Last week I shared three things that I was encouraged by at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) General Assembly in Dallas this June. If you missed it, you can read it HERE, and I hope you will. We have much more to celebrate than we have to be concerned about, but this week I wanted to share a few concerns.
The goal is not to be overly critical, but to acknowledge where we can improve together. I am convinced that CBF has a critically important role to play in an American religious landscape nearly devoid--except for us--of traditionally white, traditionally evangelical, progressive Christian voices.
Next year CBF will be 25 years old. Our churches--and our theology--were worth the fight to preserve then, and they're worth the hard work necessary to preserve them for future generations today.
So here’s two things I wish we could improve on. They’re really just two sides of the same coin, and it all boils down to numbers. In a nutshell, I wish we kept track of them.
First, I wish we could more straightforwardly acknowledge where we’re struggling. Keeping better track of numbers--at the national, state and local level--is the first step toward doing that.
I know that many of our churches are failing to thrive. I heard one pastor in Dallas say we ought to be greeting each other by asking, “What state of decline is your church in?” Not all CBF churches are in decline, but I chuckled because I knew there was a lot of truth to what he said.
We don’t track numbers in CBF like some other denominations do, so no one can say definitively where CBF churches fit into the larger trend lines of American church decline. But I’ll almost guarantee you that we are underestimating the rate of decline across CBF congregations.
There’s always a tendency to inflate success and minimize struggle. When a church is thriving you’ll hear about their success from every member, and that’s a good thing. But churches that used to have 1000+ in worship don’t like to broadcast that they’re down to 300 on a good Sunday, and churches that used to average 200 in attendance don’t like to broadcast that they’re struggling to survive.
So I wish we would more publicly acknowledge that many of our churches are struggling, declining, aging, even dying. That means keeping track of numbers, even if they're not always encouraging. The more open we are about our struggles, the more effective we can be in overcoming them together as a Fellowship.
And second, we ought to more clearly be celebrating CBF churches that are bucking this trend. Many of our churches ARE thriving, and that ought to be cause for Fellowship-wide celebration. This, too, means keeping better track of numbers.
When we find CBF churches that are growing and getting younger and implementing exceptional ministries to reach their communities, that ought to be front page news. We ought to celebrate them, learn from them, work to understand what makes them successful in their contexts, and then copy them.
We do that some, but we could do it more. I want to know which churches in which states are having the most success. And I want to know what they’re doing in worship and discipleship and service and outreach to connect with their communities.
What's unique about their approach to worship? What discipleship materials are they using? How are they preparing and training their volunteers? How are they integrating technology and social media into their ministries? What do their communities look like? What kind of people are they reaching? And then how can I do that at my church?
Again, this requires research and numbers and tracking.
For some reason we’ve grown averse to keeping track of numbers—I guess as an (over)reaction to a culture where numbers were given too much priority. But it’s also possible to under-emphasize numbers.
Identifying weaknesses and celebrating strengths both require accurate numbers and the willingness to track progress over time. That means every CBF church ought to be encouraged to track and report things like worship and Bible study attendance, budgets and missions giving, baptisms and new members, and even community engagement by counting volunteer hours and people served through missions projects.
Numbers don't tell the whole story, but you can't tell the whole story without numbers. So let's start keeping track of them. Our collective futures--and our potential impact for the Kingdom--are too important not to.