As I considered writing about the 2010 Census, and what Oklahoma Baptists can learn from it, I couldn’t remove from my mind the census King David took of his fighting men (see 2 Sam. 24). That one didn’t go too well as 70,000 Hebrews died because of God’s judgment on David for taking the census!
The full 2010 Census report won’t be released for several months, but what we know already challenges us greatly. As the charts on page 7 indicate, the raw population numbers for the 20 largest cities and towns have been released, as has information on some ethnic groups. I compared the numbers that our churches reported in these 20 communities in the year 2000 and in 2010.
Each year, the majority of Oklahoma Baptist churches complete an Annual Church Profile (ACP), which helps us to track attendance, baptisms and financial giving. The categories we compared for this study include: number of Baptist congregations in 2000 and 2010, average total Sunday School attendance in 2000 and 2010 and average total morning worship service attendance in 2000 and 2010.
When taken together, these 20 communities show declines in Sunday School and worship attendance at 12 percent and 4 percent respectively. These reflect declines in the raw numbers. When population growth is considered, and it must be considered when one is measuring impact, the decline is 25 percent in Sunday School attendance and 18 percent in worship attendance. The numbers differ from city to city, but when all 20 cities are taken together, we have a clear, if unattractive, picture.
First, there are some bright spots, with the brightest of these being Enid. Of the 20 cities, Enid is the only one in which both Sunday School and worship attendance grew more than the population grew. The growth is substantial, with a 25 percent increase in Sunday School and 21 percent increase in worship attendance. What accounts for the success in Enid? I would highlight three things. First, Enid had 10 churches in 2000 and 13 churches in 2010. A 30 percent growth in the number of churches is strong, especially when the city’s population only grew by 5 percent during the decade. New churches reach unreached peoples, and Enid provides an example of this.
Second, the 10 churches that were present in Enid in 2000 have done quite well. Some have experienced growth, even substantial growth. Moreover, these churches did not suffer a major collapse. This is a critical point. In virtually every other city and town, churches large and small have suffered severe decline. When a church undergoes a major disruption, causing a steep decline in attendance, church attendance declines in that community. Yes, some who leave a struggling church join another church, but many do not. And some of those who leave a church will join a non-Baptist church. Enid has not experienced a shift of Baptist people leaving for a church of another denomination, nor have the churches there suffered severe decline.
Third, Enid’s stable population, with only moderate growth, provides less of a challenge than a city where the growth is more substantial, the population more transient and the ethnic makeup of the city is changing rapidly. With this in mind, Oklahoma City churches clearly have a greater challenge, as do the rapidly growing communities of Owasso, Bixby, Moore and Broken Arrow.
The second bright spot is found in Edmond, which has seen substantial growth in attendance, though slight declines when population growth is considered. In 2000, Edmond had 13 churches, while in 2010, there were 20. That’s an increase of more than 50 percent! Some of the existing Edmond churches have grown and some have declined, but the planting of new churches is the primary reason for a growing church attendance in the community.
When we examine those communities that have experienced the steepest declines in attendance, we discover two things, primarily. First, there was little or no growth in the number of churches, and, second, steep declines occurred in some existing churches. The city that struggled the most is Owasso, based on the Census data and the Annual Church Profile information. The city has grown by 56.3 percent, whereas attendance in Baptist churches has declined by 14 percent in Sunday School and 30 percent in worship. These declines rise to 70 percent and 87 percent respectively, when population growth is considered.
Six is the number that most stands out in Owasso. In 2000, there were six Baptist churches in town, and in 2010, there were still six churches. Secondly, those six churches had not grown in proportion to the population growth. The sad fact is they didn’t grow at all. When taken together, they declined. Reasons for decline vary, but you almost never see growth in church attendance when you pool existing churches together. One church might grow, but typically 80 percent of churches are flat-lined or declining, and the few churches that grow cannot make up for the many that do not.
Whether you examine large cities or smaller communities, growth is linked to two things: a growing number of churches, and the stability and health of the existing churches. In most cases, perhaps in all cases, too few new churches have been started. But in some cities, the decline is largely a result of the decline of existing churches. For example, Oklahoma City had 32 more churches in 2010 than 2000 (many of these are ethnic churches). Yet, declines in Sunday School and worship attendance were 41 and 32 percent respectively, when measured against population growth. Those familiar with the situation know that a number of churches, large and small, have experienced significant decline. In many of these situations, decline followed conflict and strife in the church body. Literally thousands have been lost from our Baptist churches in Oklahoma City and other cities as well.
Much more could be said about this. Some of you are aware of circumstances in some of these cities of which I am unaware. I understand this. But the lessons seem clear. Lesson one: we must pray for each other. When a church stumbles, fractures and falls, the hurt and the loss are devastating to the community and the Kingdom.
It’s not just about the numbers. Families suffer greatly when there is conflict in the church. Children are often scarred for life through the moral failure of a church leader or a messy church fight. We must strive to love God and love each other and pray for the Body of Christ. The collapse of one church will not strengthen the church in your city, even if some churches gain some new members as a result.
Second, we must plant more churches. None of these 20 cities has too many churches. I doubt your town does either. How can you have too many churches!? You cannot, if your goal is to reach the greatest number of people.
In this brief article, only a few issues and situations could be addressed. But I encourage you to look at your community and your church. Develop a plan to pray for the churches and to reach the lost. Your plan should include starting a new church, beginning new small groups and praying for the unity of the Body of Christ. Don’t pray for your church only, but for each Bible-preaching, soul-winning, mission-sending church in your town. We need each other, and we need many more to join us.
Randall Adams is Leader of the Church Outreach Team of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.