Baptist Press published a news story accusing the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of inflating its membership numbers, two weeks after the Southern Baptist Convention refused to vote on a resolution calling for greater integrity in reporting its own statistics through an Annual Church Profile.
Tom Ascol, senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church in <Cape Coral, Fla., submitted a resolution at the June 12-13 SBC annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas, drawing attention to the gap between the 16.3 million members claimed by Southern Baptists and the 6.1 million who attend church in a given week.
“Thirty-seven percent of our members is all that care to show up on a weekly basis, and that’s if we’re being generous,” Ascol said while appealing a decision by the SBC Resolutions Committee not to bring his resolution out of committee.
Resolutions Committee chairman Gerald Harris, editor of The Christian Index Baptist newspaper in Georgia, said the committee felt the resolution “infringed upon the honored principle of local-church autonomy” and that the committee “did not have a responsibility to instruct churches regarding their membership.”
“The Annual Church Profile has important statistical information in it that shows the trend in churches,” Harris said. “And while we appreciate Mr. Ascol’s resolution, we collectively agreed to decline the resolution on those bases.”
Covering the opening day of last week’s CBF General Assembly in Washington, the SBC news service, Baptist Press, questioned the CBF’s claim of 1,899 partner churches with 700,000 members.
Those 1,899 churches include congregations that simply honor an individual member’s request to forward funds to the Atlanta-based CBF, the BP story said, quoting one such SBC pastor who called it “a great way to inflate their numbers.”
The Church Report, a national magazine sent to more than 40,000 senior pastors and Christian leaders across the United States, picked up the story under a headline, “CBF Inflates Numbers of ‘Represented’ Churches at General Assembly.”
CBF Communications responded to Baptist Press’ inquiry about how CBF counts affiliated churches with a statement that read in part:
“For fiscal year 2005-2006, which began July 1, there were 1,899 contributing churches and 3,555 contributing individuals. If a check comes from a church or an individual, they are included in our statistics as a member. In keeping with our organizing principal as a Fellowship, respect for the autonomy of the local churches leads CBF to enact no further limitations or expectations on affiliation. As autonomous bodies, local churches can decide to whom they send support.
“The Fellowship continues to clearly state that the estimated 700,000 members of affiliated churches is not an indication that all 700,000 are supporters of the Fellowship. The Fellowship also makes no claims of exclusivity in relationship with the churches that send contributions, since this clearly would be contrary to historic Baptist polity and practice.”
A total of 2,572 people registered for the June 27-29 CBF General Assembly.
Last Thursday’s BP story reproduced a list of churches “represented” at this year’s General Assembly from a press kit, inviting pastors “concerned about their respective churches being named on the list” to inform Baptist Press and contact the CBF communications office.
Ascol, the Southern Baptist minister who failed in his effort to call on the SBC to clean up its own membership numbers, is director of Founders Ministries. The group is dedicated to promoting “historic Baptist principles” including the “Doctrines of Grace,” a reference to teachings of 16th century theologian John Calvin emphasizing God’s sovereignty in matters like predestination and eternal security of the believer.
Ascol said the high percentage of inactive SBC church members results from failure to follow the Bible’s commands regarding “discipline” of wayward church members.
Bob Cleveland, a layman and messenger of FirstBaptistChurch in Pelham, Ala., spoke in favor of voting on Ascol’s resolution at the SBC meeting in San Antonio.
“Every time we say 16 million members in the Southern Baptist Convention, we are misrepresenting who we are, and we are deceiving the readers and the listeners of that number,” Cleveland said. “Because we all know there are only 6 million people who actually come.”
“I can envision no circumstance under which Jesus would ever do that, and I can see no circumstance under which God would ever approve of such a thing,” Cleveland said. “Now we can hide behind all the tradition and all the ways we’ve done things for years. We can’t hide behind the fact that we are misrepresenting who we are.”
“We see numbers declining of baptisms,” Cleveland said. “God adds to our numbers daily as He sees fit, and He will give us the souls he can trust us with. And apparently He can’t trust us with 63 percent of the souls He has sent us.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.