While I was busy writing a screed about narcissism, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) finally released their 2018 Annual Report. Finally! We’re going to spend some time unpacking it and comparing the statistics it presents. Today, we’ll start with a once-over of the report itself and initial thoughts. Here are the overarching trends in the SBC right now, how they’re responding to criticism and scandal, what they desperately hope to accomplish in the coming year, and most importantly, why that stuff matters to us.
Can I just say that it is beyond awesome that when commenters revealed on the last post that the report was out, we had a Heathen Rapture while everyone rushed to find it and read it? I LOVE knowing that so many people were reading along as I was. I hope y’all had as much fun as I did talking about it in comments yesterday.
Starting the Party.
The Southern Baptist Convention holds a big convention each year. A short while after that convention, they release an annual report. This year’s convention held some serious fireworks, so I’ve been waiting to dive into its associated annual report!
The SBC divides their Annual Reports into parts. Part I consists of the SBC’s basic business, like naming their officers, their committees, and their various contact details. This section also provides their exhaustive list of doctrines, bylaws, and culture war platforms. If you thought the Bible’s “begats” were boring, go ahead and read this part. (Hey, it’s way cheaper than Zzzquil.)
Part II, which starts on page 49, tells us the proceedings of their annual convention, which they had in June. Here, we find the text of the sermons given during the meeting, as well as writeups of the suggestions they took from the year before.
Part III, which starts on page 115, gives us the SBC’s business reports. In this section, we find their baptism numbers and a bunch of other stuff, all oh-so-carefully arranged to make their terrible news sound as non-catastrophic as possible.
Part IV provides the SBC’s various financial statements, while Parts V-VIII consist of directories of various kinds, for the most part.
These reports function not only as summaries of some very important numbers, but also as blueprints for the year ahead–and an evaluation of previous years’ efforts.
Pushing a Theme.
The SBC’s leaders call this volume Testify: Go. Stand. Speak. Underneath the title, we see the Bible verse inspiring the title (Acts 5:20).
Titles are important with these Annuals. See, the SBC likes to use these titles titles to hint at their focus for the coming year. This year, their leaders want the flocks to know that the thumbscrews are tightening. They expect the flocks to be doing a whole hell of a lot more soulwinnin‘ this year.1 Indeed, I’ve seen them hinting about that expectation for months now.
One can certainly see why the SBC might feel a little stress about recruitment. After hitting a high around 1999, baptisms–their primary metric for gauging recruitment–began to drop consistently. The chart on page 201 makes the situation stand out in even starker relief. They may indeed be opening tons of churches, hurling them at the wall wherever possible to see what will stick, but those new churches aren’t resulting in any lessening of the SBC’s decline.
Pastors themselves get pushed to do more than they ever have before–but with less staff than they’ve ever had before, and less money to boot. They can organize revivals all they want, but they’re limited in just what they, personally, can do to impact recruitment. The SBC itself seems to have very spotty luck with organizational efforts–one of which I’ll show you later on.
So that leaves the flocks as the “saviors” of the denomination. They, themselves, will need to go out and SELL SELL SELL WITHOUT MERCY.
Just be looking, as we talk about this Annual, for that push for members to perform more recruitment attempts.
Holding the Line.
The second theme I see throughout this Annual is that of holding the line on their doctrinal stances. Several times in the book I’ve noticed language like we see on p. 96, Section 8A: “without changing our theology.”
I can also see why this is such a big concern for the SBC’s (almost totally) aged leaders. Page 99 lists some statistics about the attendees of their convention–called Messengers–and it sure looks like they’re skewing younger than in previous years. Not only did attendance itself spike compared to last year, but the SBC saw some increases in younger and first-time Messengers. You can find a good analysis of that table here.
In some ways, that shift in demographics may do the SBC some good. But in others, it may prove disastrous. The younger generation stands poised to take the reins of leadership. But that younger generation feels very, very differently about a whole host of topics than their elders do.
Out of everything else the SBC’s members fear–and man-oh-man do they fear a lot of things–they fear change. But change is part of life. It cannot be denied. So you can, I hope, perceive the pickle those folks find themselves in.
Be looking for the SBC’s leaders to hold the line against change in this report.
Still Completely Tangled Up In Their Culture Wars.
One of the topics near-and-dear to older fundagelicals’ hearts in general is culture war. Christians who feel insecure about their fast-fading dominance start culture wars with one purpose in mind: to regain for their tribe that lost dominance.
A culture war is supposed to end with the Christians having garnered quite a lot of social cachet in the fight–and even better, maybe even with laws that allow them to force their views on others.
In reality, though, culture wars are a mixed bag for fundagelicals like the Southern Baptists.
But culture wars have a second goal, and it’s this goal that the 2018 Annual aims to achieve more than anything else. Just as many people think that an actual war can unite a country and improve its economy, a culture war can do a lot to unite and mobilize a religious tribe.
As we read the Annual, be looking for them to drill down hard on their various extant culture wars.
A Lackluster Half-Response to Scandals.
