The denominational stool has gotten a little wobbly…part 1: discipleship

First of all, I am unabashedly a Southern Baptist and I have been since before I was born (I actually have a sermon outline completed by my mother one day before I was born!)

I love the way the SBC does missions and church autonomy, but there is a problem, my friends:

“The stool is a little wobbly”

This rather obtuse phrase is my shorthand for four problem areas in SBC life:

1) trustee accountability

2) evangelistic emphasis

3) cooperative giving

4) discipleship and baptismal retention

If you may pardon this analogy, we have cleaned the floor (biblical inerrancy and conservative hermeneutic) but have left the stool on which we sit in disrepair. The leg of trustee accountability has become loose and is of great concern as yet again it seems that the boards act from their own opinions and not the will of the Convention at large. The leg of evangelistic fervor has become hollow, a memory of numerical success gone by, but a continuing shame in recent years. The leg of cooperative giving has become thin, made weak by the resistance of the states to cast their lot together for the common good. The leg of discipleship and retention is full of holes, since we have dropped the ball on “teaching them all that [Jesus has] commanded” and many “members” fail to show up regularly or add to the Kingdom or the Body of Christ.

I will focus on these issues in reverse order as I approach the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention, which I will attend and be involved.

Each year, the Annual Church Profile (ACP) is published by LifeWay Research and every year, we wait with equal parts anticipation and despair…will we increase baptisms?…how many resident members are there this time?…will CP dollars increase?…and so on down the line. But in all of the analysis we normally wade through, we fail to see how many of each baptisms we add to our primary worship attendance (PWA)…and my friends, it is not many!

First, some history: I was curious to see how much of our baptismal fall-off was affecting our PWA growth for the past few years. So I collected the baptisms and primary worship attendance data from 2001-2007 and first divided total baptisms for each year by the change (growth) in PWA…and found that there were MORE BAPTISMS EACH YEAR THAN INCREASES IN PWA!!! On average, we baptize 373802 people each year, but our PWA increases by only 69648 on average! That is a 5 to 1 ratio!

Surely, I thought, this must be wrong…surely deaths of our membership or people switching denominations can account for this discrepancy…. So I looked up those figures. In 2004, Hoge and O’Connor published some data on a longitudinal study of denominational identity. After some mathematical magic, I reached an estimate of 97.85% retention each year and a net increase of 0.576% when considering the exchange of people between each denomination.

There is no estimate of the age structure of Southern Baptist church membership (LifeWay, sounds like a new project for next year!) so I used the average age of Southern Baptist pastors as a proxy. This, taken from a LifeWay study in 2007, gives us an average age of 51.5. Now this is an admittedly a potentially biased figure, but sadly one which errs on the young side, given anecdotal evidence from SBC messenger studies and the few churches I have been active in.

Next we go to the Social Security Administration’s life expectancy tables, for the annual death rate for the average 51-52 year old (we can use this data since it represents the average person, which is statistically equivalent to a much larger sample of the same average value). The death rate works out to be 0.636% loss each year.

So let’s compare: We gain 0.576% from denominational switching, but lose 0.636% to death…so the net change in population, excluding baptisms is -0.06038%, which works out to be 3631 people lost per year. One more comparison: we lost 3,631 to outside factors, gain 373,802 by baptism, but only actually gain 69,648 in PWA…does anyone else see a problem here?

If we factor the loss to outside factors into the change in PWA and then divide baptisms by that number, we will arrive at the rate of retention of baptisees each year…and it is horrible! It ranges from a maximum of 39.68% in 2004 to a low of 3.99% in 2007!!! The average for the six inter-years analyzed is 19.21% retention…we “convert” 1 in 5 people we baptize into worship attenders!

You want to lay the blame of our baptismal slump somewhere…lay it at the feet of the Sunday School teacher (I am one) and the active member (again, I am one)…we need to be discipling these new believers and not focus on getting people “in the door, down the aisle, and under the water”! If I remember correctly, two of the phrases in the Great Commission deal with discipleship and only one with baptism (they go hand-in-hand of course, but you see my point)…we need to get to work!

I welcome comments, confessions, and ideas…but I seek action…pray for me that I may stay strong to do my part to stem the flow (out the side door of the church)!

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One Response to “The denominational stool has gotten a little wobbly…part 1: discipleship”

  1. boydluter Says:

    Andy,

    This is even much worse than what I had inferred from Ed Stetzer’s figures.

    Thank you for your astute analysis!
    Boyd

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