A case study in decline

There is nothing more important to the vitality of a movement than it's commitment to its core beliefs. Dynamic movements hold both orthodoxy (core beliefs) and engagement with the culture in creative tension.

About a year ago my denomination (Baptist Union of Victoria) reappointed its New Testament professor, Dr Keith Dyer. The appointment was supported by the denominational leadership and theological college and affirmed by a two-thirds majority of a BUV Assembly of ministers and church representatives.

Historically, the BUV has been an evangelical denomination with a conservative statement of faith that upholds the supremacy of scripture.

Keith's reappointment, despite his teaching on sexuality, says a lot about the state the BUV is in.

In an unusual interpretation of Genesis 1:27 Keith Dyer argues that God created humanity, male and female not male or female. Therefore, humanity, made in the image of God, is a continuum stretching from male to female and everything in between. This view of human sexuality, he claims, was reaffirmed by both Jesus and Paul.

For Keith, these are issues of justice and righteousness. Therefore he supports the marriage of homosexuals and their right to child adoption.

Keith responds to those who appeal to the “plain sense of Scripture” that they are in danger of reducing God's Living Word to a book of dead letters and laws. "For the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor 3:6)."

Keith states that the affirmation of the 'homosexual', the 'intersexual' and the 'transsexual' is needed to awaken the church to its full glory as the body of Christ.

I’ve written a response to Keith’s teaching. My concern here is what this case study can teach us about the decline of a denomination and how to prevent it. More on that later.

Here's the full text of Keith's article: A Consistent Biblical approach to (homo)sexuality

Then along came AJ

Aj WaldockI stumbled upon a good case study of denominational turnaround while researching for a report on the Baptist Union of Australia.

Around the turn of the century the Baptist Union in the state of NSW was languishing. Almost seventy years of ministry had resulted in just 37 churches in the most populous Australian colony. Only Tasmania had fewer Baptists.

Then along came AJ Waldock to turn things around. This is what he taught me:

1. Appoint visionary leadership

In 1904 the Union appointed a young man to lead Home Missions—AJ Waldock.

Previously Home Mission Secretaries were just that—secretaries or administrators. Waldock reinvented the role and began travelling to every corner of the state.

By the end of his first year 9 mission stations became 13. The number of preaching stations had doubled to 40. The number of workers in the field grew to 22.

2. Commit to an effective strategy

Waldock was not just an energetic activist. He was a strategist. He produced a strategy paper for the 1905 Assembly: “Methods of Home Mission Work”. His approach was direct and uncompromising.

“All too long has our denominational expansion been left to haphazard and chance. We need a fixed policy and a determined plan; we need a method in our work that will give some guarantee of a going forward all the time.”

‘Too long the [Home Mission] Committee has been the benevolent institution of the denomination—the asylum of aged and infirm Churches—a kind of ecclesiastical couch for sleeping congregations to repose their weary limbs—a perambulator for carrying infant causes which never learn to walk’. AJ Waldock

3. Stay on target

Waldock argued that the primary role of the Society was not to prop up struggling churches that could not fend for themselves. It must be to establish new churches that grow to healthy independence and then reproduce.

Waldock laid down a number of practical steps towards this goal:

  1. Overcome the tyranny of distance by grouping churches into District Associations, under the leadership of a senior minister. Each Association was to take responsibility for Mission in their region.
  2. Appoint a salaried General Superintendent of Home Missions.
  3. Reorganize finances so that mission workers could be paid and directed centrally.

The primary purpose of the Society must be church planting and evangelism. Struggling churches would only be supported if funds permitted.

The Annual Assembly of 1905 adopted Waldock’s vision for expansion. A young and inexperienced minister of 32 years had struck the first blow in the battle to turn the denomination around.

4. Partner with key leaders and churches

CJ Tinsley was the other key figure in the resurgence of the BUNSW. Australian born, he trained at Spurgeon’s College London. He returned to take up leadership at the newly constituted Stanmore Baptist in 1901.

