Nearly 125 students from four Southern Baptist seminaries gathered June 15 at the Hyatt Hotel in Columbus, Ohio, to hear firsthand from top leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention about a variety of topics relating to ministry including the Cooperative Program. Frank S. Page, president of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Executive Committee vice presidents answered questions from the students for nearly two hours. The students, who were part of a seminary class, were from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Photo by Matt Miller, courtesy of Baptist Press

What to make of Southern Baptists' declining numbers (COMMENTARY)

Nearly 125 students from four Southern Baptist seminaries gathered June 15 at the Hyatt Hotel in Columbus, Ohio, to hear firsthand from top leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention about a variety of topics relating to ministry including the Cooperative Program. Frank S. Page, president of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Executive Committee vice presidents answered questions from the students for nearly two hours. The students, who were part of a seminary class, were from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Photo by Matt Miller, courtesy of SBC Annual Meeting 2015

Nearly 125 students from four Southern Baptist seminaries gathered June 15 at the Hyatt Hotel in Columbus, Ohio, to hear firsthand from top leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention about a variety of topics relating to ministry, including the Cooperative Program. Frank S. Page, president of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Executive Committee vice presidents answered questions from the students for nearly two hours. The students, who were part of a seminary class, were from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Photo by Matt Miller, courtesy of Baptist Press


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) The largest Protestant denomination in the United States is meeting this week, but it’s not as large as it was last year, or the year before. Southern Baptists now number just under 15.5 million members, down from a peak of 16.3 million in 2003. And many people in the Southern Baptist Convention sense a corresponding loss of clout and credibility when speaking to the wider culture. 

What’s going on? The number of Southern Baptist churches is higher than ever -- 46,449 churches are in some way affiliated with the SBC. Meanwhile, church planting continues to pick up steam, and a common concern among established churches is the need to be “revitalized.”

So, why did the SBC's growth begin to slow in the 1950s, stall in subsequent decades, and then begin to decline several years ago? And what does all this mean for the SBC’s engagement on political and social issues?

From the outside, some may see the SBC’s conservative theological and political views as the culprit. Believing in Jesus as the only way to God or upholding Jesus’ vision for marriage and sexuality are increasingly unpopular. So, the thinking goes, perhaps conservatism is a barrier to reaching new people.

This explanation would make more sense if all conservative denominations were shrinking and liberal denominations growing, but such is not the case. The Assemblies of God, now the second-largest evangelical denomination in the U.S., has seen 25 straight years of growth, and its views are similar to the SBC’s. Likewise, nondenominational churches, most quite conservative, are exploding in numbers and membership. Meanwhile, the more liberal denominations are in a much steeper decline than the SBC.

Lots of explanations are floating around, but it’s likely that a variety of factors have led us to this point. Here are a few to consider:

1. Many former Southern Baptists are now nondenominational.

Christian comedian Tim Hawkins has a funny bit on the differences between denominations. When he pokes fun at believers whose churches are unaffiliated, he jests: “Come on! You’re not fooling anyone. You’re just a Baptist church with a cool website!”

Hawkins’ line gets laughs because there’s some truth to that statement. In the past five decades, the number of nondenominational churches has soared. And while I don’t think we should write off traditional denominations as having no future (see my previous article), it’s undeniable that many people who today attend a nondenominational church grew up Southern Baptist.

When it comes to social and political matters, only a handful of nondenominational churches publicly trumpet their views on pressing moral and political issues. And so, as Southern Baptists have scattered out into other denominations, the perception of unity surrounding social issues has become diffused.

2. Southern Baptists are having fewer children.

It’s often said that “demography is destiny,” and if this is true, it should come as no surprise that the SBC's stagnation and decline largely mirrors the number of children Baptists have. In the past 50 years, most of the SBC’s reported baptisms were performed during the childhood and teenage years. Now that we’re having fewer children, we’re having fewer baptisms, all across the board.

3. There are multiple changes in membership philosophy and church attendance patterns.

Several years ago, Southern Baptists began a conversation on membership and church discipline. After a resolution was passed encouraging pastors to be more accurate in reporting, many churches cleaned up their rolls as a way of moving toward “meaningful membership.”

While some of the decline may simply be a move toward more accurate reporting, the membership issue doesn’t explain the drops in baptisms and  in church attendance. In fact, the highest percentage of decline last year was in weekly worship attendance (down 2.75 percent, to 5,674,469).

