FaithWorld

Southern Baptists hold meet amid falling baptisms

June 9, 2008

SBC President Frank Page and President George Bush, 11 Oct 2006/Larry DowningAmerica’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.

Comments
14 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Harold Bloom, Jewish scholar at Yale, predicted that this would happen and that Mormonism would overtake mainstream Protestant divisions in popularity. It’s happening. Part of this has been instigated by the treatment of Mitt Romney. Despite his qualifications, he was mistreated by the Baptist community on a grand scale solely because of his religion. Americans are starting to see through this cynical, hypocritical, and bigoted approach to Mormonism. In fact, much of the world is giving Mormonism a second look. How do I know? Look at the statistics…

Posted by -Johanan | Report as abusive
 

What did they expect after they disinfranchised all the
female clergy and their female supporters when they merged with the non-southern Baptists you get hostile
environment that no one wants to join. They appear to
the rank and file as reactionary zealots who want to
compeat with Islam by showing they can persecute women
too.

 

I attend a baptist church in New York and I have had to listen through my pastor saying that too much emphasis is being placed on the environment and that the needs of people; the hungry, the homeless, are being overlooked. I disagree with that outlook. On the contrary, I think the poor and the homeless are being tended to, but bringing our attention to nature conservancy does not necessarily take our attention away from heeding to the needs of the poor. In a strong nation like the US, where the opportunities are many and consumption is high, we can advise congregates on how to better utilize the nature we live in. A disregard of this creates a break between the world outside the church and the one within; leaving the congregates juggling their values and actions.

 

Actually, this may be positive news. As a transplant to the South from the inter-mountain West, I’ve never met such a bunch of judgemental stone-throwers as in these southern churches. Maybe folks are wising up to the hateful group-think that predominates this region.

 

What is happening is that the Baptist community in America is dividing even more empatically into culturally conservative and liberal sects–or rather, that liberal sects (which have always been there) are growing in political importance both nationally and within Baptism. This is important.

But it is not as important as what is NOT happening: churches are not being bombed, neighborhoods are not being religously “cleansed,” Baptists aren’t shooting each other (except accidentally, during the second week of deer camp).

Secularists (like me) should perhaps give more thought to why and how Baptists and other religions in America are able to handle schism so peacably, amicably and constructively–especially as compared to how it is done in many other parts of the world.

Posted by TexasPete | Report as abusive
 

It is all about going “back to the basics”: Jesus wrapped up the Law and the Prophets in a simple command – Love your God with everything you have and love your neighbor as you would love yourself. If the SBC focuses only on what they hate, they (and any other organization as well) will not flourish, let alone grow…

 

As a former Southern Baptist who converted to Catholicism, I can say for myself, that the reason I left the Southern Baptist denomination was because it tends to have a shallow ecclesiology. Due to the increase of available information at your fingertips via the internet, and other media, I think Baptists (among others) are able to see outside their religious boxes and make more informed decisions about their respective faith. I’m not so sure it has anything to do with Baptists being necessarily more exclusionary or intolerant. In fact, the statistics would say that the more liberal a denomination is the more likely it is to decline in numbers. See mainline Protestant denominations.

Posted by Chad | Report as abusive
 

This has zip to do with mormonism & Mitt Romney as a poster above stated and more to do with people tired of the “quaint” and ancient outlook of religion in general – whether it be islam, christianity,mormonism or whatever. I beg to differ with “johanan” and there are ZERO statistics regarding an influx of mormonism. Worldwide, mormonism has approximately 12 million followers. According to a documentary I watched on PBS, Mormonism loses as many members as they gain and the church never takes inactive members off their rosters – only the excommunicated. But back to religion in general – people are tired of the same old hate, segregation and general lack of logic and tolerance visible in almost all religions world wide. THAT is the reason many people are turning their backs on organized religion and are now identifying themselves as spiritual or deists.

Posted by Rebekah | Report as abusive
 

I think there’s quite a few issues at work.

One thing I’ve noticed is that some the S.B. preachers are inadvertently playing down the awesome experience of Baptism. The are simply promoting it as a “witnessing tool” to the congregation. While it is that, it is also much more than that. I will never forget my personal spirit-filled experience of Baptism. It made a huge impact on my life.

Most SB preachers need to offer Baptism services more often as well. They are often few and far between.

Another sad factor-I think-has to do with the sheer number of people pulling away from church membership and biblical practices in general today-in all denominations. When the number of people coming to Christ rises, the baptism rate will rise as well. Baptism is a requirement of membership at least in SBC-affiliated churches.

Essentially, we need to stop being stagnant and start rolling!

 

To say that it has anything to do with persecuting women-as one commenter said-shows nothing more then lack of education and experience with the Southern Baptist Churches. I happen to be a Southern Baptist and a Woman. The idea that I’M persecuted is downright hilarious.

 

poverty, homelessness and hunger(not to mention a male only clergy, almost), at this rate by 2050 or 2100 they might have the complete gospel teaching. About time.

Posted by eric | Report as abusive
 

hummmm, as I read this article and the comments…I wondered about what is going on in our churches (all denominations).

We – the Church have become seeker friendly and the true gospel unfriendly. We’ve turned into a people concerned with numbers in our churches and that should has no place in our churches.

We have opened our doors to the world, invited the world in and now we’re looking like the world instead of the church. Actually I tend to think some churches are no longer churches of Christ Jesus but are churches of secular worldliness.

I hear people tell me they have stopped attending church because they were tired of not hearing the word preached at their church and they felt they were attending a club, a group of ‘look at me, I went to church today and people will think I’m a good person’ club.

I know there are many Christians still in church and attending church services but we do have to acknowledge that some churches do not uplift Jesus and His teachings…they are more into feel good – tickle my ears teachings. This turns off the true Christians.

Posted by American Infidel | Report as abusive
 

Rebekah:

This has zip to do with Mormonism? There are not statistics in support of what I said? Start with researching the writings of Harold Bloom (Yale) and Rodney Stark (U of Washington. Then, we can talk.

Only Catholics and Mormons claim to have the sole authority of Jesus Christ. Either one of them is correct and the other is wrong. People can figure that out for themselves. But, it’s a fact that evangelical and Baptist America, though their faith is real, do not know what they believe or from whence their authority came…. This is why they are stumbling. Their beliefs are politically motivated and therefore shift. The Old Catholic Church has shifted less.

I respect the Old Catholic Church. Their doctrines are logical. But, the Mormon Church is basically the new Catholic Church. New wine has been poured into new bottles. Mormons say Catholics lost their authority and that Baptists/Evangelicals never had it. I don’t believe authoritative baptism alone will get me into heaven but I do believe it is a requirement and I’m a believing Mormon as well as a scientist.

Posted by Johanan | Report as abusive
 

Sorry- typo above- the second sentence in the second paragraph should say, “Either one of them is correct and the other is wrong or they are both wrong together.”

Posted by Johanan | Report as abusive
 

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