Weiss on (a few) crucial SBC news trends

As Bobby “Bible Belt” Ross Jr. noted the other day, this summer’s meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention did all kinds of interesting stuff. I choose to write about the Gulf of Mexico resolution for Scripps Howard, but, frankly, the divorce resolution was just as interesting and I still hope to dig into that one. It is rare to see conservative believers (or liberal believers, for that matter) point the finger of judgment at themselves.

Then again, the SBC also wrestled with a massive reorganization plan that affects millions of people and much of the money that they put in offering plates.

Lots of people. Lots of money. Is that news? At the same time, the Southern Baptists gathered in Orlando did all kinds of things (see the video and its links) linked to evangelism and aid for the poor and hungry. But that isn’t really news, either. Maybe if Bill Clinton, Al Gore or Jimmy Carter had shown up?

The bottom line: If a tree falls in a forest and the Associated Press is not there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Someone needed to stop and ponder the news values linked to this non-story and, thankfully, PoliticsDaily.com found a logical person to do that in columnist Jeffrey Weiss, who is best known to GetReligion readers for his years of service on the religion beat (R.I.P.) at the Dallas Morning News.

Weiss broadens this topic by adding a historical note. Thus, the headline: “The Southern Baptist Convention is Yesterday’s News.” The answer is, “yes,” kind of. What we have here is another one of those cases in which the press flocked to cover religion news, when the religion in question had an easy-to-label impact on politics. Here’s how he opens the essay:

If you know that the Southern Baptist Convention recently finished its annual meeting, you are either a Southern Baptist or a truly addicted news junkie.

The SBC met in Orlando, in the mouse-eared shadow of one of the denomination’s best-known recent adversaries. And if you’re interested in the official doings of the SBC, it did some interesting things. … But contrast the news coverage this time with what happened a decade or so ago. Back then, SBC meetings received major attention from the secular media. The pressroom would be packed by wire service reporters, writers from large and not-so-large newspapers from across the South, and from most of the top 10 largest papers not in the South. This time, I can find evidence of exactly five representatives of the secular media in attendance: Reporters from the nearby Orlando Sentinel and Lakeland Ledger, the Tennessean, Democrat-Gazette, Claremore (OK) Daily Progress, and Religion News Service.

Which leads to this question: Did the SBC get too much attention back in the day, or is it getting too little attention now? My answer to both: Probably so. (And for another good analysis of this question, check out Bobby Ross’ post on the excellent GetReligion blog.)

Obviously, one major cause of the exodus is the state of the economy. There are fewer religion reporters on national-level beats and the travel budget is thin, when it comes to coverage of religious topics other than politics and professional sports. Yet Weiss, like our own Ross, noted that the key was the absence of the AP.

This leads to the more interesting question: Did the SBC’s gatherings get too much coverage in the past and, if so, why did that happen? Yes, there were media-friendly issues such as abortion, gay rights, the ordination of women, the Disney boycott, etc., etc. I would note that Weiss also says that the Southern Baptists voted to “proselytize specifically at Jews.” Actually, what they said (and this is controversial enough in this day and age) is that they would continue to prepare evangelism materials for dozens upon dozens of different ethnic and cultural groups in America and around the world and that the Jewish people would not be singled out for silence. That was yet another fight over Universalism.

The key is that hot buttons were being pushed, year after year. Then, Weiss notes:

Atop those reader-friendly news hooks, we had the 25-year internal battle between what we always called “conservatives” and “moderates.” That fight ended with the conservatives in firm control of the denominational leadership and the moderates purged at about the same time the Republican Party was becoming increasingly defined by a publicly political conservative Christian base.

All factors that totally demanded intense news coverage for the SBC, yes?

Actually, many if not most MSM accounts of the great SBC civil war referred to those on the right as, yes, “fundamentalists” (truth be told, the coalition on the right did include some who fit under that historical umbrella). Meanwhile, those on the left were always given the label that they welcomed — “moderates.” Does any of this sound familiar?

But, culture-war era issues aside, Weiss is well aware that other issues are going on. You know a sea change is at work when even the Southern Baptists are facing a slight decline in membership statistics.

Weiss notes that the SBC war reflected, in part, the rise of the Religious Right and the redefinition of the Republican Party. That’s true, of course, and that represents good news and bad news for the convention. He also knows that the SBC is being hit by this culture’s slide into a “post-denominational age” in which people are increasingly on the move into congregations that strive to avoid putting a brand name on their lawn signs. People are also drifting back and forth across hazy doctrinal lines that used to be clearly defined.

