No mouse ears for the media

Once upon a time, the Southern Baptist Convention knew how to make headlines.

Whether battling over “hotbeds of liberalism” or declaring that a woman should “submit herself graciously” to her husband or feeding news holes with gay rights activists’ arrests, the convention’s annual meeting once drew a cadre of reporters — a “who’s who” list of Religion Newswriters Association members.

How far has the news value of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination — with 16 million members — fallen?

Well, 11,000 Southern Baptists are staging their 2010 annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., this week, and it’s drawing barely a blip of coverage from most media organizations, if that. Did you catch that? The Baptists are meeting in the home city of Walt Disney World, and nobody seems to care. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. (If you need an explanation of the Disney reference, click here and here. Or check out this new Time magazine piece on “How Gay Days Made a Home at Disney World.”)

Seriously, what’s going on here?

Not at the annual meeting herself, Godbeat pro Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today tackled the question in a blog post headlined “Who’s watching Southern Baptists debate their future?”:

What if the Southern Baptist Convention, the USA’s largest Protestant denomination, had a contentious annual convention to set its path for the future — and no one paid attention?

The SBC has gathered in Orlando to confront its flat numbers (although the rate of baptisms bobbed up slightly this year) and furiously debate the way it funds evangelization and missions (the “Great Commission” to bring people to Christ).

But unless you are tuned in on Baptist Press or Twitter, it’s hard to find coverage. The wires services are walking the beaches of Pensacola with President Obama and religion reporters — what’s left of us — are hobbled by lack of travel budgets and the rigidly local focus of many media.

Fewer religion writers. Tighter travel budgets. News holes focused on local, local, local. I have no doubt that all of those issues contribute to the diminished coverage.

But I don’t think they are the only factors.

Could it be that the lack of interest is tied to the news media’s insatiable appetite for religion news woven through the lens of sex and politics? Could it be that debates over missions priorities and how to grow membership in a post-denominational world aren’t as, well, sexy?

As best I can tell, the only mainstream media organizations that flew reporters to Orlando were The Tennessean (read Bob Smietana’s story) and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (most of Frank Lockwood’s story is behind a subscriber-only pay wall). Please share links in the comments section if you know of others. It appears that the Louisville Courier-Journal (read Peter Smith’s story) and Religion News Service (read Adelle Banks’ story) are covering the meeting from home. Also, check out Jeff Kunerth’s coverage in the Orlando Sentinel. And, of course, for a different (and enlightening) angle, a Scripps Howard News Service columnist named Terry Mattingly filed a piece this morning on Southern Baptists speaking out about the Gulf oil spill crisis.

Here’s the top of The Tennessean story:

ORLANDO, Fla. – A decade ago, Southern Baptists fought over the belief that Jesus is the only way to heaven and the inerrancy of the Bible. Today, they’re divided over budgets and baptisms.

As the older hard-line conservatives fade into the background, a new group of leaders is jostling over the priorities of the country’s largest Protestant denomination. These new leaders are less concerned about conservative politics and more concerned about saving souls.

“Status quo is not the way to go,” said the Rev. Matthew Surber, the new pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville. “To pretend like everything is fine and we just need to try harder is not going to work.”

At a gathering of 11,000 Southern Baptists on Tuesday at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla., Baptists overwhelmingly approved a plan that will channel funds away from established Baptist programs and use them to fund new churches and more missionaries. It’s called the Great Commission Resurgence. The national meeting concludes today.

After typing all the above links, another thought strikes me: Could the rise of the Internet be another component at play?

I mean, anyone who is interested in what’s happening in Orlando can quickly Google dozens of news links (albeit most of them from religious media) to the convention. If you want a primer on what’s being debated, you can read an in-depth piece by Christianity Today.

By their apparent absence from Orlando, what are The Associated Press, The Washington Post and The New York Times – not to mention regional papers such as The Dallas Morning News and The Oklahoman – telling us? That the Southern Baptists aren’t news anymore? Or that their own coverage of such events isn’t relevant anymore?

Or is it as simple as the Baptists themselves working harder to get along and stay out of the spotlight?

If this week’s meeting had anything to do with ordaining gay pastors or considering evangelical sainthood for Sarah Palin, I can’t help but think the media would be there in droves — travel budgets be darned.

My question for GetReligion readers: Is what’s happening in Orlando this week news or not? Please weigh in with your opinions and rationale.

