Southern Baptists in brief

religionMapIt’s time to take a trip deep, deep into the tmatt folder of GetReligion guilt. You see, with the Iran explosion and a bunch of other major news, I don’t think we made a single reference to coverage of the Southern Baptist Convention meetings in Louisville.

As anyone knows who has ever covered one, SBC gatherings are big sprawling affairs, even though they are no longer the must-cover events that they were in the 1980s during the civil war for control of America’s largest non-Catholic flock.

When you are there, the daily stories go marching by, from the election of the present to some resolution about this or that political issue. This year, the mainstream press stirred a bit about the Southern Baptists voting to celebrate the election of the nation’s first African-American president, even while stressing the many, repeat many, issues that divide Southern Baptists and President Barack Obama.

As you cover those daily stories, it is often easy to lose sight of the big-picture issues that are looming in the background. Then, if you decide to write about one of these larger stories, it’s hard to crunch it into the small amounts of space that reporters are working with these days.

So let’s pause to celebrate one such effort, by veteran scribe Bob Smietana of the Tennessean in Nashville, home of the SBC headquarters that many call the “Baptist Vatican.” I know, I know, that nickname makes no sense in terms of church polity, but relax.

In the middle of a feature about the convention, Smietana dove into a very complex subject — which is why the Southern Baptists, after decades of growth, have finally suffered some slight membership declines. This, of course, stands in contrast to the demographic earthquake that has hit the “Seven Sisters” of liberal Protestantism. If you are interested in a longer, insider’s take on this SBC issue, see these two essays — here and here — by Will Hall, the head of Baptist Press.

But here is the heart of Smietana’s crisp mini-look at this huge subject:

Three major factors derailed the Southern Baptist system.

First, the birth rate among white Americans fell. That was a problem because most Southern Baptists are white and because they found most of their converts among their children. …

Second, Americans moved from rural areas into cities and suburbs. That’s a problem because almost half of Southern Baptist churches are in rural areas. And Baptists have, until recently, started few new urban churches. Hall disagrees with some critics who think the decline in membership and baptisms is a spiritual problem.

“The problem is not a lack of evangelistic fervor,” he said. “It’s location, location, location.”

The third factor? New churches that don’t act like Southern Baptist churches. Those churches have often exchanged their choirs for rock bands, met in nontraditional places, and have preachers who dress casually and give edgy sermons. And many new churches also have dropped Baptist from their names as denominational loyalty fell.

Now there is a lot going on in there and, yes, there’s a lot more that could be said. The keys, however, are the hard facts about demographics and the reality of the post-denominational age. However, when I was reading up on the decline issue — I plan to write on it myself, sooner or later — one thing stuck out.

When it comes to racial diversity, Southern Baptists are actually seeing a tremendous amount of success. Mainline church leaders may struggle to grasp this, but the most ethnically diverse churches in America are found in these three bodies — the Roman Catholic Church, the Assemblies of God and, yes, the Southern Baptist Convention.

The SBC has been opening many Hispanic and African-American congregations and seeing increases in its ethnically mixed congregations. The Tennessean article notes:

There are signs that the Southern Baptist Convention may be able to reverse its decline. From 1998 to 2007, the number of ethnic minorities in the faith doubled, to 8 percent.

In other words, they have had success — but not enough. Southern Baptists are not keeping up with the rising tide of ethnic diversity in modern America, even though they are doing better than most other denominations. That’s the largest of the larger realities, especially when combined with the issue of declining white birth rates.

This is a very big story. I hope the Tennessean lets Bob return to it and dig much, much deeper.

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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.

  • Dave G.

    Is anything mentioned about the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and the theological and ideological warfare that erupted in the 90s, that coincidentally seemed to precede the sudden turn around with SBC fortunes? After all, during that time there was much talk about whether solidifying the SBC behind purely conservative lines would help or hurt. Thom Rainer, after the first few years of decline following the conservative swing, wrote extensively that it would have been a lot worse if the conservatives hadn’t won. So that seems to indicate some level of pointing to those conflicts that dominated the 90s as a reason for the issues. So I wonder is the CBF still around, and does any of this have anything to do with those issues that dominated the SBC up to the beginning of the decline.

  • williex2

    lower birth rate?????????…………location, location, location?????????………..why are these facts true for the decline in southern baptists and not true for the decline in episcopalians?…………a bit of a double standard?????????????

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  • Bob Smietana

    WillieX2–those demographic factors also affect mainline churches, even the conservative ones. (The Missouri Synod Lutherans are grappling with them now for example)

    Dave G.– the CBF factor is complicated. Lots of CBF churches are dually aligned–meaning they are both Southern Baptists and Cooperative Baptists, and so count in both groups.

  • tmatt


    No, no double standard. Those factors have affected the Episcopalians and other mainliners. So have many other doctrinal factors that apply to the SBC to a much smaller degree. We are also talking about a 2 percent decline or less after years of growth, vs., oh, a 25 to 40 percent decline over the past generation, depending on the church and the region.

    Dave G:

    I suggest you look up the stats on CBF churches. I think you would find that their demographics put them close to becoming the eighth mainline sister, joining, perhaps, the American Baptists.

  • FrGregACCA


    That map gives “red state/blue state” a whole new meaning.

  • Dave G.

    I know that the CBF is duly aligned. I was wondering if it was in any way a factor in moving away from the SBC. Early on, most CBF pastors I knew still maintained their memberships with the SBC. I didn’t know if they still did that or if things were pretty much the same.

    More to the point, I wonder what results the ideological conflicts of the 90s had to do with this, since one can’t miss the fact that the ‘slip’ in SBC growth began to be tallied after the conflict was over (that is, after the more conservative forces more or less established control and influence in the SBC at large). I was wondering if that would make it into the coverage or if there was a reason it hasn’t been covered.