Twenty years ago, a “faithful church member” was someone who attended three times a week (Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night). Today, many pastors consider a “faithful church member” someone who attends three Sundays a month. The shift in attendance patterns is significant, and it’s no wonder it has shown up in the data.

4. Southern Baptists are less evangelistic.

There’s no way to prove or disprove this statement. But considering the drop in the SBC’s baptismal numbers, it seems clear that Southern Baptist outreach efforts are diminishing -- either in effectiveness or intensity, perhaps both.

Pastors and church leaders warn about a general malaise regarding evangelism, even in many of the most conservative churches. This apathy may stem from theological shifts (in a pluralistic society, many Baptists may doubt, deep down, that faith in Jesus is the only way to escape eternal condemnation) or societal realities (fewer Christians have significant relationships with unbelievers).

An oft-expressed concern is that an overly politicized vision of Christianity has, at times, become a distraction from sharing the simple good news of Jesus Christ. Others worry that the abandonment of political engagement offers a truncated gospel that neglects the cause of justice in the world and hinders the church’s witness.

And finally, the good news.

How are Southern Baptists responding to the news of decline? By praying for revival, planting more churches, refocusing on theological education, seeking to be more evangelistic and helping revitalize declining and dying churches.

Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including "Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After." Photo courtesy of LifeWay Media

Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including "Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After." Photo courtesy of LifeWay Media


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

In all these efforts, Southern Baptists are also grappling with rapid shifts in societal views of morality and are beginning to recognize that their diminishing clout when speaking to the wider culture is a sign that they are now closer to the margins of society, not the center.

The good news is, Baptists have a long history of being on the margins of society, and it was largely due to Baptists that Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers enshrined our nation's rights to conscience and free religious exercise. So, to look at the current state of the SBC with hope is not to succumb to a naïve optimism, but to face our challenges head-on, with confidence that God’s kingdom will endure and that, no matter what happens to the SBC, Christ will build his church.

(Trevin Wax is managing editor of the Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After.”)

LM/MG END WAX

Comments

  1. The SBC reminds me of Germany at the outset of World War I. They jumped with both feet into the culture wars to be front-line soldiers in a colossal misadventure. Now that they’ve essentially lost — with their Versailles moment possibly coming in the next two weeks — they appear humble and chastened.

  2. This would be the 3rd time they have been chastened by the rest of the nation for being the church that bigotry built:
    1. Being on the losing side of the Civil War and having their purpose of existence, the extolling of slavery taken away from them

    2. They lose the social sanction of being the mouthpiece of legalized white supremacy when Jim Crow is killed.

    3. Soon they will lose the social sanction of being anti-gay in the next two weeks.

    They will find a new prejudice to rally around in future years.

  3. A thousand characters doesn’t begin to cover this.

    In Mexico, several bishops and exorcists have conducted a mess exorcism of the entire country, in their dismay over gay marriage, blaming Juan and Pablo’s marriage for the ills be setting the country. No mention of the drug war and little mention of the corruption that it engenders. No mention of poverty, lack of education and opportunity, or 500 years of exploitation of the poor by the rich and powerful.

    This makes the bishops looks ignorant, stupid, and mean. Worse, it makes them look ineffectual, and no one likes a LOSER.

    AoG might be doing well, perhaps at the expense of the SBC. But I suspect that the reasons for that resemble the above mentioned bishops. The SBC was behind the maintenance of segregation, and was founded on slavery. It took until 1995 for them to apologize for both.

    Now, gay people are their target. They look hysterical, mean, and ignorant. And worse: like losers.

    AGAIN.

  4. @Martin,

    “God is probably weeding out…”

    YES! And I’m doing everything I can to help God do his job!

    By spreading non-belief and doubt I hope to completely convert all the fence sitters right out of the church. God and I are hoping to relieve parishes of all doubters as fast as we can – to leave only the most stubborn..er,,I mean “loyal”…lovers of Jesus.

    But no Christians ever thank me for my hard work. 🙁

  5. Congregationalism tends to be rule by the lowest common denominator. The Baptists who have come to my door have appeared to be ignorant of the history of the Church, and unable to present any argument to support their views except threats of hell and destruction (via prophesy). They maintain that the Bible is the actual “word of God”, instead of a product of the Church, and that belief (acceptance of their doctrine) is the most important demand of their Christian God. They are disrespectful of any alternative view, equating it with disobedience
    to “the almighty”. In short, they are bigots.

