Last year, I wrote about the continuing exodus of members from the Catholic church, and apologists’ fumbling suggestions for how to reverse the trend. I noted with amusement that there was an elephant in the room – the church’s retrograde doctrines which drive away young people – which the apologists were carefully tiptoeing around while they made minor suggestions about the decor and the color scheme.
Well, as they say, history rhymes. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination and the second-largest religious denomination in the United States overall, is facing the same sharp decline (HT: Slacktivist):
For Southern Baptists, it’s happened again: Another annual report shows the denomination is losing members and baptizing fewer people.
An SBC task force convened to study the problem, found that in 2012, the most recent year for which stats are available, 25% of SBC churches performed no baptisms at all, and 80% baptized either one or zero young adults. Here’s a fuller picture:
Historically, the Convention grew throughout its history until 2007, when membership decreased by a net figure of nearly 40,000 members… An important indicator for the health of the denomination is new baptisms, which have decreased every year for seven of the last eight years. As of 2008, they had reached their lowest levels since 1987. Membership continued to decline from 2008 to 2012.
…Former SBC president Frank Page declared that if current conditions continue, half of all SBC churches will close their doors permanently by the year 2030. This assessment is supported by a recent survey of SBC churches which indicated that 70 percent of all SBC churches are declining or are plateaued with regards to their membership.
So, they realize they’re in crisis. But the SBC bigwigs’ reaction is much like that of the Catholic apologists: a firm declaration that they don’t need to make any changes to doctrine, but that if they just preach and pray more, God will save them by bringing about miraculous revival:
Though some have said the 15.7 million-member denomination needs to be more racially and ethnically inclusive, [Fred] Luter, its first African-American president, thinks the main reason for decline is that all congregations need to take a role in evangelism.
“We have just not been very active in doing what we can to reach the lost and the unchurched in our nation,” said the 57-year-old New Orleans pastor.
OK, show of hands: How many of you lost and unchurched souls would say that what’s holding you back from conversion is insufficient contact with Christian evangelists?
Unable to face the fact that they’ve already flooded the culture with religious messages and it’s not helping them attract new members, SBC leaders like Luter are convinced that they just need to redouble their efforts. They won’t accept that anything about the message itself has become problematic, even though that possibility ought to serve as a warning: if they try harder to spread an unpopular message, they’re more likely to lose members than to gain them.
Then there are the SBC members who don’t think that human efforts will do any good at all, and that they just have to pray for a miracle:
The Rev. Jared Moore, pastor of a small church in Hustonville, Ky., is not convinced that a special method or a new way of training is the answer.
“It’s not something that any president or any individual can reverse,” he said of the trends that show seven straight years of declining membership. “It’s something that God must bring about.”
…The Rev. Ronnie Floyd, a former SBC Executive Committee chairman who is considered to be a front-runner for the presidency, said there’s a need for “extraordinary prayer” for another “major spiritual awakening” in America.
As an atheist, I endorse this solution. I highly recommend that all religious leaders address their demographic problems by staying at home and praying as long and hard as they possibly can. This is such a can’t-miss strategy, in fact, that I urge them to discontinue all other activism in order to devote more time and effort to prayer. If it’s true that there’s a god who answers prayers, there’s no way this could backfire.
There was just one person quoted in the article who seems to have any glimmering of a grasp of the true problem:
David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, said Southern Baptists are facing challenges, both theological — some people don’t see themselves in need of a conversion — and sociological — waning agreement with traditional conservative worldviews.
I think this is very close to right. I’d be very surprised if the root cause of the SBC’s decline weren’t the same as it is for Catholicism and other religions: an increasingly tolerant and liberal society is turned off by antiquated superstitious beliefs that that demand intolerance of homosexuality, the subordination of women, and adherence to a conservative-fundamentalist political view that’s forced most liberals and moderates out of leadership positions.
The conservatives in the SBC have won the battle, but they’re losing the war. They’ve gained almost complete control of the denomination, only to find that the power structure is crumbling underneath them. And even better (from the atheist perspective) is that the very traits that got them into this problem also make it almost impossible for them to get out of it. They’re doing what their own beliefs tell them is “right” – only to find that it doesn’t work, it’s driving people away. But the only response they can conceive of is to try doing the same things even harder. They’re institutionally incapable of self-correction. (The Republican Party has the same problem – not surprising, considering the overlap in membership.)
I don’t think the SBC is going to ride this demographic trend all the way down to extinction. It’s likely that there’s some hard core of believers who will stay with the denomination no matter what. What I do think is that the longer they hold out, the more cruel and antiquated these beliefs will seem, and the bigger a barrier they’ll be to attracting new members outside their own insular circles. And since that will mean a greatly diminished influence on the wider culture, that’s an outcome I’d be perfectly happy with.