Southern Baptists chilling out?

textNow here is a story that ought to be on page one in major newspapers across what some people still call the Bible Belt. Take The Dallas Morning News, for example, or The Atlanta Journal-Counstitution.

For years, conservative Protestants have chuckled in their Dr Peppers about the growth of their churches and the decline of the Oldline Protestants on the left. Now, Dr. Thom S. Rainer, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is coming out with a study that says the evangelistic fire seems to be fading, big time, in America’s largest non-Catholic flock.

There is much in this report to chew on, and I need to see the whole study. But here are two jaw-dropping — for those who have long studied the SBC — reasons that Rainer proposes for the decline.

• “The churches of the SBC are not evangelistic because they have many unregenerate members.”

“Is it possible that we have significant numbers of non-Christians who have membership in our 43,000 churches?” Rainer asks. He answers, “If our research approximates eternal realities, nearly one-half of all church members may not be Christians. This issue may very well be a major factor in the evangelistic apathy in many churches.”

• “Only a small number of churches in the SBC have any significant evangelistic efforts.”

Rainer finds that 82 percent of all SBC churches baptized 12 or less persons during 2003. (The study was concluded before the recently released 2004 statistics were available.) He concludes, “Frankly, most Southern Baptist churches today are evangelistically anemic. The bulk of baptisms in the denomination is taking place in a relatively few churches.”

A nice twist. I ran into this Baptist story over at Amy Welborn’s Open Book, one of the blogs of holy obligation for Catholics and those who like to follow Catholic trends. Is she more hip to Baptist news than the editors of major papers in the Southern Kingdom?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Neal

    Of course the problem of unregenerate or unregenerating church-goers is not exclusive to the SBC. Perhaps we all become “evanglistically anemic” because of our “spiritual anemia”. St. Paul wrote many letters appealing and even demanding the readers to “cleanse themselves of every defilement of flesh and spirit”, “take every thought captive”, “walk by the spirit and do not fulfill the lusts of the flesh” etc. and every single epistle was written to Christians in their Churches. He also warned strongly about reaping the rewards of “walking by the flesh”. Not one of those epistles were written for the sole purpose of evangelizing the unbeliever. We don’t see a mega-church or evangelistic manual such as we see today in any one of those letters. St. Paul seemed to be absolutely convinced that the best witness to Christ was found in the effort toward an actual rather than just imputed “purity of heart”, in humility, forgiveness, self-denial, and love. Perhaps for us all, particularly in the West, it is the age-old problem of the sin of spiritual sloth. My children have often heard something like, “Lying (cheating, stealing, pride, etc.) will poison your soul.” Maybe we should resurrect the idea that sin in our lives actually does something to us even if we don’t get caught.

  • James Freeman

    And what’s the deal with the interim president of Baylor being in bed with Planned Barrenhood?

    Talk about going native . . . .

  • moronikos

    Lies, damn lies, and statistics…

    There’s a statistic I always wonder about with Baptists reporting baptisms is that how many are re-baptisms.

    For instance, some devoted Methodist or Presbyterian marries some Baptist and the Baptist spouse gets the other to attend the Baptist church as a couple. After several years, the Methodist has a guilt trip or gets swayed by the Baptists and decides he needs to be baptized. The Baptists chalk this up as “evangelism” and the number gets added to their statistics.

    Next case, some kid grows up as Baptist. At 5 years old he hears some hellfire and decides he better get baptized. Later, as a teenager, he goes to some youth meeting, gets guilty and decides he really wasn’t “saaaaved” and gets dunked again. Kid falls away in high school and some time after college into adulthood, he decides once again that he really wasn’t “saved” and goes forward again and gets baptized again. Now, this person counts as 3 baptisms since of course they are never going to go back and erase the statistics of the previous baptisms since that would be utterly a waste of time.

    I was part of a Baptist church in California that was around 300 members and we baptized 90+ people one year. Many of the baptisms were done on people who already were members of the church. The pastor was good at hellfire preaching and guilt tripping…”Did you pray over the can of corn you bought at the grocery store? No? Well, you probably ain’t a Christian because Jesus isn’t Lord of your life…blah, blah, blah…”

    So in the end, what does the statistic mean?

  • ceemac

    James wrote:
    “And what’s the deal with the interim president of Baylor being in bed with Planned Barrenhood?”

    Read the article a little closer. He (actually his children) was participating in a program sponsored by his Southern Baptist congregation.

  • tmatt

    Which could mean just about anything (said the Baylor alum who speaks fluent Waco).

    That deep into Texas, a “Southern Baptist” can be anyone from Bill Moyers to Jerry Falwell’s more conservative uncle.

    The congregation involved?

    >Seventh & James Baptist Church where the Underwoods are members was one of 10 co-sponsoring churches. The others included Metropolitan Community Church, which is part of a predominantly homosexual denomination; Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waco; Temple Rodef Sholom, a Reform Jewish congregation; Lake Shore Baptist Church; First Presbyterian Waco; and First Lutheran Church. Sponsoring churches do not provide money for Nobody’s Fool but volunteers and promotional assistance.>

    Now, that happens to be the church where my wife and I were married. It has long been progressive and it is now hard left, over there with the UCC and that ilk. It is hard left on every imaginable social issue and has declined in membership so much that they had to shrink the sanctuary — twice.

    These days, Seventh is probably to the left of most of Waco’s Episcopal parishes.

  • James Freeman


    As I said . . . what’s the deal with the interim president of Baylor being in bed with Planned Barrenhood?

    He sends his kids to a Planned Barrenhood re-education camp. He gives them money. His church, obviously, is supportive of the group’s agenda.

    The Southern Baptists are finding that it’s a bitch to have no enforceable doctrine, being that each congregation is the law unto itself.

    Many of my fellow Catholics have gone native as well, but at least we have something to tell us when we’ve wandered off the reservation — despite the propensity of some “progressives” to argue about what the meaning of “is” is.

  • ceemac


    Thanks for the lesson in Waco. I live in Dallas but don’t speak “Waco.”

    A digression then a comment on the Baylor prez.

    As a lad I was fluent in Western North Carolina Southern Baptist. That congregation must have been mighty conservative. I never heard of Ridgecrest until I moved elsewhere even though the congregation was in the same county. Don’t remember ever hearing anything about Baptist colleges but we did send folks to Columbia Bible. Now I am much more fluent in Presbyterian, “In the Bible Belt,” style(bonus points for anyone who translates that code)

    Now back to the Interim Prez.

    Looks like a brillant move by the bd to name this guy as interim. I am going to assume that they would not name an interim who does not support most if not all of “Baylor 2012.” So now they have a liberal supporter of 2012. Some of the critics of 2012 will have been outlflanked by this move.