It is no secret that we Southern Baptists are in a bit of a statistical funk and since we venerate statistics as we do, our numerical decline has been the source of great weeping and wailing, and of course, finger-pointing. Every year, the ACP statistics drop shortly before the SBC annual meeting and we don sackcloth and ashes to bemoan the slide.
The idealism of the Conservative Resurgence has not panned out. We believed that when we turned our convention “Back to the Bible” and grounded it once again in inerrancy, all good things would follow. Since evangelism is rooted in sound theology and the greatest threat to our future is liberalism, if we dealt with aberrant theology and set ourselves once again on a conservative course, baptisms would increase, church planting would grow, and the SBC would see explosive expansion across the United States.
It did not happen. In an article written in 2015 in “Between the Times“, Dr. Ed Stetzer did an analysis of our statistical trends. He demonstrated that we plateaued in the early part of the 2000s and began around 2006 or so to decline slightly. In 2008, some leaders described it as a blip, but it was not. The decline continued and is accelerating year by year. We are now a declining denomination and have been for more than a decade.
Here is a LifeWay Research graph that shows SBC Membership from 1950 to 2014. The trend has not reversed in the last 5 years.
The good Dr. Stetzer made an assertion in this article that struck me, one which, I believe, puts the problems of the SBC in perspective. There is another way to look at these statistics. Our decline did not begin in the middle of the 2000s, or even in the 1990s, but it actually began BEFORE I WAS BORN (and I will soon turn 63!). Yes, the SBC continued to grow during the 50s, 60s, and all the way up until the turn of the millennium. However, the rate of growth began to slip around the year 1950 and was at a fairly constant rate of decline over the 7 decades since then. While the rate remained positive until after the year 2000, it was steadily declining until it turned negative around 2005 or 2006. The decline continues. Look at a second graph that shows this year to year percentage change in total members. It has yearly ups and downs but the decline over time is basically a straight line.
Read Stetzer’s article.
Yes, we can look at these graphs and say, “We continued to grow until the middle of the 2000s” and wonder what happened then to change things. We can try to find out what might have changed during these times and seek to pin the blame on those trends. Baptists love to play the blame game, as long as we are the ones pinning the blame and not the ones on whom the blame is pinned.
People have found several trends to blame. Some have blamed the Conservative Resurgence for all our problems. It is a convenient target. Others take aim at the growth of Calvinism in the years after the CR. Calvinism increases and voila, the SBC begins to decrease. Others seek to pin the blame on all things contemporary. “If we did today what we did back then, we’d see today what we saw back then!” We need to go back to patriotic, cultural, American, Christianity of the 50s and 60s and all will be well.
There is a problem with all of these. They ignore the facts.
The statistical decline of the SBC is older than I am. I will turn 63 in September and it started 7 years before I was born!
The decline of the SBC began BEFORE the Conservative Resurgence, BEFORE the Calvinist Incursion, and BEFORE the Contemporary Invasion. It has been going on since just after World War II. The annual growth rate of the SBC back in 1950 was over 4%. Not too shabby. By the 60s, that rate had been cut in half and was still 2%. If we could reach a 2% growth rate today, cessationists would begin speaking tongues. Still, that was a 50% decline in the rate of growth in one decade. I will restate that – our growth rate was cut in half in TEN YEARS. By the time the 70s were passing by, it was around 1%. After a series of ups and downs, we plateaued in the 90s and crossed the line into decline around 2006.
If you are looking at trends in the 1990s or 2000s to figure out how the SBC went wrong, you are 50 years late!
This was not the result of our denominational war, but has been happening since the Korean War. This didn’t start with Al Mohler’s administration but during Harry Truman’s. The world changed. The genesis of our decline took place in the middle of the 20th Century and if we want to seek solutions for it, we need to look at what happened then.
So, What IS the Problem?
Here is my theory, one which I believe fits the evidence. The SBC was a perfect cultural storm in the Southern United States in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. It became part of the heart and soul of the Deep South – in good ways and in ways we now regret. Southern American culture and Southern Baptist culture fit like a hand in a glove. Southern Baptists influenced and impacted their culture in significant ways and were also influenced and impacted by their culture in significant ways.
We were a culturally acclimated church – few churches have been as much a part of the warp and woof of their community as the SBC was. We grew in the fertile soil of the Deep South, becoming the de facto established church in many areas. In the Virginia town where I pastored in the 80s, virtually every White person in the town was a member of our church, though most never scuffed the carpet unless they were being married or buried.
Then It All Changed
In the post-war era, the world began to change. Women went to work during the war and many didn’t return to the kitchen when the soldiers came marching home. The Civil Rights movement began to ramp up. The changes that began to swirl in the 50s led to the radical changes of the 60s. Our nation has undergone radical cultural and social changes in the last 50 years that have left us baffled, confused, and bumfuzzled.
This change, I believe, led to our denomination’s problems.
There have been arguments over what was the glue that bound the SBC together. Moderates argued it was missions, not theology. In the CR, we often said that we were bound by our confessional theology and that is what united us in mission. Both of these statements were a bit optimistic. Having grown up in the SBC in the 50s and 60s, I am convinced that there was another glue that held us together.
Southern Baptists were held together by a cultural glue – it was “Southern Baptist Culture” that united us more than anything else.
When our Southern Baptist culture fit with the monolithic Southern Culture, all was well. When the world started changing, we lost our identity and the SBC has never found that again. The SBC
The Problem: Who Are Southern Baptists?
In the early days of my blogging, we argued about “Baptist Identity.” I wrote a post asking this question, “What makes a person or a church Baptist?” What is the sine qua non of Baptist identity, the irreducible minimum? No one knew. No one could give a simple, comprehensive definition.
In 1962 it would not have been that tough. You could walk into a Southern Baptist church just about anywhere and know you were in an SBC church. They all had a piano and organ, a music leader who stood and waved his arm to the beat, used the Baptist Hymnal. Our Sunday School classes used BSSB literature and our children has RAs and GAs. We had a spring and fall revival. The people were as white as the shirt the pastor wore.
When the world changed, we were slow to adapt. I will conclude this now, and continue this in a future post, but here’s my final thought.
The decline of the SBC started 70 years ago when the world began to change rapidly. The monolithic SBC Culture became archaic and began to fade. As the world changed, our denomination was no longer a perfect fit to its culture and we did not adapt well. We lost our identity and have never figured out who we are in this changing world.
Part 1 of this series was Building Better Baptists: An Allegory