There will be a lot of talking in Houston, Texas this week. After all, the Bayou City is hosting the 2013 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Messengers from America’s largest Protestant denomination are expected to discuss several topics, from the Boy Scouts’ new policy admitting gay youths to a range of theological doctrines. But one unwelcome point of discussion this year has been the denomination’s decline.
According to data released this week by LifeWay Research, the arm of the denomination that tracks such trends, the number of SBC-affiliated congregations grew while reported membership of those churches declined by more than 100,000. This number is down 0.7 percent from last year with primary worship attendance declining 3.1 percent to 5.97 million Sunday worshippers. Baptisms decreased by 5.5% over the previous year with the lowest reported number on record since 1948.
The Christian Post reports that this year’s is the fifth dip in a row for the denomination, the Associated Press says the drop represents a six-year trend, and LifeWay Research claims it spans 50 years. Regardless, the denomination is failing to keep up with population growth. According to LifeWay Research, if the SBC’s membership trends continue, it will hit 1960 levels by 2050.
Stetzer is addressing both the declining numbers and waning cultural influence of the SBC, a problem compounded by the way its congregations, pastors and members seem to be distancing from the denomination they affiliate with. In 1999, the Associated Press reported on a trend among SBC churches who were dropping “Baptist” from their name. To curb this trend, the denomination approved an alternate label—Great Commission Baptists—that could be used by member congregations. I’ve yet to locate a single church that has actively utilized the moniker.
Another trend illustrating decreased denominational loyalty among member churches is the plummeting attendance of the SBC’s annual meeting. LifeWay reports a precipitous drop over the last decade. As of Tuesday morning, fewer than 5,000 messengers were registered for the event, down from an annual average of 7,670 between 2000 and 2012.
No matter how you look at the data, it seems to indicate trouble is on the horizon for the SBC.
As a lifelong Southern Baptist who grew up singing the Baptist Hymnal and whose father served as president of the denomination from 2000 to 2002, these trends are disheartening. But they are also understandable.
In recent years, I’ve watched my denomination fight vicious battles over issues of little importance. I’ve seen them dive head first into divisive partisan politics. And I’ve witnessed how anyone who doesn’t bow down to the institutional machine or even dares to question the status quo is not-so-kindly shown the door. No wonder the denomination is shrinking.
A new day is dawning in American religious life in which Christians of many stripes seem to be running fast and hard from denominations, particularly those whose behavior mirrors the descriptions listed above. If the Southern Baptist Convention wants to survive in this era, I believe they must learn to do at least three things: