The Atlantic finds new sect: Southern Baptist Convention

Maybe someone at The Atlantic was trying to be clever or just writing too fast. Or maybe its online article about the Southern Baptist Convention told a subtler story: a condescending attitude toward the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

“Baptists, Just Without the Baptisms,” quips the headline, rather exaggerated but still arguable if you want to get readers’ attention. The included bar graph does show rates have been falling fairly steadily since 1999. The article also tells of failures to baptize most members between 12 and 29 years old.

But those of us who care about words found our eyes drawn elsewhere in the piece. First, the subhead:

A task force of Southern Baptist ministers reports its finding on the sect’s declining rate of dunkings, saying, “We have a spiritual problem.”

Then in the body of the story:

When the baptism numbers for 2012 were released last summer, the denomination’s national organization, the Southern Baptist Convention, put together a “task force” on the sect’s “evangelistic impact.”

A sect? You mean some small, aberrant group with strong leaders and opaque workings — weird at best, dangerous at worst? How does that word apply to an organization of nearly 16 million people in 50,000 congregations in every state — and a lot of other nations as well?

Think I’m making too much of a single word? Well, Boko Haram, the murderous terrorist group in Nigeria, often gets called a sect. So do Hasidic groups like Lev Tahor and Shuvu Banim, especially in non-Orthodox Jewish media.

Did The Atlantic team even look up the word? Because a few keystrokes yield some interesting definitions, including:

* “A group regarded as heretical or as deviating from a generally accepted religious tradition.”

* “A schismatic religious body characterized by an attitude of exclusivity in contrast to the more inclusive religious groups called denominations or churches.”

* “A Christian denomination characterized by insistence on strict qualifications for membership, as distinguished from the more inclusive groups called churches.”

The dictionary also has a few broad, catch-all definitions, such as “any group, party, or faction united by a specific doctrine or under a doctrinal leader”; “a group of people with a common interest, doctrine, etc; faction,” and “a body of persons adhering to a particular religious faith; a religious denomination.” By those standards, you could brand Judaism or Catholicism — or Methodism or the Salvation Army, for that matter — as a sect. How often do you imagine The Atlantic has done so?

The article on the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t all bad. The Atlantic’s writer alertly notes that there are also other kinds of Baptists and that the SBC is a “loose network,” not a tightly run corporation. She also reports that many denominational leaders have lowered their vision from seeking converts to managing the 50,000 congregations.

And here’s a perceptive paragraph:

This seems to be a conflict between logistics and belief, with everyday pastors focused on keep their churches running and national leaders fixated on getting souls saved. The task force would probably argue that the two are inextricably linked, but the data do not necessarily agree: The decline in baptisms started half a decade before membership started shrinking. Even in the denomination’s best-ever year for church membership, baptisms declined by roughly four percent compared to the previous year. At least in terms of numbers, it seems possible to have a strong faith community with fewer baptisms.

Unfortunately, the article has other blemishes besides the misuse of “sect.” In one case, it says “evangelical” (conversion to Christ) when it means “evangelistic” (influencing others to convert). And you’ve already seen baptism belittled as “dunkings” in the subhead.

The team at The Atlantic also gets squishy in saying the SBC peaked at 16.6 million members in 2005, then fell to 15.8 million in 2012. “That’s nearly one million members lost in roughly a decade,” the piece says, although it’s actually 800,000 in seven years.

And there’s a clumsy attempt to get cutesy at the end of the story by talking about pastors trying to “get more people to go down to the river to pray.” The linked song of Down in the River to Pray, by Allison Krauss, is a sweet version; but just because it was in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, doesn’t make it quintessentially Southern Baptist.

Finally, The Atlantic seems to equate baptism with outreach and maybe even the peak Southern Baptist experience. There’s a lot about “dunking,” rates of baptisms, who gets baptized and who doesn’t. What I don’t see is a recognition of the prerequisite: being born again, accepting Jesus as Lord and savior — and only then to be baptized. The ritual is totally different than, say, for a Catholic; you undergo it as a public demonstration of your belief.

To miss or ignore this fact is to miss the first thing about all Baptists, Southern or otherwise. And if you misunderstand a group, you just might start calling it names like “sect.”

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About Jim Davis
  • Matt

    What’s a “member” of a Southern Baptist Church? The Atlantic article assumes we know what it means to be a member. I certainly don’t. Is a member the same as a baptized person in a congregation? Are there other steps to becoming a member than just attending services? Does every individual SBC church have a different definition of member? Isn’t this the second question of just about any piece of journalism: “what”?

    • Howard

      A member of a Southern Baptist church is simply someone who applies for membership and is accepted. In many cases this is a “transfer of membership” — due to a recent move, or to personal preference — in which case a letter is sent from the previous church testifying that the applicant had been a member there. New members must make a profession of faith and (I think) be baptized after having reached the age of reason. (I joined a mission church in Europe in 1997 or ’98, but I had already been baptized, so the question of baptism did not arise.)

