Tuesday, November 5, 2013

What Ever Happened to Southern Baptists?

"What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” is a highly acclaimed 1962 black-and-white movie. June and I enjoyed watching that psychological thriller for the first time last Friday evening.
Baby Jane was an adorable vaudeville performer in 1917 as the movie begins, and after a few scenes in 1935 most of the movie takes place in the present (1961) when the former Baby Jane Hudson has become an ugly villain, impressively portrayed by Bette Davis.
Please don’t misunderstand: I am not comparing the evil Jane Hudson, or the movie, to Southern Baptists in most ways. But there are, unfortunately, some similarities.
During much of my lifetime, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was a vibrant, generally attractive, growing denomination. Figured as the percentage of the total U.S. population, SBC membership grew by more than 30% from 1950 to 1980.
But things began to change, and the percentage of SBs decreased by nearly 15% from 1990 to 2010. There were multiple reasons, but during that time the SBC, like Baby Jane, had turned rather ugly under the leadership of fundamentalist-leaning leaders.
Consequently, from 1950 to 2010 I personally changed from being a proud (in the good sense of that word) Southern Baptist, to a wary SB, then to an embarrassed SB (as I wrote about in my book “Fed Up with Fundamentalism”), and finally to being a former SB.
The Southern Baptist Convention has long been the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. According to the 2012 "Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches," the SBC has 16.2 million members, more than twice the number of the second place United Methodist Church with 7.8 million.
And yet a recent article in the Wall Street Journal points out that Baptists are departing from the religious traditions of their childhood faster than any other Protestant group.”
LifeWay Research, a polling firm tied to the SBC, even projects that the church’s membership will fall by half, to 8.5 million by 2050, returning to the level of the mid-1950s.
Decline in membership, of course, is not only a Southern Baptist phenomenon. Diana Butler Bass’s book Christianity after Religion (2012) documents the notable decline of membership in most U.S. Protestant denominations. But the decline in the SBC is among the most pronounced.
There are several possible reasons for the downward trend. Let me suggest just a few:
·   An inability, or lack of desire, to keep up with the changing mindset of the times. Like the aging Jane Hudson, many SBC churches and institutions seem to want to live in the heyday of the past (the 1950s) rather than seeking to cope with the new realities of a new generation.
·   A retroactive stance toward women. Recently Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite posted a provocative article, “Five Christian theologies scarier than Halloween.” One of the five: “women should 'submit’”—such as was called for in the Baptist Faith and Message as amended in 1998.
·   A marked alignment with conservative Republicans. In contrast to Jimmy Carter, the most famous SB politician of the 1970s, we now have Sen. Ted Cruz at the leading SB in Washington. In addition to Sen. Cruz, all five of the Southern Baptist U.S. Representatives who took office in January are conservative Republicans who last month voted against the bill to re-open the government and raise the debt ceiling. No wonder many people look askance at SBs!
Baby Jane couldn’t restore her previous attractiveness. But such would be possible for Southern Baptists, and I hope that it will happen—and pray it will happen long before the end of the projected 50-year decline.


  1. As one former SB to another: Good luck with that prayer, my friend! :)

    Thanks for the article, Leroy. The only thing I'd add is that the decline of Christianity in the U.S. seems to be moving across the board at this time. For several decades, most mainline (moderate-liberal) churches were declining while most conservative churches were growing. I think we're seeing sociological effects wider than what any given denomination is doing with itself. It appears that the product, institutional religion, is losing its market, and I'm not sure any amount of clever marketing, whether it involves a hip or retro self-transformation can make much of a difference at this time.

    1. Thanks, Anton, for your comments.

      Your point is consistent with what Diana Butler Bass is saying in her book. The membership of the SBC is probably going to decrease regardless. But it seems that the percentage of decline in SBC over the last few years is greater than in most other denominations, and that was my point.

  2. I think Anton is right. Christianity is in retreat - left, right, and center on in North America and Europe.
    It seems to have become politics and money oriented, and open to any heresy that comes along. I attend one of those "relevant" congregations who follow the "theology of the absence" - Jesus is nowhere near this. "Home group" Bible studies are promoted which are open to personal interpretations (very weak hermeneutics) - but these are mainly for a gathering of friends and a replacement for "Prayer meeting". The theology of the congregational songs is so weak or heretical that I only join in on quarter of them. I have visited Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, UCC, Lutheran, and Word-faith churches - things are not much better there, whether left of right politically. The Catholics and Orthodox have their own issues (and some of the same). It is not a pretty time for Christendom. Hopefully Christ can find a remnant to light a fire again.

