How Can We Reverse Our Downward Trend of Baptisms?

Just today, the SBC’s Annual Church Profile (ACP) was released, and many of the statistics are troubling. Attendance throughout our denomination has decreased by 97,000 in the past two years. Membership has dropped by 200,000 during that same time. And for the first time since 1947, our baptism numbers have dipped below 300,000. For a denomination of nearly 46,793 churches, we can’t be okay with this.

To be sure, the situation isn’t completely depressing and dark. Church planting is at all-time high, for instance, and that’s a great way to reach people. Some have suggested that our emphasis on church planting is wrongly placed—that is, since we are planting more churches than we ever have but baptizing fewer people, church planting must not be an evangelistically effective pursuit. There are some legitimate aspects to this concern (as I’ll explain in a moment), but first, let’s consider the facts. New churches baptize an average of 1 person for every 8 people in attendance, which is far better than the SBC average, which is around a 1 to 19 ratio.

To lose our focus on church planting would mean cutting off one of the main things that’s actually working right now. If it weren’t for the new wave of churches, baptism numbers would be plummeting even faster. The problem is that for many of our 46,793 churches, no evangelism or church planting is happening. So, even as some churches reach and baptize more and more, many are headed toward decline.

It is true, however, that church planting does not equal disciple-making. Churches that do not win and disciple new believers will likely not plant churches that win and disciple new believers, either. So what needs to happen on the church level to reverse this trend?

First, we need a spiritual awakening that leads to action.

Just about everybody agrees that we need a spiritual awakening. And everybody is right. Historically, revival has begun not with lost people getting saved, but with the church getting “re-converted” to the gospel, which then leads to massive evangelism. Revival is an intensification of the normal operations of the Holy Spirit. Until He comes, all else is lost.

That said, however, revival won’t happen as the result of us saying the same things louder and louder. Just as you can’t fix spiritual problems with practical solutions, so you can’t fix practical problems with spiritualized slogans. For many, it seems that retreating to the old line, “We just need spiritual awakening” is a way to avoid asking the hard questions. It would be wrong to pursue change without pleading with God for revival, but it is also wrong to ask God to send revival without asking what needs to change to better reach our culture with the gospel. The Apostle Paul did both: he prayed for the power of the Spirit, but also examined his methods carefully so that he might “by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22). It’s not that we just “need revival,” and that once revival comes all of the practical problems will evaporate. One of the first evidences of true revival will be our surrendering of our personal preferences and comfortable ways of pursuing ministry and doing whatever it takes to reach the lost.

Second, this has to start with us pastors.

As a pastor, I have found it is all too easy to live as a “professional Christian” who urges others to bring people to faith in Christ while not doing it myself. Many of us no longer feel the urgency of the gospel message. We have grown complacent in our success, and don’t burn with the same evangelistic zeal that we once did.

But if we’re going to move the evangelism needle in our churches, we’ve got to be modeling what we’re preaching. As the old saying goes, evangelism is caught as much as it is taught, and people can only catch what we’re doing if they see us doing it. That’s how I learned to share the gospel—not by reading about it, but by going out with other leaders in the church and doing it with them.

For those of us in full-time ministry, this can be harder than it might seem. It doesn’t happen by accident. And it’s not easy. We have a lot of important responsibilities on our agendas. But we’ve got to make it happen. The moment we stop telling non-believers about Jesus is the moment our churches begin to lose their evangelistic fervor.

I’ve had to discipline myself to keep this side of my personal ministry alive. But it’s been incredibly rewarding. Last year, for instance, I led an evangelistic Bible study in my neighborhood, and I was able to see three people baptized from that. They weren’t won over by my impressive speaking; they were won over by the gospel being shared in a real life situation. It’s something any of us can do.

An old pastor of mine used to point out that the first thing to get cold on your body is your feet. The same is true in the Christian life. It takes focus and prayer to keep them engaged in the mission.

Third, we’ve got to celebrate the right things.

You only replicate what you celebrate. That’s why, at the Summit, we’re always celebrating stories of how our people are bringing others to Christ. Whenever we baptize someone, we try to include in the baptismal pool the person who brought that new believer to faith in Christ.

We should celebrate growing attendance, new church plants, mission gifts and mission trips, but if these things are not producing new disciples, what good are they? Unless new church plants are reaching unchurched people, all we’re doing is sending out people to gather bored Christians. Shuffling bored Christians around isn’t what Jesus had in mind when he issued the Great Commission. Before we will send out a church planter or missionary from our church, we insist on seeing that they have a track record of successful evangelism and disciple-making here. Why would we invest a bunch of money in sending them some place to not do there what they’re not doing here?

