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The Decline and Fall of the Southern Baptist Convention

Written By | May 28, 2014 | Posted in Denominations | 2 Comments

For a time, conservative Christians looked at the decline of mainline Protestant denominations as something of a victory. Given the liberal nature of most mainline churches, conservatives saw mainstream decline as evidence for the weakness of liberal theology. Over the last few years, many conservatives have had to sing a different tune as their own denominations began to shrink.

Chief among them are the Southern Baptists, the denomination that once claimed me for its own. For a few years now, Baptists have been sounding the alarm over declining membership numbers and baptism rates. In 2011, Southern Baptists reported just a hair under 16 million members, down from 16.6 million in 2005.

Anyone familiar with the record keeping of Southern Baptist churches knows to take membership numbers with a grain of salt. The churches I pastored had members on the books who had not been seen in decades. Many who had been seen attended only on rare circumstances, leaving their membership more symbolic than actual. There were occasional efforts to locate wayward members, efforts which often ended in failure when the individuals simply could not be found. A number of them may have been dead, but they remained on the membership books. Others simply had no interest in attending church any longer. We aren’t talking about a dozen or so missing members. At one church, we averaged around 75 on any given Sunday yet reported a membership of 450. We were not unusual – this is common in Southern Baptist churches. Some efforts have been made to report more accurate numbers and to clean up church roles, but to no avail. Of those 15.978 million Southern Baptist members recorded in 2011, only a fraction are a regular part of their churches.

A more significant figure for Southern Baptists – for both statistical and spiritual reasons – are baptism rates. Southern Baptists believe it is the responsibility of all Christians to evangelize – spreading Christianity to others, preaching the gospel to everyone, whether it be a co-worker, a neighbor, a family member, or a stranger in the street. Once a person responds to the good news and is “born again”, they are to participate in the ceremony of baptism in which they are fully immersed in a body of water. Southern Baptist churches report baptism rates the way baseball players report batting averages. They don’t like to talk about it and will of course publicly deny it, but there is a kind of rivalry between churches based on who has the best baptism rate. These days, there are few winners.

Southern Baptists love statistics and the publishing arm of the SBC, Lifeway Christian Resources, has a department devoted to churning the numbers. Led by Ed Stetzer, they perform various surveys and statistical analyses deemed to be of interest to the denomination. In June of 2013, Stetzer dug through the numbers from the previous year. His summary? “Facts Are Our Friends But These Are Not Very Friendly Facts”. The facts were unfriendly because of the picture they presented of a denomination in decline. Baptism rates for Southern Baptists were on the decline, and had been for ten years. As some Southern Baptists were gloating over the sinking ship of mainline Protestantism, they were ignoring the leaks springing in their own boat.

The decline of the SBC is no surprise to pastors. The last church I pastored was in an area of some 40+ SBC churches. Of those churches, almost every one was in decline. Most were primarily senior adult members with few young adults and fewer children. Those young people who continued to attend church typically abandoned the smaller churches for larger, younger, hipper congregations, but not in great enough numbers to stop the overall decline. In addition, these younger members are not like their parents and grandparents: loyalty to a church is low, participation is low, contributions are low. There are exceptions, and there are some trying to sing the praises of what has been dubbed the millennial generation, but as Stetzer said, the facts are not very friendly toward Southern Baptist. Theirs is a denomination in decline.

Many reasons have been put forward for the decline of the SBC. There are two general camps. On one side are those who think the denomination has not done enough to adapt to a modern world. On the other side are those who think the denomination has gone too far in trying to adapt to a modern world. The first camp is populated by people who either resemble mainline churches or health-and-wealth prosperity gospel churches. The second camp is filled with a varied coalition of people who claim the mantle of the Conservative Resurgence.

Starting in the 1970’s and continuing on into the 1990’s, the SBC engaged in its own civil war over theological convictions. The battle pitted moderates and liberals on one side against conservatives on the other. Conservatives ultimately prevailed and the movement became known as the Conservative Resurgence. The CR is often remembered in reverential tones with its leaders considered towering heroes of the faith. Older members will speak with excitement about the various pivotal events they attended, such as the annual meeting in Houston in 1979 which saw thousands of Southern Baptists meet to wrestle for control. Many conservatives believed that the resurgence of theological conservatism would lead to a golden age for the denomination. Now, with the denomination in decline, those same conservatives attribute the decline to the presence of new kinds of theological capitulation: ecumenism, modernism, syncretism, even Calvinism (with Calvinism presenting yet another great battle within the SBC).

In addition to pointing the finger at theological capitulation, these conservative pastors denounce two additional causes of decline: apathetic Christians, and apostate culture. Baptist pastor Marty Comer recently posted his thoughts about an article in The Atlantic which looked at these declining baptism rates. Comer hit all of the points I mentioned: the SBC is in decline because of a hostile culture, because of bad theology, and because Christians aren’t doing things the right way. We can only assume that if all Southern Baptists were more like pastor Comer, things would turn around, baptism rates would go through the roof, and the denomination would enter a true and glorious golden age.

Or not.

I believe there is another factor at play, something far more encouraging and exciting than Comer and his fellow pastors would ever admit. Slowly, so slowly, the world is growing up. We continue to hit a myriad of growth pains, as all growing children must. Our pains are made even worse since we have no parents to guide us through to adulthood. But as we grow, as we mature, as we press on, we learn more about the world around us. We discover deep truth. We learn how things came to be, how elements work, how continents drift, how quarks and leptons combine. We even learn that great mystery which left good king Solomon perplexed: the way of a man with a maiden (Proverbs 30:18-19).

We are no longer content to listen to the preacher’s pronouncement and accept them as if they had divine weight. Science has taught us to put all things to the test. In Matthew 4:7, Jesus rebuked Satan for putting God to the test, but science has taught us to test everything. Question assumptions. Re-examine old foundations and see if they truly can support their weight. More and more people are no longer content to believe just because someone tells them to; we want to know if the things we believe carry weight.

There is still work to be done. Many people began the walk away from religion but stopped halfway, set up a tent, and are now camped out in the land of the “spiritual but not religious”. They realize that the claims of the world’s religions are nothing but hot air (along with a tremendous amount of wasted time and resources) but there is something about the idea of the spiritual that continues to attract them. The world of “spiritual but not religious” allows people to walk their own path, bound by no competing claim of some ancient shepherd’s religious ramblings, while holding onto some belief in spiritual, supernatural things. My encouragement to any who are on this path is to keep pressing. Keep asking questions. Keep challenging assumptions. I believe that doing so will lead you to throw off spirituality once and for all, opening for you the light of truth.

And to those pastors who lament the decline and (eventual) fall of the SBC: consider your own foundation. Your ship is sinking for a very good reason. It has no hull, it has no sails, it has no deck, it has no tiller, it has no rudder, it has no oars. It has nothing but a man standing behind a pulpit, desperately trying to convince others that they are in a beautiful ship bound for the Promised Land. But it is a farce. It is make believe and we are grown men living in a dangerous world and as we as a species continue our march toward maturity, it will take our full grasp of reality to navigate these very rough waters. We’re all in this together, and no one out there is going to bail us out. We must sail well, or we are lost. Give up a life of mist and darkness, preaching hollow words of empty salvation. Give up belief in things that are not real. Embrace truth. Embrace the excitement of a wide open world. Give yourself to making that world just a little bit better than the world you found. God will not do it for us; he is not there to do it. The world is what we make of it. May we make it something delightful.

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