Mission Is No Longer Optional – How Baptists Need To Grow

There may have been a time when you could take for granted that a church could exist forever. That is no longer the case. Demographics and trends in the Australian population as well as trends within the Baptist movement of churches indicate that we are entering an era where the lifecycle of many churches may reach the end of the bell curve and simply stop.

A future scenario may include the prospect suburbs that have traditionally had a church that cared for and witnessed to its local population will no longer have one. Instead, anyone wanting to belong to a local church will need to travel, and belong to one which has a regional focus rather than a more intimate local connection. This is especially applicable to the Baptist denomination but also many others. This would be an unfortunate development in terms of our movement of churches being able to have a city wide missional strategy.

There is however no need for alarm or to give up hope. Mission, church planting and church revitalisation are the keys to arresting the decline and eventual death of many churches.

Each State is unique and has its own set of factors which have led to its current Baptist church demographics. There are however many similarities and some of the key indicators of decline are common across all our States.

For the purposes of this article I’m going to look at some statistics that have emerged from Queensland that may give rise for concern. The concerns and potential solutions will be relevant across each State.

Queensland Snapshot

Out of a population of 4.8 million, 3.5 million Queenslanders live in SEQLD. 72% of Queenslanders are to be found in the south east corner of the State. The Baptist statistics show that 80% of Qld Baptists are to be found in SEQLD which has accounted for 36/47 new churches in the last 8 years. If the trend in Baptist churches continues the denomination will fall further out of sync with the demographic mix.

QB church congregations have grown 35% in the last 8 years (half of this growth through ethnic churches), but the growth has slowed considerably. Non-ethnic churches have grown only 4% in the last 4 years

Numbers in very large churches (membership 400+ or equivalent) are growing significantly

(30% of Qld Baptists are now in the 4 largest churches – up from 20% in 8 years). In the majority of churches, worship attendance is decreasing although the number of people included in church families is still growing.

Medium size churches (100-200) have the largest proportion of baptisms to congregational size.

Developing Trends

There are a number of trends that we have seen developing which underscore the imperative of mission, church planting and church revitalisation:

  • Smaller churches (100-200) are not growing anywhere near as much as larger churches (400+).
  • Much of the growth to larger churches often comes from the smaller churches who are a much more attractive option for many Christians.
  • The growth and success of a small minority of large Baptist churches comes at a great cost to smaller churches and to effective mission in the suburbs that these smaller churches are located in.
  • The statistic in SEQLD that 30% of Baptists can be found in 4 churches (10% only 8 years ago) illustrates how there is a potential danger of Baptists losing a city-wide cover and moving towards a model of a few large regional churches that attract Baptists.
  • Smaller churches report more baptisms per capita than larger churches. This shows that mission is as effective, if not more, in smaller churches with less resources if baptisms are to be accepted as a prime indicator.
  • Baptist church life and mission can all too easily be concentrated in the main urban capital of each State. Doing church in regional areas is harder but strategically important. There is an in-joke amongst pastors that God only calls pastors to beach side churches in major cities. Putting your hand up for a pastorate in a small regional church takes a strong sense of call.

Positive signs

Larger churches however aren’t just growing fat with members. Many are engaging in church plants and also church revitalisation projects. This helps the larger church as it helps mitigate the spectator factor whereby many Christians belong tenuously to the church and just enjoy the benefits.

Larger churches have great children’s, youth and young adults ministry plus talented musicians and singers and gifted speakers. This plays well with many families understandably, and some may be inclined to be passive attenders.  Church plants and revitalisation projects send Christians out of the comfort zone of the large church and into a pioneering or revitalising context. Paradoxically, this loss of members through mission revitalises the sending church and enables them to underline their missional orientation.

Church revitalisation is catching on as more well-resourced churches look for opportunities to move towards a campus style model. The leadership DNA of the mother church is replicated in the revitalised church and the transfer of members across brings new life. A church that was destined to close its doors gets a new lease on life.

This requires a very difficult tipping point to be reached whereby a dwindling church arrives at a consensus that its very survival is threatened. This helps endangered churches be more open to consider reaching outside of themselves for a solution. It is no small thing for an existing church with a long history to agree to be merged with another church.

Check out our PRAC Magazine edition on church revitalisation here. It has some inspiring stories that may spark your imagination.

Larger churches are also looking for opportunities to plant new churches in areas of need and opportunity. Across all our States new contextual church plants are springing up with the help of State unions who serve as catalysts to church planting. This edition of PRAC Magazine has some inspiring stories from the frontline of church planting.

Smaller churches are not necessarily doomed as we move towards a church landscape that has fewer small churches and a few large churches that attract many Baptists. As the QLD statistics show, smaller churches have a higher baptism rate than larger churches.

One thing is certain, smaller churches simply have to invest very heavily in local mission. Smaller churches can’t compete against larger churches for growth by attracting existing Christians. They are therefore forced to move beyond the comfort zone and invest heavily in growing through conversion. This is harder and more complex than simply attracting other Christian families, but much more rewarding. Check out our PRAC magazine on Small Churches here.

Smaller churches can achieve a lot more by working in partnership with other churches. In a changing landscape that makes survival harder for smaller churches, seeking out smart partnerships may well be a necessity. When resources are stretched sharing resources makes a big difference.

Rediscovering Being Baptist

There was a time in the past when Baptist churches wouldn’t think twice about supporting Baptist organisations. This meant that our mission and aid organisations in particular could count on wide support. That increasingly is not the case as more and more organisations chase the Christian dollar and allegiance of churches and church leaders.

When it comes to church planting and revitalisation we will achieve more as a movement of churches by getting behind our State Union’s initiatives and working together to achieve our church growth goals. More churches and more revitalised churches mean that more people will become followers of Jesus.

Crossover plays an important role as a catalyst to mission, church planting and church revitalisation. The more support we get from churches the more we can facilitate critical gatherings where church planters, revitalisers and evangelists can learn and inspire others. We will also be better placed to develop resources to help churches in mission. As a movement of churches we have no option at this point in our history but to lift our gaze from an often inward focus towards reaching out and being faithful to the Great Commission.