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The Future of the Southern Baptist Convention: The Numbers Don’t Add Up

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
May 31, 2019

Those who live by statistics will die by statistics. These days, we are so inundated by numbers that most are ignored. Sometimes, however, statistics can serve as a warning. Such is the case with the recent Annual Church Profile report of the Southern Baptist Convention. The headlines in the press were not alarmist, but justified. The headline in Christianity Today told the truth: “Southern Baptists Down to Lowest in 30 Years.”

In the words of reporter Kate Shellnutt, “The nation’s biggest Protestant denomination isn’t as big as it used to be, according to its Annual Church Profile (ACP), released today. Membership fell to 14.8 million in 2018–its first time below 15 million since 1989 and the lowest its been since 1987.”

That comes as hard news to a denomination that has long prided itself on both size and growth. Southern Baptists are ardent counters. Some of us are old enough to remember the six-point record keeping envelopes for offerings that we brought to Sunday School each week, reporting and being graded on how many of us in the previous week had been present in Sunday School (20%), been on time (10%), brought our Bible (10%), brought an offering (10%), studied the lesson (10%), and attended worship (20%). We not only counted Sunday School students; we graded them.

Southern Baptists were proud beyond words when, in 1967, Southern Baptists first outnumbered Methodists in the United States. For four decades thereafter, Southern Baptists continued to grow–especially in statistics. We never totally trusted those statistics, because all were self-reported and only about 75% of churches reported. Furthermore, many in the denomination were (and are) concerned that the use of such statistics raises deep questions about the seriousness of our convictions. Put bluntly, the total membership numbers as compared to attendance calls into question whether we really believe in regenerate church membership. Members who do not act like members should not be counted as members.

But Kate Shellnutt rightly dealt with the question of reported SBC statistics with these words: “Compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources, the ACP is based on self-reported data from about three-fourths of SBC churches, so it’s not a comprehensive picture but it is still used to capture overall trends in the denomination. For more than 10 years, the trajectory hasn’t looked good.”

Quite right. The number of reported baptisms in 2018 stood at 246,442, down from 254,122 in 2017. The number of baptisms per year is the best indicator of evangelistic activity within SBC churches. Given our theology, baptisms indicate conversions that translate into church membership. A smaller percentage of baptisms indicate new church members from non-Baptist churches.

There is no question that the trajectory for more than a decade has been generally downward. What do the numbers tell us?

First, the numbers tell us about a larger pattern of religious decline in the United States. Just a few weeks ago, Gallup released a major report that included this bottom line: “U.S. church membership was 70% or higher from 1937 through 1976, falling modestly to an average of 68% in the 1970s through the 1990s. The past 20 years have seen an acceleration in the drop-off , with a 20-percentage-point decline since 1999 and more than half of that change occurring since the start of the last decade.”

Southern Baptists are not immune from these trends in the larger society. Such immunity is impossible. SBC churches and membership have been concentrated in the South and Southwest of the United States, the so-called “Bible Belt.” This offered Southern Baptists some delay in the secularizing trends that more quickly transformed other regions. But geography offered only delay, not defense. Southern Baptists grew quickly and steadily when Christianity was a major shaping influence in the culture. Geography still offers some delay in these effects as compared to other regions, but the “Bible Belt” is disappearing fast.

Second, we have to recognize that SBC trends looked great when our neighbors gained social capital by joining our churches. They gained social status and trust within the community by joining the First Baptist Church or another evangelical congregation. That is no longer the case. Now, given secularization and the sexual and moral revolutions utterly reshaping our culture, our neighbors may well lose social capital by joining our churches. The age of cultural or nominal Christianity is fast coming to a close. Until recently, most people wanted to claim some kind of Christian identity or affiliation, even if they rarely attended church. That is increasingly no longer the case. The rise of the “nones,” those claiming no religious affiliation, now includes about 20% of the population and 30% of Americans age 30 and under. The SBC gained millions of members it could not find and did not know due to the phenomenon of cultural Christianity. We knew it wasn’t real and most knew it couldn’t last. Well, it wasn’t and it didn’t.

Third, looking specifically at the baptism numbers, the decline is both remarkable and lamentable. The most obvious insight is that we do not care as much about reaching lost people as we once did. That would be the observation that should cause Southern Baptists greatest concern. We will consider that question below. The second observation that would quickly come is that our methods of evangelism are not as effective as they once were. Honestly, that argument is beyond refute. Southern Baptist growth was largely driven by revivalism and its programs. We should not be surprised that revivalism is most effective in a context of Christian cultural dominance. In 2001 I had the great honor of serving as chairman of the Billy Graham Crusade in Louisville. We involved only evangelical churches and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association led in efforts to help churches and Christians to bring lost people to the crusade. It was a massive effort. Dr. Graham preached the gospel night after night. There were many professions of faith, but the statistics revealed that the overwhelming majority of people attending the crusade were active members of evangelical churches. Even by 2001 we had passed the point when non-Christians came in large numbers to evangelistic events. Evangelism in today’s America will be much harder and more personal. That’s just reality.

Fourth, we have to wonder if Southern Baptists still believe that people who do not know Christ are headed for hell. I have no doubt that most SBC church members would answer that question rightly, but this does not mean that they believe it fervently. We should be concerned that a form of religion rightly described by Christian Smith as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” [MTD] is now what is actually believed by many who consider themselves faithful Southern Baptists. The ambient theological liberalism of the culture around us has made inroads into Southern Baptist life and our churches. Belief in the exclusivity of the gospel is essential to true Christianity, as is the well-meant offer of the gospel. A statistical crisis related to baptisms raises huge theological questions. We dare not evade them.

