Growing or Declining?
This coming week the Southern Baptists are holding their annual convention in Baltimore. I’ve been following the SBC for decades and was a member of an SBC church for ten years, so I am always interested in what is going on in that denomination. The annual meeting in particular has been fascinating and has always been of interest even to the secular press. The outgoing President of the SBC, Fred Luter, drew a lot of attention as the first black leader for instance.
This year some people are zeroing in on the fact that one SBC church has decided to affirm the right of same sex couples to get married and speculation as to whether they will be booted from the Convention. At least one Southern Baptist leader thinks the answer is yes, they should. But I really don’t think that is the key issue the SBC needs to face.
Recent data indicates that the SBC has been declining in membership, regular attenders and baptisms for seven straight years. This is consistent with the data on almost all other evangelical denominations, the Assemblies of God being the only one to show a slight (1%) increase. So it would appear that the larger question that needs to be addressed is “What are we going to do about this trend?”
This question is particularly critical for my Baptist brethren as evangelism and soul winning is the heart of their denomination. During my years in the SBC I heard alter calls to come forward and accept Christ and exhortations to witness more fervently just about every week. All evangelicals think it is important to redeem sinners but this is the heart of what it means to be a Southern Baptist.
Worse yet, when in the latter part of the 20th century the conservative resurgence within the SBC essentially booted out most, if not all, moderates the payoff was supposed to be that they would avoid the decline that had been afflicting the mainstream denominations. As late as 1992 books were being published that assured us that if they stuck to their conservative guns everything would be fine. It now appears that this is not the case.
Reactions within the SBC have been fairly predictable. Russell Moore seems to accept the data on decline and calls for the SBC to be a “prophetic minority”, which I assume means to stand on the side and tell the rest of us to repent. Thom Rainer grieves that “we are clearly losing our evangelistic effectiveness.” There is a minority opinion that all that needs to be done is to whistle past the graveyard; that the decline in the SBC is not as bad as other denominations and that once the hangers-on are weeded out the church is purified of the ungodly, we can get back to growing like crazy.
In a typical American enterprise reaction, the SBC formed a “Task Force on SBC Evangelistic Impact and Declining Baptisms.” The report of the task force (a title I am growing to detest, by the way) combines contemporary enterprise-oriented suggestions like “multiplying disciples who know how to grow in Christ and lead others to Christ” with traditional Christian language like “We need a sense of brokenness and repentance over the spiritual climate of our churches and our nation…” It ends with what is essentially an exhortation to work harder and better at soul-winning. It looks like more sermons and exhortations that “you ought to” evangelize are in the SBC future.
Two things need to be said. One is that, to some degree, there is nothing new here. In the 1730s Johnathan Edwards fretted about how to reach the unsaved (the Indian population) and why young people are not faithful. The second is that there are some bright lights; some hip young pastors who have growing churches. J.D. Greear of The Summit Church up the road from me comes to mind. But the overall statistics are gloomy.
Cultural forces are at work here. While the SBC, and other evangelicals, have been able to hold off decline by sticking to their conservative guns those days seem to be ending. “Nones,” those with no religious affiliation, now outnumber Christians in the under-30 crowd. Advances in the sexual revolution, and gay liberation are quickly becoming cultural norms. In the most pessimistic sense it might be said that the 2000-year old migration of the center of Christian vitality is still on the march and that the U.S. is losing its century-old role as the center of the faith. Indeed, Christian growth in Africa, China and Latin America might tell us that this has already happened.
I am not sure what “strategies” the SBC will come up with or what the rest of us should do. I do think that we need to adjust ourselves to the “just one of many voices” reality of our culture. We won’t be able to shout down, out vote or strategize ourselves back to the 1950s.
Personally I think that personal, genuine, long-term, grace-filled interaction with those outside the faith needs to be the norm. Will the decline continue? Will we surge back? Frankly I am not sure that is any of my business. I think I will just stumble along trying my pitiful best to live like Christ and for Christ in the world that is actually out there rather than dream about what I think it ought to look like.