The answer is simple: Young people have stopped getting themselves baptized. In 2012, the latest year for which there are figures, 60 percent of SBC church reported no youth baptists (ages 12-17) and 80 percent reported 0-1 young adult baptists (18-29). In other words, a church based on opposition to infant baptism is failing to attract members at the very age when historically they have joined the flock.
But of course that begs the question. Why has the millennial generation decided to withhold the hem of its garment from the SBC?
It's not for lack of attention. As a pastors committee report presented to the SBC annual meeting in Baltimore earlier this month put it, "Although our churches have increasingly provided programs for children, students and young adults, we are not being effective in winning and discipling the next generation to follow Christ." Could it be that the millennials are simply not buying what the SBC is selling?
I'm not talking about Jesus. I'm talking about a denomination that has devoted a lot of its energy since the conservative takeover a generation ago to fighting culture war battles. Forget about same-sex marriage. The SBC continues to keep women out of pulpits, and to limit their ability even to teach in their seminaries.
Not that I have a dog in this fight, but it seems to me that sooner or later the nation's largest Protestant denomination is going to have to face up to the choice of becoming a minor sect dedicated to "traditional values" or an active participant in the society of which they are a part. Here and there are hints of such facing up.
Russell Moore, head of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, opts for a Christianity that moves from a national culture religion to a stranger in a strange land. Oklahoma pastor and blogger Wade Burleson opts for less preoccupation with "tertiary doctrinal matters." I'd say what they need is the Southern Baptist equivalent of Pope Francis.