Note: I published this article back in July of 2013, not long after the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting in Houston. I am editing this post slightly, mostly in the last section, “Solutions” by adding a few of my more recent thoughts.
At the most peaceful and drama-free SBC in recent memory, there was one bit of news that had things stirred up – a fresh set of evidence that the SBC’s statistical decline was not just a blip. It is a real problem. We are a shrinking denomination. One seminary professor has described it as a “free-fall.” While that may be hyperbole, it is not wholly inaccurate.
And, of course, as soon as the statistics were published, the blame-game began. It ought to surprise no one that bad news like this is used to point the bony finger of blame within the SBC. We see it all the time in Washington. The Republicans blame the Democrats and Democrats blame the Republicans. It is natural (though in the Bible, natural is not a good thing) to blame “them” for the problems that occur.
- Some rushed to point the finger of blame at the Conservative Resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s. In this scenario, the 60s and 70s were an SBC golden era and through the program Bold Mission Thrust, the SBC was set to launch into heretofore unknown heights. The CR stopped all of that and brought this denomination low. This is one of the most common memes about the statistical decline of the SBC. “The CR stopped Bold Mission Thrust.” The problem is, as we will see, that the statistical decline began not in the years after the CR began, but nearly 30 years BEFORE the CR.
- In a move that surprised no one, some have tied the statistical decline to the rise of Calvinism. The theology of Calvinism (as defined by critics of the viewpoint) is decidedly anti-evangelism. Therefore, the rise of that theology is the root cause of the decline of our statistics.
- One of the more common explanations (in some ways linked to Calvinism, at least by some) is the idea that the abandonment of our traditions has led to our decline. Back in the good old days, we had spring and fall revivals, the Sunday School growth spiral, we sang from the hymnals with piano and organ accompaniment, and things were booming. I actually had a man who was a Southern Baptist pastor for half a century tell me that if the SBC would only do today what we did then (traditional structure and methods) we would see today the growth we saw then. The problems of the convention root in the fact that we abandoned our ecclesiological culture for contemporary, “new-fangled” ways.
- A few have put forward a unique hypothesis – that because of the insistence of many today on the biblical gospel, there are fewer false conversions and therefore, while our statistics are down, it could actually be a good thing, not a bad thing. Kudos there for originality and creativity – turning a statistical nightmare into a blessing is no small task. I, for one, remain unconvinced – chalking this up more to wishful thinking than reality.
- The political involvement of the church has been blamed by those on both sides. Some say we’ve been too involved in right-wing politics and others say we have not been involved enough. The first group says that we traded our gospel mandate for civil religion and are suffering for it. The second group argues that we surrendered our society to moral decay and are reaping the fruit of compromise.
But I maintain that while these hypotheses have varying levels of merit they do not explain the data. LifeWay released a graph that shows something pretty interesting.
Our statistical decline did not begin in the 1980s, after the CR began. Nor did it start in the 1990s in the aftermath of the battle. It did not start in the 2000s as Calvinism surged into renewed prominence in the SBC, or as hip, contemporary churches spread across the SBC.
The statistical decline of the SBC has been happening over the last 60 years.
You say, wait a minute, we were still growing until the last five years or so. The statistical decline is new. That is true in one sense. But look at this LifeWay graphic.
The key here is the rate of growth, not whether we are getting bigger or smaller. In the 50s, the SBC was growing at an annual rate of nearly 5%. By the sixties, that rate had dropped precipitously to between 1% and 2%. Over the next 40 years, the rate of growth hovered between 0% and 1%, with an occasional blip either way. Finally, in the last 8 to 10 years, we ticked over into the negative numbers. There are ups and downs throughout, but it you look at the red line, it is a fairly consistent downward trend that has lasted longer than I have been alive – and I am no spring chicken! Folks, this trend is almost as old as CB Scott and he went to high school with J Frank Norris.
An Analogy from Barack Obama
I love to follow political statistics, especially presidential approval polls. Since the elections, I have been following the “Real Clear Politics Poll” which is an average of several major polls that measure whether Americans are pleased with the president’s job performance. Around the time of the inauguration, the president enjoyed a bump, averaging over 10 points in the positive (10% more people approved of his presidency than disapproved). I’ve checked it regularly since then. It took a slight dip that was probably little more than a post-inauguration bump correction. His approval hovered in the 8 point range for some time, then slowly began to drift down, as one problem after another hit the administration. For the past few months, the rating was consistently around 2. Then, about the time the NSA scandal hit (along with a couple of other problems) there was a precipitous decline. Today, the rating is a -6 points (again, 6% more of the American people disapprove than approve of his work). So, since January, the rating has gone down over 16 points. One could say, “The NSA problem sent him into negative numbers.” That might be true, but his positives were slipping long before that issue arose. When did the problem start? Even though he stayed in positive territory until recently, the problems began when the numbers began to shrink.
