Recently a few Southern Baptist writers have begun writing to offer the opinion that in contrast to the preponderance of statistical evidence, the Southern Baptist Convention is in fact not in decline. Evidently the decline in baptisms, convention attendance and CP giving can all be explained if we’ll just listen well enough. What makes these opinions so newsworthy is that they stand in significant contrast to a mountain of statistical evidence that is being offered across our convention, and even outside our convention. It appears that they would instead have us to believe that those positing that the convention is in fact in decline are merely some sort of “Chicken Little” copycats, screaming that the sky is falling when, if fact, all is right with the world.
So then, what do we make of their arguments? Are they compelling? Do they merit our attention? I’ll be honest that I find their opinions a bit curious, to say the least, and find myself struggling to believe them. Let me also say up front that though I’d like to interact with more, I just don’t have the time. I’ve been trying to get this written for over a week and my schedule has forced me to push it off until now. So, this will have to suffice.
Let’s begin by considering the sheer volume of evidence that they must contradict to substantiate their position. While it is quite true that almost every concept offered in SBC life is received by those who have varying opinions, the fact that the SBC is in decline seems to almost be a universally held opinion – even among those who don’t always agree on other issues.
For instance, Dr. Chuck Kelley, President of New Orleans Seminary, has already given the SBC the moniker the “New Methodists” and is claiming that if things don’t change rapidly, we will join them in their free fall of attendance, impact and cultural influence for the sake of the Gospel. Then consider that former SBC President Frank Page has claimed that, at current rates, half of SBC churches could shut their doors by the year 2030. On top of that current SBC President Johnny Hunt, along with former SBC President and LifeWay President Jimmy Draper have both strongly decried the loss of younger leaders across the denomination based on both research and experience. Dr. Alvin Reid, who is considered by many to be the most influential evangelism professor in SBC life aside from Roy Fish, has clearly stated his understanding that the convention is in a desperate situation. As they mentioned in their articles, Ed Stetzer has also attempted to prove statistically that the denomination is not just heading downward, but that it has been in a persistent slide for aproximately 50 years now. Beyond that both LifeWay and NAMB provides survey after research survey to help underline the reality that we are suffering from a state of decline.
Now, is it possible that all these gentlemen are simply poor scholars or are just mistaken in their attempts to study and identify cultural trends? Sure it is, although I would submit that it is unlikely that they are collectively suspect in their research and conclusions. Nonetheless, it is possible. My point in underlining these positions is to merely point out that the mountain of evidence is stacked against any articles and/or statements to the contrary and therefore, to prove a contrary case, the research and subsequent conclusions offered will demand a fairly high level of evidentiary proof to substantiate their claims.
So, what else is in these new articles that might suggest that their argument is difficult to follow? For example, one article suggests that the real reason we see the convention growing older and we find a lack of involvement by younger leaders is due to the significantly smaller number of people that make up Generation X as opposed to the generations that came before them. While this argument is accurate, at least in the numbers of individuals in each generation, it is still curious in its conclusion when you consider that this generation (which is so significantly lacking from our annual meeting) is flocking in droves to a variety of other meetings that seem more preferable to them. For instance Together for the Gospel last year generated an attendance of approximately 5500. Just this month, Advance ‘09 saw over 2,500 people in attendance. The biggest of them all, Catalyst, sees around 12,000 church leaders flood Atlanta every year to enjoy the conference. What makes these conferences significant is the vast number of younger adult pastors and church leaders who are flocking to attend. The point is easily understood that it’s not due to a generational gap in younger adults, nor can we argue (as is attempted in at least one of the articles) that they cannot attend due to a lack of finances. No, it appears that there is nothing driving them to be in attendance at the SBC annual meeting, let alone to get involved in SBC life while there does seems to be ample motivation to engage in these other options. This should be cause for alarm, it seems to me, and not a reason to research reasons to wish it away.
This appears to be an important point in the construction of their arguments as there appears to be, at least in one of the articles, some animosity towards a segment of younger people. While speaking of the appeal of various church planting networks one article goes so far as to use what appears to be intentionally inflammatory language by referring to the organizational appeal of these networks as “luring away” younger leaders in our convention. Furthermore the same article seems to opine that attempting to retain or regain these younger leaders in the SBC fold is simply not worth our effort. This is a strange argument in my mind that begs for further substantiation.
Finally, the disconcerting question that continues to stick in the back of my mind is why spend the time and effort on this research? What is gained from it? For one, the timing alone seems interesting. When the articles are offered in the weeks leading up to an SBC which is sure to be dominated by talk of a Great Commission Resurgence, these articles appear to push back against the idea that a GCR is necessary. Of course my assesment may certainly be incorrect, but they do at least seem to give the impression that they are trying to knock down some of the foundational points of a GCR. The argument that is offered, at least in the title of one of these articles, is that these articles are attempting to offer Southern Baptists optimism. It seems to me that maybe the most effective method of providing optimism and hope to Southern Baptists would be to highlight the many ways in which Southern Baptists are serving the Kingdom around the word and are making substantial differences for Christ’s sake.
In conclusion, while I wish I had more time to interact with various other aspects of the articles I hope these thoughts will intrigue you enough to encourage you to further research on your own. I would encourage you to take a look at these articles with a critical eye, and interact with the various points being made. I’m not sure you will come to the same conclusion that these articles seemingly espouse. To refer back to a couple of different popular phrases either “the sky is falling” or “their head is in the sand.” I guess you will have to decide which one is more accurate.