  6. The decline is probably due to the fact that they stopped preaching the real Gospel a long time ago and replaced it with catholic style dogmas of attendance and money and mostly guilt for noncompliance; a works salvation lead by the Arminian crowd; a set of seminaries that produce nothing but more of the same children from hell (Matt 23:15) who have “a form of godliness, but deny it’s power”; they have an ‘anything goes’ mentality, as long as the money still flows their way; heretics occupy too many of their pulpits; and their current dictator-in-chief (Mr. Ronnie Floyd) demands his members “pay their tithe or else…….” Or else what, Ronnie?

    A better question to ask would be why does a real Christian attend, support (with time and money) and condone the false teaching? Another would be were in the NT is the authority for the SBC to exist? [hint: there is none]. Most of the ‘leaders’ are in league with wicked one (2Cor. 6:14-18) and the pew-sitter loves to have it so…

  7. Max,

    I became a Christian from out of being an atheist. For several reasons, and of course one because of the hatred you display. That “atheists” go to the lengths you do, shows me that something other than a myth or fairy tale is what your are fighting. Oh yes, you ARE doing the work of the Lord. You are simply drawing the liars out of The Church to join the depraved side of this battle.

    No one should be surprised about that.

    But I notice with fascination, that your one-trick pony show is quite valueless. You insult Christians, which of course is what one would expect from your kind of person, but other than that, all you do is showcase fanaticism of the common atheist and little else.

  8. They will be persecuted by the same evil that has persecuted Christians since the Apostles went out to preach the Gospel. While your side continues debauchery and degeneracy as a civil right, the SBC, will continue to show a light to an increasingly darkened world.

    If you think the USA’s “supreme court” somehow dictates Christian behavior, you are as deluded as I hold that your kind truly are. What will happen in the immediate future is that the unhinged will take their depravity to the doors of Churches no differently than the Sodomites of old did to Lot. What you represent and crow about, is the same noise as the rooster represented when Jesus was being sold out.

  9. While I agree with you that many missionaries at the door are ignorant of Christian history, it’s interesting that you prove it it so effectively.
    The world,” is hostile to The Church and that should be taught to every Christian that feels the urge to “go out,” and preach the Gospel.

    What they have to come to grips with is that there are many people that are going to reject Christ and that shouldn’t come as any surprise. Just one bit of time separating wheat from the chaff should be a scientific example of what Jesus affirmed about the efforts of evangelism.

    The depravities being celebrated (and there are so many) as a civil right by “the world” shows conclusively that Jesus was not a hippy guru of licentious lascivious behavior and drug use, He is The Lord.

    The SBC and the bottomline is one of fidelity to the Gospel and repentance on errors. On both they are on the narrow (and only) road that leads to Jesus. While the hateful fanatics of Christians stay lost.

  10. “There are no true Scotsmen…” – Ted

    Ted,

    Jesus asserts otherwise. As do the writers of New Testament theology.

    And isn’t it utterly fascinating that LGBT pride fanatics assert the same thing.

    But then again . .

    Better update your propaganda tactics.

  11. Mr. B.B.,
    You have it backwards. It is you, Mr. B.B. who insult others, and then blame God for your bad behavior. It is the Church that is hostile to others. They are the ones who demand that everyone be subservient to them.
    It is easy to prove this. Simply do unto others as they do to you. Go to their doors and demand that they accept the same propositions that you accept.
    Few will consider that a kindness, or welcome your enlightenment. Then you can condemn them to be punished. What fun!

  12. I’ll tell you why. Look at the photo that goes with this article. Perfect summation of Southern Baptists–old white dudes.

    Also, you skipped #4.

  13. Yes BB, you will be sent to a FEMA camp and forced to marry someone of the same sex, be forced to have a surrogate Thai baby and open up a B&B in Massachusetts. Better watch out!!!!! 🙂

    As another poster has responded to you, I see no rebuttal of my post in your response.

  14. Jesus was a Scotsman?!!?!

    Maybe you should read a Bible now and then and stop using one as a blunt weapon.

  15. “Be Brave”, I think we should all try to refrain from stereo-typing people, as in “all atheists are angry and villainous” or that “all fundamentalist Christians are brain washed” (or whatever one wants to stereotype with).

