Institutions Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Why the Southern Baptist Convention is shrinking

Southern Baptist Convention logo
Southern Baptist Convention logo

Southern Baptist Convention logo

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.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • Ultimately, they will follow the money, but the tactic will fail to rescue them because the winners in this game are likely to be those who lead, rather than those who are grudgingly going along.

  • I am a 50 year believer and was a committed Southern Baptist for 35 of those years but in my opinion, there came a point where they didn’t want people like me any more. I still believe the high teaching, only Christ, blood, cross, resurrection, grace, I will always believe this. But their low teaching became so important to them. Believe a 100% of what we tell you, which I find not to be a 100% of what the bible tells me. 97% is not pure enough for them. I think hey are pure now, in their own minds, but they are a pale imitation of what they used to be. If I see this then others do as well. Their own numbers show that.

  • Silk asks the right question but delivers the wrong answer. Being a credo Baptist the focus doesn’t fall in age categories but focuses on those professing to be believers, young and old (i.e. those who profess Christ as Lord and show fruit of a changed heart.)
    If there is an insistence to identify age groups being baptized, the larger, more disturbing question is, why has the SBC ALWAYS been poor at baptizing adults?

  • next the old Prof will explain why the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodist etc….have seen their numbers shrink for over 50 years to the point where they only account for a couple of million stale hippies. And it is not for a lack of trying, they have adopted every fad and capitulated to every controversy. And yet the millennial have abandoned them in droves.

    what a world the old prof lives in where faithfulness is something to to sneer at.

  • “Among the vulnerable for whom the church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this.

    …Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the church cannot be expected to change her position on this question… It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life…”

    – Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium #213-214

  • In a world consumed by consumerism; where the ego self-material gain is chosen over Christ’s message; where Christ’s message has morphed into a rationalized financial ego-self materialism; where physical and mental comfort are chosen over real spiritual and growth which at times is the cause of us being naturally uncomfortable with ourselves, it does not surprise me there is little interest in a religion based on rote understanding of the bible. Seems pretty shallow to me.

  • Most of there baptism’s were not Christian any way ,,
    their prey were those already baptized..

    the only thing they were doing was despising Christ and his work and promises ..

    they even went so far as to call their baptism; believer only baptism.

    As if there preacher’s could see hearts..

  • infant baptism is the safest baptism of all .. infants can not come to Jesus in baptism as a Judas only those older can..

    I heard a Baptist preacher once say infants can not KNOW Jesus ..

    Certainly not from him .. The Holy Ghost is far more learned than any Baptist preacher and it is he who says they can..2nd timothy 3:15
    Mathew 21:15-16

  • Why the decrease in baptisms? Could it be the increased secularizaion of the culture? Moving away from Scripture to conform to a secularized culture is not the solution. Hasn’t mainline protestantism proved this?

  • I joined a Southern Baptist Church at age nineteen(1959). I was especially impressed by the teaching of “The priesthood of the believer”. Also a my local church taught me that each SBC church was independent. Most of those I met even in seminary (New Orleans) believed in the inspired word of God not the fundamentalist view of every word dictated by God to a writer who who had no mind of their own. Their were not many seeking a legalistic view of faith and scripture but their number kept growing.

    Fundamentalist were once described as very little “‘fun and no damn mental’
    Where has priesthood of the believer gone? Well to stay in a Baptist association a pastor now has to sign and church sign adherence to the 2002 Faith and Message which leaves little room for Jesus much less priesthood of the believer. The freedom of teaching at the seminaries is gone. First they went after the moderates (who were really conservative), then they went after the Baptist Christian Social Ministries, the seminary school of Christian Social Work was eliminated. Next weed out all the women professors and only let women teach women. How is a local church going to be independent when the all the seminaries are turning out are fundamentalist?

    What independently minded, bright young person would join a denominational church who holds a 14th century view of science? Fighting against scientist who are simply seeking the truth themselves. A church which condemns instead of love. A church which is out of touch with the world faced today by our youth.

    Yet there is a new wave of churches not tied to denominations who are attracting youth and young adults by the droves. They are active, involved, they actually do things for the poor.

  • I’m ex-IFB (independent fundamental baptist). According to an ex-SBC pastor friend of mine, the historic animosity between Southern Baptists and Campbellites/Church of Christ is because they often competed for the same converts but the CoC was more honest (and still is) for insisting salvation today REQUIRES water baptism and that one cannot be saved without it. All Baptists believe that, to some degree, but are loathe to admit it because they cannot fully reconcile it with salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone, without works. So for the most part, they don’t even try. Hence the equating of submission to their water rite with salvation itself. Based on my time in IFB churches, which pride themselves on holding the doctrinal high ground ceded long ago by the SBC, it’s exactly the same there, too.

    Reports like this one bear out what Baptists will never openly acknowledge or admit: they have indeed inextricably tied their version of water baptism to salvation. Of course, Baptists are by no means alone in this: every church and denomination that pushes on some form of water ritual believes it to some degree – that if a convert neglects or refuses water baptism, he/she is disobedient and sinning, and God will be displeased at the very least. Some admit that, most won’t say it outloud…but it’s what they believe.

    Despite our being under the Gospel of the grace of God – wherein salvation is without works of any kind, including a water ritual originally intended for a repentant Israel – it is very telling that the SBC focuses is on how many “converts” get wet in a dunk tank rather than how many can intelligently explain the Gospel and why (or if) they’ve trusted Christ.

  • “What independently minded, bright young person would join a denominational church who holds a 14th century view of science? Fighting against scientist who are simply seeking the truth themselves.”
    Indeed! And which such persons would agree to be loyal to the same understandings for the rest of their lives? Only idiots brag that they have held steadfastly to the same beliefs. This is merely proof that they do not think and strive towards a better understanding. They have been taught and pressured to stay in line. This is not just stupid- it is evil (destructive).

  • Thanks for your response to my comments. I’m 74 now and have grown away from some beliefs to toward others. Best part of being a chaplain in a secular environment is working with all denominations and beliefs.

  • I am only 69, but I still visit my favorite college professor, who is 98. He has been known to respond to my pontifications with; “Well, you may be correct, but I winder what you will think in thirty years time”. I would wish there were no such thing as belief. It is merely an excuse to stop the mind and impair imagination.

  • Nicely worded and completely correct! I guess the message of Christ’s love for all isn’t enough. The Baptist’s also preach and teach the views that their messages of hate, intolerence, and all too often ignorance must be followed to the letter. If it isn’t believed and followed to the letter then the “unbeliever” really isn’t a Christian and the Baptist’s don’t want those people, people like me, inside their churches. No problem, for I have no desire to attend a church where such hate and intolerence are taught!t!

  • To: Kevan Scott,
    While I would not defend Southern Baptist as a whole, I would like to caution painting all people who are of the Baptist persuasion with the same paint stroke.
    There is a big banner in my large Sunday School class in Alabama that reads “WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO ACCEPT EVERYONE”. People of variety of races, nationalities, and faith groups have found a home in that class, which is a part of a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Church. We have had visitors read that sign and decide “this is a place for me.”
    The teacher of the class said he would like to see another banner up with “Priesthood of the believer” on it.
    The SBC I knew as a young man no longer exist, but believe me a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Church would welcome you. The Fellowship group of churches pulled away from the SBC because of the slide into ridged fundamentalism. New CBF churches are developing, and they are missional in intent and practice.