Is the Southern Baptist Convention in terminal decline?

Matt MillerWorshippers singing the theme song for a Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Nashville, Tennessee.

The latest statistics released by the giant Southern Baptist Convention are out, and they don't make comfortable reading. Headlined "SBC reports more churches, fewer people" by its official Baptist Press, the story is that even as the number of congregations affiliated to the denomination grew for the 15th year in a row, membership dropped by 200,000. It's the largest one-year decline since 1881.

Baptisms fell by 5,067, and weekly worship attendance also fell, by 2.75 per cent.

This year's headline is a virtual re-run of last year's, which saw the South Carolina Baptist Courier report on 2012 figures: "State of the Church: SBC churches increase, but members and baptisms fall."

The 2014 figures were announced by the SBC's LifeWay Christian Resources, whose president Thom Rainer said: "It breaks my heart that the trend of our denomination is mostly one of decline." He added: "Programs and meetings are not going to revive our people – only prayer and repentance will lead our people to revival."

Frank Page, president of the SBC executive committee, said: "This is the lowest baptisms that we have seen since we crossed the 300,000 mark in the late 1940s. While we might complain about the many churches who are not reporting their baptisms, and we can, the reality is that we are simply not sharing our faith like once we did." He concluded: "God forgive us, please, and draw us back to a place of passion for winning souls to You!"

So is the SBC on the slippery slope to extinction?

A decline of 200,000 members is no small matter. In the UK that would see denominations like the Baptists and Methodists completely wiped out and a serious dent made in the Church of England.

However, the US context is completely different. The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the country, and even last year's losses leave it with a membership of no less than 15.5 million. Weekly worship attendance is a whopping 5.67 million, and baptisms – which mark the entry of converts to the Church – were still 305,301. Furthermore, while giving is down too, it still stands at $637 million. The SBC is justifiably concerned, but there is a very long way to go before it needs to panic.

However, the figures do give observers pause for thought. Is the Southern Baptist decline part of a general turning away from faith in America, or does it face particular problems?

A Pew Research survey in May found that the Christian share of the US population was declining, while the number of US adults who identified with no religion was growing. The drop in Christian affiliation was particularly pronounced among young adults but was seen across all age groups.

However, the decline was mainly driven by falls in the mainline Protestant and Catholic Churches rather than among evangelicals like the Southern Baptists: evangelicals' share of the population has dipped by only about one percentage point since 2007.

While it is better news for evangelicals than for more liberal traditions, some commentators have questioned even that interpretation of the data, arguing that it is unduly gloomy. Lifeway's executive director Ed Stetzer interviewed sociologist Dr Rodney Stark about the future of US evangelicalism and found him surprisingly bullish. Stark – not himself an evangelical – sees "no evidence" that evangelicalism is declining and blames the widespread perception that it is on people who "make a living coming and saying, 'Church is going to hell... '" Stark says: "They're always wrong."

Stetzer himself says: "I actually DO think that evangelicalism peaked in the 80s and 90s, but all the talk of the collapse of evangelicalism (and the death of Christianity) is just bad math (or a way to sell books)."

He believes that the Pew report shows that "convictional Christianity is rather steady" and that it is nominal Christians describing themselves more accurately as having no religion that's having the statistical influence. He says that "the statistics about Christians in America are simply starting to show a clearer picture of what American Christianity is becoming—less nominal, more defined, and more outside of the mainstream of American culture".

Stetzer concludes that "the numerical decline of self-identified American Christianity is more of a purifying bloodletting than it is an arrow to the heart of the church".

If Stetzer is right – and on the face of it it seems likely – then this might account for at least the decline in Southern Baptist membership numbers. However, it doesn't account for the decline in baptisms or in weekly attendance, which are slight but measurable and repeated over several years.

With all due respect to Thom Rainer and Frank Page, it doesn't seem likely that the decline is down to a lack of prayer or effort. It may be something rather more fundamental: that the SBC label is associated with a kind of Christianity which is not attractive in the kind of country America is becoming, which is far more socially liberal than many evangelicals are comfortable with.

