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June 18, 2012


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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RE: “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.”

Hmmm . . . I live in the South and I don’t associate the Southern Baptists with fundamentalism, largely because I’ve *known* real fundamentalists—that is the American separatist, dispensational, legalist sect that is now on its fourth generation.  The Southern Baptists were always thought of as far too liberal amongst the fundamentalists that I knew!  And I don’t associate Southern Baptists with bigotry either—I don’t know why anyone would.

I *do* associate it with anti-intellectualism—they’re a church largely made up of Sensories on the Myers Briggs test, and just aren’t as interested in the abstract theoretical world that makes up pin-headedness.  [I’m a pin-head, so I’m only insulting people like me.] Plus—since I don’t agree with the Southern Baptists’ *practiced* theology, I don’t have them in my list for consideration as an alternative denomination.  I would not in any way “feel comfortable” in a Southern Baptist church, though I would certainly worship with them if need be.

I think the reason for its decline is probably that all the big denominations are declining as the smaller targeted choices and continued niching of our society continues on apace.  There just are a growing number of niche “products” out there in Christian churches, and they’re going to steal market share.

Of course . . . heh . . . you’ve gotta be careful because there’s bunches of revisionist activist Episcopalians out there who are pointing wildly at the 0.98 percent drop and saying “see there—our church isn’t cataclysmically declining because it’s led by a bunch of loony-tunes incompetent corrupt libs and the laity are fleeing en masse—it’s declining because all us mainlines are declining”  ; > )

The capacity for self-deceit by revisionist activists in TEC is simply stunning.  Amazing to watch.

[1] Posted by Sarah on 6-18-2012 at 10:38 AM · [top]

You don’t lump the SBC in with fundamentalists because you know what fundamentalism actually is and looks like. Most people don’t. They simply think, “hmm, Southern Baptists—they hate gays, right? Friggin’ fundamentalists!” And that’s as far as it goes.

I think you’re right about niching, and that’s precisely why the independents are doing so well these days—they don’t have denominational baggage to carry around, so they can respond to the market in ways that will please the customer. (Not that that’s a good thing, mind you.)

[2] Posted by David Fischler on 6-18-2012 at 01:47 PM · [top]

While there might be some truth in the reasons stated, I think there are a lot of invisible factors there that are hard to measure:

(1). The stigma of not attending church in the South is not what it once was, so with that pressure more or less removed, a small number of people (mainly redneck types who think of church as a ‘woman’s thing’) have probably quit coming so they can ride 4-wheelers for another day.

(2). I am more and more amazed with how lazy people have become. My own in-laws (Presbyterians) took their daughters to church each Sunday back in the 1980s and 1990s, but when we have visited them lately (we attend different churches when we are there…and ours starts earlier and ends earlier), twice when we have come home they were there just sitting around in their pajamas. My wife’s dad is still lying in bed watching some news show. They always have the most pathetic excuses. (I think most of it is my father-in-law’s fault, but that is enough of an excuse for my wife’s mom to stay home.) I hear other people say that 10am is too early for them to get up, etc. Also, drinking and going to lots of weekend parties is more widely acceptable now than it once was, which adds to the decline of attendance…hangovers, etc.

I think Protestantism is declining along with the Protestant work ethic. I wish church attendance decline were all about ideas and theology, but often time it is not. It is about a culture that encourages everything that is wrong and deleterious, as opposed to encouraging what is good and salubrious. :-(

[3] Posted by All-Is-True on 6-18-2012 at 01:49 PM · [top]

Is there any available data on a relationship between membership swings of the SBC and the rise or decline of some of the large non denominational churches?  I ask simply because of those people I’ve known personally who have been attracted to non-denominational Evangelical or Charismatic churches, a fair number were Baptists, certainly a greater proportion than Catholics or Anglicans (we get all huffy about liturgy and such).

[4] Posted by tjmcmahon on 6-18-2012 at 04:03 PM · [top]

As a former SB I can say the baptism numbers are misleading. There is a whole bunch of re-baptizing going on. Some from insisting that other denoms baptisms are invalid and some from folks “getting saved” over and over again.

[5] Posted by pastorgoggans on 6-18-2012 at 10:28 PM · [top]

As a Recovering Southern Baptist the last 52 years, ISTM that this change in membership is really background noise.  Did I calculate correctly that in the last five years they have fallen less than one percent?  Really!  Well I know SB are big on recruitihg and “marketing”  often at the expense of all the rest of the Scripture and they will take this seriously.  I believe most of this is just shifts in population density, and new competition by other newer very conservative groups like PCA in our area.  Most of their members are solid ex-baptist.  Independant and non-denominational churches are also a significant slice in the south.  As for the number of baptisms and just diping them and not teaching them or helping them grow, that is not just a SBC trait.  I wonder how much of the baptism numbers in Episcopalian/RCC/Anglican, etc. are infants who are not taught or trained.  What is the ratio to adult believers to infants and what is the percent that continue in the faith?  Luther said that if we waited to only baptize adult believers then we would only have one tenth the number as members!  So baptism numbers while interesting, may or may not be an index of spiritual health in a denomination.  I’m sure SBC will take this to really tool up with a new surge of evangelism so that they can get everyone saved before someone else does!  IMHO

[6] Posted by PROPHET MICAIAH on 6-19-2012 at 12:19 PM · [top]

PROPHET MICAIAH:

As a Recovering Southern Baptist the last 52 years

That’s not so bad.  No one has been around long enough to determine how many years it takes to fully recover from being an Episcopalian.  Maybe no one ever will be.

Although many do seem eager to find out these days.  tongue rolleye

[7] Posted by episcopalienated on 6-19-2012 at 01:07 PM · [top]

Actually is is quite easy to recover from being an Episcopalian.  Swim the Tiber.  This long time Anglo-Catholic did.  Dio Gratia

[8] Posted by Old Soldier on 6-19-2012 at 04:03 PM · [top]

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