Print Friendly

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    What kind of Mickey Mouse organizations are these editors running?

    Seriously, though, I’d venture that it’s all the above — localism, tight travel budgets and an interest in religious stories about sex and politics.

    To be sure, the only denominational conference I attended as a religion reporter was when I flew from Ontario, Calif., to Atlanta for the UCC’s convention. At this convention, the denomination approved a resolution stating that God saw no difference between marriages between men and women and those between men and men or women and women. Not coincidentally, this resolution was sponsored by a church leader from my local coverage area.

  • Bobby

    What kind of Mickey Mouse organizations are these editors running?

    Why didn’t I think of that? :-)

  • Gabriel Rodriguez

    I don’t think that world will ever understand why issues like evangelism are more important than sex and politics. If sinners are converted by the true gospel, these other issues will fall in line with the gospel. But the best news (the good news about Jesus) will never be news to this lost and dieing world.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    While I’d say all of the reasons you mentioned are probably true, the biggest issue is money. Far fewer papers have religion reporters. Most of them are focused on local. And the topics on the table at the SBC are not *obvious* news hooks.

    In the Olden Days, religion reporters who got time and space could well have worked up something interesting to say about the turning in of the SBC and the broader implications for faith in ‘Murka.

  • Bobby

    I daresay that Jeffrey Weiss could have — would have — worked up something worthy of Page 1-A.

    But those were the days of three or four full-time religion writers at the Morning News and the nation’s best Saturday religion section.

    Sorry, I’m waxing nostalgic …

  • Peter Smith

    Yep, I’m covering from the office via livestreaming. The Internet makes it possible; the travel-budget cuts make it necessary (not to mention a packed family calendar); and the cut-off of the live feed at the exact moment of the big vote makes it aggravating.

    It’s definitely news here in Kentucky, where Southern Baptists have a large yet shrinking presence, and more than $1 million annually in funding here will be shipped north or west. Other Southern conventions will see similar shifts. The rest of North America will see more Southern Baptist missionaries and church planters in their backyards eventually. But I think that story’s been done a few times already (RNS, WSJ, etc.).

    Here’s the thing: It’s not just a battle over the abstract value of evangelism. (Actually, as someone once said, Baptist calls for urgent evangelism are about as common as dentists’ appeals for regular brushing and flossing.) It’s a methodological question, and if you’re already asleep after that polysyllable, there are a lot more like them. Much of the debate is over the technicalities of things like the Cooperative Program, Cooperative Agreements, and the division of labor between the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board. For Baptists in the thick of it, these are urgent questions about how best to save souls. For others, such bureaucratic terms have them reaching for the Starbucks or the Red Bull.

    The story behind the restructuring, of course, is anxiety over their decline in baptisms. Which everyone has covered for a couple years at least now (e.g.:

    So what’s new? A methodological shift. It’s hard to know whether such a shift is going to live up to its billing. (It’s hard enough for an individual church to predict if they’ll draw anyone with a new contemporary service. Multiply that type of question to denominational proportions, and you get the idea.)

    All the stories posted here wrestled with the same thing — how to weave the specifics of the vote with the background context.

  • Frank Lockwood

    There’s plenty of news here. Loads of it. And, yes, the Southern Baptists are talking about politics and sex quite a bit (not as much, perhaps, as Episcopalians, but they’re talking about it.)

    Subscribers to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (and the Tennessean, Orlando Sentinel and the Lakeland Ledger) will be able to get firsthand reports.

    The rest of America’s newspaper readers are out of luck, as far as I can tell. The Associated Press, as far as I can tell, is AWOL. And that’s a big, big problem.

  • Bobby

    Peter, kudos to you for not letting the travel budget cuts keep you from covering the story (albeit with a few technological complications).

    The Associated Press, as far as I can tell, is AWOL. And that’s a big, big problem.

    Frank, that surprises me too. There are at least three levels of options for AP: (1) Send a national religion writer. (2) Send a regional or Florida-based writer. (3) Cover it by phone from New York or wherever. But not to cover it at all, given that the newspapers who used to send their own reporters aren’t there, doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe they’ll surprise us and roll out a trend story this weekend that wraps up the annual meeting. Still, I think AP needs a same-day story (yesterday) on what a 16-million-member denomination decided at its annual meeting.

  • Bobby

    By the way, it looks like Tmatt was on to something. Why doesn’t that surprise me? :)

    Baptists and big oil is making headlines today. See these reports from RNS and The Washington Post.