Some absolutely huge names in the denomination toppled in this past year or so due to scandal: Paige Patterson, Frank Page, Andy Savage, Bill Hybels, and many others. The #MeToo movement–raising awareness and seeking justice for victims of sexual assault in Hollywood–sparked a similar movement in evangelicalism as a whole called #ChurchToo.
At the same time, two new closely-associated social-media movements have geared up to challenge the SBC’s strawman characterization of those rejecting them and/or leaving their ranks: ExVangelicals and #EmptyThePews.
This might just be the worst conceivable time for the SBC to be facing a serious decline in membership. They’ve never been good at actually dealing with their self-created problems, no. But before this year, they’ve always been able to brush aside their victims and cover up the damage their predators keep wreaking. These days, I’m not sure their flocks are going to put up quite so well with their preferred responses to victims’ pain and predators’ abuses.
In the Annual, as we go along, be looking for the SBC’s leaders to pull out the stops to avoid substantively addressing their scandals, while offering as little as they possibly can to try to placate the growing number of voices calling for genuine reform.
OMG: The Evangelism Task Force, Y’all.
One of the funniest entries in the entire report can be located on page 93. Last year, the SBC dithered and wrung their hands over how bad their membership decline has been. They decided to form yet another freakin’ COMMITTEE to “study” the problem. Now, in the 2018 report, we get to see what that yet-another-freaking-committee decided.
We’ll be talking in detail soon about that entire situation. But I can’t help but laugh about how this yet-another-freaking-committee managed to put together recommendations that will not, even a little, impact the SBC’s decline–and in fact may actually help hasten it.
On page 96, we also notice Paige Patterson’s name (Frank Page is floating around the report too). Hey, the SBC only knew he was going to be suspended and then fired as early as May. We can’t expect people to keep up with something so minor.
Three Last LOL Notes.
I’ll just set these here.
FIRST: I noticed in the report a great many references to ending the SBC’s longstanding fellation of the American Republican Party. No fewer than three resolutions (#19, 21, 25, starting on page 56) came in calling for an end the SBC’s beloved practice of inviting elected officials to swan around at their annual conventions.
That had to unnerve the SBC’s leadership! They have to address these motions at the next Jamboree. I wonder how that’ll go.
SECOND: On page 91, #84, we see that Ravi Zacharias slimed his way into a little time ministering to the flocks. Dude’s having a tough time lately. Not only did he apparently come down with that all-too-common fundagelical malady, dick-where-it-shouldn’t-be-itis, he also appears to have been caught lying about his credentials.
But we needn’t fear! The SBC doesn’t mind a little complete hypocrisy up on the stage of their most important function all year. I’m sure that Baptist women won’t mind.
THIRD: Holy cow, these sermons are just awful. I kept breaking into laughter (which annoyed Bother greatly as she tried to nap next to me).
Did these preachers get much worse over the past 30 years? Or were they always this tedious, ludicrous, obviously-dishonest, and incoherent?
Why This Stuff Matters.
I think it’s worth looking at stuff like the SBC’s Annual Report for a few reasons.
First and foremost, the SBC is a huge Protestant denomination of Christians in the United States. They might be in the smack middle of what appears to be an inexorable decline, but they still wield a lot of influence over American Christians. Worse still, they are, as mentioned, thick as thieves with one of this country’s main political parties. I don’t want to be caught by surprise by their increasingly-frantic flailings.
Second, as the Southern Baptists go, so goes Christianity itself. For
better or the worse, fundagelicals in general have made themselves the visible face of Christianity. The religion’s trends play out in their various churches and groups. If they figure out a way to make Christianity even more cruel and evil than Calvinism made it, I want to know about it and have its debunk in hand before encountering some chirpy would-be soulwinner using it as a paradigm.
Third and most importantly, I think it’s worthwhile to document and critique this large, toxic group’s errors and wrongdoing. By contextualizing and discussing them, we can learn from their example and avoid other groups doing the same terrible things. We can also unpack our own experiences and figure out how to grow past those toxic ideas.
And if we can have a laugh sometimes while we’re doing all this, then so much the better.
Also: I Wasn’t Kidding About the Endless Committees.
(If you’re wondering, the Committee on Committees sets up and fills any special committees the SBC needs that they don’t already have. It’s just big because it contains two people from each of the SBC’s regions. This policy is just one tiny part of how the SBC avoids actually doing anything.)
NEXT UP: I want to look at the push for evangelism that’s all through this report. Also, a hilariously failed baptism blitz, a look at how they’re faffing about with seminary enrollment, a truly daffy outreach effort that’ll get your inner ten-year-old giggling, and maybe a little blistering mockery of those sermons in the report because, well, damn. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear that the SBC’s leaders want this denomination to crash and burn. (But there’s a method to their madness.) See you soon!
1Soulwinning is a very, very Jesus-y way to describe a recruitment attempt. It’s also a verb, to win souls, and a noun, soulwinner. A soulwinner is someone who has actively persuaded at least one recruit to join his or her group. Soulwinning, however, might or might not end with a recruitment. Christians don’t recognize this whole concept as kinda creepy. (Back to the post!)
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