For the next thirty years Tinsley was “a blaze of evangelistic fire and fervour” at Stanmore and among the Baptist churches throughout the state and nation. He was a great evangelist and he led the whole denomination into evangelism.

In 1912 he became President of the Union. The denomination was already advancing under Waldock’s leadership in the field. Tinsley challenged them to go further.

“We must preach or we will perish; we must evangelise or we shall fossilise; we must be a missionary force or we shall become a missionary field.”

5. Partner with major donors

Right from the beginning Waldock’s vision for expansion was supported by a small group of major donors led by Hugh Dixson and William Buckingham. By 1925 Dixson had contributed £11,000, Buckingham, £3,000.

The outcome?

From 1901-1930 the number of churches and members in NSW almost tripled.

Bunsw Members:Churches 1901 1930

Future Prospects for the Baptist Union of Australia

The future of the Australian Baptists

Bua Logo
I've just finished an unofficial report on the future of my denomination, the Baptist Union of Australia.

The good news is the BUA has a future. The bad news is if that future is more of the same then the Baptist are headed for long term, gradual decline in relation to the Australian population.

Here's a summary of the trends

  1. Baptist membership has been falling since 1992.
  2. The gap between membership and population growth has been widening since 1911.
  3. Church attendance has been growing since 2003 but the numbers may not be accurate.
  4. The number of churches is increasing.
  5. The gap between number of churches and population growth has been widening since 1911.
  6. Mainline Protestant churches are in serious decline which outweighs the growth in evangelical churches.
  7. The Australian population is growing at unexpectedly high levels and will continue to do so.

Conclusion: More of the same will result in steady long-term decline in relation to Australian population growth.

So what is to be done? Apart from a new logo I suggested we need to:

  1. Confront the evidence
  2. Keep returning to our evangelical heritage
  3. See our future through Great Commission eyes
  4. Release pioneering leadership
  5. Build a church planting movement
  6. Keep learning
  7. Exercise faith

If we do nothing, we’ll survive. It may take decades for the full impact of our inaction to bear fruit. There will be a long journey of gradual decline in relation to population growth. The denomination will probably still be around in 100 years time—unless Jesus returns.

Future Prospects for the Baptist Union of Australia

Southern Baptist plateau? Maybe.

Roger Finke raises three problems with the trend of Southern Baptist success measured by larger churches and professional clergy.

  1. Congregational size is inversely related to converting new members, activating the existing membership, and maintaining high membership standards. Small churches are more effective in generating commitment and conformity within a movement.
  2. Formal theological training is a secularizing force and feeds the trend towards religious bureaucracy and religious doubt.
  3. A fully paid professional clergy is a financial hinderance to the survival of small churches and new church starts.For all of the above reasons, it was the upstart Methodists and Baptists that captured the US frontier, not the resource rich and highly educated Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists.

Long ago the Methodists surrendered to the temptation of respectability. Will the Southern Baptists follow suit? Are the Southern Baptists headed south?

Southern Baptist success? Maybe.

I keep bumping into church leaders of different persuasions whose goal it is to see their church plants grow to 500+.

If you want a case study of how it's done, try the Southern Baptists. I've just finished a 1994 article by Roger Finke that shows between 1920 and 1990 the average size of a Southern Baptist church soared from 115 to 396. Impressive.


The other trend he noticed was the dramatic increase in seminary trained professional clergy. Before 1950 the Southern Baptist seminaries produced 10,000 graduates. From 1950-90 the number grew to 60,000.


The Southern Baptists heritage was all about small churches and lay leadership. Today it's professional staff and large churches.

Bigger churches. Trained clergy. Sounds like a recipe for success.


How the West was won

Methodist Circuit Rider-2

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the decline of mainline churches and it causes. Some excellent work has been done by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark two sociologists who dabble in history.

