As a Southern Baptist who has served as both a pastor and an educator, I have watched with interest the reports coming out of Nashville concerning the Task Force appointed to study the denomination's trending decline in baptisms. As a practitioner, churches I pastored averaged baptizing over 100 people a year for over 25 years. So, it is a subject about which I can speak with some experience and knowledge.
If it were left up to me, how would I try to address the situation? My first step would be to hire the Gallop organization to do an accurate survey of our churches. Why them? They do not have any ulterior motives, pet projects, or sacred cows. In other words, for them, no options are off the table. I believe that they would, to use Donald McGavran's famous mandate, "gather abundant and accurate information."
From my limited perspective, I think issues which contribute to the statistical decline can be traced to ten factors all of which can be corrected.
1. Leading people to Christ has to be both a priority and intentional. It starts with the pastor. And it starts with the pastor search committee that invites him to come to pastor their church. If the priority of evangelism is not clearly agreed upon on the front end, then the status quo will resist its implementation.
2. It has to do with the church's health and environment. Churches known for conflict and tension are not attractive to prospects especially lost folks who need to be saved. Church business meetings are to some degree a necessary evil, but when they create a platform for carnal members to display their personal agendas, it is repulsive to the people we are trying to reach. If churches want to reach people, they must learn to resolve issues appropriately and in a Christ-like manner. Part of this includes recognizing the God ordained leadership role of the pastor and staff. One insight that Rick Warren shared is that the larger a church becomes, the more the ministers must give up the work of the ministry, and the more the lay people must give up decision-making.
3. Churches that see people saved and baptized have created an environment that is thorough in its process from start to completion. How do we attract people? When people come, are they comfortable? Do people feel loved? Do they hear the Gospel clearly? Do people know what to do to come to faith in Christ? Does the church have an incorporation process? Are people followed up with effectively? Are prospects embraced by the people in the congregation? Are they connected with an affinity group?
4. Churches that reach people do not overly program. Busyness such that the members of the congregation do not have time to cultivate outreach relationships can kill outreach. Here is a principle: people attract people. Make sure that your members have permission to not be at every activity. By this, they will have time to build friendships that will result in natural organic growth.
5. Pastors need to work at extending a clear invitation. Instead of saying, "let's all stand and sing, and if you have a decision, come forward," be specific. Tell people that if they want to be saved, here is how. Tell them specifically what to do. They will not know if you do not tell them.
6. The best evangelistic sermon in the world is worthless if no lost people are present to hear it. Challenge your people to constantly be inviting new people to worship at their church. A personal invitation is the most effective outreach tool the local church has.
7. We have one opportunity to make a first impression, so everything from driving on the property to the care of facilities and landscape should say, "we were expecting you and we are glad you are here." Remove every growth restricting obstacle. If you think something is a barrier, remove it!
8. Expectations are critical. Faith expects and anticipates. The church must cultivate a collective expectant heart. If on a Sunday morning 10 people prayed to receive Christ, would your church know what to do and be prepared to do it? What are your people expecting God to do?
9. It is of critical importance that those who lead are practitioners. Why would we place people in leadership who have no track record? When Jesus said, "He who is faithful in that which is least, I will make ruler over much," He was communicating a principle. We need people to lead who are doers and not just talkers.
10. With respect to motives, are we more concerned about our image or the reality that we are impacting a lost culture less and less? The mandate that we are to function as salt and light has not been rescinded. And we can impact our culture whenever we are willing to pay the price and then do it. The notion that we are living in a post-Christian culture and we can do nothing about it is an excuse. It is "post-Christian" because we have not done what God has commanded us to do. Nothing more and nothing less.
What are you experiencing at your own church?