Fall 2009, Vol. 12, No. 2

Quick Links:

Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Family Ties

Sanford and Wife

Who Killed George Tiller?

Obama in Cairo

When Push Comes to Twitter

Airing the Syrian Laundry

Our Crowd

The Irish Map of Hell

The Baptists Shrink

The Episcopalian Split

Claiming The King's Soul


New books

The Baptists Shrink
by Andrew M. Manis

It’s not exactly news when the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) votes overwhelmingly to support evangelistic efforts. It is news when the SBC exchanges culture-war histrionics for a spell of self-examination.

What triggered the navel-gazing were reports of numerical decline. Had the mighty SBC joined the withering ranks of Mainline Protestantism? It wasn’t supposed to be that way—or thus spake the SBC prophets of old.

Back in 1980, when the outcome of the fundamentalist takeover was still in doubt, the Rev. Bailey Smith was able to win the SBC presidency by promising the Pastors’ Conference  not to follow in the mainline’s footsteps. “Every denomination which has gone liberal has gone down,” he said, “but that won’t happen to Southern Baptists because we are people of the Book.”

Two years later, at the end of his presidency, Smith made the argument once more, with feeling: “If Southern Baptists ever try to escape the absolute priority of evangelism and the authority of the infallible, inerrant word of God, we will not be able to escape the mediocrity of the other mainline denominations.”

At the 1988 Pastors’ Conference, the Rev. W. A. Criswell—pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas and patron saint of Southern Baptist conservatives—didn’t hesitate to name names: “The mainline denominations of our nation have lost millions and millions [of members] these last few years. The United Methodist Church has lost the most, the United Presbyterian Church second, then follows the United Church of Christ….It is very apparent why the decline. The curse of liberalism has sapped the strength of their message and their witness to the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Throughout the 12-year conflict, Southern Baptist fundamentalists regularly hammered their opponents with a simple challenge: “Show us one of your moderate churches that can compete with our churches in yearly baptisms.” Unable to put up, moderates were forced to shut up—or meekly change the subject. As in: “Oh yeah? Well, how much money do your churches give to the Cooperative Program?”

There’s no single explanation for why the fundamentalists won the war for the SBC, but given the importance Southern Baptists place on annual baptisms—the symbol of tangible, evangelistic results—the “liberal denominations” argument has to be in the mix. As certain as the alliterated points in a Southern Baptist sermon, this simple line of reasoning helped win 13 presidential elections in 13 years, drove the moderates into the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and yielded complete fundamentalist control of the denomination.

Fast forward to 2008 when USA Today’s headline captured the atmosphere of that year’s convention: “Southern Baptists Fret Over Decline as Annual Meeting Begins.” The consternation had built up slowly, as the denomination’s numerical indices were flat for the five years leading up to 2006 and began to turn downward in 2007. The numbers hovered in 2008 and, much to SBC dismay, headed south again this year.

For a denomination whose theology demands an ever-growing emphasis on evangelism, this has been a very bad thing. And since the 2008 convention, SBC leaders have had a flurry of private conversations about possible solutions.

These made the news last December 22, when Washington Post reporter David Waters, in a piece of accurate reportage and clear-headed analysis, suggested three factors at work: First, the product (Christian exclusivism) was less appealing. Second, the brand (the pugnacious SBC) had become less attractive. And third, all predominantly white denominations were in decline.

On March 17, Ed Stetzer, director of the SBC’s research arm, LifeWay Research, hinted that he knew which way the wind was blowing, in a chapel sermon at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest. “If you do not think that we needed a conservative resurgence [i.e. the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC], you did not attend a Southern Baptist seminary before one,” he advised the audience. Yet he warned that the antagonistic tactics that had brought it about would “not get us to a ‘Great Commission Resurgence.’”

Southern Baptist leaders, however, tend to think all ills can be cured with increased doses of fervor and evangelistic aggressiveness. So a month after Stetzer’s warning, Southeastern president Danny Akin, in a chapel sermon of his own, outlined twelve “Axioms of a Great Commission Resurgence” designed to be the basis for another of Southern Baptists’ periodic evangelism initiatives.

