By Aaron Earls
New research undermines an often-repeated statistic about church decline, but still reveals a difficult situation for Southern Baptist churches -- and an opportunity to encourage more Gospel conversations.
On his website, LifeWay President and CEO Thom S. Rainer has published findings from research of 1,000 randomly selected Southern Baptist churches, including challenging the idea that 80 percent of churches are either plateaued or declining. The new findings are based on analysis of Annual Church Profile data from 2013 and 2016.
Unfortunately, the research doesn't give a much better picture, Rainer reports. His analysis found around 65 percent of churches are stalled or are shrinking.
"The evangelistic deterioration within churches across North America has been a reality for several decades. This is not new information," Rainer said, "but we wanted to find out the degree of the deterioration."
Even among the 35 percent of churches that are growing, the signs are not all positive.
"Growing churches are primarily growing through transfer growth," he said. "If we look at which churches are actually healthy from an evangelistic perspective, it's only about 6 or 7 out of 100."
Rainer will continue to release new information on his website, ThomRainer.com, including insights into those 6-7 percent of churches that have been effective at evangelizing their communities.
Escaping the 'death spiral'
His analysis points specifically to worrying signs for smaller congregations.
"Over 61 percent of churches average fewer than 100 in worship attendance," he said. "But, 2 out of 3 of these churches are declining."
As a former small-church pastor, Rainer said he's troubled by the findings, which point to what he calls a "death spiral" for churches that dip below 100 in worship attendance. The research shows churches decline at a faster rate as they become smaller.
"Once a church declines below 100 in worship attendance, it is likely to die within just a few years," he said. "The life expectancy for many of these churches is 10 years or less."
But there is hope for the small church and its pastor. Rainer knows this first hand.
"At the first church I ever pastored, we started with an attendance of seven," he said. "When they called me to be their pastor, it was either that or close the doors."
Rainer points out that he didn't have programs or money. "All I had was the Holy Spirit giving me opportunities to share the Gospel," he said. "The turnaround started with me leading one person to Christ. Others in the congregation began to do the same. After one year, the attendance had grown to nearly 70. It wasn't money or the latest fad. It was just obedience."
As a way to encourage evangelistic obedience among pastors and congregations, Rainer has partnered with the North American Mission Board to launch EvangelismRenewal.com.
The site will encourage churches to record how many Gospel conversations they hope to have in 2018. "We know conversion is only by the Holy Spirit, but we also know that God begins most of these conversions with Gospel conversations."
The goal of the research and EvangelismRenewal.com is to start a conversation about difficult topics, said Rainer, but also to point struggling churches to evangelistically successful congregations and offer encouragement for those in decline to follow suit.
At the site, visitors can sign up to receive a free e-book, "Rainer on Evangelism." "We hope this will give church leaders a reason to lead their churches to be evangelistic and give those in the congregations resources and ideas on how they can be evangelistic," he said.
The website will contain testimonies, resources and research, but the emphasis will be on encouraging Christians to share their faith with others.
"It is our prayer that the research, the website and the e-book will spark millions of Gospel conversations that God will use to bring about the conversion of men and women, boys and girls."
Aaron Earls is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources.