No, this is not a joke. Scott Lehman thought this was like "How many Baptists does it take to screw in a light bulb?" We all know that this question cannot be answered precisely, because the answer is inversely proportional to the number of committees the church has!
Over the years, we have used the following ratio as the standard measure of evangelical growth for a church: members/baptisms. In other words, take the number of members a church has and divide it by the number of annual baptisms. The lower the number the better. In the Southern Baptist Convention, this ratio is generally about 45:1. That's 45 church members to baptize one person per year. Most churches have a ratio of about 80:1. Before we Baptist types pat ourselves on the back however, let's remember that many of our churches re-baptize those folks who are from other brands. Our ratio is likely to be closer to 80:1 than we realize.
But how many Baptists does it take to have a net enrollment gain of one person per year in Bible study? The answers we've received have ranged from 10 to 10,000. Okay, the 10,000 number was somebody just kidding around. Most guesses were around 15 to 25. The real answer is:
That's right! It takes four hundred Baptists, considered one of the most – if not THE most evangelical denomination in the USA, to have a net gain of one person a year in Bible study. Sort of makes you re-think all those popular church slogans about "reaching our community one person at a time" doesn't it?
Here's where we get the number 400. If you're not a formula person, do yourself a favor and skip this paragraph. Over the past 40 years or so, SBC Sunday School/small group enrollment has grown an average of 20,000 people per year. There are 8 million Southern Baptists enrolled in Bible study. So divide 8 million by 20,000 and what do you get? 400! To make it even more plain, the average Southern Baptist church has 200 people enrolled in Bible study. So it takes two churches to enroll one person in a small group Bible study. That's after 365 days of doing whatever it is we do in church!
So what is the big deal about this? What do you think is the most effective evangelism method that we have today? Revivals? Youth Camps? Retreats? Seeker services? Block parties? Door-to-door witnessing? Spiritual tracts? Evangelistic bumper stickers? Try this… for every 2 lost people enrolled in a small group Bible study, one of them will make a profession of faith and get baptized in one year! That's a 50% success ratio. Evangelism in small groups may not be the most effective evangelistic opportunity we've got, but I'm hard pressed to think of one that is better when it is properly understood.
So why are our churches baptizing less people with more programs than ever before? Simply put, evangelism is generally done best in small groups of people where a lost person can join a group, study and ask questions about the Bible, be involved in ministry, and just see how Christianity works. The old Willow Creek adage is true: "Life-change happens best in small groups". There isn't anything more life-changing than a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Our challenge, and not just as Baptists but as evangelical Christians everywhere, is to get our priorities back on track. We have turned our Sunday Schools and small group Bible studies into a Christian 12 step program. We study "how to have a better life" courses. You know: how to have a better marriage, how to get out of debt, how to raise your kids, etc. Let's make sure we understand this. The goal of the Christian life, and the goal of a biblically functioning small group is this: Know God! Jesus said it in John 17:3 – "and this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent"(ESV). Notice he did not say "have a perfect marriage"We have confused the benefits of the Christian life with the goal of the Christian life! Lots of people have left this earth mired in financial debt but are spending eternity in heaven. Not one person on this planet, who is of the age of accountability, will go to heaven without a relationship with Jesus Christ!
So what do we do? Huddle up in our small groups so we can all be debt-free while our friends spend eternity in hell? I don't think so… We need to see our small group ministries as opportunities to bring friends and neighbors into a small community of believers whose goal is to help them discover Christ. The cool thing is: we can have great families and debt-free living as a fringe benefits.