The SBC Experience
That is what has happened to us. Yes, the numbers only popped into the negatives somewhere in the middle of the last decade, but our rate of growth was slowing long before that. The problem began in the middle of the 1950s and has continued, fairly consistently, since then. The numbers, at least to me, are pretty clear.
So, our problem did not begin in 1979 in Houston. Nor did the problems begin in 1993 when Al Mohler became the ninth president of Southern. The problems began before I was born, back in the 50s. The solution is not to point fingers but to face reality.
Actually, reality is kinda scary. Look at these next two graphics. One takes the red line from the previous graph and extends it out to the year 2050. If the trend continues, the SBC is done as “the largest non-Catholic denomination in America.” Our mission force will be decimated and our structure will shrink to levels we could not have imagined a few years ago.
This simple little graph shows what our total membership will look like if that trend continues. If things stay as they are, the SBC in 2050 will be only slightly bigger than it was in 1950.
Of course, projections assume facts not in evidence. Things could get better and they could get worse. Circumstances change. But the SBC would do well to sit up and take notice of these disturbing numbers. There are any number of excuses we could give why they are not significant or why things aren’t as bad as some have made them seem.
But we are on a 60 year pattern of decline!
So, What Happened?
Analyzing the statistics is easier than interpreting them. But I have some thoughts I’d like to put forward.
1) The SBC was a perfect storm culturally in the post-war era, especially in the South.
We were what America was. It is interesting that traditional Southern Baptists criticize the hipster churches for their attempts at being culturally relevant today.There has likely never been a church as culturally relevant as the SBC was in the post-war era, especially in the South and in more conservative areas.
That is why there were SBC presidents and SBC senators and SBC judges. We fit the culture perfectly. We were industrious, patriotic, family-values folks. We believed in right and wrong, God and country, and the supremacy of Christianity.
I pastored in a small town in Virginia in the late 1980s. It was a town of 600, with a split of about 60-40 white to black population. Churches were segregated by practice, if not by policy. My church had a membership of about 400. We drew some people from all around the county, but the fact is that almost all the white folks in Drakes Branch were members of our church. Many I never saw in my 4 years there, but they were members. The Baptist church was at the heart and soul of that little town. It was like that all over the South.
2) The United States, in the 60s, began a rapid cultural, moral and spiritual shift.
Has there ever been a time when a nation’s moral center shifted as rapidly as it did in America from 1960 until today? We went from “Leave It to Beaver” to “Married with Children.” It was normal in my childhood for a family to be comprised of a man, his wife, and their children – till death do them part. Divorce was present, but uncommon. I’m sure many marriages were unhappy, but it was a different world. In the early 60s, most people would have said that America was a Christian nation. Whether it actually was is not the point; everyone thought it was! Sex outside of marriage was shameful, especially if it produced a baby, living together before marriage was shocking, almost unheard of, and homosexuality was buried deep in the closet. Need I even mention that this has changed?
America in 2013 is almost nothing like America in 1953 or 1963. Everything has changed.
3) The SBC, once in the cultural center, is now on the periphery.
While the world changed rapidly, the SBC did not. While there are still places in the South (or frankly, in a conservative city like the one I live in) where the traditional ways still hold appeal, we are no longer inside the cultural norms. We are viewed as old-fashioned; outdated relics of a tired past. We are wearing leisure suits and driving Edsels in a hip, trendy world.
I am not intending this as a judgment. I think it is a fact. Basically, at the root of the numerical decline of the SBC is this fact:
The SBC, once ensconced at the heart of American (Southern) culture, is no longer so.
I know that backs are bristling as I say this, because we have been told that we are past our expiration date as a denomination and that makes people defensive. I do not mean this as an insult, but as an observation. What has changed since the 1950s? The culture. Everything about it. We were at the center of things in the 1950s, but are on the outside looking in today.
4) The SBC, instead of prophetically calling American culture to repentance, acculturated to it.
The most glaring example of this is the racial/civil rights movement that exploded in the 50s, 60s and 70s. The fact is that most of our churches defended the culture in which they were planted instead of calling racists to repentance. Someone could be both a member of the KKK and a Baptist deacon! We so bought into our culture that we could not speak God’s Word to it.
When the culture changed, we were left holding the bag. What I am saying is this:
The roots of the decline of the SBC today are planted in the soil of cultural accommodation. We molded ourselves to the culture of American Civil Religion instead of calling it to repentance.
There are several other issues, but this is a post, not a book. But I think the root of our problem was our super-identification with the American Bible-Belt culture of the post-war era. When that changed, we did not change and we are now culturally-irrelevant.
