Let’s start with the numbers. In the 2015 church year, churches that were established or affiliated with the Northwest Baptist Convention (NWBC) from 2011-2015 baptized 224 persons and gave $169,340 to missions through the Cooperative Program (CP). Churches established and affiliated between 2006-2010 baptized 335 persons and gave $130,143 to missions through CP. Churches older than 2006 baptized 1,447 and gave $2,423,637 to missions through CP.
This means that churches older than five years of age baptized 89 percent of those baptized in our NWBC churches, and these same churches gave 93.8 percent of the mission dollars through CP. Churches more than ten years old performed 72 percent of all baptisms and gave 89 percent of the CP mission dollars.
For the past several years much attention and ministry focus of Southern Baptist denominational entities (associational, state and regional, and national) has been on church planting. Church planting has occupied a significant portion of my own ministry, both as a pastor and as a denomination leader in two state conventions. My involvement in church planting is convictional. It is based on my understanding of how people have been reached for Christ throughout history, both in the United States and beyond.
A pithy expression that I sometimes use is “whoever has the most churches wins.” This statement is based on the observation that the group with the most churches also has the most weekly worshippers (whether they accomplish the most for the Kingdom is another question). This has been true throughout the entire history of our nation (see Rodney Stark’s The Churching of America). Southern Baptists have more church attenders than Methodists because we have more churches and Methodists have more attenders than Episcopalians for the same reason. Likewise, the Bible belt is what it is because there are more churches there than in the Northwest where I serve. The Northwest Baptist Convention has 466 churches, but if we had the same density of churches as Mississippi or Oklahoma we would have 8,000 churches or 5,000 churches respectively. That’s why Mississippi and Oklahoma are the Bible belt and Washington and Oregon and Idaho are not.
The statement “whoever has the most churches wins” is not meant to convey that we reach people by planting new churches. New churches are, or should be, the result of evangelism. Church planters focus on reaching unchurched people, leading them to Christ, and gathering them into the new church. From what I can see, that is what our Northwest church planters are doing. But pastors of established churches lead their people to do the same thing, reach people for Christ and bring them into the church fellowship. So, when asked what our greatest need is, I always say that we need more pastors and evangelistic church planting pastors. If you have them, you’ll have more churches and you’ll have healthier churches. Evangelists and church planter/gatherers precede having more churches.
Though we must never diminish our efforts to send out missionary church planters who focus on reaching peoples from among all the peoples inhabiting our nation, the fact is the great majority of the gospel work being done in the Northwest, and throughout the United States, is being done by established churches. Moreover, most of the Cooperative Program mission dollars are given by established churches. This is not to say that established churches are necessarily more generous in their support of missions, nor are they necessarily more evangelistic in their behaviors. It is simply recognizing that most people who attend church are in established churches, and if we do not seek to help these churches remain and regain health and evangelistic effectiveness, we are missing our most significant opportunity to reach people “today” with the good news of Jesus Christ. Moreover, it’s important that we continue to acknowledge and say “thank you” to the faithful churches that built, and continue to build and support, who we are as Northwest Baptists and Southern Baptists.
Our younger churches are a significant part of our present ministry and they will be a growing part of our future ministry. Also, if in the Northwest we hope to increase the percent of our people who know Christ and attend church, we need to continually call out evangelists and church planter/gatherers. Planting new churches will always be a high priority.
That said, we must never forget, and never neglect, those churches long since established. Most of the gospel work is being done through them. And most of the support for new churches is being given by them. Some of these churches have enjoyed continuous ministry for over 100 years. Imagine that! We have churches in the Northwest who have met weekly, preaching the gospel and worshipping Jesus, without fail, for 30, 40, 50 years and more. Our oldest church is the Baptist Church on Homedale in Klamath Falls, OR (formerly the First Baptist Church before a merger with another church) founded in 1884 as Mt. Zion Baptist Church. We thank God for you!
So consider this a “shout-out” to churches old and new, without which the NWBC and the SBC would cease to exist as a people cooperating in gospel work to the glory of our God.