Prior to addressing the seminary community, Akin had received the input and endorsement of current SBC president Johnny Hunt, former president James Merritt, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler, and Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources (formerly the Sunday School Board). What he had to say to his seminarians thus amounted to an official policy address on behalf of the denominational leadership.

Prior SBC evangelistic resurgences have included “A Million More in ’54” and, a quarter-century later, “Bold Mission Thrust.” It might be argued that, by diverting the denomination’s attention away from increased missionary activity, the “Conservative Resurgence” of the 1980s actually led to what Stetzer called “the last few years of decline”—that had it not occurred, a Great Commission Resurgence would not now be necessary.

Akin, however, claimed that the Conservative Resurgence had been “absolutely essential” to the new evangelistic push. His axioms answered the question of how the SBC “might experience a much-needed course correction”—the very phrase leaders of the Conservative Resurgence had often used to describe their efforts to steer the SBC clear of liberalism and the numerical decline they associated with it. What was needed now was, evidently, a course correction to a course correction.

Then, at its June 23-24 annual meeting in Louisville, the private conversations about how to buck these and other trends became more public. News stories in the denominational press told of trouble in the SBC’s inerrantist paradise: “Southern Baptists Consider Restructuring amid Decline” (Augusta Chronicle, June 23), for example, and “Southern Baptists Face Decline” (Kentucky Post, June 25).

In the place where the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), a former bastion of SBC liberalism, was celebrating its 150th anniversary, messengers (delegates) suffered through reports of stagnation and actual loss of numbers. History and sociology had conspired to answer the “liberal denominations” argument in a way the moderates never could.

 On June 23, Stetzer sketched out the alarming tale to the Association of State Baptist Papers: Since 1951 the rate of SBC membership increase had declined six percent per year, crossing into negative territory in the last two years. “If the 50-year trend continues, projected membership of SBC churches would be 8.7 million in 2050, down from 16.2 million last year,” he said, adding that SBC membership could “fall from a peak of 6 percent of the American population in the late 1980s to 2 percent in 2050.”

At a meeting of the Pastors’ Conference the day before, he had put it more bluntly: “The decline in membership and baptisms in the SBC is not a matter of debate; it’s a matter of math.” Specifically, in 2008 Southern Baptist membership had fallen .2 percent to 16,228,438, while baptisms dropped 1.1 percent, to 342,198. To be sure, Stetzer concluded his remarks with the hope that “the last few years of decline are not a trend but just a blip.”

During the official proceedings, Hunt endorsed Akins’ call and made it a central part of his presidential address. SBTS president Mohler moved that the Convention establish a task force to study the problem over the next year and bring its report to the 2010 meeting in Orlando.

Had moderates continued to attend annual meetings, one of them might have asked how it was possible for a denomination so firmly and for so long in the hands of true believers to shrink? The fundamentalist leadership has enjoyed unchallenged control for 18 years—or 30, if you count from 1979, when the takeover began. Prophecies that it would make the SBC decline-proof turned out to be, at best, greatly exaggerated.

The only dissenting voice belonged to executive committee president Morris Chapman. As a member of the “Conservative Resurgence” old guard, the pastor-turned-denominational bureaucrat defended the SBC’s old-time revivalistic methodology and took offense at Akins’ criticism of the Convention’s “bloated bureaucracy.”

On June 22, USA Today’s Cathy Grossman tracked the potential controversy in Chapman’s uneasiness in her blog, under the headline, “Southern Baptist Leaders Disagree: Can Retooling Reverse Decline?” The following day, Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal posted “Baptist Tensions Showing.”

After the criticism of SBC bureaucrats was removed, Chapman did agree to support the task force initiative. Then, on September 23, he announced his retirement, while allowing as how he would lead a year-long prayer effort on the task force’s behalf. (Stay tuned for another round of SBC in-fighting, this time over evangelistic methodologies.)

