What Can Stop Southern Baptist Decline?

What Can Stop Southern Baptist Decline? June 3, 2014

In anticipation of the 2014 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, the SBC’s LifeWay Christian Resources issued its annual report on church statistics, and for the seventh straight year, the SBC’s overall membership declined. (Here’s my coverage of the 2013 report and annual meeting for WORLD Magazine.)

The University of North Carolina’s Molly Worthen, in an important essay on the decline, has asked whether the denomination’s Conservative Resurgence has “failed.” (The Resurgence was Southern Baptist conservatives’ campaign to regain control of denominational seminaries and agencies, accomplished in the 1980s and ’90s.) If denominational growth is the presumed test of success, then yes, the SBC is failing, and much soul-searching is required. While the SBC’s decline does not yet match the massive implosion of the mainline denominations, the statistics are bleak, and especially the declines in baptisms of millennials does not bode well for a thriving future.

SBC churches will need to give serious attention to considerations that might help reverse the denomination’s decline. One of the bright spots to come out of the report is that the number of SBC-affiliated churches is up – new church plants, in particular, often have the flexibility to reach their communities in nimble ways and don’t have to fight wearying battles about how “we’ve never done it that way before.” Denominational committees and task forces can bring some helpful attention to churches’ struggles, but ultimately, local congregations themselves are going to have to confront the battles of evangelism and community influence.

Pastors and other church leaders will need to ask themselves questions such as these: do we have an actual, effective strategy for community outreach/evangelism and inviting/welcoming people? (Please – everyone thinks of themselves as a welcoming church – it is time for asking practical questions!) What is your actual effect on your church’s neighborhood? Is evangelism being modeled and taught? Are church members actually inviting friends, neighbors, and family members to come to the church?

Similarly, are we willing to take a hard look at how our church meetings strike visitors? Does our service seem relevant and accessible to people who did not grow up in Southern Baptist culture? Who actually shows an interest in, and follows up with guests? Are we praying expectantly for conversions, baptisms, and new members?

I could go on, but the point is that the SBC’s 46,000+ churches are individually going to have to engage these questions. Some who won’t do so are going to be shuttered eventually. Perhaps this is not a bad thing.

Before the SBC gets too down on itself, however, perhaps the dismaying numbers represent a good occasion for reflection on the meaning of “success” for a church. Surely success cannot ultimately be measured by the membership numbers of a mega-denomination alone.

The Finneyite tradition of American evangelicalism may have borne some ill fruit on this score. Charles Finney, a leading evangelist of the Second Great Awakening, said that God had given us the means for revival, and that if we implemented those means faithfully, revival would inevitably come. But this is a formula for burnout. Ultimately, pastors and churches cannot be responsible for the response of a person or community to a faithful proclamation of the gospel. There will be seasons of great growth and “success,” and there will be times of wandering in the desert.

Fidelity to the Bible and orthodox theology is essential, but ultimately, the results of our outreach are in God’s hands. Let’s never use God’s sovereignty as an excuse for passivity, but in the end, numerical “success” is not something we can do anything to ensure. Worthen references Jonathan Edwards’ Northampton revival of the 1730s – it is instructive to remember that he called that revival the “surprising work of God,” because he could not point to any new strategy or emphasis that brought titanic revival to his frontier Massachusetts town. For Edwards, that work was primarily occasioned by the Holy Spirit.

Some critics will suggest, of course, that giving up on theological orthodoxy would help the SBC reach people, especially the young. As I noted in a recent column (“Churches Pandering to Millennials“), this is not the right strategy, even if all you want is bigger numbers.

Yet Worthen is undoubtedly correct that the SBC’s experience complicates (though it does not utterly refute) the notion that conservative theology equals denominational growth in America. To know if they are truly “successful,” however, I suppose that church leaders will have to wait until their divine evaluation. Hearing “well done, good and faithful servant” from the Lord must be their final test of success.

See also Timothy George’s “Troubled Waters,” at First Things.

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