    And USA Today posted Smietana’s story. Both publications are owned by Gannett.

    As best I can tell, still no sign of AP …

  • tmatt


    I am always in a bind, because I file on Wednesday a.m. and most readers see my work on the weekend in their local papers. So I often have to write sidebars to stories that may or may not have even happened yet.

    In this case, the desk let me file a bit late and some veteran Baptist Press folks — it’s nice when religious groups hire people with mainstream news experience — helped me get the resolution text the second it was legal to have it. Then I had to wait a bit for the vote and then I filed.

    But the news will be old this weekend. That’s why I led with the man BEHIND the resolution and his own links to the Gulf Coast, as a native of Biloxi, Miss.

  • Crimson Wife

    I didn’t know that membership in the Southern Baptist church was flat. I’d been under the impression that conservative denominations were growing while liberal denominations were shrinking. Where are the former Baptists going? Non-denominational “mega-churches”? More charismatic denominations like Pentecostalism?

  • Bobby

    Crimson Wife, I am not an expert on the church growth numbers. However, my understanding is that the mainline denominations have seen their membership figures hemorrhage, while conservative groups such as the Southern Baptists have failed to keep up with the nation’s population growth.

    For example, my own fellowship, the Churches of Christ, has about 1.6 million adherents in the United States. While down slightly, our membership is roughly the same as in 1980 — 1,601,661 then; 1,578,281 in 2009. However, in the same 30-year period, the nation’s population grew 36 percent or more.

    My understanding is also that the Assemblies of God do continue to see measurable growth, as do Roman Catholics, in large part tied to immigration.

    I would assume the former Baptists are going to non-denominational megachurches or nowhere at all.

    I would stress that all of the above is subject to correction and better analysis by other commenters. But since you asked, I thought I’d take a crack at answering.

  • Passing By

    Catholics have stayed at roughly 20-25% of the U.S. population from at least the 60s, per stats from Georgetown Univ.. Worldwide, it’s 17-18%. Adherents puts it a bit higher, as does the Pew Forum. The Georgetown stats show a general downward trend, but that contradicts other reports, which put the percentage as a rather stable 24-26%. One last link:

    The interesting thing about church stats really is: where do the people go? I suspect it’s more a matter of people dying off and not being replaced than defections,which explains the Baptist concern for baptisms. They don’t gain members simply by birth; you have to make a decision to join.

  • Bob Smietana

    Frank’s right– there’s lots of news here in Orlando.
    Jeff’s right as well — the news hooks aren’t easy to explain. The conservative resurgence was fueled by anger and fear of liberalism. This convention was more about anxiety – the feeling that Southern Baptists aren’t what they used to be, and that the world is leaving them behind.

    Brad’s also right –there was a lot of conflict leading up to this meeting but the meeting itself was relatively conflict free.

    Being here has reminded me of why face to face reporting is so important. Spent a lot time talking to bivocational pastors for a story next week, and listening to people talk about their worries about the denomination, and to chaplains about why they will stay in the military no matter what happens with don’t ask, don’t tell.
    And to a woman whose son was gay, and who was murdered by an angry stalker. She was at a booth for an outreach ministry to gays and it would be easy to dismiss her as a “gay basher” — but not so much after hearing her story.

  • Bob Smietana

    The other interesting story is that once the big Great Commission resurgence vote took place– the convention hall cleared out, and most everybody went to Disney.

  • Peter Smith

    Where do the people “go” when denominations shrink or stagnate? Excellent question. Please let us know if you find out. Here’s my take. To some extent, it’s the rise of secularism and generic Christianity (although of course many megachurches have denominational ties that they don’t emphasize). But it’s hard to ignore that the growing churches are the ones most successful among Hispanics and other immigrants and minorities (RCC, JWs, AG, CoG, LDS). White non-Hispanics have lower birth rates and higher elderly populations. Unsurprisingly, the denominations having the most stagnation or decline largely fit that demographic. So, many of them are elderly members who are dying, and others aren’t being born in the first place. Southern Baptists recognize this, which is why (in addition to their promotion of large families), they put ethnic outreach at the core of the GCRTF strategy. And their chief researcher, Ed Stetzer, reported last year that failing to break out of Southern Baptists’ traditional demographic will leave them at half their size by 2050.

