Oh Noes! A Baptism Drought!

Oh Noes! A Baptism Drought! June 2, 2014

Whenever I talk about Christianity’s drop in numbers, I know that some fundagelical Christians disagree vehemently with the idea that their religion is facing a decline. They are absolutely convinced that actually no, their religion is doing awesome, it’s just bangerz numbers, and any day now they’ll have the whole world converted.

Such Christians remind me of multi-level marketing drones who insist that “the business” is booming despite never having experienced a single profitable month. Sometimes they’ll point to baptism numbers in third-world hellholes or similarly-impoverished or human-rights-violating countries (as if it’s hard to convince super-vulnerable, uneducated, ultra-poor and desperate people about pie-in-the-sky magic solutions), or deny that their churches are emptying fast as young people especially flee their bigoted and narcissistic message and their old folks die off one by one.

But the message is always very clear: their religion is not in any conceivable way losing people. Shut up. You’re just wrong. Neither you nor I know what you’re talking about.

One group of Christians, however, is finally coming to grips with their own drop in numbers. They might have the wrong explanation for it and the most nonsensical way possible of dealing with it, but they’re at least dimly aware that their denomination is starting to falter. That group is the Southern Baptist Convention, who recently declared that their denomination is facing a “baptism drought.” Today we’ll talk about why they’re facing it, and why they think they are, because those are two different things.

Baptism of Jesus (Arian Baptistery)
Baptism of Jesus (Arian Baptistery) (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

Reality Doesn’t Support Denial Very Well.

All these Nones must be coming from somewhere, right? Most non-Christians still seem like they’re ex-Christians at this point. Just a couple of decades ago the United States was overwhelmingly Christian. Now a third of it is unaffiliated or atheist. Think of a third of 200 million people, and start wondering what all those churches all over America look like. Some are growing, yes, but they’re largely poaching members from closed or more unappealing churches. Like any business, the few churches that are growing seem like they just hit on a business model that works and found a niche that needed filling. That said, overall, the numbers are definitively shrinking fast.

So you can imagine that when I saw this thing about the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) acknowledging that they have a “baptism drought” going on, it floored me that they’d go so far. The term means that there are way fewer people being baptized into the SBC than in a very very long time. In this report, their leadership has admitted that while technically they “gained” 270 new churches, they lost 105,000 members (and 188,000 Sunday worshipers, which I guess means people who show up there but aren’t formal members–children perhaps? Visitors dragged in by members? They don’t define the term here).

Think for a second about how large the average church is; that means that while there are a lot more SBC churches, those churches each have way fewer members and are sharing an ever-shrinking pie of members. According to Lifeway, about 1.3% of their churches have more than 1,000 members; this survey indicates that a full 1/5 of their churches have fewer than 100 people. They concede that this year marks the sixth straight year that overall membership has been dropping. To me, that speaks to hope triumphing over reality–a lot of churches are getting started and somehow failing to attract humongous crowds, it sounds like. I’m pretty familiar with this same phenomenon in online gaming, actually–a lot of folks start new games that fail to launch, and it starts to feel like just a couple of juggernauts dominate the online gaming field.

A more detailed report about this “baptism drought” gives even more distressing news (well, distressing to fundagelicals anyway, I guess). Of all SBC churches, 25% reported no baptisms at all, 60% reported no baptisms of young people 12-17, and 80% reported zero (or just one) baptisms of adults 18-29. In fact, the only growing age bracket all in all of the baptism reports appears to be very young children under five, which is problematic, because if I remember correctly, back when I was a Southern Baptist, kids were regarded as eligible for baptism only if they were old enough to understand what was going on and make a choice to do it. A super-young child was regarded as too young to understand the ideas of sin and repentance. But I guess if you haven’t baptized a lot of people, you’ll start digging down into the bottom of the barrel. We’ve also discussed the huge rate of disengagement (which means pulling away from Bible study, church attendance, prayer, etc.) among fundagelical kids once they hit college age–so most of these five-year-olds getting dunked probably aren’t going to stick around as adults. So it seems clear to me that yes, things are not looking great for the Southern Baptist Convention.

The problem is, they don’t take their examination or assessment far enough. Let’s look at why they think they’re losing people. Hemant Mehta over at Friendly Atheist has ably deconstructed some of this already and I definitely encourage you to check out how he links the SBC’s dwindling numbers to their simple, universal message of hate and bigotry, because I think there’s a great deal of truth to what he says.

But there’s more to say here and I’m saying it.

The SBC’s Five Stated Reasons For Their Own Decline.

