Are we Christians or Ferengi?
As featured at Reclaiming the Mission link
In 1998, Charles Swindoll, serving as the Chancellor of Dallas Theological Seminary, decided to start a church in Frisco, which is a quick drive on the Dallas Tollway from downtown Dallas. I lived in Dallas at the time, attending another large church off the Dallas Tollway, about 10 minutes due south from the site of the new church plant. The Dallas culture revolves around celebrity, perhaps foreshadowing the rise of the celebrity pastor phenomenon. Opening day saw over 2000 people (perhaps 3000) in attendance. Were people in Dallas overwhelmed by the Gospel, answering the call at Stonebriar Church? link
Nah-it was just a shift of attendees from other area churches who wanted to be part of the next cool church. People simply changed churches. When I heard about the struggle of one fine church nearby which nearly closed its doors because they couldn't compete with the hoopla, I shook my head. I actually laughed when I heard about the mighty work of God in establishing an instant mega church.
A few years later, after a move, I attended a new members class at a church. The pastor announced that they were going to 'bring the Gospel" to an adjacent town by establishing a new church plant. Ever the pain in the neck, I mentioned that were several "gospel" churches within two blocks of the proposed site and asked if this was bringing the gospel or merely bringing a franchise to the area. The pastor looked a bit perturbed and mumbled that the area was growing. (Now you see why I had to start a blog).
Yesterday, Bob Allen at Associated Baptist Press link published the results of a new LifeWay (SBC owned) Christian Resources poll which sadly pointed out:
Annual baptisms in Southern Baptist churches have declined by 100,000 in the last 12 years, last year dropping to the smallest number in 64 years.
LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention released figures June 5 reporting 314,959 baptisms in 2012, down 18,385 – or 5.5 percent – from 2011.
Total membership of 15,872,404 marked the sixth straight year of statistical decline for the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics. Membership dropped by 105,000 – two-thirds of a percent. Weekly worship attendance, meanwhile, fell below 6 million to 5,966,735, down 3 percent.
SBC baptisms plateaued after an all-time record 445,725 in 1972. They have declined six out of the last 10 years to the lowest number since 1948,
Many leaders quietly admit that the numbers are worse than reported. Most insiders agree that the number of SBC members is actually around 8+ million. The Baptists have a penchant for leaving members on church rolls for years, even after members leave a church. They also double and triple count some of them as they hop from church to church.
Even the gold numeric standard of most SBC churches, baptisms, has questionable application as a measure of new converts. Some Baptist churches rebaptize those who were sprinkled or baptized as children as well as those who were baptized in "suspect" Baptist churches. Dee was one such person who had been baptized as a child and became convicted, 17 years after conversion, that she should participate in a believer's baptism. She did so in Jordan Lake in North Carolina. She loves to tell people that she was immersed baptized in the Jordan, thereby satisfying all but the most elite of churches.
It is important to realize that this decline in numbers have occurred since the Conservative Resurgence and the increased influence of Calvinism within the SBC. Both of those movements were supposed to be the salvation of the SBC.Yet, this decline is continuing, in spite of an increased emphasis on church planting. So what is going on?
I propose that these efforts are not successful because we are not adding new Christians to our churches. I believe this to be the case for both small churches in rural areas and mega churches in wealthy suburban areas.
I was delighted to attend a retreat which featured Dr Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe. Dr Ross' ministry goes far beyond his interest in Old Earth Creationism. He discussed the shrinking membership of the evangelical church as a whole. He referenced a book, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Within the Church by Christian Wicker link. Here is the synopsis at Amazon.
Evangelical Christianity in America is dying. The great evangelical movements of today are not a vanguard. They are a remnant, unraveling at every edge. Conversions. Baptisms. Membership. Retention. Participation. Giving. Attendance. Impact upon the culture at large. All are down and dropping. When veteran religion reporter Christine Wicker set out to investigate the evangelical movement, her intention was to forge through the stereotypes and shed new light on this highly divisive religious group. But the story soon morphed into an entirely new and shocking tale of discovery, as Wicker's research unearthed much more than she originally bargained for.
