Meeting the Challenge of Population Growth and Church Decline
A recent study of the Northshore communities in SE Louisiana revealed that less than 4% of the popoulation attends Southern Baptist Churches on any given weekend (11,000 attenders to 343,000 in population). Consultation with other evangelical groups revealed that less than 10% attend evangelical churches of any kind (approximately 25,000 attenders per weekend).
Over the next ten years the Northshore is projected to continue to grow at a rate of 22%, which would bring our population to over 419,000 people. 22% growth for Northshore Baptist churches would mean adding 5,296 new members in ten years. The real challenge is to increase the percentage of people attending worship gatherings and Bible Studies. Currently 3.3% of the population attends worship in Northshore Baptist churches. If we wanted to double that to 6.6% of the population in worship attendance over the next ten it would mean adding 16,434 worshipers. Currently, only 1.9% of the population attends Bible Study in NSBA churches. If we wanted to double that to 3.8% over the next ten years it would mean adding 9,304 people to our Bible Study rolls. Daunting numbers. How could we do this? And is it even possible?
Four suggestions to meet the challenge: First, we need some of our churches to breakout. Second, we need healthier and riskier church planting. Third, we need to partner to help churches in need of and willing to engage in revitalization. Fourth, we need a discipleship revolution.
Breakout Churches. A breakout church is defined by Thom Rainer in his book by that title as a church that reaches at least one person for Christ every two weeks or 26 persons per year, has a conversion ratio of 20:1 or 1 conversion for every 20 members per year, has tenured and consistent leadership, and the church makes a clear and positive impact on its community. In our area, FBC Covington would be an example of a breakout church. In 1980, FBC had 322 in Sunday School and baptized 32. Dr. Waylon Bailey became pastor in 1989 and from 1990 to 2000, Sunday School attendance grew from 417 to 1,137. From 2000 to 2010, FBC relocated into a new facility, sponsored a new church on the Northshore which added 100+ members in its first five years, and today FBC has over 1,700 worshippers each week. And, since 1990, 1,745 people have been baptized through the ministry of FBC Covington. Bedico Baptist is another church that has broken out with tenured leadership. Leo Miller became Pastor in 1994. In 1995, Sunday School averaged 76 weekly attendees at Bedico. In 2000, that was up to 141, 2005 to 232, and Bedico has recently broken the 400 barrier. And since 1994, 537 have been baptized at Bedico. Others are poised to breakout across the Northshore. The momentum of growing churches breaking out will help us catch up with population growth and move past a season of decline.
Healthier and Riskier Church Planting. Healthier church planting means church planting that is led by churches with a heart to multiply and reproduce themselves for the sake of kingdom expansion. So, what’s needed for healthier church planting is healthy mother churches with a heart to reproduce. As Bob Roberts says in his great book The Multiplying Church, “The future of faith in America (and anywhere in the world, for that matter) is not tied to planting more churches, but in raising up of mother congregations of every tribe, tongue, denomination, and network that are reproducing… The hope is in pregnant mother churches.”
Riskier church planting would be multiplication that targets hard to reach areas and unchurched pockets of our population. Missiologist Alan Hirsch suggests that current church models are reaching out to smaller and smaller segments of the population, with possibly as much as 60% of America untargeted by our evangelistic and outreach efforts. Our study identified multi-housing residents as one potential segment that is underserved. Others may be those in their early 20’s with very little understanding of religion in any form. We need some church plants that go beyond planting a worship service that looks similar to others in the community, but will ask the question “Where is the church not?” and go there with the gospel. We need some church plants that have different scorecards and different expectations, but will faithfully deliver the message of Christ to unchurched people.
Partners in Revitalization. Church revitalization is needed to turn momentum around for congregations that are not effectively reaching their communities. This is already happening in a variety of ways on the Northshore, with Grace Memorial Baptist Church in Slidell becoming the sponsor of Covenant Baptist Church, which was in steep decline and in danger of shutting the doors. Also, with Woodland Park Baptist Church merging and taking on the assets and liabilities of New Life Church in Hammond, which was in steep decline, and now they are looking to plant a new church on the site. And FBC Hammond working through a self-assessment with the NSBA Staff to begin a process toward revitalization. Churches are needed who are willing to adopt or sponsor or merge with existing congregations for the glory of God. And churches are needed who are willing to admit there in need of coming under the wing of a benevolent parent church or work with a church wanting to help then in a revitalization effort.
A Discipleship Revolution. Call it revival, lay renewal, or awakening, what we need is a revolution of discipleship that will lead Northshore Christians to multiply themselves spreading the Gospel like a sneeze to their neighbors, classmates, coworkers, and beyond. In his book Church 3.0, Neil Cole observes, “we have lowered the bar of what it means to be a Christian, such that simply showing up to the weekly one-hour event with some regularity and a checkbook is all it takes.” We must refocus on making disciples who will reproduce themselves by telling others, inviting others, and discipling others. Discipleship should lead to disciple makers on mission for others.
 Rainer, Tom. Breakout Churches. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005.
 Roberts, Bob. The Multiplying Church. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2008.
 Cole, Neil. Church 3.0: Upgrades for the Future of the Church. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010.