Because everybody loves listicle reports, this report gives a list of five reasons why the SBC is losing numbers. It’s a festival of victim-blaming and shaming along with suggestions that will absolutely do nothing whatsoever to fix their problem. In other words, I’m sure it’s been very well-received by SBC leaders. Here’s the list of why they think churches are emptying.

* “We have a spiritual problem.”
I’d agree wholly with this assessment, incidentally, though not with how that problem manifests. They think it’s because their pastors aren’t doing enough witnessing and because their leaders and churches lack “a sense of brokenness and repentance.” In other words, when something’s demonstrably failing to work, you need to do it more and harder. They never even question the basis upon which their churches should be built; they never even wonder if the reason they’re losing people is that their philosophy is at its core somehow wrong. Nope, nope! Can’t be doing that.

* “We have a leadership problem.”
I’d agree with this as well, amusingly enough, but again, they totally get wrong what that looks like. They think the big problem is that their pastors are doing everything wrong. Apparently running churches and tending to the needs of the flock aren’t enough; they need to also get out there and witness with all their spare time. I know a couple of ministers–and it’s just laughable to imagine them shouldering that additional burden. Yep, let’s just all blame the pastors. That’ll be a lot easier than examining the huge pressures and social isolation heaped upon those poor souls. We don’t want to look at the huge price these folks pay to get where they are, or how incredibly demanding and difficult their lives already are. Nope, let’s just demonize and castigate them for not witnessing enough. Hey, isn’t there a story or two about a scapegoat in the Bible somewhere?

* “We have a discipleship problem.”
Again, correct assessment, totally incorrect everything else. Yes, they have a big problem keeping converts. All those signed “decision cards” they take photos of and gloat about? All those numbers they crow about after revivals? Those folks will almost all be gone by next year. Of the ones who remain, the real problem then is getting them to go out and get more Amway salespeople–er, converts. Once again, they blame pastors for being more focused on attendance numbers than on developing these long-term members. Yep, it must be the pastors’ fault. They’re not doing something right. Whatever they’re doing all day long, it just isn’t the right thing. Whatever that is.

* “We have a next generation problem.”
Oh whoa Nelly do they ever, but they have no idea what it is or just how bad it is. I suspect they do realize that it’s young people who are leaving in the biggest numbers. The report concedes that churches are bashing their brains out trying to educate and entertain (edutain?) kids, but somehow that effort’s not translating into those kids growing up and parking their butts in pews later in life. It doesn’t mention, either, that old myth about grown kids returning to church after they’ve settled down and had their own kids, so that’s a good sign; that used to be the old wisdom, and it’s just not playing out anymore. Of course, the blame here is shoveled onto the churches themselves for not being “effective” at indoctrinating little minds with their bigoted, willfully-ignorant message rather than where blame belongs: on an ideology that increasingly does not appeal to younger people.

Like the Republican Party of the United States, the SBC seems convinced that if they just package their hateful, vile message the right way or push it hard enough, young people will just fall into line and accept it–and that’s not true anymore, if it ever was.

* “We have a celebration problem.”
Now here we veer into WTF?!? territory. Seriously. The reason their numbers are dropping so precipitously is… they don’t celebrate baptisms enough. They spend too much time celebrating other things. Did someone tell these report writers that they needed five items on the list and nobody could think of a good fifth thing? Because folks, this is simply loony. I have trouble imagining a church that wouldn’t fall all over itself panting and cheering in response to a new member. You don’t have to look hard to see churches showing absolute delight over a new addition to the family. But apparently there’s some huge problem with how churches are celebrating new baptisms, which I guess makes the new people feel not important and speshul-weshul enough. Is there any way possible that the SBC could make more clear that it’s trying to operate a love-bombing cult here?

Building a Theme Park on a Radioactive Site.

You know what this list sounds like to me? Imagine somebody trying to build a theme park in Chernobyl in the present day.

Nobody comes to the park at all on its opening weekend, and the park owners hire this report’s authors to find out why. And the authors come back with a report that blames the food at the concession stand, bad weather on opening weekend, the manager not giving enough interviews before opening day, not enough blue fireworks at the opening-day celebration, and the lack of singing on the part of park employees. You would see this report and rightfully say in response:

DUDE. YOU BUILT A THEME PARK ON AN ACTIVELY RADIOACTIVE DANGEROUS SITE, WHICH IS WHY NOBODY CAME TO VISIT IT.

It doesn’t matter how many songs your employees sing as they sling sodas and chips at people or press ride-operation buttons. It doesn’t matter what color your danged fireworks are. It could be the sunniest day that ever dayed, and still nobody would want to come to a theme park that will give them cancer and make their hair fall out. Build your theme park somewhere else, and people will happily pay money to visit it.