Finke and Stark have examined denominational statistics on the US church between 1776 and 1850. They concluded that “the so-called Protestant ‘mainline’ began to collapse rapidly, not in the past several decades as is widely supposed, but in the late 18th Century. Hence by 1850 the Baptists and Methodists — vigorous, evangelical sects in that era — dominated the religious landscape. The key factor they argue was the infection of the ‘mainline’ denominations with secularism and the resulting loss of vigor in evangelism. The result was that the mainline churches watched from the safety of the larger towns and cities along the Atlantic seaboard while the Baptists and Methodists moved West with the frontier.

These two denominations grew significantly because they reached previously unchurched people. In 1776 only 17% of the poppulation was affiliated with a church. By 1850 that number had doubled to 34%. Most of the growth was as a result of the gains by the Methodists and Baptists on the frontier. Why? A key factor was the secularisation of the mainline denominations. ”The religious message had become too vague, too accommodated and too secular to have broad appeal.“

Clericalism was both a contributing factor to and the result of this creeping secularism in the mainline churches. Despite theological and organisational differences between the Baptists and Methodists their clergy were almost identical. They came predominately from among ordinary folk. In contrast to the clergy of the mainline churches who were of genteel origins and highly educated. Their frontier preachers had little education, were poorly paid, spoke the language of the people and preached from the heart. The local preacher was likely to be a neighbor, friend, or relative of many of the people he served. Higher education lifted the mainline clergy further out of the social status of their congregation and turned them into religious professionals more educated than 98% of the population. They were more ‘respectable, but less likely to gather the unchurched.

Secularised theological education and social background influenced the content and form of the message that was delivered. Despite their theological differences Baptists and Methodists emphasized the need for personal conversion and salvation from sin. The power of God was not only to be spoken about, it was experienced.

One contemporary observed, ”Their mode of preaching is entirely extemporaneous, very loud and animated. . . . They appear studiously to avoid connection in their discourses, and are fond of introducing pathetic stories, which are calculated to affect the tender passions. Their manner is very solemn, and their preaching is frequently attended with surprising effect upon their audiences.“

In contrast, the mainline clergy preferred to educate rather than convert their hearers. ”If the goal was to arouse faith, the carefully drafted, scholarly, and often dry, sermons of the learned clergy were no match for the impromptu, emotional pleas of the uneducated preacher.“

Not only were mainline clergy out of touch with the common people. They were also in short supply on the rapidly growing frontier. The expectation of a well educated, well paid clergy, resulted in a shortage of clergy on the frontier. A shortage meant their clergy chose the safety of an established congregation rather than the challenge of pioneering a new one. To be a Baptist or Methodist church leader did not require an up front investment of money and education. Both denominations developed systems which made it easy for gifted laymen to enter the ministry. Their clergy moved with the people rather than waited for them to call. ”It is hard to imagine any sum of money that would have caused an Anglican Bishop to travel nearly 300,000 miles on horseback as Francis Asbury did, disregarding weather and chronic illhealth, ‘to goad his men and to supervise their work.’“

Regardless of their differing denominational polity both the Baptists and the Methodists tended to be self-governing at the local level on the frontier. The Methodists eventually introduced a professional clergy who controlled the denomination centrally leading to their decline. But in the early days of rapid growth congregations were left to control their own destinies much like the Baptists.

Many factors fed into the amazing success of the Baptists and Methodists and the impotency of the Anglicans, Congregationalists and Presbyterians. At the heart of the problem was a professional, highly educated, secularized clergy who secularized the content and form of their message and blocked the mobilization of ordinary people for ministry. In contrast Baptist and Methodist church leaders were hardly distinguishable from the people they served and led. Their self-governing congregations multiplied rapidly in the frontier culture reaching a significant portion of the population who were previously unchurched.

Methodist growth was most dramatic. From 2.5% of the church going population in 1776 to 34.2% in 1850. But their rise was short-lived. By the end of the century the Baptists had overtaken them. Their relative slump began at the same time that their amateur clergy were replaced by seminary educated professionals who claimed episcopal authority over their congregations.

”The Churching Of America, 1776-2005: Winners And Losers In Our Religious Economy“ (Roger Finke, Rodney Stark)