By Kent Fillinger
Typically when we measure success in the church, we count nickels and noses—how much money is given and what is the total attendance—but the best indicator of church growth and health is the baptism ratio. Baptisms are the best indicator of health because baptisms measure whether churches are reaching the lost versus just moving believers around.1 A U.S. Congregational Life Survey found that just 7 percent of new attendees are formally unchurched.2
The total number of baptisms for all 113 churches in 2007 was 19,107 (down 1,234 from 2006, a 6 percent decline). A more concerning statistic is that the average baptism ratio dropped to 6.4 baptisms per 100 in attendance. Parkway Christian (Surprise, Arizona) led the way with a 15.5 baptism ratio.
This change is significant because for a decade the baptism ratio has hovered near 7.2 baptisms per 100 in attendance. The falling baptism ratio coincides with the slumping growth rate.
To measure the efficiency of churches, the number of baptisms based on the general fund giving of each church was measured. The numbers indicate the average church spent $27,429 per baptism last year, or the price of a new Honda Accord EX-L sedan.
Seven churches invested $10,000 or less per baptism while six churches spent more than $60,000 per baptism last year. The top end was $83,000 per baptism for one church—the equivalent of a new Porsche 911 convertible.
The 11 churches with the best baptism ratios invested an average of $12,251 per baptism. These 11 churches all grew in 2007; their collective growth average was 13.3 percent, 10 percentage points better than the overall growth rate of 3.2 percent, thus demonstrating the connection between a church’s baptism ratio and its overall growth.
Another example is Southeast Christian (Louisville, Kentucky), whose total baptisms dipped below 1,000 last year for the first time since 1998. Southeast’s attendance is down 6 percent since its peak of 2004 and its number of baptisms is 33 percent below its peak in 2005. The church’s 2007 baptism ratio was 5.3, and attendance declined 4.3 percent.
To further reinforce this concept, the top 11 churches from 2005 were examined, and each had a baptism ratio greater than 10. Nine of the 11 churches grew that year with an average growth rate of 10.9 percent, more than double the 2005 overall growth rate.
The lesson: if you want to increase your attendance and growth rate, focus on making and baptizing new disciples and do not settle for transfer growth. Also, work hard to retain your new disciples. The U.S. Congregational Life Survey also revealed that one in four church attendees has switched churches in the past five years, so keeping new people is vital.
Wal-Mart understands the price or value of keeping a shopper. The retailer has calculated the average Wal-Mart shopper is worth $215,000. Wal-Mart has determined that if a shopper gets mad and never returns, it will lose an estimated $215,000 in sales over the lifetime of that customer.3
Obviously every new disciple is priceless, but when you consider the financial investment in baptizing believers, it only makes sense to try just as hard to retain them.
1“Baptisms the best indicator of church health, says Baptist study,” Church Executive, July 2007, 14.
2Todd Rhoades, “The saga of the church hopper,” http://rev.org/ArticlePrint.asp?ID=2700, 10 July 2007.
3Todd Rhoades, “Should the church be more like Wal-mart?” http://rev.org/ArticlePrint.asp?-ID=2467, 13 June 2007.