Poet and novelist Victor Hugo once remarked, “The greatness of a people is no more determined by their numbers than the greatness of a man is by his height.”
Southern Baptist leaders, on the other hand, seem to believe that numbers do equal importance and rightness. On Aug. 11, the Baptist Press ran an article attacking the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship for how it counts church partners and on Sept. 18 ran another article to “confirm” the first story.
CBF responded to the first attack piece by calling the comments “tragic and perplexing,” “hurtful,” and “un-Christian.” The statement also asked, “Why does Baptist Press feel compelled to publish stories that criticize and defame a fellow Baptist body?” That is a good question, since the attack pieces seemed quite random and unrelated to any new developments.
Although both attack pieces on CBF’s church counts quoted CBF leaders explaining exactly what the numbers mean and how they are calculated, the articles condemn CBF for being “deceptive” and engaging in “skullduggery.” However, since CBF is open about what the numbers represent how can it be “deceptive” or even “skullduggery”?
Additionally, while the SBC attacks CBF’s church counting system, the SBC has also been criticized for counting churches that do not want to be included. The SBC has even been questioned for altering membership numbers. Yet, none of this really matters any more than CBF’s church counts matter.
Ultimately, the attack on CBF seems to be less about anything that CBF is doing than about trying to prove that the SBC is better because it is bigger. After all, the first attack piece ended by noting how large the SBC is. It even used numbers as “proof” that the Baptist Faith & Message of 2000 is correct. Yet, this whole debate over church counts is an unnecessary distraction because it does not really matter.
The real problem with the attack pieces is that an overemphasis on statistics seems to often lead to the false presumption that might makes one right. This argument that more people follow us so we must be correct is a logical fallacy called ad populum (“to the people”). It assumes that a majority of people cannot be wrong, despite the fact that history is littered with such examples: the world is flat, the sun revolves around the earth, slavery is right.
Can doctrine really be established by a majority vote? This numerical size argument has commonly been used in the past to “prove” that mainline churches are wrong because they are declining and that conservative churches are correct because they are growing. David Shiflett makes this argument in his book Exodus: Why Americans are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity.
With this poor reasoning, one must accept Mormons as theologically correct, since they are among the fastest-growing religious groups in the U.S. Or one must believe that the breakaway Episcopalians are wrong on the issue of homosexuality because they are so small in comparison to the rest of the denomination. Or one must believe that early Baptists were wrong because they were so small in number.
Perhaps one reason Southern Seminary’s Russell Moore recently urged Southern Baptists to have lots of children is because that would likely ensure growth and thus “prove” that the SBC is theologically correct. After all, research has demonstrated that the decline in mainline churches is actually the result of lower birthrates and not because people are leaving the churches in protest of the theology.
Rather than being so focused on quantitative data, perhaps we should care more about the qualitative. I have known churches with 25 people that do more for the Kingdom than churches 10 times as large. Yet, the larger church might point to their numbers as proof that they are more right with God. Thankfully, God is with us when two or three are gathered in His name, not only when we are part of the largest group.
In Matthew 25, Jesus said we will be judged on how we help the “least of these,” not on how many people join our organization. Sharing the love of Jesus with people is more important than building the largest church by getting Christians to transfer their membership or have lots of kids. Serving people and churches is more important for a convention than having the most members or contributors.
It should not matter how many churches give to CBF as long as they share the love of Jesus. It should not matter how many churches give to the SBC as long as they serve people. It is time to quit wasting our energy and resources seeing who is bigger and by how much. It does not matter if we have one, two, or five talents as long as we are using them for God.
It is time to care about what really matters. We must start focusing on reaching the world with the love of Jesus. Regardless of what numbers one uses for the SBC or CBF, the two groups combined are still fewer in number than the number of people who are lost, hurting, starving and dying. So let us quit counting ourselves and starting serving our neighbors.
One of King David’s greatest mistakes was ordering a census of the people. It demonstrated that he was too focused on his own power than serving and trusting God. As a result, thousands of people died. Today, millions are dying as we fight over how to take a misguided census to prove the level of our power.
Brian Kaylor is communications specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Missouri.