Advance or Survive?

Future prospects for the Baptist Church in Australia.

In 1831, Australian Baptists held their first church service in the Long Room of Sydney’s Rose and Crown Inn. From there, the denomination grew and spread throughout Australia, as its faithful members preached the Gospel, pioneered new churches, and helped to shape an emerging nation. So where is the Baptist Church in Australia today? And where might we be in the future?

This article highlights seven trends and seven issues I believe we need to tackle in order to advance, not merely survive. (Written 2009).

Where are we now?

1. Baptist church membership has been declining since 1992
Membership grew from 17,743 in 1901 to a peak of 64,560 in 1992. In 2004 membership was 60,856 .1 The declining trend in membership can be seen in all states except Western Australia and South Australia.
Figure 1

2. The gap between membership and population growth has been widening since 1911
In 1901 there were around four Baptist church members per 1,000 population. That ratio rose to five per 1,000 population in 1911 but has been declining ever since.

Figures in South Australia show the most dramatic changes. At Federation there were twelve Baptist members per 1,000 population. By 2004 the ratio was reported to be fewer than four per 1,000 population.

3. Church attendance statistics are increasing but may not be accurate
Attendance figures have only recently found their way into official reports. Unfortunately they may not be reliable. Between 2003 and 2007 Queensland replaced Victoria as the state with the second largest attendance.
figure 3  figure 4

4. The number of Baptist churches is increasing
The number of BUA churches and fellowships has increased 835 in 1990 to 939 in 2004. 2
Between 1990 and 2004 every state showed an increase in the number of churches.
figure 5  figure 6

5. The gap between number of churches and population growth has been widening since 1911

Despite the increase in the number of Baptist churches and fellowships, the ratio of Baptist churches to the Australian population has declined in every state except Western Australia and Tasmania.

figure 7

6. Mainline protestant church numbers and church attendance are in serious decline
The growth of evangelical and pentecostal/charismatic churches has not offset the decline in mainline protestant church attendance. According to the NCLS,4 from 1991 to 2001 Australian church attendance declined overall by three per cent and the number of Australian churches fell by six per cent, despite our growing population.

In 1991 Australia had one church for every 1,561 people. NCLS has not yet released its 2006 estimates. If the trend continues, the ratio in 2006 will be one church for every 2,054 people.
figure 8

7. The Australian population continues to grow at unexpectedly high levels
Revised projections from the Australian Bureau of Statistics predict a population of up to 42.5 million by 2056. Its mid-range projection is 35.7 million. This is partially a result of rising fertility rates, but changing trends in immigration have had the greatest impact. Annual immigration figures have been adjusted from 110,000 to 180,000.

All states will reflect this trend. Queensland and Western Australia are projected to more than double in population size.
figure 9

What should we do?

1. Confront the evidence

If we kept track of our money as poorly as our people and churches, we would soon find ourselves bankrupt, in court, or both.

The BUA and each state union must carefully monitor key indicators such as:
• The number of churches we have planted and closed
• Church growth and attendance projections based on current trends
• The size and composition of our churches, leaders and congregations compared to the trends in Australian population growth and composition (for example age, ethnicity, geography).

This data needs to be publicly available and be a regular agenda item in planning meetings at all levels.

2. Return to our evangelical heritage
Movements are renewed by making an innovative return to tradition. Our Baptist heritage is evangelical with its emphasis on conversion, activism, the authority of the Scriptures, and the centrality of Jesus Christ and the Cross.

The strength of evangelicalism is “engaged orthodoxy.” Christian Smith explains, evangelicals are “committed to maintaining and promoting confidently traditional, orthodox Protestant theology and belief, while at the same time becoming confidently and proactively engaged in the intellectual, cultural, social and political life of the nation.”

In contrast, fundamentalism is distinct from the world but not engaged, while liberal Protestantism is engaged but not distinct. The further we move from our evangelical heritage the faster will be our decline. The scrap head of history awaits those movements that drift into either fundamentalism or liberal Protestantism.

3. See our future through Great Commission eyes
Mere denominational survival is not enough: we need to work with the greater end in mind. What would it mean to have faithfully completed our task?

The DAWN 8 movement has established a target of one evangelical church per 1,000 population. The current ratio of Protestant churches to population is around one to 2,000. This means we need to double the number of churches if we are to reach every neighbourhood and people group. I believe it should be our goal to double the number of Baptist churches throughout Australia, as well as working with other evangelical movements to ensure there is one church for every 1,000 Australians. This means planting 1,000 new Baptist churches.

4. Release pioneering leadership
At every level we must identify and empower leaders with a vision for growth and renewal. Denominational leaders must embrace church planting as central to our mission. Each state must appoint strong, energetic field leadership with the ability to turn vision into action.

Leaders of flagship churches in every region must evaluate how effectively they are preparing the next generation of young leaders to lead and plant churches. Partnerships with major donors must be forged, not to buy buildings and pay church planters, but to invest in the systems that build our capacity to grow and multiply.

5. Build a church planting movement
There is no secret regarding what a denomination must do to multiply churches in a healthy, sustainable way. This is what is required:
• Clarify the vision and responsibility for multiplication
• Recruit and select the right candidates to lead church planting teams
• Equip and coach leaders in the field
• Partner with healthy, existing churches to plant churches that will then multiply themselves
• Prepare the leaders who will plant churches in 3 to 5 years time
• Ensure funding strategies are sufficient and sustainable for growth.

We know what to do. The only question is whether we are willing to commit ourselves to relentless implementation?

6. Keep learning
We must encourage diversity in our approaches to this common calling while maintaining our core beliefs and mission. We need mega churches, cafe churches, and neighbourhood churches. We need churches of all different shapes and sizes. We must look for fruitfulness and healthy multiplication rather than judge a church or missional initiative by its size or novelty.

Where do we see lives changed, disciples made, groups multiplied, leaders developed, and new viable churches? Our independence gives us the freedom to experiment. Our interdependence creates a learning community committed to discovering the new thing God is doing.

7. Exercise faith
We face an impossible task, but our hope is this: we serve a God who does the impossible. The only way forward is with faith and prayer. Budgets will not get the job done. Corporate plans and expert reports are futile without faith.

Continuing our current practices will deliver more of the same: decline and lost opportunity. If we do nothing, we’ll survive, but is that all we want?

Steve’s full report can be downloaded from:
Steve’s blog on church planting movements can be found at