The Good, the Bad and the Numbers

As the first day of the 2018 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting came to a close in Dallas, Texas, the SBC had voted on a new president with J.D. Greear receiving 68.62% of the votes. The need for a new president of the SBC was the result of Frank Page stepping down several weeks ago after confessing to an inappropriate relationship with a woman. In the weeks leading up to the annual meeting two names emerged as potential candidates to fill this role, J.D. Greear and Ken Hemphill. The election of the individual to hold this position is not based on the vote of an executive committee or a board, but the decision of representatives from SBC churches around U.S.

In accordance to the rules and bylaws which govern the annual meeting, individuals must be nominated for these positions and both candidates were indeed nominated. The fascinating part of the presidential nominations was not just the names of those nominated, but the words used to describe the qualifications of each candidate and the reasons they should be considered the best person for the job. While the expected compliments and platitudes were used to define the candidates, the parts which stand out the most were the numbers. Ken Hemphill was described as averaging 9% giving to the Cooperative Program in “every ministry he has served,” while J.D. Greear was characterized as someone who has been the senior pastor of church which “has baptized 1,300 people over the past two years and leads North Carolina [state in which he pastors] in Cooperative Program giving.”

For some reason the church never seems capable of moving beyond the statistical figures in order to characterize or weigh the fruitfulness of a particular ministry. This is not to say that the use of studies, surveys, statistics or other means of gathering or analyzing data is misguided, unnecessary or inappropriate. In my own career and ministry, there has been great value and benefit in utilizing data collected in order to exercise wisdom in making critical decisions or determining areas in which to focus efforts. Statistical data can be effective in gauging the desired outcome of a program or the health of an organization. The problem is not statistics, the problem is the interpretation of data. The problem is not the use of numbers, the problem is using numbers to evaluate the fruitfulness of a ministry. Is the measure of a SBC pastor based on how much he brings in for the Cooperative Program? Is it the priority of the minister to fulfill a quota of baptisms each year as a means of demonstrating his faithfulness to gospel work, evangelism and the building up of the body of saints to equip them for ministry? Does man reap the harvest or does God reap the harvest of His people?

Based on the “qualifications” put forward by those who nominated these two men, it appears funding for SBC programs and baptism counts should be the measures of success used in ministry. Why does the church constantly find it necessary to resort back to these numbers as an indication of success? Have we become so ingrained in the business-oriented structure of the American culture that we have lost sight into the mission of the church and our theological heritage rooted in Scripture? This is one of the reasons it seems like people, especially younger generations, are leaving the SBC and other denominations. A focus on these areas downgrades the sense of genuineness so highly desired by the millennial generation. It creates an environment which seems more business-driven and less organically-driven. Right or wrong, this is one of the reasons churches have declined in their giving to the Cooperative Program and instead chosen to serve as their own missions sending organization.

Over the past 11 years the SBC has been characterized as being in decline. And this based on what? The numbers. Baptisms, church attendance and church-type missions have all been in decline according to the data collected across the SBC churches. In some years funding towards the Cooperative Program has also been in decline. Are these really the areas by which we desire to be measured in ministry? Are these the areas by which God is holding us accountable as pastors and church leaders? If this is the measurement, then we should really reexamine our strategy for raising getting our numbers up, because if Jessie Duplantis can get $54 million for a private jet we can certainly find ingenious ways to ensure we never have a year in the red.

Before you write this off as an unequal comparison, let me simply ask, are baptisms, church attendance or funding for missions an indication of spiritual health? There are numerous stories of people in the SBC who were baptized without truly being converted and pastors who loosely discriminate on requests for baptism. There are churches who make people members upon request with no examination process. There are people who admittedly attend church merely out of tradition or because it makes them feel good. Perhaps if all, or even just a majority of churches in the SBC were equally serious about baptism and membership this would be a worthwhile measurement. Let’s assume for a moment that SBC churches did start trending towards the level of seriousness outlined in Scripture and in accordance with the baptist tradition. Wouldn’t we expect an across the board decline in these areas? Would we not also expect SBC churches to be in decline as the denomination remains firm on issues of biblical importance, such as gay marriage or abortion, in a culture which increasingly demands tolerance for these views? Perhaps the declining numbers are simply explained by the work of the SBC seminaries to return us to our heritage of taking the gospel seriously.

Let me clarify for a moment, there is no evidence to indicate either Greear or Kemphill are seeking to define their ministry success on the basis of Cooperative Program funding or baptism, nor would the SBC leadership as a whole. Based on what I have seen and heard, the SBC leadership cares very deeply about the spiritual condition of churches, not just the turnstile counters at the entrance to the church. The question should not be about measuring the health of the SBC, it is rather what type of data we should use. Financial status needs to be discussed, membership should be tracked and evangelism efforts should be gauged in order to focus efforts or identify issues. At the same time, there is a subliminal message communicated to pastors and church leaders by the the methods used to gauge the health of the denomination.

If we really want to measure the fruitfulness of ministries, let’s start by measuring the spiritual issues which have become serious issues among Christians across the culture. Let’s start focusing on spiritual areas within the individual lives of the people served by the SBC churches. Let’s start measuring the numbers related to people in discipleship-accountability relationships, porn addicted Christians overcoming their battle, marriages returned from the brink of disaster, church members engaged in evangelism, members caring for each others needs, men leading their families and parents prioritizing spiritual growth over sport’s trophy growth. The difficulty with measuring any of these, is that we are back to numbers and numbers are subjective. However, when we focus on measuring specific, spiritual areas, we focus on measuring the health of our people, not the health of the church turnstiles. We also send a message as to the priority of pastors and church leaders.

Pastors and church leaders will be held accountability before God for their faithfulness in remaining true to the Word of God, not the number of people they baptized or inducted as church members. There are numerous stories throughout church history of men and women who faithfully served without seeing a single convert. Let’s start focusing on discipling those who are already in the church and then we will start to see the church turnstiles spinning. Perhaps once the SBC returns to sending the right message about our priorities, we will see a spiritual awakening among God’s people already in the SBC.


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