My friend Tim Dahl, who is a pastor in Ft. Worth, wrote a great article on the relevance, or irrelevance, of the church. Apparently, he has been sneaking over to Southwestern Seminary to listen to chapel sermons, and caught one by current SBC President Frank Page that captured his attention. Tim is, by Southern Baptist standards, very young, and thus, is a rarity in terms of both his vocation as a pastor and as a member of a denominationally affiliated church. His observations are worth reading.
Tim cited Rick Warren’s statement at the BGCT this past fall, that only about 1% of our churches are growing by conversion, or by adding to the Kingdom, though perhaps 20% of our churches are growing in membership and attendance. So when we are talking about being “relevant,” it isn’t a matter of whether or not we are relevant to the culture, but whether we are relevant to the Kingdom. Yes, Tim, I was paying attention. It’s a legitimate question for several reasons.
The experience we call “salvation,” which is symbolized in baptism, is a work of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit which does the work of conviction, or drawing a person to a point where they come to a realization that they are sinners in need of confession, repentance and forgiveness as they stand before a holy God. There are probably as many unique circumstances related to how this is accomplished as there are individuals in the world. God chooses to use those of us who have already experienced his redemption to help others through this process. It is also the Spirit which responds to the individual’s repentance and cry for forgiveness, and which does the work of justification and sanctification when someone has trusted in Christ, accepted his sacrifice as the penalty for their sin, and believes in the power of his resurrection. Denominational programs may increase the awareness of believers with regard to their efforts at evangelism, but they don’t make kingdom growth happen.
Church growth for the 20% of Baptist congregations that are experiencing it, is generally the result of the attraction model. Churches with the means to offer a variety of programs and ministry services attract people from other churches into their congregations. But they are not significantly adding to the Kingdom. In fact, it still holds true that most of the baptisms that occur in SBC congregations in a year happen in the two thirds of the churches that have fewer than 150 people in attendance on Sunday morning, and the ratio of baptisms to average attendance rises as you go down in attendance. Tim also pointed out that the Pentecostals in particular seem to have success in growing their churches by adding converts, and not just by transfer growth. That is not to suggest that we imitate Pentecostals, but there seems to be a correlation between their open attitude toward the moving of the spirit, and the number of conversions they experience. Most Pentecostal churches are also small, under 150 in attendance. That might be worth looking into.
When I graduated from seminary, I went to serve a small church in a small town as Minister of Youth and Education. The people there were patient as I “tried out” what I had learned in seminary, and attempted to move the congregation forward in terms of growth. There was not much in the way of growth during the first year and a half I was there, and I was getting kind of discouraged when one of our youth led a friend to the Lord. Over the course of the next year and a half, our pastor baptized 32 people, 20 youth and 12 adults, a real revival in that congregation of 150 people. It was a cooperative effort. In each case, there were several individuals involved in the life of the person who was baptized, relationships that, in some cases, had been active for a dozen years or more, and it was not the result of a program or an emphasis. The personal relationships and the dynamics of the small group life of that congregation responded when someone led a friend to the Lord, the Spirit moved, people were open to it, and the Lord added to his Kingdom. I often wonder if the higher baptism ratio in small churches also has something to do with the closeness and influence of relationships. That may also be worth looking into.
Tim, well said. Thanks for bringing this up.
Here’s something else interesting and relevant to the topic from Gary Dyer.