ARE SOUTHERN BAPTISTS "dwindling"? Recent headlines about the annual meeting of the 16.27 million member Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) refer to its ostensible struggles with membership decline. Having lost 40,000 members last year, America's second biggest religious body was described as "dwindling" by a Washington Post headline, which other media echoed.
In contrast to Mainline Protestant denominations like Episcopalians and Presbyterians, the SBC is overwhelmingly conservative. During the 1980s, conservative Baptists, derided as "fundamentalists" by critics, were alarmed by liberal inroads and solidified their governance of church agencies and seminaries. Southern Baptist and other evangelical churches have enjoyed almost unfettered growth in recent decades, while the once dominant Mainline denominations are now in their fifth decade of decline.
In fairness to the Post, a subsequent article reported that besides last year and 1998, the SBC hasn't suffered a year of membership loss since 1926. By comparison, the once dominant United Methodist Church was surpassed in membership by Southern Baptists 40 years ago and is now outnumbered 2 to 1. Still, the SBC's once surging growth has certainly flattened, and at their annual meeting, the 9,500 SBC delegates fretted about the decline in baptisms and other ill omens.
Although overall church attendance in America remains constant, loyalties to historic denominations are fading. Non-denominational churches are thriving, and evangelically inclined denominational churches de-emphasize their affiliation. Famously, Orange County's Saddleback Church, America's fourth largest church congregation with over 20,000 members, and pastored by "Purpose Driven" author Rick Warren, is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. But Rev. Warren, who preaches in Hawaiian shirts and presides over an almost Disneyland-sized complex, rarely advertises his SBC ties.
The generation of SBC pastors who fought the 1980s battles over biblical inerrancy is fading. And many younger pastors have hoped the SBC would move beyond its historic controversies. In 2006, they elected the relatively young Frank Page, a South Carolina pastor, as the SBC's president. Page, though still conservative, ostensibly would offer a "softer" image for a new 21st century SBC. How effective Page was as the SBC's image crafter is unclear. Earlier this year, he involved himself in an imbroglio when he endorsed an unofficial global warming statement that seemingly chastised the SBC for its official skepticism that climate change is entirely human driven. Page's stance put him virtually at odds with public statements by the SBC's longtime public policy spokesman, Richard Land, who heads the church's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Page later insisted he had not intended to repudiate the SBC's official policies and he noted widespread SBC concerns about the "liberal environmental agenda." But the episode illustrated that the transition from combative conservatism to a softer evangelicalism is not easy. Page's term ended with the recent annual meeting. And his successor Johnny M. Hunt, who pastors a 17,000 member Atlanta church, was reportedly supported more by the conservative old guard.
Judging by the pronouncements at its annual meeting, the SBC remains unhesitant in its robust conservatism. Messengers, as delegates are called, celebrated Israel's 60th anniversary and hailed the Jewish nation as "the birthplace of our Lord and a bastion of democracy in the Middle East." They attacked the "march of secularism" as embodied by the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way, and affirmed the celebration of religion in the "marketplace of ideas," specifically defending Christmas against "Winter Holiday" substitutes.
With similar gusto, messengers attacked Planned Parenthood as "a merchant of family disintegration and death" and urged the federal government to defund it. And the messengers derided the California Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex unions and urged support for the referendum there upholding the "biblical definition of marriage as an exclusive union between a man and a woman." In another resolution on "political engagement," SBC churches were encouraged "to teach and preach biblical truth on moral issues and to urge their members to vote according to their beliefs."
Perhaps more interesting, the SBC annual meeting celebrated its growing ethnic diversity, which has been a focus in its new church starts. The traditionally white denomination, with nearly 50,000 congregations, now has 3,000 primarily black congregations, nearly as many Hispanic ones, and about 1,500 Asian churches. Of 1,500 new church plants in 2006, about half were mainly ethnic congregations. And although the SBC now occupies a reduced share of the population in the South, it is increasingly diffused nationwide.
So "dwindling" is not an appropriate descriptive for the Southern Baptist Convention. But like nearly all American religious bodies, it is contending with a churchgoing public less tied to traditional denominational labels and more curious about a broader religious marketplace.
Mark D. Tooley directs the Institute on Religion and Democracy's program for United Methodists.