Tuesday, October 7, 2014

What's in a Number?

I have never been a fan of numbers. In high school algebra class I once asked my teacher how learning complicated equations would better my life. She gave me some rote answer that I now try to remember when my kids argue with me about doing their math homework.

Too often, in church world, leaders use numbers as weapons or measuring sticks of comparison. We like numbers because they help us know our place in the “pecking order” of the Christian subculture. It is nearly impossible to speak to a leader from another church for more than ten minutes without a question about numbers being asked: “So, how many people do you have? What is your budget? What are you running in small groups?” I hate that conversation. Would it be it inappropriate to say that, for many pastors, size seems to matter a little too much?

Now I know that numbers are important. After all, there is an entire book of the Bible called “Numbers.” Most people don’t read that book, however. If they did, they would know that it is more than a spreadsheet. It has lists of names. Lots of names.

I like names. Names come with stories. Names represent people. When I call my bank, my credit card company, or my health insurance provider, do you know their first question? You got it: “What’s your account number?” They really don’t care about my name. Actually, my name is only used to verify my account number, and that is only if I am speaking to a human—which is increasingly unlikely. Most church leaders are smart enough to know they can’t get away with that kind of impersonal approach to ministry. But from hearing these leaders talk to each other you might guess that numbers matter more than the names of the people they represent.

There is one obvious exception to the church numbers conversation. Over the past 20-30 years, few leaders seem to be comparing their baptism numbers. You would think that particular number would be especially important in “Baptist” churches. Perhaps the reason we have stopped comparing this number is because the average number of annual baptisms in a Southern Baptist church has fallen from 11 per year in 1981, to just below 7 in 2013.

Here is another reason we are inclined to avoid discussing baptism numbers: the bigger the church, the more members it takes to see a single person baptized. In 2013 there were 175 Southern Baptist churches with memberships ranging from 3‑4,000 people. These churches averaged one baptism for every 59 members. Compare that to the more than 12,000 churches with memberships less than 200 that averaged one baptism for every 17 members. Perhaps our emphasis on “church growth,” defined by every increasing membership and attendance, is having a negative impact on “kingdom growth” as defined by the number of new disciples the church is actually making.

I pastor one of the hundreds of Southern Baptist churches found somewhere in the middle of the two examples offered above. Southside Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida, has a membership of about 700 people. The average number of members it takes to baptize one person in churches our size is typically 53. That is a lot. Fifty-three people can do a lot of things, but to think that’s how many of our members it would require to see one person come to faith and publicly profess Jesus through baptism is enough to make me want to find another job.

I have the unique privilege of serving the church in which I was baptized at the age of nine. The year was 1981 and Southside baptized 52 people that year. That was the last year we baptized more than 50 people in a single year. There have been years in which we have baptized as few as 12 people. Like most churches, we don’t talk much about baptism numbers. There hasn’t been much to talk about. But something is happening this year. After spending the last six years focused on church health rather than church growth we have seen an increase in our baptism numbers. From October 1, 2013, through the end of September 2014, Southside has celebrated the baptism of 40 people! That means that currently at SSBC it requires about 18 members to see one person stir the baptismal waters. That is a number I can live with, but hope will continue to diminish.

Our baptism goal for 2014 has been 50. This past Sunday, October 5, 2014, we baptized our 32nd person, but that number doesn’t tell the real story …

Number 32 is an Iranian immigrant who lives in a retirement community where 11 other Southside senior adults are residents. Many of these seniors actively invested in their new friend, inviting him to visit our church. He soon began attending a Sunday school class that uses English as a second language (ESL) to teach the Bible. The couple that faithfully teaches this class works with people from many different nationalities. They are passionate about sharing the gospel with people from other cultures. Then there is the retired evangelist/poet/street preacher who drives our friend to church every week. As number 32 and I waited for the beginning of the worship service in which he was to be baptized, he told me with tears in his eyes how he came to know the love of Jesus Christ through the love he was shown by his new friends. “They are my family,” he said in broken English.

Numbers can’t tell that story. Will we reach 50 by the end of 2014? I pray we will. Not because I plan to brag about the number, but because number 50 represents someone God loves and for whom Christ died. As does number 51 and 52 and 53 and 54 and 55 …