Note: I am well aware that others have recognized the problem addressed by this essay and have written about it. But, this article is drawn from personal observations over the past three years and beyond as I have preached in many of the kind of churches which are the subject of this piece. It is my hope that, coming from personal experience and observation, it will add a sense of urgency as we deal with the effects discussed.
Without trying to sound intellectual, I enjoy reading about quantum theory or quantum physics. It is very instructive and highly interesting. There is a spiritual side to all of this information which helps one better understand the omniscience and omnipresence of God as well as the other attributes we know about Him. One of the things one discovers when reading this kind of material is how intricately God has formed the universe even down to the super small components of atoms. The deeper we delve into this world the more we find that Someone had to design it. We know that Someone is God. There is no way that all we discover in the super small world of quantum physics could have just happened. It had to be intricately designed.
There are three laws of thermodynamics. Without lengthening this article by discussing all three laws, I want to focus on the second law of thermodynamics. This law is called the law of entropy. Entropy means, a process of degradation or running down or trend to disorder. This world and all that is in it will not last forever in its present state. This is due to entropy. God is going to change everything one day in order for it to last forever. The new heavens and the new earth will not be subject to entropy therefore it will be equipped to last forever. Entropy is not only a physical law. It can be seen in action in personal dynamics and human organizations which tend to “have their day” and then decline sometimes even into oblivion. So, personal relations are also subject to the law of entropy. Note the number of civic organizations that were once so big and powerful and in a few years they decline to the point of ineffectiveness. The same is true of churches. It has been observable that some very large and great churches have “had their day” and are now only a shadow of what they once were with every indicator diminishing. For the sake of this article, I want to focus on the spiritual organism we call the church and the larger “church” we call the Southern Baptist Convention made up, of course, by the state conventions and our entities.
It has long been noted that the majority of the churches in the SBC are not the larger ones which always get all the attention. The SBC is primarily made up of small churches with fewer than one hundred in attendance on Sunday. In fact, such churches make up approximately half of our forty-four thousand churches.
For the past three years I have had the privilege of preaching in a variety of churches made up of small and larger congregations. During this time I have been evaluating what was in store for the SBC if the law of entropy has its way. I have discovered something that our convention needs to recognize and make plans for if it is to remain effective in its scope and ministries. These smaller, mostly rural churches are declining rapidly due to two primary things. First, the society in which they once thrived is no longer primarily an agricultural society. In earlier days, these churches were located in certain areas of the rural setting for the convenience of the farmers in the area. The farm families in those days were large. The parents needed large families to help run the farm and harvest the crops. Therefore, the rural churches were populated in larger numbers as the parents brought their large families to church. These young people were the future of the church and the rural churches remained strong as they came to worship with the family. As the society shifted from an agricultural one to a more urban influence, those young people left the farm, went to college and prepared for a life in an urban setting which was anything but agricultural. In addition, the farm family became smaller because of the invention of farm machinery which made the larger family unnecessary for the operation of the agricultural process. This left the small rural church with a declining participation which grew smaller as the society shifted more and more away from agriculture and large rural families. As I have observed these churches, I have noticed that there are very few people in attendance which are younger than forty-five. They are there but their numbers are small. The majority of the people present are sixty-five and older. I’ve seen more grey and blue hair in the last three years than I ever imagined I would. If these churches are not inspired to reach out to others and witness to them, then they will continue to decline. As the congregation continues to age, there is less and less magnetic enthusiasm which is brought to a church with the energy of younger people. But, if I were a younger person, I would not find it encouraging to attend most of these churches because they are dead as a door nail. The energy has been consumed with the living of life. They have settled down into a dry, repetitive form of worship which leaves one unfulfilled and yearning for something more.