I grew up in a church where “soul-winning visitation” was an essential part of the Christian weekly calendar, a mark of serious faith. Not kidding. I got saved on a Monday, and I was out knocking on doors that Wednesday. That may sound old school—and there may be good reasons to think about pursuing our evangelism differently—but any method we introduce today has to be every bit as intentional. Many of us discarded “door to door” evangelism, but we really didn’t replace it with anything. Without intentionality, evangelism won’t happen. As a friend of mine says, “You may not like how I share the gospel. But I like my way of doing it more than you’re way of not doing it.”

Here’s where (so-called) smaller churches have a real advantage. The Great Commission really only goes forward when individual members are raised up in the power of the Spirit to take the gospel to their neighbors. It doesn’t matter how good of a speaker you are: unchurched people aren’t going to come to hear you speak.

I lived in a Muslim country for several years, and I was friends with dozens of people who went to the mosque weekly. At no point did I consider going with them. I wouldn’t have gone for a special holiday. I wouldn’t have gone if I were facing hard times. I wouldn’t have gone if they were doing a really helpful series on relationships or if they added a kickin’ brass section or rhythm loop to their prayer chant. Islam was a completely foreign world, and one in which I knew I clearly didn’t belong.

This is how most unchurched people feel about the church. If we don’t equip our people to carry the gospel outside of our meetings, our events, our gatherings and programs, we are going to lose all audience with them. The only way to reach truly unchurched people (rather than just lapsed or bored Christians) is not by doing a better job perfecting the “church product,” but by raising up our leaders to carry the gospel outside the church.

Churches of all sizes must focus on raising up members to carry the gospel into the community.

Fourth, we’ve got to create a yearning for evangelism in the hearts of our people.

The French poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said, “If you want to convince men to build ships, don’t pass out shipbuilding manuals. Don’t organize them into labor groups and hand out wood. Teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

When a man yearns for the sea, his lack of know-how will not keep him land-bound for long. He’ll figure out the skills necessary to sail. Our problem is not that we haven’t found the right program that enables us to reach the world. Our problem is that we don’t yearn to see God’s glory spread over the earth enough to build whatever ships are required to reach people for Christ and see his glory awakened in their hearts.

I saw this happen at the Summit, when we baptized a young man named Antwain. Antwain was the first black man we had ever baptized at the Summit, and his story was incredible. He had endured a difficult past, to put it mildly—gang activity, violence, and crime. But after several months of Bible study and friendship, the light of grace finally broke through, and Antwain broke down in tears, got on his knees, and poured out his heart to Christ. Immediately he began bringing other friends to church with him.

As Antwain stood before our church the Sunday morning of his baptism, he looked out at our congregation and said, “Some of my friends ask me why I go over to ‘that white church.’ [At this point, we were still an almost all-white congregation.] But I tell them, ‘It’s not a white church. This church is where I met Jesus, and he’s the Savior of whatever color.’” Then I baptized him.

After the service, an older gentleman in our church came up to me and said, “Son, you know I don’t like a lot of these changes that you are making in our church…” Then he got choked up and said, “But if that right there is what we’re getting [referring to Antwain’s baptism], you can count me in for every single one.”

A little over a decade ago, God gave The Summit Church an audacious vision of planting 1,000 churches by the year 2050. We had been focused on missions for a while, but felt that the vision wasn’t gaining traction. So we chose a number that seemed beyond our own capacity, something that would have to be God. At the time, a lot of people thought it was crazy. We had planted one church by that point. But we believed that the same God who multiplied 5 loaves of bread to feed 5,000 was still at work today. So we decided to trust him to multiply us in ways we couldn’t yet envision.

At first, most people at the Summit looked at that number as an idealistic dream. But something about it stuck. Even before we had planted church #2, our people were repeating the line, “planting 1,000 churches in our generation.” For mission to be translated into action, we needed a specific vision.

And now, by God’s grace, our people have really bought into that vision. We’ve planted 188 churches, both within the U.S. and internationally, and we’re now seeing some of our churches plant other churches (church grandbabies!). In fact, there are a few prophetic souls around the Summit who think that maybe we left out a zero in establishing our goal.

The Summit Church is not an extraordinary church. We don’t have a plethora of people with exceptional talent or a bunch of exquisitely rich people. For the last 8 years, we’ve felt like a kite in a hurricane, watching the Spirit of God move in ways we could hardly anticipate. But this audacious, God-sized goal of 1,000 churches has made our people ask what God could do if we believed him.

In 1954, the SBC set a goal of getting 1 million people in Sunday School. They called it the “Million More in ’54” campaign. It was a crazy big goal, and even though they didn’t reach 1 million, they were able to get 600,000 people involved—way more than were previously going. Many of those people trusted Christ for the first time. That’s what happens when you paint a vision of the possible: people take ownership for it, and the Spirit starts to move in fresh ways.

I often come back to the prophet Isaiah’s words: “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isa 59:1). In other words, the hesitation is not in God; it’s in us. God has not changed.  He still desires to extend his salvation to the ends of the earth, he still has the power to do it, and he still plans to use us. The question is, are we prepared for him to move?