    As you shared, you were a former atheist or non-believer. I was a former deeply-committed Christian of over 30 years, who abandoned the faith. I’m not angry. But I do grieve about some of the hatred that gets thrown out, from both sides.

  16. I doubt he was ever an atheist. There is a great explanation for these kinds of claims by Bible thumpers in the link below
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/excommunications/2015/02/what-christians-mean-when-they-use-the-word-atheist/
    What Christians Mean by the Word “Atheist”

    “Evangelical Christians are using a much fuzzier definition for the word “atheist.” To them, an atheist is anyone who lives as if there were no God. It’s not about belief, for you see they’ve been taught that everyone believes in God. What’s more, they’ve been taught that everyone worships something, which means that even people who think they don’t believe in anything are really worshiping either themselves or some nefarious deity unbeknownst to them. Therefore there can be no such thing as an atheist in the sense that everyone else uses the word, including atheists.

  17. “Your kind?” That sounds a bit like vapid generalizations, which you have been accused of making already, BB.

  18. A picture is worth a thousand words. Of course that doesn’t keep us from using thousands of words anyway. Not just old white men, but young white men, who have, or looking for a subservient wife in keeping with the teachings of each seminary listed in the article. Also the 2002 Baptist Faith and Message which lowers not only the state of women but also Jesus making the Bible something of a God. Also making the Bible as a book dictated directed by God.
    Evangelism, using the same old tactics year after year with diminishing results. Preachers pontificating from the pulpit instead of teaching the love of God and preaching against, instead of for anything.

    Check out the Assemblies of God churches see what they do to love people into the congregations.
    I agree with Trevin on one thing, “no matter what happens to the SBC, Christ will build his church.”

  19. You don’t get to define who an atheist is. People identify themselves in such a fashion. That runs the spectrum of ultra liberal liberal atheists to fascist atheists. They are all atheists whether you agree with ther beliefs or not.

    It takes a delusional fool to think their opinion has to be taken seriously as to which people identifying themselves as atheists are “the real thing”.

  20. He isn’t the only one who’s been so accused, Barry…just sayin’.

  21. Hi Chaplain Martin,
    I admire your work with the “least of these” and sadly, I do not have any idea of how to “rescue” or even give hope to such folks. I admire the Salvation Army, but I just cannot reconcile the world that I experience and observe, with a loving creator God, or even a “Just” God. I can see human compassion as a real force, but depending on the supernatural, strikes me as about as rational as economic planning based on winning a lottery. So my question to you is; what is your intellectual basis, if any, for “teaching the love of God”.

  22. Ah Shawnie, but fundamentalist Christians are well known for making crap up and completely misperceiving the world around them.

    BB doesn’t call himself an atheist. Only a “former atheist”. He just thought he was one at one point (or claimed to be one). Or more likely, just a liar. Its like someone who watched an R-rated movie once calling themselves “addicted to pornography”. 🙂

  23. Shawnie, I find it so cute that you have a separate sockpuppet devoted just to me. 🙂

  24. “BB doesn’t call himself an atheist. Only a “former atheist”. He just thought he was one at one point (or claimed to be one).”

    You don’t get to define who a former atheist is. People identify themselves in such a fashion. It takes a delusional fool to think their opinion has to be taken seriously as to which people identifying themselves as former atheists are “the real thing”

    “But fundamentalist Christians are well known for making crap up and completely misperceiving the world around them.”

    That sounds a bit like vapid generalizations, which you have been accused of making already, Larry.

  25. It IS great fun. One can’t let such an endless supply of comic material go to waste.

  26. Shawnie you just being smarmy. Phony claims are still phony claims.

    I am not defining who is atheist or a former atheist and who isn’t.

    I am flat out calling BB a liar. I am accusing fundamentalists who make such claims as either being liars or having no clue what they are talking about.

    There is a difference between calling someone ignorant or a liar and making “no true Scotsman” arguments. Maybe you will get it someday.

    As for “vapid generalizations”, as someone who was not complaining of such things in others, I have no care whatsoever when people try to apply it to myself.

  27. “I am not defining who is atheist or a former atheist and who isn’t. I am flat out calling BB a liar. I am accusing fundamentalists who make such claims as either being liars or having no clue what they are talking about.”