      I suppose an application might be rejected if the applicant is a notorious sinner (in the eyes of that church, at least) who refuses to repent. I’ve never heard of that actually happening, though. Generally, the new applicant is presented to the congregation and accepted by acclamation.

      • Julia B

        What usually happens if a member keeps putting off getting baptized? that seems to be what the article is describing?

        • Howard

          I *think* baptism is a requirement for full membership. It was not an issue in my case.

          I should point out, though, that some local churches go to ridiculous lengths to show that they are not “too Catholic”. BAPTISM *IS* VERY STRONGLY DOWNPLAYED, even if it is a requirement for a voting membership. Some churches celebrate “the Lord’s Supper” once a month, some once a season or so, some once a year, and I know of one American Baptist church (that my great aunt still attends) that apparently has gone for years without celebrating it — all because they are afraid that if they take a step or two down that road, they’ll become Catholic.

          My own history indicates that they are right.

          • Julia B

            Thanks

  • Matt

    According to Merriam-Webster, a sect can be simply “a religious denomination” or “a religious group that is a smaller part of a larger group and whose members all share similar beliefs.” Being a division from a larger group is an important part of the connotation (witness the adjective “sectarian”), so Judaism clearly is not a sect and Catholicism arguably is not either. But Baptists, Methodists, and the Salvation Army? Sure.

  • Matt

    Regarding “dunkings,” that’s just playfulness, especially forgivable in a sub-headline.

    Regarding “evangelical,” the sentence is true as written but you’re right that the context called for “evangelistic.” That’s a pretty small quibble, though, as is the rounding of numbers.

    P.S. The previous post about “members” was written by a different person called Matt, but the previous post about “sect” was written by myself.

    • Julia B

      Welcome to the club. Catholics’ terminology is routinely bungled by the press. You have to remember that what a word like “evangelical” or “evangelistic” or “sect” means depends on who is using that word in-house. Traditionally, Catholics only try to convert non-Christians and the un-churched or re-claim our own who have fallen away – so our use of “evangelism” etc. is different from Baptists. And I’m particularly sure Baptists’ meaning of the terminology is somewhat different from Lutherans who are actually known as Evangelicals in some parts of the world.

    • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

      agreed. when looking for small stuff and picking, it reveals an agenda that discredits possible good aspects of this post.

  • Kevin Spencer

    Jim: Your characterization of baptism for Catholics is way too general. As a convert myself, the Catechism requires baptism as a Sacrament; one of three as part of Christian initiation. If a person was validly baptized elsewhere (save the LDS rite), the person isn’t rebaptized. So while baptism is a publicly witnessed event, it’s a Catholic requirement.

    And why the use of a Baptist web link that does not reflect the Catholic source?

    • Howard

      The LDS baptism is not regarded as valid, which is why a new baptism (not a re-baptism) is required. In many other cases, though, there will be a conditional baptism, “just in case” there were problems with the baptism at the other church — for example, some churches baptize “in the Name of Jesus” rather than “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”.

  • MDevlin

    Like Matt, I’ve used “sect” to mean sub-group. For instance, I would say my religion is Christian, my denomination is Protestant, and my sect is Baptist. It’s the use of “cult” for some Christians that angers me.

    • Julia B

      Catholics have been using the term “cult” for centuries to describe certain kinds of religious ritual and practices – no negativity implied at all. I don’t know how it got hijacked and got its new US English negative meaning.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult_(religious_practice)

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    (1) Edit:

    “The included bar graph does show rates have been falling fairly steadily since 1999.”

    rates of baptism, right? not membership or …?

    (2) According to your favorite standard – the religion stylebook: http://religionstylebook.com/?s=sect

    sect = Refers to a group that has broken off from another. Avoid this label unless you are sure it fits; it often carries negative connotations.

    No mention of “small” or “abberrant” or “weird” … You know very well that non-Christian subgroups were long called “sects” no matter what size. When turned on Christians, they can feel the negativity. It is a lesson worth learning. Should the word be abandoned, perhaps — for everyone. Who judges too weird, too small, too aberrant??? I hope you see the problem.

    Suggestion — fix your standard go-to-dictionary above and make the work pejorative only for those groups you dislike.

    (3)The average age of baptism in the Baptist sect of Christianity declined in the 20th Century — the age of “accountability” if fudgable. And if you indoctrinate kids to give the right cues and make their parents proud, the age can creep down and down.

    To go into all these subtle details in any given religious sect is tough while trying to keep the article readable and short.

  • fredx2

    As to the declining rates of baptisms – if you look at the number of live births in the United States, it follows a similar trend, declining starting in about 1990 to about 2000. Then it starts rising again. So the decline may be simply due to the fact that less children were born.


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