This is a giant story and, in part, that is what the SBC reorganization plan is about — granting more independence to congregations, clergy and donors in an attempt to pull the old denominational tent a bit closer to the realities of this day and age. The bottom line: The children of many old Southern Baptists are turning into generic Evangelical and Charismatic believers.

This is one half an important story. The other half is the implosion of the old world of the liberal Protestant mainline churches. You think the SBC has problems with declining numbers and red ink? Go talk to mainline leaders. For that matter, go check in with the “moderate” leaders of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the network on the left that formed in opposition to the coalition that won the great SBC war.

At the same time, it must be noted that the Southern Baptists are having some success with their church-planting efforts among Latinos, Aftican-Americans and Asians. The SBC’s numbers would be much worse without the small gains made there. This is another area in which, statistically, evangelicals and charismatics are doing better than “moderates” and liberals. There’s a story there that cuts against many stereotypes.

Weiss quotes people on both sides of the Baptist wars, but focuses his attention on trends that are affecting the right. That’s the bigger story, after all.

You need to read the whole essay, but here is the key point. The convention in Orlando included lots of news, but it was news that focused more on religious issues than political issues. GetReligion readers know which subject drives the conversations in most editorial meetings in big newsrooms.

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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.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana


    Two other factors in the SBC organization.

    -Young Southern Baptists are also becoming Calvinists–albeit Calvinists who are really committed to evangelism and missions.
    -Young Southern Baptists, many of whom have been on mission trips, want to dial direct in their giving–they don’t want to give to the denomination infrastructure–they want to give direct to the missionaries they’ve worked with.

    What makes the Southern Baptist so interesting is that they are facing some of the same demographic issues that Mainline churches faced–aging congregations, too many churches in communities where the population is declining, too few babies.
    But unlike Mainline churches, the Baptists have decided to address their problems head on.
    They started 5,221 new churches from 1998-2008 and 2/3rds of those churches have African American, Hispanic-American, Asian American or other minority congregations. Almost 20% of their congregations are diverse, which is rare.

    Lots of news here in Nashville.

    From 1998 to 2008, the convention added 5,221 new churches, two-thirds of them with diverse congregations.

  • Bennett


    I don’t mean to be persnickety, but there are a couple of typos. “Weiss is will aware that other issues are going on…” and “and charismatics are doing better then ‘moderates’…”.

    “will” should be “well” and “then” should be “than”.

    You can delete this comment after you fix it. Thanks!

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    The Calvinist factor is very important, but that is a subgroup WITHIN SBC borders, right? Or is that a force pulling people out into generic, but Reformed, nondenominational churches?

    The second point about $$$ is at the HEART of the parachurch and nondenominational age. Boomers are CAUSE driven, not structure given. Millennials are that TIMES 10.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    I wrote this one real fast. Thanks for the corrections and I will gladly leave your wrist slap up for the sake of my eternal soul.

  • Bennett

    Haha. I couldn’t resist. My dad reads the paper with a red pen in his hand. Open comments are way too tempting. Anyhow, thanks for covering important stuff.

  • Bob Smietana

    Hi Terry:

    The parachurch movement has finally hit the SBC and the older leaders weren’t ready for it. In some ways, Southern Baptists are becoming more like Midwestern evangelicals.

    There’s a lot of Calvinists who are staying in the SBC. They are organized and making their presence known. About an hour before the Great Commission Resurgence vote, about 1,200 young Calvinists met Johnny Hunt and Al Moehler at a meeting called Baptist 21. Moehler predicted there would be a runoff for SBC president and told them to hang out until the runoff was over. “Don’t you leave until we elect a president,” he said.
    They didn’t. And to the surprise of almost everyone, Bryant Wright was elected. He’s not a Calvinist but he supported the GCR– and he gives money direct to the IMB, not the cooperative program.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    If there are Calvinists who are are leaving, did you get a sense where they are going?

    I mean, these folks tend to be rather linear thinkers. How do you pull off being a Calvinist without a larger defining theological community in which there is a shared, presbyterian (small p) approach to interpreting Scripture?

  • http://politicsdaily.com Jeffrey Weiss

    Well, here’s a bit of self-recursive cross-pollination. Bobby’s post here is what set *me* off…1:-{)>

    And Bob, we shall see if the SBC’s attempt to address its problems “head-on” has an impact. Founding lots of churches reminds me a bit of a parable about seeds…Come back in five years and see how many are still around.