    There being no “exemplar” for authentic atheism, there is only one sane definition of atheist — the belief in no gods. A = no, theos = god. If BB claims that he used to so believe, then as you observed, “it takes a delusional fool think their opinion has to be taken seriously as to which people identifying themselves as atheists are “the real thing” (which of course, is rather a necessity in order to determine who is “lying” or not).

    “As for “vapid generalizations”, as someone who was not complaining of such things in others, I have no care whatsoever when people try to apply it to myself.”

    Au contraire — you complain constantly of “bigotry,” of which “vapid generalizations” are a necessary element.

    Consistency, thou art a jewel.

  28. Except I am saying BB is lying about being a former atheist. I call into question whether he ever identified himself as one in the first place. So your rebuttal is off the point.

    Its just one of many canned stories fundies like to tell the public to both attack atheists and give their views a little more respectability.

    Somehow their take on atheists has nothing to do with actual real life people who have such beliefs. It always falls into stereotypes and defamatory cliches fundie preachers typically say about them. A dead giveaway someone is not telling the truth.

    Fundamentalist lying in support of their faith is not exactly an uncommon practice.

    All bigots use generalizations. Not all generalizations are signs of bigotry.

  29. “Except I am saying BB is lying about being a former atheist.”

    On what basis? And why should anybody take you seriously?

    “Its just one of many canned stories fundies like to tell the public to both attack atheists and give their views a little more respectability.”

    Kind of like Max being a former Christian? One of those canned stories atheists like to tell the public to both attack Christians and give their views a little more respectability? Somehow their take on Christians has nothing to do with actual real life people who have such beliefs. It always falls into stereotypes and defamatory cliches atheists typically say about them. A dead giveaway someone is not telling the truth.

    I believe all sorts of things that have no real place in debate. I don’t believe Max is a former Christian, nor even a real atheist. I don’t believe you are a man. But one doesn’t debate via claivoyance. One deals with the issues as presented.

  30. I’m not an atheist..but not religious in the least..and am also a recovering evangelical ..hope evangelical Christianity fades away completely…it’s a dark force that imprisons the mind

  31. Civil war was not fought over the eradication of slavery…any real historian knows that

    People of all races have the right to consider theirs the best ..whites included..Jim crow was wrong but so is Jewish supremacy in Palestine …if beliefs lead to abuse, it is an evil consequence of what may or may not be true be truth … Racial pride seems to be permitted by lefties for all but Caucasians ..

    Homosexuality is a behavioral aberration that’s contrary to procreation …if they speak against it they have that right too…

    Leftists define prejudice as any idea that is contrary to their own prejudice…both lefties and right wingers are ideologues..lefties seek to destroy free speech using the hate speech tactic …commie tactic

  32. Why do you call it “Faux? (Genuine question, not starting a debate.)

  33. We must preach Jesus Christ as the pre-eminent. We must warn the lost of everlasting burnings, hellfire, outer darkness.
    We must grow the church through Sunday School enrollment.
    We must leave off wasting time with politics while all around us souls are dying and going to hell forever.
    The Bible says the effeminate will be consigned to hell; therefore, do not expect us to mainstream into your gayness, Trevin.

  34. That’s why the Liberal/Gay/Marxist friendly Christian Churches are do so well.

  35. Baloney – it’s just the opposite. Marxism is destroying the “mainstream” churches. White’s do not have a thing to apologize for. The SBC has become Troskyite in its leadership.

  36. From the photo these people seem to be obese even for Americans. What’s their death rate like compared to that of other groups?

    -dlj.

  37. Because women are not ordained as ministers in the Southern Baptist Convention. Many fundamentalist denominations do this in obedience to the literal command of the New Testament.

  38. As if that “literal command” matters. What about all of the other things they excuse?? Do women keep silent in churches? Do they keep their head covered? Are they obedient to their husbands? And the list goes on and on … cherry picking at its worst.

  39. Not necessarily. Some of those commands are cultural, but I agree as an evangelical that women are to be obedient to their husbands and not to pastor over men. Although I’m not Southern Baptist, my denomination agrees on a traditional view of marriage.

  40. Baptists tend to be the heaviest among church groups coming in at first. Pentecostals come in second. Conservative groups tend to have more obese members. I’ve noticed that Presbyterian women tend to have bubble butts.

  41. Other than the guy in the front row and the speaker, I don’t see many who are obese.

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