The biggest Protestant denomination in the United States continues to suffer serious declines in its membership, and those of us who are rooting for its failure won’t be disappointed to hear how they’re dealing with it. I recently discovered a quiet little update to one of their most surprising task force meetings, and I want to share it with you as part of our look at evangelical churn.
A couple of years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention, recognizing that they’re in the middle of a circling-the-drain level of desperation, released a completely laughable report called the Pastors’ Task Force on SBC Evangelistic Impact & Declining Baptisms. This all-encompassing report was issued after many years of dwindling baptisms, called a “baptism drought” by those in the group, and noticeable drops in attendance and donations. The paper is the result of a year-long series of meetings with all the top brass of the denomination (including our pal Ed Stetzer) and included all the latest (biased, untrustworthy) research and figures from their propaganda/publishing arm, LifeWay Research.
I wrote up the paper and my assessment of it in 2014’s “Oh Noes! A Baptism Drought!” because I thought it was one of the most hilariously surreal responses to a crisis that I’d ever seen, even considering fundagelicals. The SBC actually conceded that they have lost a huge number of members and have completely failed to keep up even with population growth in the United States. Their response to overwhelmingly bad news was to urge their member churches to continue doing exactly what they were already being told to do, just with more gusto–and to pray extra-dextra-super-lots, obviously because up till then nobody was doing enough of that yet.
The 2014 report got a lot of attention in The Christian Post, a few local outlets, sites like The Daily Beast that often tackle extremist Christianity, and fundagelical blogs*, but weirdly didn’t appear anywhere else that was official and it quickly vanished afterward. One would think that its authors’ admission of catastrophically-declining numbers, if nothing else, would guarantee that it’d catch even the eyes of people who don’t normally follow religion news, which is very likely exactly why it vanished into a black hole–the same one, apparently, that consumed their “million baptism” campaign 10 years ago (it fizzled in a fashion one can only term pathetic).
I wasn’t surprised, really. Nothing in the report was particularly actionable. They really can’t admit that anything they’re doing is wrong because they think a real live god told them to do things this way. They can’t really change course without conceding that they were wrong about what they think that god said to do (or that their god was wrong about what to do or told them to do something that would fail, either of which would really be even worse). Literally all they can do is more of what they’re already doing, even if what they’re already doing is demonstrably not working. Something way more distressing than losing vast amounts of members, resources, and credibility is driving them at this point.
What Happened Next: 2014.
Over the next two years after this so-very-important report, nothing changed.
I hope nobody was expecting anything different.
In 2015, the year after they all decided to totally pray more, evangelize more, disciple more, blame more, and& blah blah blah more, LifeWay released a report showing that the year before, in 2014, the SBC experienced its largest single-year decline since 1881. Weekly attendance, baptisms, and donations all declined, actually–not by much, but it was enough. The super-evangelistic denomination was especially distressed about its faltering baptism numbers because that’s their main metric for determining success. Their decline in baptisms wasn’t accelerating, at least, largely because churches had begun resorting to baptizing the very youngest children of their members at a far earlier age than anybody would have allowed or considered wise a few short decades ago. They overly-optimistically noted that at least their baptism rate was holding steady at 1 per 51 members, so though total members were declining, it wasn’t declining any faster than the baptism rate was, or rather that they were both declining at about the same rate.
Thom Rainer lamented that “the trend of [his] denomination is mostly one of decline” and decided that the SBC’s best strategy for turning everything around would continue to center around magical thinking. Meanwhile, Frank Page, the leader of the SBC’s Executive Committee, declared that the big problem here was that members weren’t hardcore enough and blamed the flocks for slacking in evangelism and tithes. At no point whatsoever did anybody wonder if maybe their doctrines and cultural practices were to blame for the decline of the denomination. The message was still perfect–as usual, their follow-through was what they felt was the real issue. Ed Stetzer specifically blamed the reason for the decline in attendance and donations on how his flocks were “winning less people to Christ” and “not training them in the spiritual disciplines of our Lord.”
Their 2015 Annual Report, issued right after that LifeWay report, noted a number of “tools” the denomination planned to issue or already had in place that were meant to indoctrinate people and train their leaders in the soft skills needed to cultivate good group dynamics. One of these “tools” is called My 8: Embrace and Engage the Wonder of Evangelism and is meant to help members feel more comfortable with making pests of themselves at non-Christians (which definitely makes those members “tools,” all right).
Another “tool” is the denomination’s Vacation Bible School, presented as “one of the greatest evangelism opportunities for churches.” That means they love the idea of preying upon non-believing children, by the way, and consider vulnerable young people a gateway to prey upon entire families. (Non-fundagelical parents who might be tempted to take advantage of the childcare the program represents might wish to remember that predators go where their prey can be found.) The denomination’s leaders are very excited about this part of their evangelism campaign in general, largely because–as we’ve seen–it’s the only one that’s even marginally successful at this point.
But the report’s few explicitly-stated quantifiable results sound quite dismal. “Beach Reach,” an evangelism effort put on with college student volunteers making pests of themselves to other college students trying to enjoy their spring break, netted 78 total “decisions of salvation” over the entire two weeks of hardcore evangelism from 700 dedicated evangelists. (Naturally, the report doesn’t mention how many of those “decisions of salvation” actually turned into committed new church members, or how many of those decision-makers were already Christian but just the wrong kind.) The effort was deemed a roaring success, so much so that a third week was planned to be added the next year so that even more volunteer college students could go on a totally necessary short-term mission trip to Jesus-starved Panama City Beach, Florida for Spring Break. Words simply fail me on this one.