Fifth, there is the stark reality of demographics. Most Southern Baptists fail to see this truth. Historical analyses are very clear: Throughout recent centuries, the vast majority of church members have been the children of church members. It is no accident that falling birth rates are reflected, in short order, in baptism statistics. There is no question that children raised within Christian homes by Christian parents are most likely to make their own profession of faith and continue church participation into adulthood. There is also no question that when Christian parents have fewer children, they produce fewer future converts to Christianity. The fall in the birth rate has been precipitous and the trend lines parallel baptism statistics in the SBC. Just days ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial entitled, “America’s Millennial Baby Bust.” As the paper reported, the U.S. birth rate has hit a 32-year low. Actually, the severe decline in the birth rate in the U.S. began just as Southern Baptists were reaching peak statistical gains. During the period between 1960 and 2017, the U.S. fertility rate (births per woman) was virtually cut in half. The dramatic fall in the fertility rate came with the development of The Pill.

There is no credible reason to believe that Southern Baptists stand apart from this general pattern. This raises huge theological issues, to be sure, but it also helps to explain the radical decrease in youth baptisms. There are cultural and ministry-related questions here, but the bare fact is that the birth rate is a massive factor. I have tried to make this argument for years, at one point reminding Southern Baptists that we have been most successful reaching our own children with the gospel. That remains a first priority. But we are also about to find out if we can reach young people to whom we did not give birth. That is more challenging. As a teenager I was a bus captain in our church’s bus ministry. We would drive into neighborhoods and invite children to come get on the bus Sunday morning and go to Sunday School. There was candy involved. Such a ministry today is incomprehensible, for any number of reasons. So, what do we do now?

Sixth, there is a particular alarm about young people raised by Southern Baptists who fall away.  An article by Ryan P. Burge released by Christianity Today ran with the headline: “Only Half of Kids Raised Southern Baptist Stay Southern Baptist.” Burge argues that “where the real worry comes is elated to a generational shift in the American population.” Further: “In the 1980s and 1990s, Southern Baptists could count on a huge majority of their children born and raised in the church to become committed and active members of the congregation as adults. That has eroded over time. Now, it’s likely that half of the children being raised Southern Baptist today will not maintain that identity into adulthood.”

Beyond the question of birth rates, what are we (not) doing with the kids we have? I think the answer to that is direct and straightforward. We have surrendered Sunday School and youth ministry in many of our churches. I am the product of being involved in the local church many hours a week as a young boy and teenager. My frame of reality was largely set by my parents’ design — and it was church whenever the church offered an opportunity, and there were many opportunities: Sunday School, youth choir, Royal Ambassadors (for boys) and Acteens (for girls). There were weekly youth fellowships and youth meetings and regular retreats. There were wonderful and faithful adult volunteers, as well as a faithful youth minister. Christian Smith and his research associates found that one of the distinguishing marks of young people who continue in their church participation as adults was that they had developed a warm and trusting relationship with an adult in the church (even just one) other than their own parents.

How many young people in middle school, high school, or college have that experience today? For many children growing up with Christian parents, the priority of the family is told otherwise. Many Christian parents have bought into the larger culture’s portrait of the good childhood, complete with incessant sports activities, violin and ballet lessons, and activities perceived to boost a child’s eventual college admissions application. When it comes to church activities with children and teenagers, the scariest words might well be “traveling team.” Priorities become clear, both on the part of the church and of parents. Parents can hardly claim shock when their kids grow up and leave what they have never really known. At that point, the opportunity is lost.

Seventh, we have to acknowledge the hard fact that rates of identification with and membership in evangelical congregations is likely to fall even further. We are told constantly that millennials will not identify with groups that will not fully embrace LGBTQ+ causes. If so, biblically committed churches and denominations will decline in membership, social standing, and influence. That is just a fact. Southern Baptist churches do not have the option of theological liberalism. We are committed to biblical Christianity and the faith once for all delivered to the saints. On basic issues of conviction, there can be no compromise that is not unfaithfulness. I remain unconvinced that we have lost an entire generation. The enrollment in our seminaries says otherwise. But we dare not minimize the challenges we face, nor the likelihood that the challenges will grow harder and the pressures more severe.

Eighth, the lessons demonstrated in the collapse of mainline liberal Protestantism remain all around us. The pattern of statistical decline among Southern Baptists is beyond refute, but this pattern is not the same as seen in the virtual collapse of liberal Protestantism. Mark Tooley, a committed Methodist and president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy makes this point clearly: “There’s a pervasive narrative today of conservative Christian decline. This narrative is partly based on wishful thinking by some. But this narrative typically ignores the far more dramatic implosion of liberal white Mainline Protestantism.”

Tooley cited recent declines in the SBC, and then wrote: “But its decline from 16.4 million members to 15 million represents an 8 percent loss, not comparable to the average Mainline loss of nearly 50%. Southern Baptists displaced Methodism as America’s largest Protestant body in 1967 and now outnumber United Methodists by two to one.”

More importantly, Tooley noted that Southern Baptists have responded with calls for more focus on evangelism. Conversely, “Mainline Protestantism shows no sign of any institutional desire to reverse its 53-year membership decline, instead doubling down on the theological and political stances that fueled much of this decline.”

The basic point is this: Southern Baptists must face the truth and understand what faithfulness to Christ will demand of us now. The numbers are just part of the story, but they reveal a multitude of questions that, one way or another, this generation of Southern Baptists will answer.

As Southern Baptists prepare to meet in Birmingham in a few days, it would seem that this is the right time to start answering those questions with both honesty and conviction.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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