Esse quam videri: Why Southern Baptists’ declining numbers isn’t all a bad thing

ncsealcolorAs a child matriculating my way through the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system, I learned the motto of my beloved home state was Esse quam videri, which is Latin for To be rather than to seem. It seems to be a good choice for a state which grew up situated between our big bad, powerful colonial neighbor to the north — Virginia — and our uppity neighbor to the south with a (pardon the anachronism here) Napoleon complex — South Carolina. North Carolina was the humble colony (then state) in the middle, content to be what it is rather than seem more than it is. Whether that remains true today is a matter of opinion, but the state motto does seem fitting. To steal an oft-used phrase from a former head coach of the Carolina Panthers, when it comes to North Carolina, “It is what it is.”

What the Southern Baptist Convention is remains a matter of opinion as well. Numbers released the week before our Convention’s Annual Meeting, concluding in Columbus, Ohio, as I write this, have received a great deal of virtual ink from bloggers and pundits. And while I haven’t been able to watch or listen in to all of the goings on in the Buckeye State (We are first in flight!), I’m sure the numbers have been discussed from the podium and in the convention and exhibit halls as well. I know because I’ve been to those meetings before.

Here’s a quick summary of the numbers:

  • In 2003 Southern Baptist churches claimed 16.3 million members. Numbers released last week reduce that number to 15.5 million, a 1.5% drop from the previous year. All told, if my math is right, it’s about a 5% drop in the last twelve years. SBC churches lost over 200,000 members from 2013 to 2014.
  • This has happened in spite of the fact the number of Southern Baptist churches has increased. According to the report there are 46,499 SBC churches, up 374 from the year before.

Many of those who have written about these numbers have emphasized the continuing decline (the math don’t lie, folks!). More has been made also of the accelerating pace of the decline (we’re losing more faster). And some have lamented this (and rightly so). After all, numbers represent people and if the numbers are decreasing it means there are ultimately less people in Southern Baptist churches. As mainline denominations have been imploding for decades now, many Southern Baptists fear the same result for our convention.

Allow me to take a different view of this report, however.

While I do not know what the future holds for the association of local churches known as the Southern Baptist Convention, I do not see the report of declining membership as a wholly bad thing. Allow Jim Elliff to introduce why:

Although the Southern Baptists claim 16,228,438 members, on average only 6,184,317 people (guests and non-member children included), a number equal to only 38% of the membership number, show up for their church’s primary worship meeting (usually Sunday morning). This is according to the “Southern Baptist Convention 2008 Annual Church Profile Summary.” If your church is anything like normal, and is not brand new, your statistics are probably similar. In other words, if you have 200 in attendance on Sunday morning, you likely have 500-600 or even more on your roll. Many churches have an even worse record.

This is taken from his 2005 essay, updated in 2009, “Southern Baptists, an Unregenerate Denomination,” and there is no denying his statement is accurate.

I grew up in a Southern Baptist church which grew into a megachurch. I remember hearing how our church now had 10,000, no 11,000, no 12,000 members and growing, up to 17,000 plus. And while the 2,200-seat sanctuary was regularly full for one service, probably 2/3 to 3/4 full for another, and maybe 1/2 full at most for another, you do the math and that’s well less than 6,000 showing up for the Sunday morning gatherings.

I pastor a Southern Baptist church now. Definitely not a megachurch, but an old, rural, established church in the middle of nowhere. It’s the second such SBC church I’ve pastored (I had a stint at an independent Baptist church in between). And I will be up front in telling you that at both SBC churches our membership numbers compared to those showing up was/is roughly the equivalent to a Tyrannosaurus Rex versus a chameleon.

The point being… Southern Baptists have long seemed to be more than they are.

The truth of the matter is that 15.5 million member number is only about 1.5% less a joke than it was last year, and 5% less a joke than it was twelve years ago. The day needs to come when every Southern Baptist church, no matter how big or how small, is real about who it really is, who really belongs.

In other words, we need esse quam videri in the church — to be who and what we are rather than who and what we wish we were so that we can still say we’re the largest Protestant denomination in the world or whatever. We probably still are the largest, but that is so not the goal and so not the point.

Our faith is predicated upon the belief in absolute truths: that Jesus is God who became a man and went to the cross to save His people from their sins… that there is only one God who exists eternally in three Persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) who are co-equal, co-eternal, and co-substantial…  that the sixty-six books which constitute the Old and New Testaments are the inspired, inerrant, authoritative, and sufficient word of God. And there is more, but…

If our very faith is predicated on truth, should not we be all about the truth, including the truth of who and what we are? Or shall we go on lamenting a decline in our numbers when the reality is those numbers have been a false witness for decades!

I am monumentally more concerned with the sufficiency of Scripture — and the very gospel itself — in our churches than I am with what we’re runnin’. And for the record, no great awakening will happen apart from that either. God will not honor the abandonment, obfuscation, or the denial of His truth for the sake of promulgating the appearance of His blessing.

My home state had it right back in the day. Esse quam videri. May it be, by God’s grace, for Southern Baptist churches, all of Christ’s churches, including my own. To God be the glory!

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