Monday, September 17, 2012

We Believe What? New Lifeway Research Reveals that our "Consensus Statement" May be Anything But When it Comes to Communion

The good folks at Lifeway Research just released some insightful data related to the practices of Southern Baptist Churches when it comes to communion, and its relationship to what our confession of faith actually says we believe.

For readers outside my denominational tribe who wonder why this matters:  Baptists observe only two church ordinances; baptism, and communion or "The Lord's Supper," and the history of our distinctive identity is largely bound up in how we view and practice these ordinances.  

I'll let the article below speak for itself, but will say that its contents should prompt discussion regarding whether our current confession of faith is really, as it claims to be "a consensus of opinion" of Southern Baptists.

Of course, the wider context of this is the comparison of what we say Southern Baptists believe with how we actually practice our faith in our churches and communities.  Though personally in agreement with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, I've worked with Baptists at the Associational level long enough to know that this document cannot realistically be considered a true statement of consensus, if for no other reason than most were not present to approve it in 2000 and many have not even read it.  I've often chuckled when I hear people say "the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists believe" when referring to the BFM2000.  I do this because anyone who is the least bit in touch with reality knows the most positive thing we can say about this document is "the overwhelming majority of the less than 1/2 of 1 percent of Southern Baptists who were actually present to vote on this document believe . . ."

In the end, this apparent disparity between what is on paper and what goes on in our churches related to this most central of Baptist teachings should at least prompt a basic question:  is it time to revisit our "consensus" statement?

LifeWay surveys Lord’s Supper practices of SBC churches
By Carol Pipes

NASHVILLE, Tenn.— The majority of Southern Baptist churches permit anyone who has put their faith in Jesus Christ to participate in the Lord’s Supper, according to a recent survey by LifeWay Research. The survey also revealed that 57 percent of SBC churches observe the Lord’s Supper quarterly.

“Denominational distinctives are often evident in how the Lord’s Supper is observed,” said Scott McConnell, director of LifeWay Research. “We sought to measure two attributes of Southern Baptists’ remembrance of Jesus’ death and resurrection: who may participate in the Lord’s Supper-- with five distinct options listed-- and the frequency it is observed.”  

The survey of 1,066 SBC pastors found 96 percent of their churches allow individuals who are not members of that local church to participate in the Lord’s Supper. Only 4 percent restrict participation to local church members.

According to the survey, 52 percent of SBC churches offer the Lord’s Supper to “anyone who has put their faith in Jesus Christ.” Thirty-five percent say “anyone who has been baptized as a believer” may participate. Five percent of SBC churches serve communion to “anyone who wants to participate,” while 4 percent of churches don’t specify any conditions for participation.

“A single question cannot capture all the nuances of who churches allow to participate.  There are many descriptive phrases different people prefer,” McConnell said. “However, the choices provided address key attributes mentioned in the Baptist Faith and Message such as believer’s baptism and church membership. Today, many Southern Baptist churches may nuance their answers in different ways, but this gives a helpful picture of where SBC pastors are on the issue when choosing between the provided options.

“Clearly, though, this survey points out a difference between the beliefs expressed in the Baptist Faith and Message, and the Lord’s Supper practices of many Southern Baptist churches,” McConnell said.

Article VII of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 ( lists baptism as a “prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.” Article VII also says the Lord’s Supper is for “members of the church.”

While quarterly observance of the Lord’s Supper is the norm for almost 60 percent of all Southern Baptist churches, a small 1 percent observes the Lord’s Supper weekly. Eighteen percent offer it monthly and 15 percent from five to 10 times a year. Another 8 percent conduct the Lord’s Supper less than four times a year.

The survey also found sharp regional differences in the frequency with which Southern Baptist churches conduct the Lord’s Supper. Pastors of churches in the Northeast (67 percent) and West (45 percent) are more likely to say they observe the Lord’s Supper monthly than pastors of churches in the Midwest (17 percent) and South (14 percent).

The majority of churches in the South (61 percent) and Midwest (58 percent) conduct the Lord’s Supper quarterly compared to churches in the West (29 percent) and Northeast (12 percent).

Methodology: These questions were asked as part of a mail survey of SBC pastors conducted April 1 - May 11, 2012 that included the option of completing it online. The mailing list was randomly drawn from a stratified list of all SBC churches. The 1,066 completed surveys were weighted to match the actual geographic distribution and worship attendance of SBC churches. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed +3.0 percent. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.

Carol Pipes is editorial manager for LifeWay Christian Resources’ corporate communications team.

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