Sunday, March 8, 2009
After rocking along for years showing small numerical increases in membership, the Southern Baptist Convention finally has reported a loss. The tiny drop is the beginning of what many believe could become an avalanche.
The reasons for the situation are multiple. Screaming "do more evangelism", as some are prone to do, merely puts a small bandage on the matter. This has been the hue and cry of denominational leaders at least since World War II.
The membership slowdown—now a statistical decline—doesn't surprise those of us who know the denomination well. The drop has been on the horizon for years. The biggest surprise is why this negative report has taken so long to occur.
The drop in membership has nothing to do whatsoever with the Conservative-Moderate theological war that was waged within the denomination 1979 to 1991. The surprise was that despite all that brouhaha, the denomination didn't tip into negative numbers back in those days. The Conservatives have been in power long enough now that they can't lay the blame of this current situation at the feet of the Moderates. That worn-out excuse won't hunt in 2009.
The current issues are threefold:
1. For more than 30 years the denomination has failed to demand that its congregations clean up their rolls and keep accurate membership records. Instead denominational leaders blissfully skipped along acting as though the membership numbers they were reporting were the real thing and knowing full well a time bomb was ticking away. Most pastors, church staff, and knowledgeable lay people on both sides of the political fence knew differently. They knew that year by year the numbers on those rolls were flooded with names of people who couldn't be found—either because they had died, had moved away with no forwarding address, or simply had exited out the church's back door without so much as leaving a goodbye note. This is one reason that within the denomination the hue and cry over the decline hasn't been more severe. Most lay and clergy leaders have known for a long time that their numbers are radioactive and unreliable.
2. The shift of the denomination during the past 25 years from its Southern Democratic roots to its current right-wing Republicanism has precipitated a massive polarization within the denomination that is thwarting its original goal to evangelize any potential candidate anywhere. People who are not aligned with the Republican Party no longer are comfortable—or even welcome—in denominational or church-leadership roles.
Marrying theology and politics—and aborting the once-cherished principle of the separation of church and state—now drives away potential converts to the Southern Baptist fold. As I keep asking Southern Baptist friends over and over, "What supporter of President Barack Obama in his or her right mind would want to attend—let alone join—a Southern Baptist church right now given the negative and sour political climate within the denomination and its churches against them and the man they admire?" Salvation isn't about how one voted last November, though some Southern Baptists seem determined to add that as a new pre-condition—even putting it before baptism.
3. The obsession of the denomination's leadership with "strategy" and "training" instead of leading by example is a major flaw that has led and will continue to lead to diminishing numbers of candidates for salvation and baptism. Except when called on to do showcase events, many higher-ups in the denomination's pecking order are less likely today to engage in real, old-fashioned, regular, shoe-leather witnessing to individuals and more likely to engage in bureaucratic "strategy" planning and training of others. On down the hierarchical line many pastors and church staff have picked up this "Do-as-I-say-not-do-as-I-do" attitude.
Simultaneously Southern Baptist lay people are more and more expecting "the church staff" to do the work of the ministry. That work includes bringing in new converts and new members.
With Southern Baptist clergy and lay people at such an impasse, does anyone wonder that Southern Baptist baptisms are declining and church membership is stagnated and ready to head downhill? The gridlock begs the question, who is doing the work now that once grew the SBC into the largest Protestant denomination in America?
Other factors, such as the breakdown of the traditional family, the rise of independent and Bible churches, the lure and effectiveness of the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses among Southern Baptists, and the declining U.S. birthrate contribute to the drop in SBC numbers. Those are easier to cite—and hide behind—than the Big Three I've named. (For more information on the meltdown of religion in the average American's life be sure and note the new American Religious Identification Survey released today.)
Interestingly, Southern Baptist leaders seem mostly uninterested in addressing the matter of their shrinking numbers. Perhaps they believe "benign neglect" is their best approach.
The real issues I've addressed in this column call for tough actions. My hunch is Southern Baptists are no longer up for the challenge. They'd much rather stick their heads in the sand about their long-neglected, bloated church rolls, their divisive Republicanism, and their leaders who aren't really leading by example—and instead continue to beat the worn-out, guilt-producing, old drum song "do more evangelism".
Yes, more evangelism may be needed particularly by both upper-echelon clergy and lay people, but simultaneously and more importantly major efforts are needed to clear the boulders and obstacles blocking the path to growth. Otherwise these trends will continue and the SBC membership someday may look like the decimated memberships of the Mainline Protestant denominations, from whom the SBC has so readily tried to distance itself.