  • Bobby

    The interesting thing about church stats really is: where do the people go? I suspect it’s more a matter of people dying off and not being replaced than defections,which explains the Baptist concern for baptisms. They don’t gain members simply by birth; you have to make a decision to join.

    Passing By, The “once saved, always saved” belief by Baptists (as I understand it) also plays into the desire to baptize as many people as possible. I am almost certain I read a MSM news story that mentioned that in recent weeks, but I couldn’t find it in a quick Google search.

    An interesting note in a story by Cary McMullen of The Ledger in Florida:

    The membership figure (16 million) is generally conceded to be inflated, even by Southern Baptist leaders, and worship attendance totals only about 6.2 million.

    But there is concern that the denomination is aging and losing its commitment to spreading the gospel.

    Whereas in Churches of Christ, our 1.6 million member figure roughly equates to our Sunday attendance figure. Which I bring up just to highlight the inherent difficulty in comparing one group’s stats with another’s. Maybe that makes some sense.

    Bob, thanks for your comments. Can’t wait to read that Disney story. :-)

  • Peter Smith

    Oh, and a big amen to Bob about the value of live coverage. Long distance may be the next best thing to being there, but that’s like being the next best horse to Secretariat in the Belmont.

  • Dave

    Of course the SBC convention is news but mostly isn’t uniquely Baptist news. Tweak the language a bit and it could be Unitarian Universalist news. Dealing with institutional challenges just doesn’t have the same headline appeal as making ringing statements about the status of women or BGLTs (of which UUs do just as much as Baptists).

  • Passing By

    Bobby -

    Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) of 6.2 million is about 38% of membership and that’s pretty standard for Catholics and the protestant denominations. Episcopal ASA is about 700,000 against 2.2 million members. Baptist churches of my youth ran about 35% as well. I don’t know about Orthodox or evangelicals. Does your fellowship remove people from the rolls when they stop coming? That’s the one way I can see to maintain ASA as high as membership.

    In Baptist theology, there is not a causal connection between baptism and salvation. One gets baptized because one has already “gotten saved” or “been saved”. That interior conviction of the truth of the gospel and the forgiveness of sins is salvatioon. Baptism is only a witness to it and church membership a by-product.

    I should also clarify that I don’t think Baptists seek baptisms just for numbers: those I have known (including family who are still Baptist) have been genuinely concerned for my eternal destiny, and not just pumping up parish numbers. My earlier post sounded rather like the latter. However, baptisms is measureable; religious experience not so much.

  • Bobby

    Passing By,

    I need to clarify my earlier comment a bit.

    The 1.6 million membership figure I gave for Churches of Christ is actually the adherent figure, which includes children who have not been baptized as well as non-member adults who attend services as spouses of members or visitors. Our membership figure is actually closer to 1.3 million members, and that figure is roughly equal to Sunday attendance.

    The following information is from Flavil Yeakley, a Church of Christ church growth expert:

    In the reference book prepared by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, Religious Congregations and Membership in the United States 2000, page 4, the Southern Baptist Convention gives the following report:
    41,514 Congregations
    15,922,039 members
    19,881,407 adherents
    5,535,881 attendees

    Figures on the Churches of Christ in that 2000 ASARB study are:
    13,027 congregations
    1,264,808 members
    1,645,584 adherents
    1,256,845 attendees

    The attendance average for the Southern Baptist Convention was only 27.8 percent of adherents. For Churches of Christ, the attendance average was 76.4 percent of adherents.

    But back to your original question: Yes, I think Churches of Christ probably do have pretty current membership rolls. It would be rare for someone to be on the rolls at two churches, and it would be rare for someone to remain on the rolls if they had not attended in a long time (several months).

    Another factor is that Churches of Christ have tended to emphasize the importance of Sunday attendance. Of course, so have Southern Baptists. Churches of Christ ranked No. 1, and Southern Baptists were fourth, in a 2006 Gallup poll on percentage of self-proclaimed members attending weekly worship.

  • Frank Lockwood

    I’m back in Little Rock after attending the Southern Baptist Convention in Orlando. Did the Associated Press finally get around to writing something about the annual meeting? Or did they ignore it completely?

  • Bobby

    Frank, I can’t find any evidence of any AP coverage. And generally, I know how to work my Google News.

  • Passing By

    Bobby – thanks for the info. I love church stats, and have mainly looked at Episcopalian numbers. So this was broadening.

  • Jane Whittaker

    The Baptist news will neveer be the same as UU’s because the UU”s do not accept the Trinity!