|As Membership Dips, Southern Baptists Anxious about Future before Indianapolis Session
Membership, Baptisms Have Both Declined
By Peter Smith
June 9, 2008
For most of four decades, Southern Baptists could boast of rising membership even as more moderate and liberal Protestant denominations lost members in droves.
But with membership slightly down last year, and flat for the past five, Southern Baptists face a growing anxiety about their future as they gather for their annual meeting tomorrow in Indianapolis.
"We have peaked," Southern Baptist statistician Ed Stetzer wrote in an online commentary on the latest statistics from 2007. "…For now, Southern Baptists are a denomination in decline."
What worries Southern Baptist leaders even more than the membership numbers is a steady decline in the conversion ritual that gave their denomination its name — baptisms.
Annual rates of baptisms have steadily declined not only in recent years, but also during the past 35 years.
In 2007, Southern Baptist churches reported 345,941 baptisms.
That's down 12 percent from 2002 and 22 percent from 1972.
Southern Baptist churches in Kentucky recorded 15,503 baptisms last year, little changed from a decade earlier. And state and national figures show the ratio of baptisms to members is shrinking — meaning that it takes more members to achieve the same amount of evangelistic success than it once did.
Baptists and some other evangelical denominations view baptism as a central measure of spiritual vitality because they only baptize those old enough to make a commitment to Jesus — meaning that it measures how successful they are in spreading the Gospel.
Some blame the downturn on Baptists' doctrinal divisions, including the battles of the 1980s and 1990s that led to a conservative shift in the denomination as well as more recent debates.
Some blame a lack of enthusiasm for evangelism, while others say even committed evangelists find that Christianity is a tougher sell in an increasingly secular culture.
Compared with the loss of nearly half of Presbyterians and one-third of Episcopalians since the 1960s, the Baptist decline is slight.
But some say Southern Baptists are feeling the delayed effects of demographic trends contributing to dramatic membership losses among other predominately white denominations. Trends include an aging population with fewer children and limited success in reaching teens, young adults and other ethnic and racial groups.
"This is not about orthodoxy or unorthodoxy or failed methods," said Baptist historian Bill Leonard, dean of the Wake Forest School of Divinity in North Carolina. "This is about demographics and sociology."
In past generations, larger families meant more children seeking baptism, said Wesley Pitts, director of missions for the Long Run Baptist Association, a Louisville-based regional group of Southern Baptist churches.
"We grew tremendously by biological growth over the years," he said, but that's not happening in an era with smaller families.
Nationally and even in the Bible Belt, the population has become increasingly diverse, with large numbers of younger adults and immigrants having no familiarity with church.
"We can no longer count on a response to evangelism and invitations to church membership that are automatically understood by people in the community," said Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
Southern Baptists remain the nation's largest Protestant denomination, prevalent in the South but reaching throughout North America.
Several Southern Baptist leaders said membership statistics are often misleading because many churches keep inactive members on the roles.
Weekly attendance is about 6 million, compared with 16 million members, and church records show that one-third of members on the rolls don't live close enough to participate regularly.
But the baptism statistics show "we are not reaching people with the Gospel," Mohler said.
And successful strategies of the past, such as revival meetings and going door-to-door to invite people to church, don't resonate as well with current generations.
"Nowadays, you have to develop relationships with people a lot of times before you have the influence to invite them to church," said Terry Stallard, pastor of Ralph Avenue Baptist Church.
The small Shively congregation baptized two people last year and is trying to develop long-term relationships one at a time — say, with a member's relative who attends a wedding or funeral, or a neighborhood resident encountered at a community-service project.
Chad Lewis at Sojourn Community Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Germantown, said the church uses such things as art exhibits and neighborhood outreach to meet people because "we don't expect everyone to come into a church service."
"It's not about being cool or hip or anything, it's about being relevant and real," he said.
In the Southern Baptist church he grew in, he said, everyone would dress up and "pretend like you're perfect" — which he said was a turnoff to many.
"When I preach … I want people to know I struggle," he said.
Mohler acknowledged that Southern Baptists often take polarizing stands, such as calling for the evangelization of Jews and for male authority in marriages and churches.
"Any church that stands truly for the Gospel is going to find self out of synch with society," he said.
At the same time, he noted, baptismal rates began declining even before the 1979 start of the movement that shifted the denomination to the right.
In recent years, Southern Baptists have moved from debates over the Bible and women in ministry to whether they can cooperate with those who pray in tongues, use alcohol or have different doctrines on baptism.
"They've spent 30 years narrowing their base around specific doctrines and ethical issues" and shouldn't be surprised to have smaller numbers, said Leonard — a former professor at Southern Seminary who was among the moderate professors replaced by more conservative ones in the 1990s.
"What sounds like conviction to them in their own churches, sounds increasingly shrill and harsh in the public square," he said.
But Bill Mackey, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, the denomination's state affiliate, said some potential members "feel that there is conviction and strength in terms of what you believe and they may respond positively to that."
He also said he hoped people would see "the ministries that take place, from disaster relief to people (volunteering) in communities … as being positive things happening with grassroots Baptists."
Reporter Peter Smith can be reached at (502) 582-4469.
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