The Liberal Unevangelistic SBC

May 01, 2008

There has been a lot of discussion over the last week about the news that the Southern Baptist Convention saw a drop in membership last year. Although numbers had plateaued for years, they have now taken a turn for the worse. Hopefully, the news will be a strong reminder to SBC leaders to be careful about the attacks they make on others. For years, SBC leaders and other conservatives have made the argument that conservative denominations were growing and that liberal ones were shrinking because conservatives believed the Bible. Although that argument may make one feel good in times of growth, it is a dangerous argument to make if a downturn ever occurs. Apparently, the SBC is now liberal and does not believe the Bible! Either that, or they will admit that their logic before was pretty poor. I dealt with this is an Ethics Daily column a couple of years ago. In it I argued:

The real problem with the attack pieces is that an overemphasis on statistics seems to often lead to the false presumption that might makes one right. This argument that more people follow us so we must be correct is a logical fallacy called ad populum ("to the people"). It assumes that a majority of people cannot be wrong, despite the fact that history is littered with such examples: the world is flat, the sun revolves around the earth, slavery is right.

Can doctrine really be established by a majority vote? This numerical size argument has commonly been used in the past to "prove" that mainline churches are wrong because they are declining and that conservative churches are correct because they are growing. David Shiflett makes this argument in his book Exodus: Why Americans are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity.

With this poor reasoning, one must accept Mormons as theologically correct, since they are among the fastest-growing religious groups in the U.S. Or one must believe that the breakaway Episcopalians are wrong on the issue of homosexuality because they are so small in comparison to the rest of the denomination. Or one must believe that early Baptists were wrong because they were so small in number.

... Rather than being so focused on quantitative data, perhaps we should care more about the qualitative. I have known churches with 25 people that do more for the Kingdom than churches 10 times as large. Yet, the larger church might point to their numbers as proof that they are more right with God. Thankfully, God is with us when two or three are gathered in His name, not only when we are part of the largest group.
The other irony with the latest SBC numbers is the attack that the SBC's Richard Land made just a few months ago on the Baptist groups involved with the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant. He claimed that all of the groups were plateaued or declining because they did not focus on evangelism. As I documented in an article for Ethics Daily, Land was dead wrong as one-third of the groups were growing--and at much higher rates than the SBC--and that the overall number for all of the groups was growing. Using Land's logic, that means that the SBC is in decline because they do not care about evangelism! This is a good reminder not to build our arguments based on faulty logic and self-serving factors because things may change and we could find ourselves on the other side.

3 comments

  1. Brian,
    Your article points to another classic example for your "For God's Sake, Shut Up" theme. It also points to a very shallow approach to nature and character of the Christian faith and church life. I continue to be encouraged by the follow-up plans for the New Baptist Covenant. Some of the larger Baptist family seems to understand. Thanks. Jim

    ReplyDelete
  2. The total number of baptisms has been declining in the SBC for better than a couple of decades, and those that are recorded reflect an increasing number of younger children. The gap between the total membership and the weekly worship attendance has reached 10 million, which is also a more telling figure than a small, one year decline in total membership. Attendance in both worship and Sunday School has flatlined for a while now. But that's not just the case for Southern Baptists. Across the "greater Baptist family," the gap between attendance and participation, and the reported total membership is just as wide in most other Baptist denominations, as is the decline in baptisms and participation.

    We've entered a post modern, post denominational period in American Christianity, and Baptists, most of whom are older and more traditionally oriented, are experiencing the effects of that paradigm shift. Most of our denominations are made up of independent, autonomous churches, and the statistics are a reflection of what is happening within the churches. The denominational groupings and bodies have little control over that, and their programs and intiatives have little effect on it. Considering that Lifeway's statistical analysis of Sunday School enrollment shows that roughly half of those in SBC Sunday Schools are past 60 years of age, I would guess that there will be many years in the future where a statistical decline in total membership, as well as in worship attendance, will be recorded. That is, unless someone in the conservative resurgence leadership finds a way to mess with the numbers.

    It's the cumulative effect of churches that are spiritually dead. The leadership doesn't want to admit it, but the SBC has just as many churches that are as spiritually bankrupt as the moderates they accuse of liberalism, and the mainline denominations that have experienced a decline in participation and membership by as much as half of their former numbers in some cases. Churches have become dependent on their own creativity and innovation in worship, have brought about change for the sake of change, have invested a lot of money and effort in contemporary worship styles, and have come up with all kinds of denominational initiatives and programs to reverse the decline with little success, because they have left out the one necessary element that is the bottom line of all church growth and evangelism, and that is the Holy Spirit. Baptists are afraid of the Spirit, and limit His ability to move by crowding Him out with deep, academically oriented theological interpretation and entertainment that masquerades as worship.

    Perhaps, through the overwhelmingly predominant participation of African American Baptists in the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant, some of their Spiritual emphasis was experienced and captured by the caucasian "moderates" who were there. African American Baptists tend to be less fearful of the Spirit's movement, and more open to giving Him complete freedom of movement. The churches of the SBC need a good dose of that, too.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for the comments!

    Jim: Good point, I, too, hope the Celebration movement will help us move away from worrying about numbers as if this is a competition. Instead, we need to realize we are all on the same team and hope that all groups will grow as they reach more people with the love of Jesus.

    Lee: Thanks for offering some good context to the problem as well as the much larger problems such as the steady decline in baptisms. Hopefully, people will listen to you!

    ReplyDelete