The SBC still thinks that their land is safe and wholesome, and until they come to grips with the reality of their situation, they’re going to keep trying to make their theme park look like fun to visitors who know better than to visit because the land it’s built on is not safe. They’re going to keep thinking that the SBC is absolutely nuts for living on that land, much less for making a theme park on that land.

And they’re going to keep avoiding that park.

The SBC’s Proposed List of Five Solutions.

I often think Christians have their heads in the sand, but not often do we see something that illustrates that tendency as powerfully as this report does. The report’s authors, incidentally, have some suggestions for fixing it, and yes, of course there are five suggestions to match the five problems because Christians can’t concentrate on anything that isn’t a quick Buzzfeed-esque sound bite:

* Pray lots and lots, because up till now nobody was praying for increased membership.
Whoops! Dang, how’d they ever miss that? If only they’d known! Prayer makes everything happen and if nothing is happening (or the wrong things are happening) then clearly people weren’t praying enough. Make sure you look up at the ceiling when you pray and raise your hands, SBC, because the damns your god doesn’t give are way up there.

* More personal evangelism, which means witnessing and bothering people.
This will totally work because up till now, nobody was telling Southern Baptists that they really need to be evangelizing everybody they know, and you know, we just haven’t had enough fundagelicals trying to push religion at us. Surely if they do more of it, we’ll all shortly convert en masse.

* More “discipleship” efforts, which means they’ll try harder to indoctrinate new members.
Again, I’m not really sure how they could do more without violating the personal space of their converts, but okay, I guess they’re still drilling down on the “do more of this thing that isn’t working” idea here.

* They’ll try extra-dextra hard to “disciple” young people.
They weren’t doing tons of that already either and their message hasn’t totally turned off every single young person in America yet. Give them time on that one. Wait, didn’t they already actually say that churches are working overtime to give young people stuff to do?

* And they’ll celebrate baptisms more.
How? With cake? Because I admit, I like a nice cake. That would work, I bet.

Cake is always nice.

Why Their Ideas Will Fail.

None of these suggestions are offered up with the first hint of how enacting them would work or look like; it’s a fairly short report, so I guess they didn’t have time to write all that down after spending all their time brainstorming two sets of matching lists. They do suggest a book about how to witness to people, but that’s about it. Nowhere do they even consider that they’re losing numbers because their ideology is broken beyond all fixing. They take for granted that their message and theology are perfect, so obviously if numbers are falling, that’s due to some shortcoming on the part of churches. The solution, obviously, is to drill down harder on what they were already doing.

You know, we’ve talked about magical thinking here before–this idea that delusional people often have where they think that a magic ritual or spell has some effect on a totally unrelated outcome. Christianity is simply filled with magical thinking, starting with the idea that praying does anything at all, and I see a lot of that kind of thinking in this report. It says, with absolute straight-faced gravity, that just because discipling, witnessing, and all the rest haven’t worked yet at all to increase numbers, that clearly the problem is that the SBC needs to do more of them.

Now, this report focuses mostly on baptisms, but even here we have some magical thinking; most people who get baptized are not going to stick around for long once they find out what they’ve gotten involved with. That’s why there’s such a focus on “discipleship” in the list. SBC people themselves recognize that baptizing people doesn’t do a lot of good if the baptized folks don’t hang around afterward.

Five Suggestions That Actually Would Work.

You want some real suggestions? I mean, really real ones that will almost certainly fix the problems you’re facing, O SBC?

I’ll even give you five to match your listicle:

* Drop the bigotry.
Stop demonizing LGBTQ people. Stop harassing them. Stop trying to limit their rights or take away their liberties. Stop smearing them and lying about them. Stop trying to make homosexuality a separate, special “sin” that you can look down on and fight against.

* Stop trying to control what women decide to do with their own bodies.
Nobody gives a shit what you think about anybody’s sex lives or medical decisions. Even your own women don’t listen to this crap, so why do you think anybody else would?

* Stop denying science and glorifying rampant ignorance.
On that note, stop making truth claims that aren’t true. You’re making yourselves and your religion a laughingstock–and people know that if you’ll be ignorant and dishonest about science, you’ll be ignorant and dishonest about a whole bunch of other things.

* Treat all people with respect, dignity, courtesy, and grace.
Do what your Savior told you to do: feed the hungry, comfort widows and orphans, and be kind to those who need it. Especially let your pastors have real lives and support networks and stop making their burnout worse. Be known for who you love, not who you hate.