As the annual meeting ground to an end, a noontime panel discussion focused on the waning interest among young ministers in becoming involved in SBC activities, including the annual meeting. The fact that the event took place at Sojourn Community Church (as opposed to a church with name “Baptist” in it) symbolized the lack of interest in denominational ideology among the rising generation of ministers. They share the conservative theology, but are turned off by meetings with a reputation for internal battles that waste time and alienate the public they’re trying to reach.

On the whole, however, this year’s installment went easy on Southern Baptists’ well-known habit for public controversy. Some debated the merits of Calvinist theology, which is embraced by an estimated 30 percent of Southern Baptist pastors.

Another small-scale row focused on Baptist involvements with the Acts 29 church planting network, founded by a California minister known for Theology on Tap (discussing religion over a beer) and other evangelistic methodologies deemed unacceptable by most Southern Baptists. The messengers also approved a resolution that criticized President Obama’s position on abortion even as it congratulated him on his historical election.

But after their season of self-examination (and at times self-flagellation), the messengers voted almost unanimously to appoint the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force. It comprises 23 prominent leaders, including Akins, Mohler, and Hunt, and updates the Southern Baptist public via its web site, As of this writing, 5,653 prayer partners had signed up for duty.

            Still, the SBC’s traditional solution of renewed evangelistic commitment may present a major problem, especially if coupled with its traditional insistence upon biblical inerrancy. In his chapel address in March, Akins told his audience: “If you deny the Bible, just go ahead and join another denomination. You’re not welcome in the Southern Baptist Convention. Go join other denominations that are plunging headlong into oblivion and insignificance.” This is hardly a posture calculated to attract religious seekers.

Even if Southern Baptists were to devote their new evangelistic effort to attracting new members from other conservative denominations, a strategy such as this may be doomed to failure. Various religious surveys suggest that to tie evangelism to persons who will accept biblical inerrancy is to concentrate efforts on a small and diminishing pool of potential members.

The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) found that less than 30 percent of Americans identify themselves as evangelical or born-again (excluding those Catholics who self-identify that way). For its part, the Pew Forum’s 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey put evangelicals at 26.3 percent of the population. Either way, more than two-thirds of Americans are unlikely to accept Southern Baptists’ understanding of the Bible.

The Landscape Survey’s questions on belief make this sufficiently clear. Only 27 percent of the national total said they believed that “there is only ONE true way to interpret the teachings of my religion.” Only 24 percent of Americans believe their religion is the “one true faith leading to eternal life.” And only 33 percent believed that “the scriptures are the Word of God, literally true, word for word.”

It could be argued, of course, that the whole enterprise of SBC evangelism is to transform new recruits into inerrantists. How successful have they been at that in the past?

The vast majority of converts to SBC churches are Bible-believing cultural conservatives when they arrive. According to a 1993 study by the SBC’s North American Mission Board, only 1 out of 9 described themselves as ever having been “unchurched.”

In other words, SBC conversions have generally tapped into people who already have one foot in the tent. Secular folks and moderate-to-liberal believers who don’t already share their assumptions have been a much, much harder sell.

But the more significant problem for the SBC is the rapidly rising number of Americans who, though conservative, identify themselves as “Just Christian” or “non-denominational Christian” and show little interest in the finer points of theology or in the kind of church that emphasizes doctrinal divisions or even denominational identity. Indeed, according to the 2008 ARIS, the non-denominationals are the only segment of the American religious community that has experienced significant growth over the past two decades.

Southern Baptists believe that right theology trumps sociology. The fundamentalist takeover of the 1980s was predicated on a bet that inerrancy would be a prophylactic against numerical decline. The current Resurgence, for all its reliance on new energy and new evangelistic methodologies, is predicated on the same bet.

Most religious seekers in America are not only disinclined toward inerrancy, but also inclined toward nondenominational, non-controversial, and non-ideological versions of Christian faith. This suggests that after the Great Commission Resurgence is over, a shrinking SBC will have to mount another evangelistic effort, and another, and another.


Hit Counter