Imagine you are a fast-food hamburger chain. For the last 17 straight years, you have added to your number of restaurants in all fifty states.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the drive-thru.
While you added franchises, you didn’t add sales. In fact, your number of repeat customers declined, your number of overall customers declined, and your number of new customers declined.
In fact, your number of loyal customers has dropped every year for the last nine years, and the number of new customers has declined in eight of the last ten years.
This despite adding to your franchise base every year for the last seventeen years.
More restaurants, fewer overall customers.
That’s not good. It doesn’t even make sense.
Now, if you were the head of this hamburger chain, you would understandably: 1) find no celebration or success in the increased number of franchises – it would be seen as a business failure; and then, 2) you would call an emergency meeting of your team to assess what in the heck was wrong.
Because something is wrong.
Either the food is bad or the service is bad… something is bad. Because you look around and see other hamburger chains thriving. So it’s not that people aren’t interested in hamburgers.
Sadly, this isn’t really a hamburger story.
It’s the story of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and, historically, its most numerically successful.
For the 17th straight year, the Southern Baptist Convention added more churches to its roster, and yet once again, posted fewer baptisms and lower attendance.
The latest Annual Church Profile (ACP) report found that membership has dropped by more than 204,000 – the ninth year in a row for membership decline. Average worship attendance also declined, and the ACP found that baptisms – which have declined eight of the last ten years – fell again by another 3.3%.
Just a secular world taking its toll against the faithful?
Well, the Assemblies of God just released their figures, too, and marked another year of increases.
Yet that’s where the similarities between the SBC and a hamburger chain break down.
Because despite the declines, the SBC is: 1) celebrating the increased number of churches as a sign of success; and 2) failing to assess the situation as a crisis and find out what is wrong.
I hear things like, “Evangelize more!” or “Witness more!” but nothing close to true rethinking of strategy or structure, style or approach. There’s a big difference between “do more” and “be different.” We’ve all heard the analogy of cutting down a tree. If it’s not coming down, you can do one of two things: swing harder or sharpen the axe. In the case of the SBC, they might just need to wake up and realize that most growing churches have started using chainsaws.
The bottom line is simple: if you keep adding restaurants while at the same time losing customers, it tells you where the problem is.
It’s with the restaurant.
James Emery White
Carol Pipes, “More churches reported; baptisms decline,” Baptist Press, June 7, 2016, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.