There are, of course, many similarities between the Churches of Christ and the Southern Baptists. Sadly, one similarity is that both denominations are in numerical decline.
This has been known for a while, but we now see that the rate of decline for the Southern Baptists is accelerating.
Now, the Churches of Christ have been plateaued since around 1980 or so, and in absolutely decline beginning sometime in the last 10 years. At least the Baptists were growing in the 1980s and 1990s.
Mathematically inclined readers will recognize the first chart as an inverted parabola, meaning that the rate of change (first differential) is linear. And this second chart demonstrates that the rate of growth has been in a surprising linear decline for decades. It’s rare that the numbers line up that well, because trends are rarely so uniform.
Not surprisingly, the decline in membership parallels a decline in rate of baptisms.
Ed Stetzer is a consultant to the Southern Baptist Convention on church growth. He recommends,
First, we must rally around … the mission of God and partnership though our theological consensus. We have every advantage of the modernized world to be a multi-dimensional family of churches. Yet, we often find ourselves at odds with one another over issues that fall within our denominational confessional consensus. …
Second, we must engage new leaders. Every week, you and I meet new leaders from differing generations and differing ethnicities. …
Thirdly, we need to reach more people and plant more churches. Southern Baptists love evangelism…as long as someone else is doing it. But “someone else” is not doing it either. Every year, it takes more Southern Baptists to reach one lost person, as the member to baptism ratio shows.
I don’t exactly agree. I’m not a Baptist, but I think Stetzer is missing some key areas that stand in their way.
* The Baptists (and Churches of Christ) need to disassociate themselves from politics. Jesus is only hurt when the Baptists (or any other denomination) allows itself to become a special interest group within a political party. The Baptists are too closely tied to the Republican Party, and it’s hurting them.
* There has to be a reason for the linear decline in evangelism. My theory is that it’s generational — the Baptists are failing to pass their evangelistic zeal down to their children. This would produce exactly the kind of statistics the Baptists are seeing.
Part of this comes from the spirit of age, which affects all denominations. Evangelism comes across as judgmental and intolerant to many. Moreover, many of our teen programs are more about pizza and fellowship — and house painting — than evangelism.
I’m all about benevolence and house painting — but only in conjunction with evangelism. If we don’t tell those we serve about Jesus, then we really don’t love them. Our motivation is something else entirely.
In other words, we’re all guilty, I think, of letting the legitimate need to be more missional become an excuse for being less evangelistic.
* We all need to be more engaged with the world outside our buildings. I see in the Churches of Christ and Baptists a tendency to be more about church league softball than engaging the lost. We retreat into our red-brick monasteries rather than using them as staging areas to engage the lost and hurting outside the church.
The Baptists are not alone in this, but they have become victims of their own success. They grew so much that their churches became large and wealthy — and great places to hang out and make friends — and retreats from the world and the lost people in it.
Now, the Churches of Christ have their own problems. We have no business throwing stones. Indeed, the Baptists have baptized far more than we have and have grown much more than we have. Nonetheless, we can learn from their problems.
* The Churches of Christ have not been nearly as political as some Baptist Churches. Part of that is thanks to the teachings we inherited from David Lipscomb, who taught a radical separation of Christians from civil government — urging Christians not to even vote.
His teachings are nearly forgotten but the culture he established remains. We just aren’t real big on waving the flag or getting involved in elections. But that’s been changing, as the temptation to use the church as a political power base is strong in this country — especially as many politicians are learning how to manipulate churches into helping them get elected.
* I think our evangelistic zeal is also dying a generational death. For us, there are several reasons. One is, of course, Post-modernism. But there’s also the difficulty of transitioning out of some old, very bad habits. In the past, our “evangelism” largely too the form of persuading Baptists of our position on baptism and weekly communion. We were “converting” the saved.
We now, largely, have a more mature, more scriptural understanding of who is and isn’t saved, but that means that old methods no longer work. We can longer pull out tracts on how often to take the Lord’s Supper and win a “convert.” Now, we must learn how to teach the lost about Jesus. And we’re struggling to make the turn.
* Churches of Christ don’t have as many megachurches as the Baptists, but we have also experienced the benefits of urbanization. Many of congregations have experienced rapid growth purely by being in a city where many of our members are moving and looking for a great children’s program. We’ve been able to grow without converting anyone.
Indeed, many a progressive Church has grown simply by peeling off disaffected members from more legalistic congregations. And the rapid growth has misled the leadership into ignoring evangelism as an emphasis. After all, if you provide excellent programs and vibrant worship, the church grows simply by out-competing the other churches in town for members moving into town!
* Stetzer mentions some of the problems with Baptist infighting, but — let’s be honest — those Baptists are rank amateurs when it comes internal disputes. We can out-argue, out-fight, out-split anyone!
And while we’re getting better, the truth of the matter is that the old fights still stain our souls. The worship wars for us are doctrinal. We struggle to leave the old 20th Century legalism behind. And it hurts our evangelism. I mean, how do you explain to a un-church person that we think it’s wrong to worship God with a guitar?
I’m sorry, but the Regulative Principle is not only bad theology, it’s unattractive. It’s hard to explain, because it’s just not true.
* Stetzer didn’t mention the name, but “Southern Baptist” doesn’t have a good sound to it in much of the country, purely because of the “Southern” and the fact that the denomination was birthed in a split over slavery.
But the Churches of Christ have a worse problem with the name. In many parts of the country, “Church of Christ” carries a stigma. In some areas, it’s due to the mistakes of the Boston Movement, but in most places, it’s due to a very negative, very arrogant form of legalism. It’s the attitude that we’re the only one going to heaven. And it’s a serious problem.
So what’s the solution? Well, there’s not one solution. Many changes are needed. But the most essential change is for the leadership to emphasize and emphasize again the need for personal evangelism. You see, when the members begin to think in evangelistic terms — when evangelism fires our souls — then we’ll see why political involvement hurts the church, why infighting over last century’s issues is so destructive, why retreating within our church is so problematic, and why anything that gets in the way of the gospel has to be surrendered — sacrificed — for the sake of Jesus.