    And Terry, I will gently remonstrate that *some* of us stayed away from the term “fundamentalist” even back when the war was hot ‘n heavy…

    And I think you are conflating two stories about evangelism. One was about the evangelical materials prepared for several different faiths. (The one for Hindus called that religion “demonic,” as I recall.) But the SBC also created a special office in Dallas aimed specifically for outreach to Jews. That was taken as a bit more than not *ignoring* Jews…

    In any case, thanks for the shout-out.

  • Jon in the Nati

    If there are Calvinists who are are leaving, did you get a sense where they are going?

    Surely, they are not going to the Christian Reformed Church or the Reformed Church in America? I mean, these denominations are pretty old-line Continental Protestant, and aren’t nearly as missions-focused as the SBC or the people leaving it, even though they may share Calvinist roots.

    My guess is that they are going nondenom, and attempting to infuse Calvinist-reformed theology into the existing conservative Evangelical Protestant framework.

  • Jerry

    People are also drifting back and forth across hazy doctrinal lines that used to be clearly defined.

    The media is good at covering significant events and typically bad at covering trend line stories unless there’s an event such as serious poll to be reported. But trend line events such as reflected in this story are newsworthy and deserve coverage which reflects some historical perspective as implied by this sentence.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Bobby “Bible Belt” Ross. I like it, although I hope Frank Lockwood doesn’t sue me for copyright infringement. :-)

  • blestou

    Young Calvinistic Baptists are not leaving the SBC (I am one). They are staying, growing, and mobilizing as a force within the convention, which makes some of the old-timer SBC evangelists nervous.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Ah, so you agree with me, even though you don’t think that you do.

    You see, the Southern Baptists (and many other nondenominational and denominational groups) have all kinds of individual offices/missions/networks/teams that focus their efforts on dozens and dozens of individual “people groups.” That is the normal approach for evangelism these days. That is the approach the SBC uses for all kinds of groups.

    So building a specific office/team/mission for outreach to Jews is the normal approach, the one used with other groups as well, not just the Jewish people. What would be the theological logic — from their stance, not your stance — of not using this approach again, or remaining silent in efforts to reach the Jews?

    Remember, you are suggesting that it was surprising, that it was hot news, that they were not silent. The SBC leaders was saying that it was not unusual for them to use the same approach to evangelism with the Jews that they use with everyone else. They were not uniquely singling the Jews out for evangelism, in other words. They were doing what non-Universalists, what people who deny Two Covenant-theology, do with outreach to all non-Christian believers.

  • http://politicsdaily.com Jeffrey Weiss

    Terry: I’ll take your word that the SBC has a specific office with someone assigned to Hindus, another office assigned to Muslims, another for Buddhists, another for Taoists, etc. But I’ve never heard of ‘em. And I can find no reference to a Southern Baptist “coordinator of Hindu ministries,” for instance, though Mr. Google does turn up multiple references to an SBC former “coordinator of Jewish ministries.”

    To your broader point, we have no disagreement. That Jews would be considered as, hm, targets of opportunity for evangelism by the SBC, just like Hindus and Muslims and etc., really didn’t constitute news for anybody who understood the theology. But that didn’t keep MSM types from, convering the “controversy” as some American Jewish leaders reacted with predictable outrage quotes. Did the MSM over-cover that event? Yup.

  • dalea

    Weiss says:

    But dig down a layer. We all knew that the claim of 16 million Southern Baptists was puffery. Almost all religion stats are puffed, after all. I knew that at least one large, old Southern Baptist church in my town included as “official” members anybody who had ever attended any function there in the previous five years. I was told that was common practice.

    Church worship attendance is a more trustworthy number for the SBC and that’s been around 6 million for a while. Toss in another couple of million for people who don’t show up every week – Sunday School enrollment is closer to 8 million — and we’re still down to half the official total.

    He knew that the claim of 16 million members was false, but he reported it anyway. IOW, Weiss is willing to report lies as facts. Is this a standard journalistic practice? I find this absolutely appalling.

  • Ira Rifkin

    Jeffrey, Terry;

    I don’t believe – and I’m working from memory now – that the SBC established offices specifically for Hindus, Buddhists etc. as such because – again as I recall – they approached/perhaps still approach evangelism on a country by country or ethnicity by ethnicity basis.