* Make real efforts to stop the abusers in your ranks.
Start up a national registry to track sex offenders and predators, and drop the HAMMER on anybody who gets caught abusing others. Take victims’ claims seriously. Create a culture where abusers are not sheltered and protected at victims’ expense, and where victims can speak up when they are hurt.

Why the SBC Isn’t Ready to Do A Single Bit of These Suggestions.

If they did all that, they wouldn’t be the SBC anymore, would they? Not a single bit of what I suggested shows up anywhere in their report, of course, nor in any other commentary on that report that I’ve seen from any Christian source.

I guess we’re making progress of a kind, if we’re at least up to the point where the SBC is able to acknowledge a drop in numbers like this. I’m a little surprised to see it, considering the fundagelical tendency to ignore and distort reality to avoid uncomfortable truths.

But the truth is even more uncomfortable than you might imagine, and I don’t think they’re confronting it head-on quite yet. Obviously the drop in numbers is probably a lot worse than they’re letting on; all they’re really looking at are baptisms, which are easy to count. As one might expect of a group tightly enmeshed in modern right-wing politics, there seems like a real focus on numbers and metrics here (“metrics” is a term that covers objectively verifiable achievements like “how much time your call center drones spend on each phone call that comes in” or “attendance rates”).

I can see why they do it. After all, measuring numbers is easier than measuring hearts. Christianity is a business like anything else, and businesses are focusing increasingly on hard numbers and objective metrics. It’s a little sad; I know about a lot of smaller congregations that are fervent and genuinely good folks, and it seems when someone’s itchy to see numbers increase, that’s what someone is going to see. Are those numbers really an indication of a church’s health, though? I suspect not, and I suspect the SBC knows that too deep down.

And when they count those numbers, remember, there’s not really a central reporting system that all of them use to check in; I’ve heard that a lot of these numbers are far from totally trustworthy. It took almost a year for my local Southern Baptist Church to finally drop me from its mailing list after I stopped attending there–it took a letter from me demanding they stop sending me mail before they’d do it, incidentally. I don’t doubt that they counted me as a member all the way up till then though, and wonder if maybe they still do even though that was dang near 30 years ago. I wonder how many other people like me are being counted in this manner in SBC rolls nowadays?

The one thing this report should be telling the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention is that people don’t like their message. What they should be taking from that information is that the message might have some kind of big problem with it.

What they’re taking instead is that the message is fine and they’re just not wielding it the right way. They’re counting membership rolls (inexactly and imprecisely at that) instead of how well they’re hitting the mark their Bible’s ghost-writers have set.

Stained glass window, Mesa Baptist Church, Mes...
Stained glass window, Mesa Baptist Church, Mesa, Arizona (Photo credit: gwilmore)

My Christian music-minister mother-in-law’s church is twenty times as loving, grace-filled, kind, and generous as anything I’ve ever seen out of the SBC, and her church does every one of the things I’ve suggested–and way, way better even than that. What they’re not doing is burning out their long-time pastor by putting huge burdens on her, shaking fingers at people having unapproved sex, busting ass to entertain kids like they’re a Nickelodeon cartoon, treating outsiders like notches on Bible covers, or wasting money on expensive websites and multimedia gadgetry.

And you know what? Their membership is growing–slowly, but it’s growing. The message is built on actual love, and that church is one of the few Christian churches I look forward to visiting when I’m in that town. This is the kind of church that I can be neighbors with, the kind that deserves to grow and which should grow. I don’t accept their message, but if someone’s got to be Christian, then this seems like a way more decent way to do it than what the SBC presents as TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. And what they do wouldn’t make the slightest bit of sense to the SBC, which is scrabbling desperately to patch bright band-aids on sucking chest wounds that are gushing blood into the air.

Alas, fundagelicals have successfully convinced themselves that if anybody doesn’t like what they have to say, then obviously that means they’re doing everything the correct way. If someone criticizes them, then obviously that’s just persecution for being brave enough to speak the truth as they see it. Nobody in that tribe even considers that maybe people react to them the way we do because they are jerkweeds spouting hate and relabeling it love. It’s one of the best ways there is to place blame elsewhere and avoid seeing one’s own faults, and a lot of people do it, not just religious people.

And that’s what we’re going to talk about next, this total inability to recognize right and wrong. You are most cordially invited to join me for a rousing game of “You might be a toxic Christian if…”

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I updated this post very slightly on April 10, 2016 to make it look prettier and to clarify some grammatical confusions. Nothing substantive was added or removed.

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