    And yes tmatt, I remember that many said, in its early days, their concern was the CBF would become merely another mainline (read: liberal) denomination.

  • tmatt

    Dave G:

    The CBF departures would have, for the most part, have been in the late ’80s, not the early 2000 period when the SBC slipped into this slight decline.

    Slow growth continued during and even after the civil war period, which essentially was over by, oh, 1989.

    Let me stress, again, for those who do not know: My own background is “moderate” Southern Baptist. You may enjoy reading this from 1982, at the heart of the war era:

  • Big Daddy Weave

    The CBF is still around and just wrapped up its 19th annual General Assembly yesterday. The CBF has not experienced tremendous growth nor has it experienced a significant decline in terms of individual members/affiliated congregations.

    The CBF was not birthed until 1991. The Southern Baptist Alliance (now Alliance of Baptists) was formed in the late 80′s. It remains an extremely small denomination comprised of 100-120 affiliated (mostly small) Baptist churches. Many moderate Southern Baptist churches did not stop supporting the SBC until 2000 with the passage of the SBC’s Baptist Faith & Message 2000. While the battle was over at the national level by 1990, the war continued at the state level well into the 90s.

  • James

    Where can I find that map online?

  • dalea

    Wow, a religion beat reporter who actually understands statistical analysis. Smietana stands apparently alone in that regard.

  • Dave G.

    Let me try it this way. I don’t mean to imply the CBF is the culprit, or the problem, or the cause, but merely a symptom of a greater issue that may play a larger part in things than the reasons given. I, too, was a Southern Baptist – pastor – from the early 90s through 2005. I was at Southern Seminary when it, along with the Convention, underwent the shift from moderate conservative to full blown conservative and traditional stances on a host of issues, led by folks such as Dr. Albert Mohler. While that was happening, several of my more moderate colleagues made the leap to the CBF. They stayed in the SBC, but also put a foot over to the CBF. By 1998, the realigning of the Convention had all but taken place, while many (including some who identified themselves conservative), were concerned that the sudden severing of various groups, churches, professors, and others because of this shift, as well as some of the tactics that had been employed, might cause ill-will and cool the fiery spirit of the SBC’s previous decades of growth. When the reports arose that showed growth was slowing, several of my colleagues (most were not fans of how the conservative shift had happened) pointed to the conflicts of the 90s and the conservative victory as the cause. This caused others, such as the aforementioned Dr. Rainer, to fire back that had the liberals and moderates won out, things would have been much worse. So at least in the early part of this decade, the ideological and theological conflicts of the 90s seemed to be one of the reasons some were using to explain the decline (or were arguing against). My question was if there were any others still thinking this, or if there was cause to look into it when reporting on concerns that SBC leaders have been discussing.

  • blestou

    Smietana and everyone else I’ve read outside of Baptist Press has missed the big story of the 2009 SBC. He follows the quote path from Hall and throws a Dockery quote in for balance. But Dockery represents the side that “won” at this year’s convention. Hall represents the side that “lost”.

    Only one motion passed this year. Only one. If you want to know the current story of the SBC, you ought to look at the ONE MOTION THAT PASSED. Amid all the (somewhat embarrassing) culture warrior, denominational traditionalism stuff, the only motion that passed was to form a group to advise the convention on how to realign and return itself to a commitment to the Great Commission, based on a controversial (within the SBC) document called “Toward A Great Commission Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention“.

    Dave G is partially correct, that the CBF withdrawal has an effect on the current SBC – but only in that, now that the moderates (broadly defined) have left, the various conservative groups that made up the “Conservative Resurgence” (you didn’t think all conservative SB were the same did you?) have had to figure out what to do with themselves now that they have no common enemy to fight. Some of them have turned on one another in recent years, and some of that denominational infighting was attempted this year.

    The real story is that a new coalition of theologically conservative and missions-minded Southern Baptists, led by men in their 50s and younger, are fast becoming the new face of the SBC. So many people voted for the “Great Commission Resurgence” motion that the parliamentarian can actually be heard to say “Wow” on the video. No one expected a 90+% landslide. The young fellas came out this year, and they made their voices heard.

    If it is a story that the SBC has suffered minor declines over the last two years, then it ought to be a big story that the sons of the conservatives are standing up, taking control, and talking extensively (and almost exclusively) about a recommitment to biblical missions and evangelism. The names in an SBC story this month should not be Hall and Dockery. The names should be Chapman and Akin.

  • Bob Smietana

    In case anyone’s interested, we’ve got a couple of pieces about the Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) proposal at the Tennessean’s website:

  • Chris M.

    James: After a quick search in Google Images, it looks like Glenmary Research Center developed the map.

  • Chris Blackstone


    I would have loved to see more coverage of Chapman’s skeptical comments about the GCR and Calvinism. I followed Al Mohler and Russell Moore’s twitter feeds and their just-in-time tweet responses to Chapman’s rant were very interesting.

  • Dave G.


    That wouldn’t surprise me, for yet another issue during the 90s that isn’t touched on was the split between those who were fighting to reestablish he conservative roots within the SBC, and those who were trying to make sure those roots included Calvinism. Mohler and Moore were, of course, principle players in moving SBTS toward a Calvinist foundation (well Mohler, Moore was much later), and it was Mohler’s savvy in his early days that allowed him to make sure Calvinism as a key issue remained Calvinism ‘no big deal’ when dealing with the Convention as a whole, especially in front of those who were conservative but not Calvinist. So it would be interesting to see their comments, but I can probably guess what they would be.