Twenty-two years ago, in 1997, SBC churches reported having about 5,224,000 people in average weekly attendance.

Over the next twenty years, as evangelism exploded in the SBC’s consciousness, we saw 7,155,000 people baptized in these churches. So then, twenty years after that original number, we would expect to see a general uptick in average weekly attendance.

What we see instead is that attendance dropped by 20,000.

This means that, over the course of the last twenty years, SBC churches have unfaithfully stewarded around seven million people. How could this happen?

I believe that there are three reasons we have seen this happen:

  • We have considered baptism to be the finish line, not the starting line.
  • We have spent too much time teaching people what they’re saved from instead of what they’re saved
  • We have not taught our people how to grow in their faith—and teach other people to do the same.

The ABCs of Church Growth

In churches, we have traditionally measured success with the ABCs: Attendance, Buildings, and Cash. We’ll celebrate when we have more show up for a Sunday morning, when we’re able to build bigger facilities, and when we see an increase in giving. While all of these might be indicators of growth, none of them tell us any information that we can change today. They are what we call a lag measure: something we measure today as a result of the things we’ve done in the past.

While these might be helpful gauges to see where we currently are, they aren’t what the focus of our ministries should be. We should focus, instead, on lead measures: actions we can take today that will affect change in the future.

When Dave Worlund, who was the president of the National Christian Charity Foundation, met with the leader of Campus Crusade for Christ, he listened patiently as the leader talked about his troubles with dropping attendance and decreased salvations during the weekly meetings.

Dave asked him an important, but simple, question: “How many lunches are your leaders having with students every week?”

The idea was this: when leaders start having lunches with students on a regular basis, they will build rapport and friendship. Eventually, it will open a spiritual conversation. A spiritual conversation will open a door for invitations to weekly gatherings, and attendance at a weekly gathering will provide an opportunity for the students to hear the Gospel and find community with other believers. When we’re too busy gauging lag measures, which we can’t control, we forget to focus on the lead measures that will affect change in the future.

A Remedy to the Problem

Kevin Smith, the Executive Director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, said it best: “For too long, we have been decisionistic in our approach to doing ministry. It’s time to move to a disciplistic approach.”

We cannot make up for time lost when it comes to missing people. And if we continue to pursue growth in the numbers of people at our churches (which is by no means a bad thing), we’ll be bringing them into a broken paradigm. It’s time to change that.

First, we need to switch our thinking of what salvation is. For too long, we’ve seen it as the finish line. This is what that thinking looks like: “Come forward, get saved, and congratulations! You’re a Christian now! Now help us bring more in. We’re through with you.”

Instead, if we start seeing salvation as the beginning, suddenly our whole focus changes. We’re still passionate about reaching the lost and bringing them into the fold, but they now become part of a process to grow in godliness.

If we start seeing salvation as the beginning, suddenly our whole focus changes. We’re still passionate about reaching the lost and bringing them into the fold, but they now become part of a process to grow in godliness. Click To Tweet

Second, we need to change our emphasis of what salvation’s purpose is. Instead of teaching that Salvation is simply being saved from God’s wrath in hell (which it certainly is), we should instead teach that salvation kicks off an entirely different purpose. You are now a citizen of a new kingdom. You now have hope, a mission that you take to a lost and dying world.

Finally, we need to encourage believers to pour into one another with intentionality. To spurn one another on to dive into God’s Word, to be better husbands and wives and parents. To be better friends and employees and leaders, all with the underlying desire of bringing glory to the One who saved us.

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