Southern Baptists hold meet amid falling baptisms
America’s largest evangelical denomination, the 16-million strong Southern Baptist Convention, is holding its annual meeting in Indianapolis on Tuesday and Wednesday against the backdrop of a decline in the number of yearly baptisms.
This is serious stuff indeed for a group that places much emphasis on the conversion experience, the acceptance of Jesus as a person’s savior and the rite of passage that goes with this acceptance: a public immersion in water or baptism.
In April the SBC released its latest baptism numbers — figures it tracks closely, underscoring the importance attatched to them.
In 2007, baptisms decreased by 5 percent to 345,941 from 364,826 in 2006. It was the third straight year that the number of baptisms fell and the lowest total since 1987.
I have blogged on this topic in the past, before the latest figures, which one Southern Baptist official told me “hit everyone in the guts.”
Of course some people attend Southern Baptist churches without taking the dunk, including — at least according to many reports — presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain.
But this decrease in baptisms could also point to a broader slowdown in the swelling ranks of America’s evangelical movement, which now includes one in four adults in the United States.
The U.S. evangelical movement is experiencing “growth pains” with divisions emerging over its direction and a push to broaden its Biblical agenda from its recent political focus on family and cultural issues such as abortion and gay marriage, to embrace others such as climate change.
These divisions are also emerging within the SBC, a bedrock of cultural and theological conservatism.
These trends could soften some of the evangelical movement’s partisan — read Republican — edge, which is perhaps not good news for McCain, who is regarded as a liberal compromiser by some of the more conservative evangelical leaders. More on this angle here and here and here.
But some of McCain’s policies such as his call for action on climate change are also in line with more centrist evangelical thinking.
Outgoing SBC President Frank Page is fond of quipping that Southern Baptists are well known for what they are against but need to talk more about what they are for. He told me that a broader agenda had resonance especially with younger evangelicals.
“Younger evaneglicals want to see this … environmental stewardship and other areas such as poverty, homelessness and hunger,” Page said, noting the SBC’s little reported work in area such as diasaster relief and food banks.
Six candidates are running for the rotating two-year term to replace Page. Interviews with them by Baptist Press can be seen here.
So stay tuned and watch this space.