The hardening doctrinal position of the SBC was worked out in what one side calls the "fundamentalist takeover" of the denomination and the other calls the "conservative resurgence". It began in 1979 and was a struggle for the Convention's soul between "moderates" who accepted the insights of modern biblical criticism and saw no need to believe – for example – in a literal six-day creation, and conservatives who regarded them as dangerous liberals. The latter argued for an unambiguous affirmation of biblical inerrancy as a doctrinal standard.

The takeover or resurgence was achieved by the systematic election to influential positions of those holding conservative views. Moderates in SBC-controlled institutions like seminaries were fired or replaced by conservatives. Moderate congregations left to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in 1990; a highly conservative version of the confessional Baptist Faith and Message was adopted in 2000; in 2004 the SBC withdrew from the global Baptist World Alliance because of its alleged tolerance of homosexuality.

The campaign was fought in a no-holds-barred way that left considerable bitterness behind it. The result was that the denomination took positions that were highly conservative and prescriptive. The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message took a position against women pastors and teaches male headship in families. It refers to the "gift of gender" as "part of the goodness of God's creation". It says that Christians are to resist "all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography".

While Baptist Faith and Message is the denomination's doctrinal norm, adherence to it is not mandatory and some SBC churches do have women pastors. However, the SBC's constitution explicitly bars from membership church which "act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behaviour" – the only moral or ethical stipulation it makes.

More significant than this, however, are the highly conservative positions on social issues taken by figures such as Russell Moore and Al Mohler, who have big media profiles and taken as expressing the denomination's worldview. In a society that's increasingly tolerant, their comments on transgender, same-sex marriage and religious liberty – seen by liberal campaigners as 'freedom to discriminate' – are inevitably out of step with the mainstream.

So the image of the SBC may be a little tarnished. Another LifeWay survey earlier this month asked for respondents' impression of different faith groups. Southern Baptists sat in the middle of the table with a 49 per cent approval rating. However, plain 'Baptist' came top, with 61 per cent.

Nevertheless: it has to be said too that speaking of a denomination with more than 46,000 churches and 15.5 million members as a single entity can be very misleading. While the dominant theology is certainly conservative and evangelical, they are not all the same. David Dockery in Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal identifies no less than seven types of Southern Baptist, including fundamentalists, orthodox evangelicals who look to inclusive figures like Billy Graham for their inspiration, contemporary church practitioners like Willow Creek and Saddleback, and 'culture warriors' who want to transform society in 'biblical' ways.

YouTubeThe Village Church's Pastor Matt Chandler. The church does not describe itself as Southern Baptist.

Among the contemporary SBC churches is The Village Church, led by Matt Chandler. It says it doesn't use the SBC label "as a means of eliminating obstacles that prevent people from exploring the claims of Christ through a local church".

The phenomenon is explored more widely in a Baptist News Global article by Jeff Brumley: more and more churches are choosing to lose the badge because they believe it puts people off.

A highly conservative, tightly-defined message that draws clear lines between church and culture is clearly still attractive to many people – and more so, indeed, than mainstream Protestantism. As evangelicals are keen to point out, that is haemorrhaging membership much faster.

Nevertheless, as society as a whole continues its liberalising trajectory, the appeal of a hardline social conservativism is inevitably going to be more limited. What this means for the denomination is an almost inevitable contraction, though to what extent it's impossible to say. However, it's possible to see encouraging signs. The denomination has huge resources. It counts among its number congregations Saddleback which are blazing new trails in evangelism. It doesn't lack creativity. Furthermore, even last year's increase in the number of churches – up by 374 to 46,499 – is an indication of an entrepreneurial spirit and confidence in the Gospel.

When all this is taken into account, perhaps the first response to these figures – of sadness, regret and an encouragement to 'one more heave' – is not the most helpful one. The SBC still has a lot going for it, and while it might be argued that a softening of its line in certain areas would make evangelistic sense, it is likely to remain a power in the land for years to come. 

Follow @RevMarkWoods on Twitter.

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