Sunday, June 8, 2008

After snickering at others, SBC now faces its own decline

During the 1970s when the so-called Mainline Christian denominations began their incredible shrinking act, Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics looked on with puzzled amusement, because both America's Roman Catholic Church and America's largest Protestant denomination were growing at robust speeds.

Thanks to their opposition to birth control (practiced by some RC's but not by all), and rampant immigration of people from south of the U.S. border (who were predominantly RC's), the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. knew the two trends would bode well for its future and keep it growing in numbers and influence.

Because they perceived themselves as an evangelistic denomination reaching out in all directions for new converts, Southern Baptists believed their future to be one of unstoppable growth. Somehow they believed they were immune to the realities that were engulfing other Protestant groups around them. Some even scoffed about the Episcopalians, United Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians and their loss of evangelistic fervor.

Now four decades later—in the first decade of the 21st century—Roman Catholics continue to grow (as do U.S. immigration woes and many Roman Catholic families), but Southern Baptists are for the first time since the Great Depression reporting their first membership decline after several years of declining baptism rates. The situation was predictable and inevitable but is proving to be very painful for the SBC. 

This SBC nosedive may be just a blip in history (as some convention leaders are trying desperately to forecast), but it also has the potential to turn into a major rout and thus an embarrassing headache for the denomination.

At the annual Southern Baptist Convention Tuesday and Wednesday in Indianapolis, the topic is likely to spawn much attention and probably a lot of hand-wringing and finger-pointing. The Washington Post reported recently that Convention President Frank S. Page said that without decisive action soon, the number of SBC churches could decline significantly by 2030.

Watch out for glib explanations about the decline. Expect a lot of pep-rally talk about evangelism but little focus on the underlying issues.

What has caused the problem?

1. Birth control. Smaller families mean fewer children to baptize. Like all Protestant denominations, Southern Baptists have faced this problem all along. The numbers are just now catching up with them.

2. Roll-cleaning. Southern Baptist leaders for years have joked about their 16-million member denomination that is really about 10-million strong at best.  During the 1970s and 1980s Southern Baptists failed to follow the trend of major roll-cleaning, which resulted in the Mainline denominations arriving at more realistic—and honest—numbers. Once Southern Baptists realized their rolls were not accurate, they failed to develop a comprehensive policy to quietly let the air out of their numbers and slow the denomination's growth while baptism rates were at historical highs. Now with some church rolls so obviously overstated and some actually getting a much-needed cleansing, Southern Baptists face the double whammy that makes the situation all the more painful.

3.  A graying Southern Baptist population. Like the rest of America, Southern Baptists are statistically growing older. That means more people with gray hair, the group least likely to reach out to win new converts, particularly among ethnic and minority groups that are growing so fast. 

4. Failure to spot—and work against—the flight of young blacks to the Muslim faith. Since 1970, Islam has grown dramatically in the United States. Some of it has been the immigrants from Muslim countries. A sizable chunk of the growth, however,  is from converts made in prisons, where young black males are disproportionally represented and in African-American neighborhoods where Southern Baptist churches are too few. The chapter, "Wrong (or Right?)-Way Corrigans" in my new book, Witness to the Truth, explains this development further.

5. Too many refugees from other denominations.  Some SBC churches are packed to the rafters with members who did not grow up Southern Baptist but instead sprang from the exodus in the Mainline denominations over liberalism. Consequently these new members, who kept the growth going during the 1980s and 1990s, did not experience the evangelistic training that was so much a part of the denomination earlier. As the exodus from the mainline denominations levels off and actually begins to stop, these new Southern Baptists may not even know the importance of sharing their faith with others.

6. A house divided against itself. Read the questionnaire Baptist Press recently published with answers from the six SBC presidential candidates and you'll quickly note the large numbers of areas in which Southern Baptists are battling. Some of the fractures are deep and dangerous divides for the denomination. I discuss this more thoroughly in the chapter, "Reborn Again!", in Witness to the Truth.

This year's convention will be filled with calls for renewed evangelism efforts and plans for overcoming the quagmire. Most ideas are not new. Anybody remember former SBC President Bobby Welch's goal of reaching 1 million baptisms in a year? I have yet to see anything from anybody this year that hasn't been proposed previously or in a different wrapper or that addresses head-on the issues above that are pulling down the denomination's roll numbers.

Steering the rough waters ahead for the Southern Baptist Convention is going to take some mighty creative leadership and not just pep-rally talk.

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