2015: Worse and Worserer.
The initial numbers from 2015 indicate that these “tools” were less than effective, however. The decline continued, with the denomination losing 200,000 more members (down to 15.3 million from 15.5 in 2014). The number of SBC churches increased slightly (as in 0.63%!), which makes 2015 their 17th year of increases in a row. But membership declined, and average weekly worship attendance declined even more–meaning that fewer SBC members are attending church than last year. So those churches are more numerous, but have smaller congregations than ever. It looks like all attendance dropped–from Sunday worship to Sunday school to small groups.
Their baptism rate continues to fall, to the tune of 3.3% last year. And their proportion of baptisms to members also dropped slightly and is now sitting at 1 for every 52 members. Though the new figures show that donations are up slightly, it’s worth mentioning that a number of states did not collect data to report–two for the first time ever. I don’t wonder why those states suddenly decided not to report their donation statistics. One missionary program in particular, Great Commission Giving, saw a precipitous drop in donations (-3.81%).
Remember Frank Page? He had a reaction quote about those numbers too–blaming members for slacking again! Declaring that his denomination “continue[s] to be less diligent in sharing the Good News,” he begged his god to forgive them for, I suppose, showing respect for other people’s boundaries. And then one article about the slump said Mr. Page “expects new churches to rise on the scene to counter such trends,” which means retooled churches using the same old doctrines and practices that are already failing the SBC.
We’re about six months away from finding out what the 2016 numbers look like, but there is no reason whatsoever to suspect that the trends I’ve described here are going to change much.
Amid Impending Irrelevance, Alarming Belligerence.
None of those reports concern the leadership of the SBC enough to actually make any substantive changes in their attitudes or practices. That last annual report leads with a “President’s Address” that drills down on every one of the SBC’s various culture wars, even comparing marriage equality to Nazism by declaring that the country’s move toward LGBTQ equality is a “Bonhoeffer moment for every pastor in America” (emphasis mine) and sneers at “some evangelicals” for “bowing down to the deception of inclusiveness.”
Yes, they are actually trying to compare themselves to brave freedom fighters against Hitler’s dark, demonic forces of equality, inclusiveness, compassion, love, and lifelong commitment. That’s probably the worst bit of the report, but it’s all like that. Their leaders want Southern Baptists to be more aggressive and bigoted than ever. They are calling these days “another ‘whether we live or die’ moment in our history” and giddily comparing American Christians facing criticism for their rampant hypocrisy to the physical risks taken by the sneaky missionaries they’ve sent to countries where Christianity is illegal (because religious nuts there have instituted the very same sorts of totalitarian theocracies that the SBC would love to see in America!).
That report reeks of fearmongering, hate speech, mischaracterizations, and grabbiness, and it shows us exactly where the heads of the biggest Protestant denomination in America are. I’ve been saying for a while now that the most dangerous time an abuse victim faces is that moment when the abuser realizes that their onetime victim is finally escaping their grasp. That’s the moment when the abuser will pull out all the stops to regain their power over that victim. That’s when the nuclear option starts looking good to them.
Instead of pulling back to figure out why they’ve faced so many years of straight declines, the SBC’s leaders instead have decided that those declines are just a momentary pit stop on the way to a glorious resurgence of power and dominance that they’re totally positive is coming any day now if they’re just hardcore enough to make Jesus happy.
In quite possibly the most hilarious misread of their situation, Frank Page says that “the admission of a problem is the first thing needed to correct it.” Ed Stetzer adds, “I think numbers like this should inspire some soul-searching.”
After I stopped laughing like an atheist in a Chick tract (HAW! HAW!), I realize that they’re right! I hope they do both of those things at some point. The damage caused by the SBC culture war is growing by the day. The harder they try to hold onto their onetime dominance, the more damage they do to both their own flocks and to the rest of us.
I suspect their charged rhetoric and braggadocio will greatly appeal to their increasingly-polarized members and provide the encouragement they want to keep doing the horrible things they’re doing, but if there remain very many moderates and compassionate Southern Baptists among their number, behavior and talk like this will only hasten their flight from this increasingly-toxic denomination. They’re squeezing their remaining members harder and harder, but their funds aren’t infinite and neither is their members’ patience with being blamed for something that really isn’t their fault at all.
I wonder how much longer the SBC can keep this up and still maintain its churches and programs, send college kids to beaches and scenic foreign countries for tourvangelism, and keep making Republican politicians happy enough with them to keep the pandering flowing and the culture wars active?
Of course, they don’t have to just squeeze their own members. American taxpayers also support them through numerous tax breaks and perks–all of which are growing more and more important to them now that their own sources of funds are drying up! We’ll look at those next time–and at the outrage that is erupting among toxic Christians who are losing a tiny bit of unwarranted power they never should have had. See you soon!
* In one of these, we find a joke regarding the SBC: “[They] don’t practice infant baptism, but apparently [they’re] great at toddler baptism.” Ouch!