What I Learned From a Misssiologist, Part 1
Several weeks ago, I met with BMA Missions Executive Director, John David Smith. We spoke for about an hour, and I wish everyone in the BMA could do the same. The man is truly a treasure.
If you’ve been paying attention to “church culture” in 2013-2014, you’ll see the idea of church multiplication is being emphasized, and rightly so. However, it is no secret that many churches are struggling, shrinking, plateauing or feel that they are in the church-saturated areas. The thought of planting a new church seems daunting, if not ridiculous, to many.
While I wish we had the space to print our entire conversation, below are some of the major points, particularly about church planting, that I learned from Dr. Smith.
Multiplication has always been the goal. The New Testament pattern is for churches to support the planting of more churches.
“My definition of a local church would be what we’ve always heard — a group of regenerate, baptized people who gather to worship God and obey the commands of Christ…” Smith said. “And the last part of that definition is that they scatter to make God’s name known. Somehow, in the United States, we have dropped off the scattering part. In my opinion, we have dropped off the very missionary expression of the local church… It has become more about self-preservation than multiplication. It’s not easy, but we’ve somehow got to shake-free from that bondage… It really is extremely distorted from a Biblical perspective and a practical point of view as well.”
The existence of a “church” does not mean that church is a good expression of the Kingdom of God. “I believe that the local church is the greatest expression of the Kingdom of God if that church is vibrant and multiplying,” Smith said. “But if a church is stagnant and sterile, then maybe the local church becomes the greatest disgrace to the Kingdom of God.”
Dr. Smith said that if there are multiple healthy, vibrant churches in an area then we should, by all means, seek to plant churches elsewhere. However, that is rarely a reality.
Often, people see lots of church buildings in a town and believe that equates to a strong presence of the gospel in the lives of the residents. But lots of church buildings does not equate to a strong, vibrant presence of the reality of the gospel or the presence of a true New Testament church that is making disciples and then sending out church-planters.
Church-attendance saturation is a myth. Even in the most conservative, “Christian” regions of America, the percentage of the population who regularly attend a Sunday church meeting is very small. David Olson, author of The American Church in Crisis, conducted a comprehensive church attendance study from the years 1990-2006. Olson categorized attendance records from a database of 200,000 churches across many denominations. He compared the records with census data, church roles and basically every conceivable way to parse it. While self-reporting polls claim that around 40% of Americans “regularly” attend church, Olson’s data shows that on any given weekend, only about 17%-18% of Americans attend church. Even in what would be considered very “Christian” areas, 20-22% attendance is about the best you can hope for.
Young adults, the future of the church, represent the smallest group of attenders.
Bryce Holmes, the assistant college minister at Central Baptist Church in Conway, conducted his own survey in which he called more than 100 churches/associations/para church organizations and compared their attendance numbers with the Arkansas Department of Education statistics for college students in Conway. He found that of the 14,000+ college students in Conway (an area where there are 60+ Baptist churches, not to mention other evangelical denominations, within easy driving distance) only an optimistic estimate of about 9.5% of those students have a church home.
The bottom line is that there is always room for another good church.
Check back next week for more from my time with Dr. Smith.