An article in Saturday’s religion page of the Chattanooga Free Press–I read it over lunch driving home from a conference in Ridgecrest North Carolina–spoke of the decline in numbers our (Southern Baptist) denomination is experiencing. The statistics indicate we are baptizing fewer than last year, which continues a downward trend of the last decade or so. We count fewer members of our churches, although, again, the negative numbers are not drastic.
Not yet anyway.
Now is the time to act, our leaders are saying. Every elected and appointed executive of our denomination pulls his teams together and sends them searching for programs and methods to spur a new round of ministry and growth in our churches.
I have two thoughts on that subject. These are not the final answer on anything, I regret to say, but surely these two points must provide part of the answer.
One: times of decline in a church are periods when most churches do precisely the opposite of what they should be doing. They begin looking for ways to cut back on staff and lop off expenses. Training programs for staff are among the first to go and advertising in the community is quickly seen as unneeded.
Counterproductive. Most destructive.
The very opposite of what a church should do.
A time of decline in growth is a time to enlarge one’s vision for one’s community, to get additional training for the workers, and to invest more in getting the church’s message before the residents of one’s city.
All this week, I’m been attending one of the most wonderful events on my calendar: the biennial meeting of the National Association of Southern Baptist Secretaries at our conference center just outside Asheville, NC (Ridgecrest). Some 400 women who variously call themselves secretaries, ministry assistants, administrative assistants, and such, attended from all over the country, even from Washington State and Hawaii. Two years ago, they met at the Lifeway Building in Nashville. The meetings prior to that were at Ridgecrest (2007) and Glorieta, New Mexico (2005).
For three and a half days, the church secretaries (also associational and state convention staffers) attend meetings to hone their skills in office work, meeting and relating to people, strengthening their devotion to Christ, and such. A huge component of this conference is the fellowship. I guarantee you that most of these women laughed more this week than they have in the past 12 months! (Any men present? A few women brought their husbands. But I can assure you, most men were completely ignored all week!)
David Uth, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Orlando, was the plenary speaker and what an incredible person he is. His messages were the talk of the week.
I led three conferences–“Living your life as an offering to God, “Finding Humor in the Church office,” and “Prayer Walking” (we didn’t just talk about it; we did it). Each conference was repeated at least once. My guess is the women had their choices of 30 or 40 conferences, all led by incredibly talented and dedicated leaders.
The Friday night banquet featured Dr. Henry Blackaby, famous for his “Experiencing God” books and seminars. He gave each person a copy of a yearlong daily devotional book. Women lined up to get him to autograph it.
The next such conference will be in April of 2011, with the exact date and place to be announced later (translation: they haven’t decided yet). It’s a little pricey, which is why they only meet every other year, so the churches can budget this well in advance.
Any church, association, or state convention that decides to invest in their office staff in this way is doing themselves an incredible favor. Suddenly, your secretaries and bookkeepers will begin seeing themselves as professionals and ramp their service up to a higher level.
The incoming president is Julia Field, secretary to pastor Lloyd Sweatt at Meadowview Baptist Church, Amory Missisppi.
Two: Louisiana Baptists are doing something with great promise for the growth of our churches. (It has particular application to the smaller churches of our denomination.) It’s called “Sharing the Peace of Jesus,” and here’s how it is working in New Orleans (a pilot area)….
A church enlists a group of members to prayer walk neighborhoods around the church. They have in hand some “door knob hangers” to leave on each door, saying “we have prayed the peace of Jesus upon your household.” The church’s name and phone number are listed at the bottom.
Two or three weeks later, team members return to the same streets and this time leave a clear plastic sleeve on the doors, containing two items: a sheet telling how a person can know Christ as Savior and offering a helpful book on living for Jesus, and a page prepared by the church promoting some upcoming event.
Many of our churches have been doing this simple two-step program over the past few weeks, and have been seeing encouraging responses.
A pastor called me all excited the Monday following Easter. “We’ve had new people in our church every Sunday. I just baptized two people and have two more ready to be baptized.” He added, “Bear in mind, I usually baptize one person a year—so this is phenomenal.”
Something so simple, and it has given a new vision to that pastor and his people.
This is no time to cut back on training, evangelism, or publicity.
Churches are funny. They will go out and borrow money to erect a new building, then when money gets tight, the first cut they make is on the very things designed to fill the new church with people.
What if the church experiencing money problems went to the bank and borrowed money–I’m not suggesting it, I’m raising a supposition–in order to send its staff to special training events, to print materials for distribution in the community, and to get its ministries and opportunities before its town? (Or what if they took money out of a savings account and invested it in this way? What are they saving for, after all!!)
Innovative? Too radical?
Times of crisis are times to think–pardon the cliche–outside the box.
To do things we’ve never done before.
To act in faith and not from fear.
To be bold and not timid.
To reach out and not pull in.