How Can Southern Baptists Get Their Groove Back?

How Can Southern Baptists Get Their Groove Back? June 23, 2015

Last week at The Washington Post, Barry Hankins and I offered three reasons why Southern Baptists are on the decline, and three ways to address it. They include getting serious about evangelism, defeating “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” and making politics secondary.

One of the most interesting “pushbacks” I got was against point #2 – aren’t there a number of “megachurches” who peddle theological pabulum and self-help therapy, and are growing in spite of it? Bad theology does not prevent growth, it would seem.

Fair enough – but here are several observations in response. First, “megachurches” often get stereotyped as shallow. But there are plenty of megachurches (congregations with more than 2000 average weekend attendance) that are teaching solid evangelical theology. And whatever you may think about Joel Osteen-type churches, they are not “liberal” in the same way as a “liberal” Episcopal congregation is.

But the point remains that there is no automatic formula for growth or decline. There does seem to be a close correlation between liberal theology and denominational decline, as seen in the mainline churches. The role of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism [MTD] is admittedly more complicated, partly because its influence is insidious. (MTD is basically the idea that if you do your best, you will go to heaven – the gospel of the American Dream.) MTD can sound more conservative than outright liberal theology, but it similarly risks mimicking the messages we get from secular, media-driven pop culture.

I propose that if you mirror the priorities and values of the surrounding culture, over the long haul you can expect decline. I would not want to generalize about what all Southern Baptist churches are teaching, but to the extent that people – especially children – are getting versions of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in any SBC churches, it will influence the denomination’s long-term decline.

Second, while there are undoubtedly things churches can do to foster decline, no theology or ministry style can guarantee growth – spiritual or numerical – at the congregational level. The reason for this is that conversions, effective evangelism, and real revivals are undergirded by prayer and the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit blows where He will. Jonathan Edwards called the 1734-35 Northampton revival “surprising” because he could not identify any substantial change he made in ministry or preaching to bring it about. He saw it as a surprising work of God, precipitated by an outpouring of the Spirit.

Third, even megachurches with bad theology often do a good job in presentation, relevance, and (in spite of their reputation) getting people connected to small groups in the church. Whether we like it or not, a church’s presentation of itself matters. Systems for connecting with people, and connecting them to the church body, matter too. As I have written before at the Anxious Bench, churches should never pander theologically to younger people, but they should keep in mind that the means of communicating the church’s teachings is always changing. Some principles of reaching and retaining people don’t change much, they just require hard work. These include effective systems of welcoming people, following up with guests, funneling believers toward membership, having substantial expectations of members, and making it hard for the flock to wander off without anyone noticing.

The point, then, is not how to guarantee growth in the SBC – that would be presumptuous. But if we don’t emphasize effective evangelism, and solid biblical teaching that majors only on the things of the Kingdom, we have no reason to think that the SBC’s decline won’t continue.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • guadalupelavaca

    Southern Baptists have an image problem. They are very self righteous and judgmental. I grew up in Texas and I am so glad I moved to Southern California. Fundamentals still exist here but not as many as in Texas. And when I occasionally run into them here they are quick to condemn me for being Catholic. I would rather be in a room full of atheists than Baptists or conservative Christians.

  • Noah172

    The author says the SBC should be less engaged politically. I would wholeheartedly agree, and would note that one of the reasons for the steep decline of the mainline denoms has been corruption by (mostly left-wing) politics. But does the author have anything to say about the SBC’s most prominent current leader, Russell Moore? He is quite political, whatever he dishonestly claims in interviews. His politics are not exactly what one might call stereotypically right-wing evangelical, although Moore’s agenda is basically Bush (George and Jeb) in content, and he pushes his politics constantly in the media, always claiming to speak for groups (the SBC, all evangelicals, all Christians) larger than himself. Want to depoliticize the SBC? Start with Moore.

  • kierkegaard71

    Can you give examples of Christian themed programs that promote MTD in the SBC? I would think the SBC’s bigger problem would be lack of theological depth in teaching rather than MTD. Sure, they don’t need to become 19th c. Princeton Seminary stuffy, but it strikes me they could stylistically go for more “John Piper” rather than mere recitation of the “plan of salvation” week by week.

  • Andrew Dowling

    SBC theology can’t be disassociated from politics, because from its founding, it’s basic MO was to create theological justifications for the dominant politics of male white southern culture. From Mohler’s defense of torture to the conventions support of guns, this has continued to the present. You want your conservative political presuppositions coated with a sprinkling of Jesus, then the SBC is right up your alley.

  • ravitchn

    Baptists have no groove.

  • cken

    Amen to that Guadalupe. When I lived in norther FL 20 years ago I wouldn’t hire an SB because they were backstabbing, arrogant, rigid, judgmental, hypocrites. I tried not to form any friendships with them either, they were neither loyal or trustworthy. There are exceptions of course but i think the above statements are generally true. If that is the “groove” they want to get back may God help them.

  • cken

    We only have denominations because of man’s greed, ego, and politics. Nobody should be able to find any differences in what Jesus taught, and the rest of the bible is commentary interpreted by man’s opinions.

  • Evergreen

    > defeating “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”

    That is the funniest thing I’ve read all day. Should be as fun to watch as Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

  • John C. Gardner

    I am a Confessional Missouri Synod Lutheran. I really reacted positively to this posting and to the article in the Post. The culture we inhabit now is one of the most serious problems that the Christian church faces, We in the church universal need to concentrate on catechizing youth, parental and family involvement in prayer, Bible reading, and evangelism. We must be unified with all orthodox Christians in what C. S. Lewis called mere Christianity even while still respecting denominational and individual congregational preferences. Missouri Synod Lutheran are organized around Scripture, the historic Christian creeds and our confessional statements found in the Book of Concord. All Christians must be unified in protecting freedom of conscience and religious practice in light of the recent Supreme Court decision on marriage. We all must engage in evangelism and outreach to the young so that our goals remain focused on Matthew 25 and 28. Thanks for writing the post and the article which were helpful to this non- Baptist who fortunately attended a Baptist undergraduate University.

  • candide

    When did Baptists ever have a groove?

  • candide

    Baptists are very peculiar. They refuse to baptize infants, preferring to baptize people who understand theology. No one can understand theology. They have no liturgies, no rituals, just awful music and ranting preachers. Why anyone would want to join them is quite beyond me. They have no class.

  • Baptist wife

    The SBC should continue to focus on males. Females are chattel. Russell Moore, and several other men, have made disturbing remarks about patriarchy. I may withdraw my membership, that is, if women are allowed to make decisions of that nature.