Everywhere Wicker traveled she heard whispers of diminishing statistics, failed campaigns, and empty churches. Even as evangelical forces trumpet their purported political and social victories on the national and local fronts, insiders are anguishing over their significant losses and preparing to rebuild for the future. The idea that evangelicals represent and speak for Christianity in America is one of the greatest publicity scams in history, a perfect coup accomplished by savvy politicos and zealous religious leaders who understand the weaknesses of the nation's media and exploit them brilliantly.
In case you are wondering if this is a liberal tirade, let me point out the Trevin Wax gave this book a "Recommend" on the Discerning Reader (which, I hasten to add, is not a discernment blog). Here is what he said on The Gospel Coalition blog link.
Wicker demonstrates with statistics that "image is everything" when it comes to evangelicalism. The number of evangelicals in our country is astoundingly low. We're not 25% of the population. We're nowhere close. At best, we make up 3.7%. One of the purposes of Wicker's book is to "take back" the voice of the religious from evangelicals:
"The majority of American Christians have been so marginalized by public rhetoric and news coverage that they don't even know they are the overwhelming majority of Christians and that they are the Christians who actually represent American religious values, not the religious right." (55)
I wish I could say that Wicker's bias inclines her to overstate her case in order to make a point. But I can't. She's right.
Dr Ross addressed the belief that mega churches appear to be growing. He emphasized two points from the book. Mega churches primarily grow by:
- Transfer from other churches.
- Baptisms of the children of church members.
He claimed that, until the church realizes that it is doing a poor job in bringing people to Christ, the church, and its influence in America, will continue to decline. It appears that Wicker's predictions from 2008 are coming true if the current numbers from LifeWay are to be believed.
Before I continue, I want to highlight two points. First, I do not believe in using the term "sheep stealing." I believe that slavery was ended in this country over a century ago, and, in spite of proclamations by authoritarian leaders, we sheep can come and go when we wish. We are not "owned" by any church.
From this point forward, I am using examples that have been sent to me by our readers. In some, I have changed locations, etc. so it is useless to "guess" to which church or organization I am referring. However, all of these incidents have occurred.
In a Christianity Today article, Ed Stetzer, of LifeWay Resources, wrote an article to debunk the myth that new church startups merely swap sheep between churches here. However, his arguments were unconvincing. He used the pie chart which can be seen at the top of our post today. He claims:
So there it is– about 44% of new members at megachurches are from other local churches– not 60%, not 70%, and definitely not 95%. I hear people saying 90% and I agree that's a myth.
However, look closely at the chart. See if you can spot the difficulties as did David Fitch of Reclaiming the Mission link.
1.) Ed’s Statistics are Suspect. I suggest there’s a lot to question in these statistics. For example, Ed’s numbers could be interpreted to show that the mega churches’ congregations are at least 90% transfer growth (not 44%). I add up distant church transfers plus local church transfers plus dechurched transfers (people have left another church, it’s just been a while) and it comes to 90% of people who are coming to this church from another church in some way. Organic growth could also be transfer growth, people coming from another church that were just invited through relationships.
I am inclined to side with Fitch. I suspect that the day that Swindoll's church opened, 95%+ were merely "let's go to the cooler church" Christians. In fact the next morning, at my kid's Christian school, there was the inevitable bragging that their families went to Stonebriar and actually met Swindoll. (Christian kids can be weird).
In a post at TGC, link, Jared Wilson posted the following quote from Tim Keller.
Only a person who is being ‘evangelized in the context of an on-going worshiping and shepherding community can be sure of finally coming home into vital, saving faith. This is why a leading missiologist like C. Peter Wagner can say, ‘Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven.’”
It is a nice sentiment but I believe it is about numbers, not evangelism.
Multi site churches are vogue. Why? According to a number of articles about this phenomenon, satellite churches break even after one year and begin to make money in year 2. So is it about the spreading the "gospel" or making money? The old "bums and bucks" approach is in play.
