Well, it happened again. The ACP statistics were released and things are not looking good for the SBC. About the only positive statistic is church planting – there are more of our churches out there. But fewer people are attending them (by quite a bit). Fewer people are being baptized in them (by a disturbing amount). Missions giving is down, though the reports on CP giving confused me a little – they are up, they are down, yes they are, no they aren’t!
Let’s put it in perspective. We are not a growing denomination anymore. Neither are we in the kind of free-fall that some of the mainline denominations find themselves in, but we are not looking good. I would recommend that the reader check out Ed Stetzer’s analysis of the info at “Between the Times” – you aren’t going to out-analyze Dr. Ed when it comes to statistics. Ed “Facts are our friends” Stetzer makes several points in his article.
- The numerical slide of the SBC is continuing.
- In fact, that slide is accelerating.
- Those leaders and others who spoke of it, in 2008, as a “blip” have been proven wrong. It’s a trend.
- Here’s the key stat: you can display the statistics two ways. One shows that we continued to grow, even though the rate slowed, until just after the turn of the century. But the more disturbing graph shows that there is actually a fairly straight line trend since about 1950 in which our rate of growth slowed at a constant rate until we finally, about a decade ago, began to hit the period of decline.
- The solution, of course, is to find ways to cooperate in ministry together.
Read the article. He is one of the best at statistical analysis.
Here are the two key graphs, and they demonstrate how statistics can often be made to fit a narrative. The first is based on the actual size of membership of the SBC.
We can look at this graph and say that we grew until the early 2000s, then began to decline. That allows us to look for things that happened in the 90s that we might be able to pin the blame on – we Baptists LOVE to play the blame game, as long as we are the ones pinning the blame, not the ones having the blame pinned on us.
Three key culprits have received most of the scrutiny – easy targets from this simplistic way of looking at things. What happened in the last part of teh 20th Century (that I didn’t like!) that I can blame our decline on?
1) The Conservative Resurgence – pretty much every person who was not a fan of the CR has used these stats to say, “See, the CR has killed the SBC! Of course, that ignores a lot of evidence. The CBF has not exactly exploded in growth. None of the left-leaning or progressive groups where moderates migrated to have seen any real growth. In fact, most of the more liberal groups have seen decline that can be called cataclysmic. So, while it might feel good to pin this tail on the donkey, it might not be accurate. We can argue that things would be much worse had the CR not turned aside liberalism in the SBC. There is no way to settle an argument like that.
2) The Calvinist Incursion – for some folks, it all about them Calvies – always and all the time. More than one person has pointed out that the rise of the so-called “New Calvinism” has coincided with the numerical decline of the SBC. But correlation is not causation and no one has demonstrated causation with anything other than insinuation and innuendo. In fact, many of the faster growing and statistically vibrant churches in the SBC are Calvinist leaning. I didn’t say all, but many. But if you want to pin this on the Calvinists, someone needs to do some accurate research that shows that church that self-identify as Reformed are actually dragging the denomination down while the non-Calvinist churches – Arminian-leaning, Traditionalist, or whatever other stripe they are – are not themselves seeing a decline.
3) The Contemporary Invasion
“If we did today what we did back then, we’d see today what we saw back then!”
Ever heard that one? Bring back pianos and organs, the hymnbook, maybe ol’ King Jimmy, spring and fall revivals, suits and ties, Sunday Night worship (and maybe Training Union), mammoth pulpits, and everything else we used to do! The problem isn’t theological, it’s methodological – all these new-fangled and silly things. Preachers in plaid shirts, untucked at that! Blue jeans – why I never! All those “7-11” songs (kinda like King David wrote – the ones in the Book of Psalms?).
We all have a tendency toward nostalgia, and when both the world and the church change as quickly as they have, the tendency is often to cling to tradition like a security blanket. If we just walked the old paths all would be well.
Here’s my problem. I think this graph shows the problem, but only if you look at it right. Look at how the rapid growth slows as the years go by. Even in the golden years of the 50s and 60s, traditionalists, when all we had were hymnbooks and pianos! Even in the 70s before the accursed CR began, moderates! Even before the rise of the confounded Calvinists! The problem predated all of those. The second graph shows this even more clearly. It is based on the rate of growth – by percentage.
The annual growth rate of the SBC back in 1950 was over 4%. That’s pretty good. By the 60s, that rate had been cut in half and was still 2%. We’d have a jubilee for 2%, right? But still, that was a 50% decline in rate of growth in one decade. By the time the 70 were passing by, we were falling toward 1%. After that we had a series of ups and downs until we finally crossed the line into decline for good (at least for now) around 2007.
Here’s the point, folks.
The statistical decline of the SBC is older than I am. I will turn 58 in September and it started 8 years before I was born!
This has been happening since the Korean War, since Harry Truman was in office, since CB Scott was in college! If you want to figure out the reason for our decline, folks, then you need to look back at what was happening at the middle part of the century in our world and in the SBC and look for the problems there.
Going back to the nineties to find those trends you don’t like and playing pin the blame on the donkey may gratify the flesh, but it is likely to yield a false result and not help us as a denomination to fix what was wrong.
So, What IS the Problem?
I have a theory, one which I have advanced for years. I believe that the SBC was a perfect cultural storm in the Southern United States. It became part of the heart and soul of the Deep South – in good ways and in not so good ways. Southern (White) American culture and Southern Baptist culture fit like hand in glove. Southern Baptists influenced and impacted their culture in significant ways. Unfortunately, they were also influenced and impacted by their culture in significant ways.
We were a culturally acclimated church – in good ways and in not-so-good ways. And so we grew – fast and strong. In some parts of the South, the Baptist church was pretty close to an unofficially established church! In the little Virginia town where I pastored in the 80s, virtually the entire town called our church home (though most were only married and buried there).
Then It All Changed
When did the world begin to change? It was the 60s, right? Well, back up a bit. It was really the post-war era. Women went to work during the war and many didn’t return to the kitchen when the soldiers came marching home. It was in the post-war era that the Civil Rights movement began to ramp up. Society saw significant change in the 50s, which likely led to the radical changes of the 60s. Since then our nation has undergone radical cultural changes that have left us baffled, confused and bumfuzzled.
We’ve argued over the glue that held the SBC together.
- The moderates said it was “missions” that held us together, not theology.
- The conservatives said it was our theology that united us in mission.
- I say that we were united most by our CULTURE, which brought us together to do theology and missions together.
Since the monolithic Southern Culture that buttressed the SBC began to fall apart in the 50s, our growth curve slowed. Now, we are searching for a unifying factor that will hold us together.
The Problem: Southern Baptist Identity
I wrote a post years ago that helped me identify the problem. It was during the so-called “Baptist Identity” battles. I asked a question. “What is it that makes someone a Southern Baptist?” What is the identifying mark? The sine qua non? The irreducible minimum? Guess what? No one knew! People were flummoxed.
That wouldn’t have been that tough in 1952. “Someone who goes to a Baptist Church in the South.” But now that the cultural unification has crumbled, what is left? Are we Calvinist or not? Are we old-fashioned traditionalists or trend-setting hipsters? Are we monolithic or is there room for everyone under the BF&M umbrella?
There’s a lot more to say here, but I don’t want this to become a book-length post. So let me just sum it up.
I believe that the root of the problem in the SBC is that we became so acculturated to the pre-war South that when the world changed we lost our identity and have never been able to figure out who we are as a denomination in this changing world.