The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the country, but it continues to lose members and baptize fewer people each year.
The latest statistics, compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources from church reports, show membership has dropped by more than 204,000, down 1.3 percent to 15.3 million members in 2015. It’s the ninth year in a row there has been a membership decline.
More people in the pews, more energy for programs, more funds to maintain the roof — these are all keys to survival for such small congregations, according to the latest Faith Communities Today report, released Jan. 4 by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
It finds that congregations with fewer than 100 in weekend attendance — the most vulnerable to collapse — rose to 58 percent in 2015, up from 49 percent five years ago.
Yet the report is optimistically titled: “American Congregations 2015: Thriving and Surviving.”
I got to thinking about evangelism this month in particular as part of My Jesus Project, a year-long practice I’m engaged in to more deeply understand what it really means to follow Jesus. This month I’m studying what I call “Jesus the Evangelist,” with Alan Chambers as my mentor. Chambers is best known as the founder and longtime head of Exodus International, an organization that emphasized conversion therapy, or helping people who were gay become — for lack of a better term — un-gay.
But it didn’t work. Chambers said so himself, as he is gay too, and he knows firsthand that he is still very much the same sexual being he was before. Further, the organization’s form of evangelism did a lot of damage, which he now seeks to repair.
Here are some all-too-common examples of how we misstep when trying in one way or another to share our faith with others.
American Christianity is at a crossroads — again. It’s the latest in a long string of crossroads.
In the run-up to revolution, American branches of European denominations — such as my Anglican ancestors — had to declare loyalty to the crown or to an emerging rebellion.
In the 1830s, congregations throughout the restless nation had to decide whether they served whites or all people, including Native Americans.
In the mid-19th century, denominations were forced to choose between continued slavery and a commitment to freedom.
On it went. During each era of change and expansion, Christian communities had to decide what they stood for and what the gospel meant to them. Would they serve immigrants who spoke a certain language or all people in the community, one class in the emerging industrial society or all people, enclaves of status and like-mindedness or whole communities?
Whatever choice was made, each congregation and denomination found a way to justify it. The choices themselves didn’t flow from Scripture. Rather, in stepping up as theologians for slavery or abolition, for white rule or open access, for changes in women’s place or perpetuation of patriarchy, preachers wore out their Bibles and seminary training looking for rationales to do what they wanted. They claimed absolute authority for what, by any reasonable standard, was simply their preferred way of doing things.
Now Christianity in America faces a similar crossroads that turns on the question: Do we serve only ourselves and people like us, or do we serve the larger community, especially its outcasts and vulnerable?
Up to now, the church has focused on who crossed the threshold into our pews and who had leadership roles within the fellowship. Now the challenge is to go out into the world, see what the needs are, and rethink how we do things in response to those needs.
I’m often asked about what trends I see within Christianity, both good and bad. So in my ongoing effort to help name trends and offer an alternative way of thinking about our faith, here are the five biggest things I’ve seen that tend to keep us from doing our best work as the living, breathing body of Christ in the world today.
1. Church Buildings — Many of our church buildings were established in a time when Christianity was booming numerically in the United States. We could hardly keep up with the growth happening all around us. Understandably, churches popped up where the people were too, drawing many away from their old downtown churches to a more convenient suburban community. But as our numbers have dwindled – combined with the fact the we’re a much more mobile society now that ever before – many churches are becoming monuments to what has long since passed. They have become an albatross rather than an asset.