I believe that church growth says almost nothing about a church’s faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ. Likewise, I believe that a church’s decline says almost nothing about that church’s lack of faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ.

All of the contemporary talk about growth and prosperity and mega-isms needs to be set alongside the life of the young Nazarene Carpenter himself. They did not, for heaven’s sake, celebrate him as “the outstanding young man in Jerusalem” at the annual Chamber of Commerce banquet. They mutilated him! And Jesus’ followers, we should remember, had a very tough go of it until Constantine came along and baptized a whole culture with half a gospel. And the church has been “growing” and “declining” ever since, often dependent upon how it plays its life to the surrounding culture.

One of my annual literary trips is to make my way through the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. I am very serious when I urge it upon pastors and professors and layfolk. These cold, statistical tables bear close, close study. In addition, you get from the Yearbook an efficient listing of names and addresses of religious organizations that will set your mind whirling and wondering and, at times, praising God.

Here are some of my gleanings from the 2004 Yearbook:

–A total of 215 North American church bodies report a robust membership of over 161 million people. A “secular society?”

–Of the largest 25 religious bodies in the United States the Jehovah’s Witnesses had a 3.33 percent increase in membership, the best of all the rest. That was 2.12 percent better than the Southern Baptist Convention. Remind me again: church growth proves what theological point? And even though the SBC had a hefty 1.21 percent growth rate, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints bested that figure with a 1.88 percent growth rate. Again, what does “church growth” teach us when the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons lead the pack?

–Of the top 25 largest churches in the U.S., the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., had a 2.87 percent growth rate. The ABCUSA is a mainline Baptist denomination that has grown! Congratulations to Roy Medley and associates.

One wishes better for them, but can the decline in membership of The United Methodist Church (minus 0.57 percent), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (minus 1.21 percent), the Presbyterian Church USA (minus 1.41 percent) and the United Church of Christ (minus 2.07 percent) be written off as simply “declining and dying” churches? Might there just be some “prophetic posture” in those churches that go unrewarded by quantitative assessments?

–Of the top 25 churches in the U.S., seven have “Baptist” somewhere in their name. Four of those seven are predominantly African American. When thinking, teaching and preaching “Baptist,” what color do you think?

–Financial giving to the churches is up. At the same time, financial giving by the churches is down. The 2004 Yearbook marked a 14 percent decline of gifts by churches to benevolent purposes outside themselves.  And this downward trend has continued for the last three years. Should churches seek generosity without practicing it themselves? Is there a danger in the “localism” that says, “We need to focus on our local church and our local church alone?”

–Counting “heads,” we now have in the U.S. and Canada 76,510 students in theological schools, the most ever. Of that number 27,315 were women, 35.7 percent of the total enrollment. God is still calling! God is still calling all kinds!! But are local churches?

–After scanning the descriptions of all the religious bodies listed in the Yearbook, I often winced in shame at the unapologetic narrowness and theological exactness of a few, some of which are growing.

Mostly, however, I wanted to praise Christ for the Big Church and for all its myriad efforts at caring for the least, the last and the lost. Ironically, some of these efforts are not growing.

I came away from the 2004 Yearbook again thinking of the best definition of the church I have ever heard or read: “All who love Christ in the service of all who suffer.”

Church growth may, in fact, come from that understanding of church. But it is not inevitable. And that’s the fact that we need to remember after Easter.

Walter B. Shurden is executive director of Mercer University‘s Center for Baptist Studies. This article appeared previously in “The Baptist Studies Bulletin,” a monthly e-zine. It is used with permission.

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