Southern Baptists in Decline
Well, I’m back from vacation, and catching up on the news, and what do I find but that the Southern Baptist Convention—the largest Protestant denomination in America, and a bastion of conservative thinking—has continued its decline, and after five straight years of it is now under 16 million in membership. According to the Christian Post:
Membership in the Southern Baptist Convention dropped again over the last year, according to a new report. The largest Protestant denomination in the country now counts less than 16 million members.
This marks the fifth straight year the SBC has lost members. Primary worship attendance has also dropped by 0.65 percent to around 6.16 million.
One Southern Baptist and researcher lamented that the denomination is not only experiencing decline but an acceleration of decline.
Compared to a 0.15 percent drop from 2009 to 2010, membership fell by 0.98 percent from 2010 to 2011.
“Based on the trend of annual percent change in SBC total membership, we are catching up with the Methodists, and will match their decline rate consistently by 2018,” said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, in his blog. “This trend points to a future of more and faster decline—and it is a 60-year trend.”
There was a little good news, though:
After decades of continuous growth, the SBC, established in 1845, began to see its membership plateau around 2004 as baptisms were on a slow decline. The denomination reported a drop in membership for the first time in many years in 2007. At that time, some predicted the decline would continue.
After reporting its lowest number of baptisms in decades in 2010, the SBC saw an increase in baptisms in 2011.
According to the report, baptisms increased by 0.70 percent to 333,341.
Celebrating the higher number of baptisms, Thom S. Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay, said in a statement, “God’s Word is being proclaimed and God’s Spirit is continuing to move in the hearts of people, drawing them to repentance. This is something that should excite us as Christians who care about the Great Commission.”
Well, yes, if that is in fact what it means. I’ve seen too many SBC churches baptizing people without any catechesis, as well as children (when did five-year-olds become eligible for “adult baptism”?) to get too excited about it.
Now, according to a theory popular in some circles, “liberal” churches decline, while “conservative” ones grow. While the former is largely true, the latter is much more complicated. I think there are a number of reasons why a conservative denomination such as the SBC is declining, but the simplest one may be that too many people associate Southern Baptists with fundamentalism, anti-intellectualism, or bigotry of one kind or another. That isn’t fair—tarring all Southern Baptists with these brushes is just another form of bigotry—but it’s the reality. The result is that a lot of people who might otherwise feel comfortable in a Southern Baptist congregation will look elsewhere, and especially to independent evangelical and Pentecostal churches, for a place to call home.
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