In order to combat the falling numbers and the lack of spiritual “fire”, many of these churches have adopted the “contemporary” style of worship which has become the “model” for success. They have made the mistake of thinking what will work in one setting will work in all settings. Because of lack of resources, these churches fail terribly at the contemporary model. Nothing is worse than repetitive choruses and its even worse when they are done badly. It’s painful. It kills any hope of having the spiritual atmosphere properly prepared for the preaching of God’s Word.
It’s sad when the preacher sits on the front row and has to pray that God will help him develop some energy in the room as he preaches because everything that has been done has contributed to a dead worship service. The music has sounded like a funeral dirge. The people have come expecting nothing beyond fulfilling the habit of “worship.” Reading their faces and actions, what they really want is for the whole process to be over so they can go about their lives feeling good about having done what they have always done on Sunday. It is all part of the process of spiritual entropy. A winding down which, unless combated will result in the closing of the doors within a few years as the aging congregation dies off with no new blood having been brought into the fellowship.
Each generation can pass along only that which they have learned and experienced. But the succeeding generation will not get all of what they passed along. They will get, say, ninety percent of it. So that ninety percent then becomes the base for passing along information to the third generation which will only get perhaps ninety percent of what was brought to them. So, the third generation only absorbs eighty one percent of what the first generation passed along. It is doubtful if ninety percent is actually absorbed by each succeeding generation so the effect is probably worse than the example I have postulated. This explains the downward turn in society and it is also affecting many of our churches, especially the ones under discussion here. Entropy is taking place. The process of degradation or running down or trending to disorder is occurring. The second law of thermodynamics is clearly observed in the spiritual as well as the practical sense.
It is my opinion that unless the SBC can find a way to help combat this situation, that in fifteen to twenty years we will not have forty-four thousand churches but we will consist of about twenty-five to thirty thousand churches. Most of the existing small churches will cease to exist. They will have to close the doors. Some will combine with other larger more vibrant churches. The little country church buildings will be maintained so that an occasional homecoming or family reunion can be held there. It will be a sentimental place that will be maintained by the monies from the cemetery fund. I know this sounds terribly negative, but I am concerned that this is the kind of situation that is developing. Spiritual Entropy is taking place not only on the local level but, by extension, on the larger convention level as well.
According to the Georgia Baptist Convention statistical office, sixty six percent of GBC churches have fewer than one hundred in church on Sunday. In the SBC, Lifeway says that fifty percent of the churches have between one and one hundred in worship. So, what does this portend? According to my personal observations as well as the observations of a number of experienced church workers, a great percentage of these churches will close within twenty years. So, let’s extrapolate that. If we lose one half (and that is a conservative estimate) of the 66% which are smaller than one hundred, that means we will have 1188 churches close in the next fifteen years. So, in approximately fifteen years our GBC which now has about 3600 will number about 2400 churches. That will have a very negative impact on everything measurable in the convention from SS attendance to Cooperative Program monies received, not to mention a downturn in Baptisms. On the SBC level if we lost one half of the 50% which are smaller than one hundred in worship that would mean a loss of 11.000 churches if we now have forty four thousand churches. The effect on the convention can only be imagined. Certainly baptisms, attendance and Cooperative Program monies would be affected dramatically because these small churches under discussion traditionally give generously to the CP and to special missions like Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong.
So, this all brings us to the point of dealing with what I believe is inevitable. Our convention leaders and strategists in both the state conventions and the SBC at large should wait no later in starting to design their response to this coming situation. They are faced with having to learn to live within the law of entropy. They have no choice. We must begin now to decide how to allocate funds and resources to deal with a smaller convention, less money and dwindling resources. Anyone who has preached to any degree in the smaller churches under discussion should know that what I have stated is not only possible it is, sadly, probable.
We are dealing with entropy, the second law of thermodynamics. It is a law of the universe that has been defined by God and it will always be in operation until He comes and makes all things new and not subject to this law. We are looking at the law of entropy from a spiritual and practical view and we will be smart to get ahead of the game in dealing with its affects which are developing even now.
William F. Harrell