The number of members in our Baptist churches in Great Britain is down, but not by much. The number of baptisms is down, too, by rather more proportionately, but again not by much.
Figures for children and young people, on the other hand, are up, so that’s good news; as is the fact that the number of churches in the Baptist Union of Great Britain is growing.
We know, too, that membership and actual attendance have a rather complicated relationship, with far more people attending than ever taking the fateful step of signing on the dotted line.
So the line we should take is probably, “Don’t panic.” Our membership is not dropping through the floor, as it is in some denominations.
The robustness of our youth and children’s work augers well for the future, though we face enormous challenges in helping those young people keep their faith alive through young adulthood.
The generation in their 20s and 30s is sadly missing from all too many churches, and turning that around will be a major project.
Does it show a lack of faith to be concerned about numbers? Surely not. If we notice such things, it’s because we believe we have a message that matters, and the more people who hear it and respond to it the better.
If fewer people are hearing and responding, we should be rigorous in critiquing what we do and how we do it. We cannot make people respond, but we can make it easier – or harder – by what we say, how we say it, and even more, by what we do.
It’s true, too, that evangelism is easier in some places, and at some times, than it is at others. At the moment, Europe in general is hard, and the United Kingdom is by no means the hardest.
So, as always, there are two requirements laid on us. The first is to be fearless in encountering the unbelieving, the indifferent, the careless and the hostile.
Evangelist Chris Duffett is a good model here: with imagination, creativity and a warm heart, he is able to preach without preaching, and plant seeds of faith in many minds.
Who’d pass up a chance of free fruit at a roadside stall? But labeling his apples and bananas as love, joy, peace and so on offers a wonderful opportunity for God-talk.
The second requirement is that when people find their way to a Christian community, we offer them something worth having.
That means worship that is accessible without being banal, and theologically orthodox while being open to the Spirit. That means teaching that speaks of eternal things in the language of today, and pastoral care that is committed, loving and prepares for the demands as well as the blessings of discipleship.
These are not small things, but they are of the essence of the whole evangelistic enterprise.
If we expend vast amounts of energy and entrepreneurship convincing people that there is a spiritual feast awaiting them at such-and-such a place, for them to find when they arrive that the fare is water and stale bread, we shall rightly be held to account.
Many if not most of our churches offer much better than this. But there is perhaps a case for a regular audit of every congregation, when it asks itself – or, even better, gets someone else, preferably a non-churchgoer, to ask it – “What are you actually hoping to achieve through this service? Do you really believe what you say and sing? Do you expect it to speak to the outsider as well as the insider? Are these still living words for you, or is it time you found some better ones?”
Numbers matter, though not always very much. It is worth reminding ourselves that every one of those represented in our latest Baptist figures is a unique individual, not just a statistic; a child of God, called by him into a loving relationship.
It is worth reminding ourselves, too, that every one of those who passes the church by on Sunday mornings and never gives it a thought is also one of his children.
Calling people to sit in Baptist churches for the sake of it is not a very noble aim. But calling people to Christ is what every faithful disciple ought to do.
Mark Woods is editor of Britain’s Baptist Times, where this column first appeared.