The South Will Not Rise Again

The South Will Not Rise Again August 25, 2014


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.

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  • You know before the modern era the Christians could honestly believe that the word needed to be spread because the world was not so interconnected a place. But nowadays everyone. EVERYONE has heard the story of Jesus. Not just people in developed countries with the internet but thanks to missionaries his story has been told at every corner of the globe.
    No more excuses if it just turns out the story isn’t that persuasive.

  • Bob Jase

    But look at the great progress they are making with low-information converts in the 3rd world – why, they’re even allowed to burn witches!

  • Black Leaf

    Well, there’s still a few isolated tribes here and there that might not have seen a missionary yet…but for 99.9999% of the world’s population, yeah.

  • BeaverTales

    The culture wars (gays, abortion, guns, etc) are just a proxy for hanging onto and giving special status to the culture of the South and the Southern way of life. The Church has always been a part of that because it provided God’s imprimatur on that particular world view.

    The biggest enemy of the Church is higher literacy rates, better educational standards for young people, easily researched knowledge with a few keystrokes, online communities that transcend international borders, and exposure to the wider world on TV and the internet.

  • MNb

    Again nobody asks: “this happened in Europe a few decades ago; what can we learn?”

  • ZenDruid

    SBC: *blank stare*

  • Kerry

    Having lived in Taiwan I can tell you that a good many in that country do not know the story of Jesus. Taiwan is 98% Buddhist of which my wife is one, and I had the pleasure of bringing her to the States for her first ever Christmas. It was interesting to see through eyes that knew nothing of the story. So, I would venture that there are millions and millions in the Asian world that know nothing of Jesus and the Bible.

  • Maine_Skeptic

    “No more excuses if it just turns out the story isn’t that persuasive.”
    I would agree, but the one true miracle worked by every religion is a bottomless pit of excuses for why it isn’t working.

  • J

    I straight-up don’t believe you.

  • Lucky buggers.

  • HematitePersuasion

    This is certainly a happy thought for the day! Although Christianity has proven a remarkably morphic religion. Even as the cruelest versions die out, new, more socially acceptable versions sprout and will, no doubt, retard moral progress in a hundred years or so. But I’ll take what I can get, regardless!

  • Matt G

    They should absolutely spend more praying, and pray as hard as they can. This way they either have themselves to blame for not praying long and hard enough, or God is to blame. Then they can either assume they aren’t capable of praying hard enough, or God is telling them something about His support for them.

  • Matt G

    Don’t forget that exorcisms are coming back into fashion!

  • gimpi1

    There is a difference between being Buddhist and having not heard the Christian message. You understand that many of the Buddhists in question might well have heard about Christianity, but elected to remain Buddhist, right?

  • arensb

    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

    Well, of course: if your product isn’t selling, just keep advertising more and more until it does sell. That’s just Economics 101 and also too common sense, people.

  • Lark62

    I’m sure it worked for candle makers and ice delivery men.

  • Plenty of American Christians have heard of Buddhism but couldn’t explain the tenants of that faith or how to become a good Buddhist in any meaningful way. I suppose the Buddhists in question might say the same thing about Christianity?

  • Highlander

    So it seems you are predicting that baptists will become the Amish of the south. Looked on as backwards and odd by the rest of the nation. If so, I hope you’re right.

  • Southern Skeptic

    Speaking as a former Southern Baptist Christian, this doesn’t surprise me one bit. When I was in college, I learned about the theory of evolution and all the facts that support it, I met atheists who didn’t do drugs and party all the time, and I met gay people who seemed perfectly happy. When I asked church leaders about these things, the reply was usually harsh: the biology teachers are evil, the atheists will stab you in the back, and the gays are secretly miserable. I was also shamed for even questioning these issues. Rather than keeping me in the fold, they drove me away.

  • Korou

    Yes, perhaps they know that there are people in the world who call themselves Christians and who believe in one God with a magical son, but not much beyond that?

  • arensb

    Actually, there are still candle-makers around. It’s just that they’ve shifted into a different market: instead of making a product that everyone buys because everyone needs it, Yankee Candles and the like use advertising and sell a luxury product at a huge markup. Kind of like the soap-makers on etsy.

    As for the icemen, well, they all went Galt.

  • Nerdsamwich

    Some of which are bizarrely off-manual. You’ve probably heard of the recent “exorcism” attempt,performed by the mother and one of her friends, that ended up with a preteen getting stabbed some twelve times?

  • Laughing Giraffe

    I teach international students, and this is a fairly apt comparison. Some of my Japanese students, for example, were completely unaware that there was any difference between Catholics and Protestants and thought all Christians had to obey the pope.

  • Ann Kah

    I would like to see this as purely good news, but I worry about the rise of the evangelical mega churches that frequently are, I believe, “unaffilated” with the baptists or other groups. There seem to be a number of them around this area (northern Ohio). Are congregations just migrating laterally into churches that are bright and sparkly new, but deliver the same unpalatable message (with, perhaps, a better band)?

  • Deanjay1961

    And it’s very amusing to watch Japanese anime’ in which Christianity is portrayed along with a mix of Shintoist beliefs, like Blue Exorcist.

  • Nik Pfirsig

    As a life long Southern Non believer, I describe most southerners as meta-Christians.. The “Christian” label is more of a social identity than a religions one.
    They self describe as Christian, primarily to engage the trust as they proceed to behave in reprehensible acts of prejudice and malevolence against others, using their status as “Christians” as a shield against retribution

  • Nik Pfirsig

    Speaking of John Galt, I have the perfect location for Galt’s Gulch.
    51°24’19.89″N, 30° 3’28.03″E
    plug these co-ord into Google earth or if you use google maps switch to the satellite viwe.

  • Science Avenger

    Worse yet, some are hiding the message altogether under the glitz, to get the kids used to the lifestyle before hitting them with all the “thou shalt nots”. When my 8-year-old stepdaughter and I had our first conversation about religion, she shocked me by telling me she loved going to church. Really? A child loving church? My the world has changed. No, just the church, which for her meant going to the super neato play area next to where the adults were. She knew nothing of sermons or pews.

  • Ann Kah

    Thanks for your message. Since I first posted that, I got today’s timely mail with an ad for a new church, with “great live music”….”Our MoKidz ministry rocks!”…..”and you’ll be home in plenty of time for kickoff.” They declare themselves to be NOT “…a snooze-fest led by a creepy religious pickpocket with big hair”. Serously. I’m not kidding about this. I wish I were.

    A place called “Ambassadors football” is trying to build a place in my town. They bill themselves as “an evangelical soccer ministry”, and the town thinks it’ll be great to have a sports outlet such as this. (Major head-slap, and you can probably hear my eyes rolling from there!)

  • I’d expect that Asian people are about as conversant with Christianity as, say, Americans are on the difference between Shia and Sunni.

  • My understanding, based on broader demographic trends, is that the megachurches represent consolidation, not growth. They’re drawing adherents away from smaller evangelical churches, but not increasing the total number of evangelicals. I’d imagine the megachurch phenomenon has a lot to do with the migration of culturally conservative older and rural Americans into car-centered exurbs.

  • Ann Kah

    …”culturally conservative older”… That’s not what’s visible. See the response from “science avenger” below this, and my answer to him. They’re aiming for the younger audience by dressing up the message with lots of pizzazz.

  • cipher

    Seriously. Western Europe doesn’t exist in the fundie imagination.