minister. I will evangelize. I will study. I will seek to be a blessing to others. I will remember that “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
I will lead my family to be good members of this church as well. We will pray together for our church. We will worship together in our church. We will serve together in our church. And we will ask Christ to help us fall deeper in love with this church, because He gave His life for her.
I am a church member.
And I thank God that I am.
To reverse the trend in SBC churches and evangelical congregations in America, those joining the church must come to realize that being a follower of Christ requires a commitment. Picking up your cross is a step of complete surrender and that happens within the community of believers at a local church.
Churches must begin by closing the back door and demonstrating to those who seek to be involved that they are joining a family that is united under the leadership of Christ for the betterment of each other and for reaching those outside the church.
One of the best ways to seal that commitment and make it more tangible is to have members invested and involved in a small group, which we’ll cover in our next post, Culture Change: Recognize the Value of Small Groups.