This was originally posted at Alan’s site, Downshore Drift.
SBC In Free Fall? How Far Will the Decline Go and Why Aren’t We Talking About This?
5.5% decline in baptisms from 2011 to 2012 making this the worst year for baptisms since 1948. We now require 50 members of SBC churches to see 1 baptism per year. There are 105,000 less members than the year before. 188,000 less in worship attendance. We now have less than 16 million members and less than 6 million in worship. We have all known that the 16 million number is false and has been for some time. It might legitimately be half that. But, no matter how you look at it, the number is going down.
Thom Rainer recently tells us that only 15% of Millennial Generation born between 1980 and 2000 are Christians.
Frank Page responds with “God forgive us and God help us.”
The larger culture, even in the South, is throwing off its Christian influence in dramatic and remarkable fashion. It seems that the SBC, even though we are the still the largest Protestant denomination in North America, is having little impact on the culture. At least not overtly.
We have 270 more churches in 2012 than we had in 2011, so that is good. Kind of. New churches can take a while to gain traction and begin to reproduce. They are also largely made up of energetic and passionate people who were in other churches. Are we seeing a “brain drain” from established churches to plant new ones that are having spotty evangelistic impact overall? The question needs to be asked.
Why is this happening? Theories abound from the usual, “We aren’t working hard enough” to “We don’t care enough” to Calvinism to non-Calvinism, etc. Lots of finger pointing. I saw one leader tweet that it isn’t that we don’t care, it is that we don’t know “how” to do evangelism. Apparently, the answer is more training.
I asked Ed Stetzer, head of Lifeway Research, what he thought about the decline and the reasons behind it. Ed told me that we were just seeing the continuation of a 50 year trend of slowing growth and then decline. When Ed first told the SBC that a few years ago, he got a good deal of push back. I imagine those voices are silent now in light of the overwhelming evidence.
It is interesting that there has not been more reaction in the Baptist blogosphere/twittersphere the past couple of days. If this had happened a few years ago, say pre-GCR, there would have been no end to the blog posts, pronouncements, and articles on the subject. But, Baptists are strangely quiet in comparison. Why?
I think that we have fired or are in the process of firing all our bullets. We don’t know what to do. The GCR might prove to be the last concerted effort that Baptists are able to muster in our present iteration. The GCR had good ideas, but it didn’t gain traction because it was a top-down effort largely focused on NAMB and freeing up money for more church planting. Well, we are seeing more churches planted (which is good) but overall decline everywhere else. The GCR stopped short of what was needed.
We voted for a name change last year (barely) that has not been brought up again by anyone anywhere. We spent a whole year with a committee studying what our new name would be for those who wanted to use it. The committee discovered that the SBC could not actually change its name because of legal issues. So, we came up with a nickname – Great Commission Baptists. Nothing changed.
This year, we had a committee study Calvinism and its discontents. A report was issued last week from the committee. Little buzz was generated as it didn’t really say anything that we don’t already know and are largely rejecting – we need to focus on what unites us and get along. The truth is, many Baptists don’t want to get along on this issue and a report from a Calvinism peace committee isn’t going to change that. Daggers are drawn.
Meanwhile, the SBC is getting older. That is the real issue. New church plants cannot keep up with rapid aging of the denomination. Many churches are made up primarily of senior adults and they do not have the energy or ability to revive their churches. A church that was rather large in my own city 15 years ago with an amazing facility along a main thoroughfare is now down to about 200 senior adults and very few children. If you drive past it, the building is very impressive. But, they are no longer capable of reaching their neighbors and community. This is just one example, but it is happening all over the SBC and is the reason for the decline, in my opinion.
More and more young people are getting involved in the Convention. That is good. But, there are not enough of them to replace the generation that is growing old and tired and that can no longer carry the burden the way that they once did. We can get all hands on deck and all pray and work hard and be devoted and still not have the growth and strength that we had in 1995 or 1975 or 1965. The demographics are against us and time stops for no man.
That said, a huge part of our problem is that we have spent a great deal of energy, resources, and time over the last several decades trying to protect our own way of life. We became motivated to engage the larger culture when we sense a threat to the life that we had marked out for ourselves. Often, we used God and theology to construct churches and organizations that would protect us and our own place in the world instead of propelling us out into the world in sacrificial love with the gospel. Viruses like racism and consumerism and individualism made us sick with self and we lost our zeal and desire to lay down our lives for God and others. We cannot serve God and serve ourselves at the same time. We cannot love the lost while consistently thinking about our own personal preferences. We are called to die to self, take up our cross and follow Christ. That still needs to happen.
We need refreshing and renewal and joy and to get in touch with our Savior in a way that we can stand in His grace and hear His voice and discern where He will lead us next. We do need theological and ecclesiological renewal, but along with that, we need a renewal of the heart and of love and relationships and practice and ethics. We cannot get back the power we once had. We shouldn’t even try. The past is past and our former “glory” is fading. Honestly, I see that as a good thing in some ways. The good news is that Christ making all things new and He has a way forward for us in the future. We might not be as big as we once were, but that does not mean that we cannot or will not be fruitful if we abide in Christ. We might be more so.
Our churches on the local level have to seek out where God is working in their neighborhoods and cities. We have to learn to love God and love people everywhere we go. We have to find ways to build relationships and work together where we are. We need to network together to plant churches and equip the saints and be salt and light in our local cultures. We cannot look to our denominational entities to save us or to turn the ship around. They have been trying and it isn’t working. We don’t need to wait for our seminaries and for NAMB to solve our problems. We are called to address our communities and the people in front of us and hold out life to them. We need to experience that life ourselves.
I think that the SBC is going to get a good bit smaller over the next 10 to 15 years. I can see official membership dropping below 10 million and worship attendance dropping below 5 million. I can see baptisms leveling out around 250,000 a year. But, that won’t be because God isn’t working or because great things aren’t happening. It will be because a generation died. We will have to reform and regroup and reposition ourselves for the future. The SBC will continue and will be strong, but it will be downsized – for a while.
Honestly, I think that the SBC’s best days can be ahead of us on a local church level if we embrace the cross as our vision and mission. We will be multicultural and multigenerational and we will have churches all over America. But, the days of triumphalism are gone. Christendom is over and our influence on civil religion, even in the South, is coming to an end. We will return to being a pilgrim people without favor in the world and we will rediscover our roots and our dependence upon Christ alone. And, ultimately, that will be a very good thing.