  3. Local Thinking Friend Kevin Payne wrote,

    "I, too, was first an embarrassed, and now a no-longer, Southern Baptist. I didn’t necessarily break away from them because of there conservative theological positions, but rather because of there mean-spirited attacks upon almost everyone. The leadership seems hell-bent to distance themselves from everyone – Christian and non-Christian alike.

    "I am reminded of the comments by Mark Twain, when he quoted a little girl’s prayer, 'Dear God, help the bad people to be good, and the good people to be nice.'”

    1. Kevin, I appreciate your comments, too.

      What you wrote reminded me of what I heard from a former professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary years ago. He left his position there of his own accord, and he told me that he left not because SBTS was too conservative but because it was too mean.

      That is the sort of thing I had reference to when I wrote that in some ways the SBC turned ugly like Baby Jane.

  4. Dr. Glenn Hinson, who was one of my professors at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary my first year there--and it was also his first year to teach, I think--sent the following comments by email and gave his permission for them to be posted here:

    "As another former Southern Baptist, Leroy, I'm saddened to see what has happened since 1979 when the 'inerrantists' took control, especially at Southern Seminary. A major feature now is the Creation Science Center insisting that the earth is no more than 7,000 years old! Youth reared with such teaching face a bleak future in a world that features a different scientific outlook. I suspect thinking parents think twice about exposing them to such inane ideas."

  5. A couple of years ago I read, with great interest, Al Mohler's (President SBTS.) concerns about the decline - and that maybe they (Fundamentalists.) had made a mistake. Their traditional battle cry was that Liberalism caused the decline in baptism rates - all the while ignoring the simple back side of the Boomer demographic curve which exactly explained the decline; not to mention the declining fear of nuclear war.

    Besides inerrancy and an anti-science ideology - SB adopted NeoConservative (Not Conservative actually.) anti-immigrant and male chauvinism as "articles of faith" - plus lust for late 19th Century corporate dominated government, public policy, and courts; the latter masquerading as regaining personal liberties via the Tea Party.

    What I see behind all this is The Angry White Man who, prior to WWII, was the dominant force in the land. That segment's anger has grown with every application of the equal protection clause of the Constitution to others; the free exercise clause to other faiths; due process for accused; The Voting Rights Act; the woman's movement and youth movement.

    Since WWII White Male Supremacy (Hidden behind cherry-picked Bible quotes & nationalism.) has take one body blow after another. I think - and hope - that this current chorus of shrill rhetoric from the Far Right is a last gasp, desperate, attempt to reinstate the "good old days" - when all those whom White Males looked down on maintained their "proper place" of compliant silence.

    It's easy, but unpleasant, to keep up with their fear mongering/conspiracy thinking by following Right Wing Watch on Facebook.

  6. For all the talk about the Bible, my observation is that SBC leadership turned from the Bible to political and economic theory as their fundamental orientation. As a student at SBTS in the 70's I saw a shift in curriculum from a heavy emphasis on Biblical studies toward an emphasis on corporate management. Reconciliation as a goal was replaced by conflict management. The mechanics of worship services took precedence over the content and meaning of worship. Numerical and financial growth reigned supreme while qualitative spiritual growth was denigrated.

    Later as a missionary, I was disturbed to see the book shelves in Richmond with more books on the latest management techniques and strategies for multiplying congregations rather than studies about clearly communication the call to discipleship. The IMB was reorganized on a hierarchical structure with planning flowing from top down rather than the older FMB format based upon missionary calling with planning flowing up from the missionaries, mission stations and national mission organizations on the field. (A shift from actual situations and needs to an ideological strategy without regard for local contexts.)

    The best summation is that the SBC rejected the admonition to be "in the world but not of the world" and chose, rather, to be "of the world but not in the world." Now even that distinction is being lost as the goal seems to have become "take control of the world on its own terms." Humility has given place to ambition. The trend has led to a situation today where affirming certain theological shibboleths is the prerequisite for being a Southern Baptist. The personal relationship with Jesus that was the normative criterion for baptism is now ridiculed by leadership as empty subjectivity.

    Until Southern Baptists no longer confuse their southern culture and right wing politics and economic theories with the gospel, the decline will continue. People are seeking a relationship with God and not an institution to constrain their ability to encounter God and experience His love.

    if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
    The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1984 (2 Ch 7:14). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

  7. Leroy, I don't think it's possible for Baptist to return to their former status and influence. They've turned into a bunch of Pharisees. And what many have found in the process of change is that sinners are really not all that bad to be around! So i say let's raise a toast to whatever lies ahead for those who are no longer Southern Baptists.

    In the words of the hymn, "I Have Decided to Follow Jesus" let's say, "...no turning back. No turning back."