In one large city in the South, there are two mega SBC churches, Church A and Church B. You know the type-cool worship leader, Bose speakers, pastor in skinny jeans, and associate pastors with clearly visible tattoos, etc. Both are essentially the same in their "distinctives." Church B decides that the best method of growth is to plant satellite/multi-site churches. This is the type of church in which people watch their pastor on a screen. He is beamed in from his main location.
Church B puts a satellite within one mile of Church A (as well as a couple of other large SBC churches.) Church B advertises free food, coffee, and CDs if people come to the church. Church B gets 1,000 people the first Sunday, almost all of them from Church A.
Church A now begins to go toe to toe, offering similar coffee, food, CDs and "almost professional" music. Why do they always tell us that their worship pastor traveled with "Famous band" or had a 'record contract' (yet never really made it)? When asked about evangelism, the members are told "X" number of baptisms took place but the pastors are unclear on how many of them represent new conversions. I suspect precious few.
Targeting the parachurch groups
In one large Midwest city, there is a huge campus Christian group at the local university. The leaders attend the hip mega church in town. However, there is a new "thought" in certain circles that parachurch organizations should be "under the authority" of a local church. And, of course, that authority is the local mega church because, well, just because.
Said church, without notifying the campus leaders, begins to set up Bible studies around the campus, on the same night as the parachurch group's Bible studies. The pastor teaches that college students must join the mega church because it is Scriptural. He also tells them they need to support and attend the mega church Bible studies on campus because it is biblical. The parachurch groups sees a drop in attendance by 50%. The mega church declares that they have added 150 new members in the last two months. What he doesn't say is that they are the college students that used to attend the parachurch gatherings.
Targeting institutionalized people.
One church in California decided to do "outreach" to local nursing homes by conducting weekly church services. The pastor in charge was told to sign up the people who attend as members of the local church. The church announces new members each month as the "ministry" continues around town. The church membership rolls were "growing."
Targeting upper middle class families
Several church affiliations plant churches. However, the church plants target areas with higher disposable incomes. Many of these areas already have "gospel" churches. But, this is not about making disciples. It is about acquisitions.
Church plants that do not survive.
Peter Lumpkins wrote an interesting post, What Ever Happened to Lake Ridge Church link. This was a church plant that was spear headed by Ed Stetzer who is considered the guru of church plants. This particular church also supposedly planted two other churches which have disappeared as well.
In September 2005, Stetzer and Phillip Nation planted the Lake Ridge Church, a church affiliated at the time with both Acts 29 Network and the Southern Baptist Convention. Nation now serves on Stetzer's Lifeway team in Nashville as Director of Ministry Development for LifeWay Christian Resources.
But where is Lake Ridge Church now?
Apparently, Stetzer is going to try a new church plant in metropolitan Nashville which probably has plenty of "gospel" churches. Go figure…
The church in America is losing its influence. While our culture slowly drifts from its Christian roots, it is evident that we evangelicals have lost our influence in the hearts of the people. While church leaders surround troubled ministry leaders and hold them up as role models, baptisms are down. While men debate whether a woman can read Scripture out loud from the pulpit, membership is declining. Mega churches pretend they are growing when they are merely swapping "sheep."
Next week, the SBC meets in Houston. They will have an opportunity to make their voices heard on significant issues of our day. There is an elephant in the room. It is the response of the church to child sexual abuse and cover-up. If they ignore it, and continue to push incompetent leaders, the SBC will become irrelevant to a culture that sees little to admire in the church. It is sad when the church looks more and more like an old boys club at Penn State. And it is obvious that the public is becoming increasingly "not impressed" and they are voting with their feet. I heard one pundit say that the evangelical vote is not longer influential. Perhaps evangelicals are becoming less monolithic as they become less dominant.
In case you don't know what we mean by "acquisitions," enjoy this video about the infamous Ferengi from Star Trek who spell out their rules for acquisitions. Somehow, it seems like they could fulfill a consulting role for today's evangelical franchises.
Lydia's Corner:1 Kings 5:1-6:38 Acts 7:1-29 Psalm 127:1-5 Proverbs 16:28-30