Two hundred and fifty-seven years-that’s how long it will take to reach the lost in Oklahoma at the present rate of growth, according to missiologist Jim Slack. More than 1.5 million Oklahomans are unaffiliated with any church. That number exceeds 2 million when churches that are not evangelical are excluded. So the question is, “How do we change these numbers?”
Before we suggest a solution, some reminders are in order. Through this series of articles, we have learned that both baptisms and church attendance have declined sharply in Oklahoma. A 36 percent decline in baptisms over the past 25 years has been accompanied by a decline in Sunday School attendance of 12 percent since 1990. That means 9,000 fewer are following Jesus in believer’s baptism each year, and 20,000 fewer are present in our Sunday Schools each Sunday. We have also learned that half of the Baptist churches in our state average 52 or fewer in Sunday School, meaning that we are a convention of small churches, which is in keeping with the size of churches everywhere in the world. Moreover, we have learned that wherever the Church is growing, and lostness is decreasing, it is happening because of a rapid expansion in the number of churches.
When you do the math on lostness in Oklahoma, keeping missiological principles firmly in mind, the clear answer to reaching the great numbers of lost people in Oklahoma is to start churches whose purpose is to reach the lost. And not just start churches, but start great numbers of churches. For example, if we were to reach all of the 1.5 million unchurched people in Oklahoma, we would need 10,000 additional churches based on 150 members per church. If those churches are started in the traditional way, with a salaried pastor, the purchase of land and the construction of a building, it would require approximately $2 million per new church for a total of $20 billion dollars. If you think you could cut the cost in half, it would require $10 billion dollars, which is 38 times more than all Oklahoma Baptist churches received in undesignated dollars in 2006.
Clearly, such great cost requires that we look at alternatives to the traditional methods of planting churches in Oklahoma. When you examine places in the world where the church is growing and lostness is decreasing, churches are being planted by unpaid lay church planters. These are typically small churches of perhaps 40 members each. They meet in homes or other pre-existing buildings, thus they keep costs low. This is how Baptists planted church in the United States during the pioneer era. To reach all 1.5 million unchurched Oklahomans through these types of churches, it would require 37,500 new churches, led by 37,500 lay pastors.
If you believe it is unrealistic that we could reach all 1.5 million for Christ and bring them into Baptist churches, then divide that number by three. For Oklahoma Baptists to reach 500,000 of the lost in Oklahoma, it would require 3,333 traditional churches at a cost of more than $3 billion. Or, by using lay planters with smaller, unfunded church starts, it would take 12,500 new churches.
Is this an either/or proposition, meaning we should only start churches one way? Absolutely not. The Church Planting Group at the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma uses multiples methodologies to start new churches. These methods are sometimes the product of the partnering churches or the church planter himself. Most are started in the traditional way, with a salaried pastor, and with the new churches eventually building a church house. But using this model exclusively will result in a tiny fraction of the number of churches needed to reach the lost in Oklahoma.
Recently, a pastor in a small Oklahoma town attended a church planting training event hosted by the BGCO. He told me he was having difficulty helping his church understand the need for another Baptist church in town. This pastor added the numbers and discovered that if every church building in town was full, they could hold only 350 people in a town with 1,100 people. What’s more, the buildings aren’t all full on Sunday morning, and many of those who are unchurched wouldn’t easily fit into the culture of the existing churches. This pastor knows that planting new churches in his small town is the most effective way to reach lost people, even if those new churches never reach an attendance of 100 and are always led by bi-vocational or unsalaried pastors.
If you have carefully considered the numbers as they’ve been presented, you understand the challenge before us can only be accomplished by God Himself, flooding the hearts of His people with a burning desire to reach the world for Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote that to that end, saying that he made himself “a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (I Cor. 9:19b). Such a commitment from Oklahoma Baptists will lead us to some radical methodologies in evangelism and church planting. So radical, in fact, that they are found in the most radical book ever written, the New Testament, parts of which were likely written in the church that met in the house of Aquila and Priscilla (I Cor. 16:19).