I don’t keep up with denominational trends much. About once a decade I pull my head out of my own work and take a look at the bigger picture. I was shocked at what I recently discovered. Have you seen this? (All data from https://research.lifeway.com/2023/05/09/southern-baptists-decline-in-membership-grow-in-attendance-baptisms/ )

 

In summary:

  • Membership down by 20%
  • Worship attendance down by 39%
  • Group attendance down by 45%
  • Baptism down by 58%

Wow. Let those number sink in.

I got to thinking, “What happened in the decade surrounding 2005?

There could be a number of answers to this question and Southern Baptist numbers are part of a larger trend.

But, here is what I see. (We all see this from our own perspective; I am hoping mine will be helpful.) I’d be curious to know your thoughts. If you are reading this on my blog, write a comment below. Or, call me at 575.650.4564. Or, email to josh@joshhunt.com I am curious about your perspective.

Prior to about 2005 I was doing about 100 conferences a year training Sunday School workers. Much of this time, my wife was traveling with me. She trained children workers while I trained adult workers. Usually, the host got someone else to train preschool and youth workers. This is what I call a comprehensive Sunday School Training event. There was at least one trainer for each major age group: preschoolers, children, youth and adults. This was the bread and butter of how we trained people to do the work of the ministry for decades. Up until about 2005.

I could make a living doing Sunday School training because there was a market for it. Everyone pitched in…

  • Every medium-to-large sized Association did one Comprehensive Sunday School Training event a year.
  • Every large church did one a year.
  • Every State Convention did multiple Comprehensive Sunday School Training events every year.
  • Lifeway did a great deal of training.

We taught…

  • Teachers of 5-year-olds to reach and teach and make disciples of 5-year-olds.
  • Teachers 5th graders to reach and teach and make disciples of 5th
  • Teachers of 15 year olds to reach and teach and make disciples of 15 year olds.
  • Teachers of 55 year olds to reach and teach and make disciples of 55 year olds.

Around 2005 that market collapsed. The phone quit ringing. After more than a decade of steady work, people quit asking me to do Sunday School training events. I talked to a few other trainers in doing research for this article. Their phone quit ringing as well. Southern Baptist quit doing training about this time.

The reason for the importance of this may not seem immediately obvious to you. Here is what you may not have thought about, or might have forgotten: the vast majority of people who ever come to faith in Christ do so before they leave their teenagers years. If we don’t reach people by the time they graduate from High School the odds are we will never reach them. (This is, or course, from a human perspective. Things look different from the perspective of the sovereignty of God.)

https://home.snu.edu/~hculbert/ages.htm

In addition to this, those who do come to faith as an adult often have the seed planted as a child. I am thinking of two people in my church that came to faith after some wild living as an adult. Both went to church as children. The seed was planted. I love this graphic that illustrates this fact:

The tip of the spear in evangelism should be to target those most reachable: kids.

Around 2005 we quit doing comprehensive Sunday School Training events. We stopped teaching teachers of five-year-olds to reach and teach five year olds, teachers of 5th graders to reach and teach 5th graders…

At this same time, the Southern Baptist Convention took a dramatic turn South. Could there be a correlation? Could it be cause? Does this point to a solution?

Application:

Teachers

If you are a teacher, I’d invite you to make it a priority to avail yourself when you have the opportunity. Sharpen the saw. Commit to life-long learning. Get better at teaching. Get better at reaching. Get better at shepherding. It could be that we don’t do training because people won’t show up for training. Don’t be one of those people.

Large churches

I believe large churches have a unique capability and responsibility to do comprehensive Sunday School training for all churches in their area. I would encourage you to host a training event every year and invite churches in your area to attend. I would charge them some reasonable amount. Smaller churches can’t afford to pay the whole budget for a large training event but they can pay something. Get them involved in the planning of the event. If they help plan it, they will be more likely to attend it.

Associations

I believe associations would do well to get back to doing a large comprehensive Sunday School training event every year. I would partner with the largest churches in your association.

I have conducted many such Associational training events. Many were well-attended, some were not. I always hear the same thing from the leader of the Association where they are not well attended, “People just don’t support these things anymore.”

I always ask the leader of the Association where the events are well-attended, “What is your secret?” Leadership. The answer always comes down to leadership. At the Association where the events are well-attended, all the events they do are well-attended. They have leaders who lead. They make phone calls. They push. They prod. They lead.

 

Once again, I’d like your feedback. Why do you think the Southern Baptist Convention has been in decline, and what do you think we can do about it?