    Hence, Jews were perceived as the children of Abraham, a bloodline-ethnicity. Sort of like Navahos, Tibetans, Thais, or the Waorani people of Ecuador — except far more important because of Jews’ relationship to events in the NT and their group rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.

    SBC leadership takes Romans 1:16 pretty seriously. The ethnicity approach is also the basis for some (including the SBC) to claim that one remains a Jew even after accepting Jesus, a claim utterly rejected by Jewish RELIGIOUS law.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Hi Jeff:

    The SBC organizes their mission work by ethnicity or “people groups” rather than different faiths. They are going also allow overseas missionaries to work in the US.

    On the church planting, you’re right–it’s a wait and see if those churches survive. But they are trying something to reverse their numbers.

    We did a piece last year on the decline in the PCUSA–in 2008 they lost 69,000 people, the biggest drop in years.
    The Baptist, which has 8 times as many members–lost 40,000 people. (If my math is right, the Baptist vs. Presbyterian attendance is about 6 to 1).

    That year the PCUSA started 30 new churches, or one for every 330 existing church. The Baptist, on the other hand, started one new church for every 30 existing churches. It’s a very different approach.
    The killer stat for the PCUSA was that they performed more than 34,000 funerals and 26000 child baptisms.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana


    A lot of the young Calvinist Baptist — which is most everyone who comes through Southern Seminary — are staying in the convention and forming new networks based on affinity.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    That is very unfair toward Weiss. He is absolutely right about church statistics IN GENERAL. He stated the other stats that must be balanced at the same time.

    Membership stats are all uncertain. The emphasis on church attendance and new missions are other factors that I always strive to quote too.

    But in the context of this post, the most important stat is even MORE impossible to quote — the numbers for the rising tide of nondenominational churches.

  • http://politicsdaily.com Jeffrey Weiss

    Dalea, you raise a valid question. Why *do* we report stats we know are unlikely to be true? In my case, after I’d been on the beat for a while and realized the unreliability of most such stats, I started couching my description of them differently. Something often like “the denomination *claims* more than 16 million members,” which at least makes it clear this is a number from the organization and should be viewed with at least some skepticism. Beyond that, I did a story or two and many blog posts over the years debunking many of the commonly presented religion stats. And I use them less and less in my work, unless I provide a lot of context. I give much greater credence to stats from the major surveys, such as Pew and ARIS, though those also have their weaknesses. (And Terry, you have me curious about the switching stat. I *know* Pew has something about this, but I can’t remember if that survey drilled down to the level of SBC.)

    But it took me several years on the religion beat to figure all that out. Not so many reporters get that opportunity these days.

    However, I think we can’t simply dismiss the numbers compiled by denominations. In some cases, these are the only data we can get. And there’s validity, I think, in the trend lines more than the “raw” numbers, so keeping track has some value.

  • acts 28:22

    Thanks for the interesting article on the SBC but with all the folks they are trying to proselytize, you forgot about their little convention in Salt Lake City when they went after the Mormons. This might give you a little background from the Utah prospective.

  • http://politicsdaily.com Jeffrey Weiss

    @acts, I was *there* for that convention. Walked the streets with a bunch of SBC young door-to-door-ers and had the interesting experience of talking to one of the adult chaperons when a light went on in his head and he realized that the NT is to Jews more or less what the Book of Mormon is to Baptists…1:-{)>

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Jeff’s right — we can’t dismiss the data from denominations out of hand. The PCUSA, Episcopal Church, Southern Baptists and other denominations collect data from churches, and some have pretty sophisticated rules on how and when the data is collected. There’s an association of denominational statisticians, who take their work very seriously.
    My denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, gathers data over a series of weeks–otherwise churches are tempted to take a sweeps week approach and try to draw a big crowd on the day stats are collected, to bump up their attendance numbers.

    Attendance is probably a better indicator, but it is tricky as well, since many so-called regular
    attenders go to church 2-3 times a month, rather than every week. So the pool of regular attenders is bigger than the average Sunday attendance.

    What we have to watch for are denominational numbers based completely on surveys and estimates–which is what some larger denominations do.

  • Passing By

    Bob Smietana -

    Thank you for the resource. Church stats are a hobby with me and I’m usually stuck on the Episcopalians and the Catholics. Bobby added a resource a few days ago.

    In a previous life, I was exposed to Lyle Shaller, who was then pressing the idea that the stat that really matters is average Sunday attendance. There is merit to that argument.