The size of “our big” is determined by the fruitfulness of “our small,” according to Mark Tolbert, vice chairman of the Bivocational and Smaller Church Advisory Council.
“The Southern Baptist Convention is a large convention of mostly small churches,” he told council members at its March 3–4 meeting.
“That is not how we’re viewed publicly, but that’s absolutely who we are,” he said.
The advisory council is a three-year study group appointed by Frank S. Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee, charged to bring a report to him about the needs and best practices of bivocational and smaller membership congregations in Southern Baptist life.
Members of the advisory council, representing a broad range of occupations and ethnicities, were greeted with snow as they gathered in Atlanta for their third and final meeting.
“Snow can remind us of the significance of smaller churches,” Tolbert, who directs The Caskey Center for Church Excellence at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said.
“We’ve all been told that every individual snowflake is unique. At a distance they all look alike, but under the microscope, scientists tell us, every snowflake is different.
“Smaller churches are that way,” he said.
Many people think all smaller churches are the same, but each one is unique and significant “because God has placed them in their context to penetrate their community with the Gospel,” he said.
“If you put a whole lot of snowflakes together, they’ll shut down the city,” he added. “The schools will close, the roads will close.”
In the same way, “the significance of all our smaller churches in the Southern Baptist Convention is staggering,” he said.
Tolbert distributed a statistical report prepared jointly by The Caskey Center and The Leavell Center for Church Health, also at New Orleans Seminary, that underscored his premise.
One of the more telling charts showed more than one-third (39 percent) of Southern Baptist churches reported weekly attendance of fifty or fewer on the 2013 Annual Church Profile.
An additional 28 percent reported weekly attendance of one hundred or less.
Combining the two groups of churches, Tolbert shared that 67 percent of all reporting churches had one hundred or less in weekly attendance.
When you add in the number of churches that reported weekly attendance of 250 or less, the percentage jumps to 89.33 percent of all Southern Baptist churches.
“Two-thirds of anything is significant,” he said. “Eighty-nine percent is an overwhelming number.” Like the snowflake, each individual church is significant, he said. “But, in mass, how much more we see the significance.”
Significance is not the same as health, Cliff Woodman, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Carlinville, Illinois, interjected.
“We must be careful not to give our smaller churches a pat on the back and tell them they’re significant if they’re not healthy,” he said.
Woodman serves as president of Southern Baptists’ Bivocational and Small Church Leadership Network (BSCLN).
Tolbert agreed. “Our smaller churches want to be more healthy,” he said. “That is where our action steps are going to address what we need to do and what we need our entities to help us do.”
One of the great needs is to reemphasize personal evangelism, he said.
“We don’t talk about soul-winning and personal evangelism anymore,” he said. “I hope that can be a major component of our story.”
Ray Gilder, chairman of the advisory council and executive director of BSCLN, noted that pastors most often define success as growth and conclude that growth is a sign of health.
Numerical growth in morning worship alone does not indicate health, he said.
“There are many different measurements for growth in churches—growing by lowering the median age [reaching younger generations with the Gospel]; growth in increasing core involvement of Sunday morning participants [discipleship]; and growth in missions participation and missions giving,” he said.
Gordon Donahoe, pastor of Neeley’s Bend Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, illustrated Gilder’s point.
“We have a neighboring church in Nashville with an active nursing home ministry,” he said. The nine active adults in the church saw forty adults [in the end stages of life] saved and baptized over the past few years.
“I asked the pastor how they were making it financially,” he said.
The pastor said, “We’re in the black, with nine adults. All I know to do is keep doing nursing home ministry,” Donahoe told the group.
Advisory council members agreed that the value and dignity of every church must be celebrated.
“Across the street from my office is a small McDonald’s,” Joe Young, member of Calvary Chapel in Parchman, Mississippi, said.
“The impact of McDonald’s is not how large a few may grow, but that they are everywhere, at every crossroads,” he said. “And, they make a difference.”
We are thankful for the large churches and acknowledge their value, he said. But we must celebrate that Southern Baptists “are in forty-plus thousand communities, we’re in the neighborhoods, we’re in the cities, we’re everywhere.”
Woodman urged pastors and other leaders to stop viewing church size as a “competition thing.”
“We’re on the same team,” he said. “Until we as churches across the Convention decide that we’re not competing against one another and put our efforts towards our real enemy, our focus won’t be where it really needs to be.”
Drawing on research provided by Council members, Gilder plans to present the Council’s final report to Page during this summer’s SBC annual meeting in Saint Louis, Missouri.
Roger S. Oldham is vice president for Convention communications and relations for the SBC Executive Committee and is a member of Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee.