Southern Baptists (and Republicans): old, white and in decline?

June 25, 2009

The evangelical Protestant revival has been one of the most dynamic religious and social movements in the United States in the last three decades. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, one in four U.S. adults now count themselves as followers of this faith tradition.


So it may come as a surprise to some non-American readers of this blog that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) — with 16 million members, America’s largest evangelical denomination and the country’s second largest after the Catholic Church — is ringing the alarm bells of decline.

Its research arm LifeWay Research released the following projections this week at the convention’s annual meeting in Kentucky:  it said its numbers would fall nearly 50 percent by 2050 “unless the aging and predominantly white denomination reverses a 50-year trend and does more to strengthen evangelism, reach immigrants, and develop a broader ethnic base.”

“Using U.S. Census projected population figures, SBC membership could fall from a peak of 6 percent of the American population in the late 1980s to 2 percent in 2050,” said LifeWay director Ed Stetzer.

The SBC in 1951 enjoyed robust annual growth of four percent and still had two percent in the early 1970s but in recent years it has been falling about 0.6 percent per year.

The number of baptisms — which is how the SBC counts converts and is key to a group that sees bringing souls to Christ as its raison d’être — have also been in decline.

“I’m not saying the sky is falling but we are alarmed about it,” said Gary Ledbetter, a spokesman for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. He and other Southern Baptists I spoke to said they saw the problem as a spiritual one and they see themselves not doing enough in their evangelism efforts.

It all raises a number of interesting questions and issues. While the SBC does have churches outside of the South, most of its membership remains concentrated there. So the ceiling it seems to have hit may point to the changing nature of the South itself as immigrants pour into the region from other parts of the United States as well as other countries.

In the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex where I reside, a growing number of previously “dry” areas where you couldn’t buy booze are going “wet” — a trend seen elsewhere across the South. That says a lot about the changing nature of the South and strongly suggests the SBC is losing its clout in public affairs and policy. If there is a dry area in the South, you can bet it has a Baptist church. But more and more Baptist churches are finding themselves in wet areas as well.

If the SBC is in decline, one also has to wonder what the long-term political implications could be for the Republican Party. Conservative white evangelical Protestants have become its most reliable base. In recent election cycles it has relied on this base to deliver the vote in part by galvanizing opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage.

And the conservative SBC, one could argue, is the core of that base.

Of course, the SBC could be losing people to other evangelical denominations or even the Mormon faith (SBC officials have long maintained that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a successful “poacher” of its flock). Neither trend would necessarily hurt the Republican Party. Mormons for one are every bit as conservative and Republican as Southern Baptists.

But Republican strategists will probably not take comfort by the fact that the SBC’s demographics in many ways mirror that of the party itself. Old, white, and Southern (one could add male and rural), with expansion dependent upon attracting immigrants and other ethnic groups, notably Hispanics. It is perhaps no coincidence that the core of the Republican base looks a lot like the party itself.

(Photo: The SBC leadership meeting George W. Bush while he was still U.S. president.Oct From L-R are: President of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention Dr. Morris Chapman, former President of the Southern Baptist Convention Dr. Frank Page, Bush, and Page’s wife Dayle. REUTERS/Larry Downing, October 11, 2006 (UNITED STATES)

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Well, this is what can happen when a denomination seeks to be exclusive and ingores the Core Values of the Baptist Community, which are:
1 A prophetic community,
2 An Inclusive community,
3. A sacrificial community,
4. A missionary community, and
5. A worshipping community. Leave out any one of these and you a going to be something other than a Baptist community.

Posted by Nolen Dunaway | Report as abusive

I have heard some equate the SBC’s decline with reported declines in Christianity, which I reject. Data indicates that Christianity is growing in some areas of the world and declining in others. The decline within the SBC is better correlated with the changing demographics in America and the resistence of older, white Americans to that change. The SBC is increasingly becoming irrelevant to a growing population base. If the SBC pays attention to James 1:27, “…to look after orphans and widows in their distress…”, they will find that the growing population base has a lot of potential constituents.

Posted by Jerry | Report as abusive

Your article fails to mention that while total membership declined last year, the total number of churches and the number of people regularly attending worship services grew between 2007-2008 within the SBC. I believe this reflects a trend in a growing number of church plants (which traditionally start small but grow rapidly) and less prioritization toward membership while still actively attending services regularly. Don’t count the SBC out too quickly!

Posted by Bryan | Report as abusive