I may expand on this in a follow-up post, but let me make a few observations here.
1) We must determine what is gospel and what is cultural.
I recall a discussion I had in Honduras with a lady from another church, back in 1988. She said, “Every Southern Baptist church ought to have every Southern Baptist program.” That sounds so odd to our modern ears, but it was not unusual in those days. When we first considered going to AWANA in the middle 80s, you’d have thought we were converting to Buddhism. There was a tremendous pressure to programmatic conformity.
We had a bad habit of thinking that our cultural habits were biblical mandates.
We cannot afford to do that anymore. We must make sure that we only take firm stands on what is biblical, not what is cultural. Again, this is a can of worms, and each of us will come to slightly different views on this. Thank God for autonomy, right? But we must think through these things and only enforce what is biblically mandated.
2) We must define the grounds of our cooperation.
I once wrote a discussion forum post here asking the question, “What Makes a Church Southern Baptist?” The fact is, no one had a clue. Adherence to the Baptist Faith & Message 2000? Use of LifeWay materials? Cooperative Program giving? Use of SBC programs? No one gave a good definition.
We must define that. Southern Baptists are a convention of independent churches that voluntarily unite and cooperate for missions and ministry. But now that there is no longer a Bible Belt culture drawing us together, we must make sure we define our doctrine (resolving any issues with the Baptist Faith & Message) and our standards for cooperation.
There has been a lot of discussion recently about the Executive Committee’s recent recommendations about Article 3, on the seating of messengers. We may disagree about the wisdom of the individual proposals, but I think they are doing a necessary work. These things must be defined.
Who are we? Who are Southern Baptists? As long as we cannot really define that, we will struggle.
2) We must remember 2 Timothy 4:3-4.
Paul told Timothy to preach the word faithfully and warned him of a time coming in which “people will not endure sound teaching.” Instead they will gather to themselves teaches who will tell them what they want to hear and who will suit their own passions. They will “turn away from listening to the truth and wader off into myths.”
Folks, our culture hates what we stand for.
- If we preach that Jesus is our way to God, but that each person needs to find their own way, no problem. If we stand with the Word and claim that there is no other name under heaven by which people ca be saved, we will infuriate the “all religions are the same” culture in which we live.
- If we say that marriage is between one man and one woman, for life, we will be scorned as hateful and homophobic.
- If we hold to biblical teachings on gender roles, the world will view us as anachronistic and oppressive.
- The basic truths of the gospel are offensive. All people are sinners, under God’s judgment, and incapable of helping themselves spiritually or earning God’s favor. Jesus died, paying the price for our sins and rose again as Lord. There is no salvation found through anyone else but him. Each person must repent of sin and put their faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord – acknowledging Jesus’ rightful place as Lord over their lives.
If we refuse to compromise on these beliefs, we will continue to stand on the outside of cultural acceptability. If we compromise on these truths, we may gain man’s favor but we lose the gospel, salvation and the power of God.
3) We have to learn to live as a prophetic, counter-cultural minority instead of as the cultural majority.
The older folks in my church are having a hard time with this right now. They grew up in a world in which Christianity (in one form or another) dominated culture. Today, it does not. They are having trouble switching their minds from being the cultural majority to accept that we are now a minority.
When you are a majority, you can flex your muscles. That changes when you are a minority. We, the new Christian minority is a post-Christian America, must learn to live counter-culturally. We must become the new hippies (but without drugs and with showers) who reject the dominant culture and march to the beat of a different drum – one that comes down from above.
I am going to expand on this concept, in a future post. This one risks going to Bart Barber lengths.
But let me boil it down to a nutshell.
We must learn to live as a counter-cultural movement, standing by gospel truth and biblical essentials, regardless of how popular we are in our culture. We are now a counter-cultural minority and we must learn to live faithfully under the new reality.
The root of our decline, in my view, is that we allowed ourselves to be absorbed by the culture of American Civil Religion. The same danger exists today – that we would be absorbed by the new culture of moral compromise and theological tolerance.
4) We must continue to intentionally build cultural and racial bridges.
The most notable failing of SBC history was our identification with racist culture. If we wish to move past that, we must continue the work that has been started. The election of Fred Luter to the presidency cannot be a lone event. It was be the first step in a process of intentional, willful inclusion of minorities (especially African-Americans) in SBC leadership.
5) We must respect and value one another inside the Baptist community.
Yeah, it’s the Calvinism thing – and a few others as well. We must intentionally accept one another as part of the SBC family. Calvinists must not treat non-Calvinists as theologically-inept and non-Calvinists must not define Calvinists as anti-evangelism agents of destruction.
We can disagree, but we must do so with respect, valuing the contribution that each side makes.
There are a hundred other things, but these are the big ones to me.
What say you?