One of the more memorable aspects of the film 61* is the asterisk. The movie with a number for a name depicts Roger Maris’s quest to top Babe Ruth’s single season home run record. Ruth hit 60 homers in 154 games in 1927. But by 1961,
the season was expanded to 162 games.
That year Maris is in a duel with Mickey Mantle to beat the three decade-old record. When Mantle misses games due to failing health, Maris has a shot, but not in Ruth’s shorter timeframe. Maris knocks number 61 out of Yankee Stadium in the final game of the season—game 162. Thus, the asterisk.
2020 feels like the year of the asterisk. For pastors and churches and state conventions, the halting and painful effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting church closures had negative effects on our Annual Church Profile tallies for attendance and giving. For the record books, 2020 will need some explanation.
Thus, the asterisk.
The 2020 Annual Church Profile (ACP) reports submitted by IBSA churches show declines in most metrics, including dramatic falloffs in baptisms and professions of faith. IBSA churches reported 2,047 baptisms in 2020, a decrease of 42% from the previous year’s total of 3,553. Similarly, professions of faith fell 41%, from 2,829 in 2019 to 1,668 in 2020.
Morning worship attendance declined by more than 9%, while enrollment in Sunday school and other Bible studies also decreased. Enrollment in Vacation Bible School, largely postponed due to COVID-related shutdowns over the summer, fell by nearly 73%.
Missions metrics were also down, including mission projects, which fell by almost 22%. Giving through the Cooperative Program decreased by 12.3%, from $6,205,953 in 2019 to $5,443,104 in 2020. The annual Mission Illinois Offering was down by 15.2%, from $386,057 in 2019 to $327,416 in 2020. Resident membership in IBSA churches increased 2.5% in 2020, to 123,569.
IBSA Executive Director Nate Adams said reports aren’t to be avoided because the news is challenging. ACP’s were submitted by 96% of IBSA churches and offer “a good census,” he said.
“You hear the reports. You need an accurate assessment of what’s happening,” Adams said. “And yet, in good times and bad, we press on. Because the gospel is good news, and it brings good results even when it’s during difficult times.”
He noted New Testament reports of the early church indicate it was often difficult be a Christian in those times. But, amid the difficulties, many people responded to the gospel. New churches were started. It didn’t matter that believers were small in number; God was building his kingdom.
The apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians 3 that the early church would soldier on amid hardships, through “bad report and good report,” according to verse 8. Illinois Baptists can do the same. “The mission is still real,” Adams said, “the value is still there, and so we move forward.”
Needs addressed during pandemic
As churches are tallying their ACP reports each year, IBSA asks a separate set of questions concerning the statewide ministries that would benefit local congregations. In the pandemic year, IBSA’s annual Church Needs Survey asked specific questions about how churches handled ministry limitations amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and which resources offered by IBSA they found most helpful. The responses show how IBSA churches leaned into the year’s challenges and pivoted to address new, real needs in their congregations and communities.
Of the 270 survey participants, 209 were church staff members. They identified “spiritual support and inspiration” and “ideas and examples for ministry during the pandemic” as their churches’ greatest need during the ministry limitations of 2020. Coming in a close third was trustworthy information on COVID-related regulations, meeting limitations, and religious freedom insights.
Leaders were also asked to identify their churches’ needs coming out of the pandemic. Topping the list: ways to do ministry and mobilize for missions that meet the unique challenges of a crisis. More than half of leaders also noted the need to rebuild the fellowship and purpose of the local church body.
Their answers indicate a desire to move forward, despite challenges that remain. In the year after the year of the asterisk, Illinois churches are aiming to hit a home run.