  8. Several years ago I read "Why Christianity Must Change or Die" by John Shelby Spong. He subtitled it, "A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile." What struck me reading it was that it was not so much what I expected, an argument for his thesis, but rather a description of what he saw already happening. In a similar way, I see from the chart included with Leroy's post that the decline in membership growth started long before the 1979 "Conservative Resurgency" in the SBC, and continued unabated afterwards.

    I also am a former Southern Baptist, at least technically, since I married into the faith and formally joined a technically SBC church in 1987. That technicality was actually a negative I discussed with the pastor before joining, and due to my interest in the subject, when I joined I was promptly offered a position on an ongoing ad hoc committee called the "Denominational Study Committee." By the time the committee disbanded years later I was the chairman. A few years later Second Baptist Liberty cut its final tie to the SBC, and was thereupon kicked out of the Missouri Baptist Convention. Gee, why would any of this drive away new converts?

    A related situation exists with the institution of marriage. The longer and louder fundamentalist Christianity shouts that marriage is a religious institution, the more young people turn away from it, even as they turn away from fundamentalism.

    Another piece of this picture is who is trying to pick up the pieces of Christianity. The latest issue of Free Inquiry (October/November 2013), a journal by secular humanists, has an article about what it calls "Congregational Humanists." This is a movement started by former Christians who took church planting skills into their new intellectual habitat and built humanist congregations modeled on church lifestyles, sans theology. Old line secular humanists are somewhat taken aback, but the new congregations are thriving, even if they are much more likely to read Shakespeare or Aristotle than the Bible in their version of worship.

    I would not be surprised to see Southern Baptists follow other former movements into the pages of history, much like Puritans or Shakers. However, for me, a much more vital question is what will happen to the rest of Christianity, especially the progressive part of it. What is our future?

  9. After taking two tries to make one post, you would not think I would be back yet again, but here I am with an amazing (at least to me) post about a pastor with the problem of too many people coming to her liberal church. I just found it on the Washington Post site. Apparently not every church is dying! Enjoy the read: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/bolz-webers-liberal-foulmouthed-articulation-of-christianity-speaks-to-fed-up-believers/2013/11/03/7139dc24-3cd3-11e3-a94f-b58017bfee6c_story.html

    1. Associated Baptist Press yesterday posted an article about the same pastor and her appearance at Calvary Baptist Church in D.C.

      The link is http://www.abpnews.com/ministry/people/item/8991-nadia-bolz-weber-speaks-at-baptist-church#.UnuDpeKhEcQ

  10. Not sure what SBC churches you have been attending, but mine maintains a conservative theology while also embracing women, and all races and ethnicities. My experience is people seeking a solid theological ground rather than the fluid, believe what you want interpretation that seems to be popular among self-proclaimed enlightened progressives. Pardon me, but the priesthood of the believer that the anti-fundamentalists wave like a weapon does not mean you get to have your own personal interpretation of Scripture. If your personal revelation does not square with the rest of Scripture, I suggest you take a closer look. I have read the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 very closely and I'm sorry but I just don't find all the Angry White Male nastiness it is accused of. When you balance the "submit" statement with the context of the entire passage, you cannot with any integrity claim that it bashes women. Seems to me much of the fuss has come from people looking for less structure and less absolute truth so it doesn't get in the way of life in modern America.

  11. Local Thinking Friend (and retired professor from William Jewell College) Dr. Will Adams asked me to post his comments:

    "Your comments on SBC reminded me of how I first learned about Catholics. I grew up in Wayne, PA, a town of about 5000 14 miles west of Philadelphia. We attended Central Baptist Church. At about age 4 or 5 I heard about a Catholic church down the road.

    "I asked my Sunday school teacher what Catholics are. She handled it well (no hate or "we're right and they're wrong"), and said that it was a different kind of Christianity. Of course I wanted to know what the difference was. She explained that Catholicism has a single leader known as the Pope, who has the right to tell all Catholics what they must believe in matters of faith and morals.

    "So for many years I thought that the difference between Baptists and Catholics was that they have a Pope and we don't. It took several years for me to realize that the real difference is that they have only one at a time. We had a Convention full of people prepared to tell me what I must believe (and how I must vote)."

  12. Local Thinking Friend, and former professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote (and I post this with his permission):

    "You and I, and many others, have moved quietly from the Southern Baptist fold, and our passing was not mourned. The deconstructionists have no idea what they have done, either to individuals and or to institutions. They did not see the 'bloom,' so now they are facing the 'blight,' not knowing that 'the choice goes by forever twixt that darkness and that light' (James Russell Lowell)."