Hi and welcome back! Today, we’ve got a treat to check out. See, the SBC tracks baptisms by age-group — and they’re alarmed about just how far teenage baptisms have plummeted. That trend doesn’t seem to be anywhere near reversing, either. Today, let me show you a decline that gives me a lot of hope for the future.
(A small selection of previous posts about the SBC’s ongoing decline: Oh Noes A Baptist Drought!; The Baptism Drought Continues; The Disastrous Million-Baptism Challenge; Gaming the Broken System With Baptisms;A First Look at the 2018 Numbers; The Decline Continues (Wanna Hear A Riddle?); The New NEW Plans to Fix Churn; Meet the EVANGELISM TASK FORCE!. Also related: The 4-14 Window and Booting Their Boomers.)
The SBC’s long-running decline gets a lot of attention. That’s because they’re a huge denomination that produces annual reports. More importantly, anybody can access those reports. As the ultimate uber-fundagelical denomination, as well, they act as a good bellwether for the entire squawking, screeching lot of ’em.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) tracks age groups at baptism — but they rarely share that information because it’s so damning. The last time they did so might be 2013, when they shared a shocking bit of info about child baptisms. This report (accessible here) comes from yet another of the SBC’s tedious, overhyped “task forces.”
And this task force noted four important facts:
- Baptisms had been declining for a while now and showed no signs of stopping any time soon.
- The SBC’s leaders seemed absolutely incapable of persuading the denomination’s member churches to provide accurate and complete reports.
- Of the reports they’d gotten, it sure looked like most of their churches weren’t baptizing much of anybody at all.
- “The only consistently growing age group in baptisms,” they revealed, “is age five and under.”
It doesn’t sound like the situation has improved since 2013 either. If it had, the SBC would never have shut up about that success.
Baptizing very young children is a temporary solution that, itself, creates two very distinct problems of its own.
I’ll start with the practical problem.
When very young children get baptized, they don’t need to be baptized later in life. This move represents a sort of pulling-forward accounting trick.
Those kids might do it anyway — getting re-baptized as a fundagelical seems remarkably common. But it’s not necessary.
So that four-year-old getting dunked in 2013 is a tween who isn’t gonna need dunking in 2022, nine years later.
Whatever stats they’d have contributed to in nine years is now gone. They’re on the books this year as having been dunked. They might feel pressured to do it again in nine years, but that’s not a given.
Any Southern Baptist teens around today have likely already been dunked as young children.
The Other Problem: The SBC’s New Clothes.
Perhaps our parental desire to see our children saved has trumped our responsibility as both parents and church members to protect our children and the church from error. (Source)
Here’s the second problem, and it’s the real killer:
Baptizing a child so young all but ensures that the process will be poorly understood and lacking in essential context.
I’m talking about the age of accountability. That’s the age when 1) a person can understand their status as a sinner, 2) can understand their own inherent evil and sinfulness, and 3) can meaningfully engage with the ickie ideas involved in conversion and repentance. Most Christians seem to think it happens in the tween years, though many think it comes earlier — or even later.
If those three conditions aren’t met, then the person getting baptized runs the risk of it not “sticking” — both in the supernatural sense (meaning they might not be truly baptized) and in the emotional sense (meaning they won’t have a real attachment to what happened).
Those teens who get dunked as very young children get initiated way too early into an environment meant for older people. Consequently, they experience that environment in very different ways. They don’t have years of indoctrination to filter their perceptions. Also, they lack the same contextual experiences.
Thrusting them into an environment that all depends on shared context to hold together? Y’all, that’s a disaster waiting to happen.
There’s a damn fine reason why the person calling out the naked emperor in that fairy tale is a young child. Very small children don’t have much of a filter between reality and perception — and have way fewer reasons than adults do to hold back their observations from themselves.
Swearing Up and Down.
I briefly belonged to the SBC. When I was a member, my church solidly rejected the practice of child baptism. However, judging by the number of Baptist blog posts I’ve seen on the topic of child baptism that stoutly defend the practice of child baptism, I can tell that it’s now entered their canon — and so will never leave it. A few dissenters still exist and always will, but they are drowned out entirely by the many supporters of the practice.
Oh sure, the pastors and parents advocating for this idiocy all swear up and down that the children involved totally understand it all and are mature enough to meaningfully enter into their shared context and WHY I WAS BAB-TIZED AT SIX AND I’M FINE.
I’d expect them to say that.
They’re so desperate for any baptisms that they’ll cling to any chance at all to get ANYONE under the water. And, too, many of them believe that early baptism is part of indoctrinating a child so completely that deconversion becomes impossible. The same thinking led to Renaissance Italian families marrying off their daughters very young — coincidentally before an illness could kill them or destroy their beauty.
But their bees-headed insistence on early baptism may have resulted in a generation of children growing up with the uncomfortable feeling that everything going on in their churches is just play-acting (which it is).
So this eagerness to dunk children may have led to a long-term retention problem in the SBC. Indeed, last year someone discovered that just over half of all kids raised Southern Baptist remain Southern Baptist into adulthood. That’s just under half leaving the denomination!
And that wasn’t close to the end of bad news for the SBC.
The Decline in Teen Baptisms.
This past February, Ronnie Floyd, the president of the SBC’s Executive Committee (EC), gave a speech to other EC members about teen baptisms. The EC creates those annual reports we examine every year. If anybody’d know the recent statistics involved, it’d be him!
A Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) news site brings us this story: Floyd told his EC pals that “from 2000 to 2018, teenage baptisms declined by 35,548 people (38 percent).” Furthermore, the SBC isn’t anywhere close to keeping up with population increases.
In 1972, the story tells us, 25 million Americans fell into the 12-17 age group — and the SBC dunked 137,667 of them. In 2018, that age group remained the same size, with 25M Americans in it still, but the SBC only dunked 57,552 of them.
So it’s not anyone’s imagination.
The SBC really does suck at recruiting teens. And that’s a very, very serious problem, because teens are the lifeblood of any religious group.
They’re ALARMED, Y’all!
Richard Ross, who is a professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, called this decline alarming, even “horrific.”(Personally, I call it alarming and horrific when religious wingnuts ignore quarantine rules and thus infect thousands of people by spreading a pandemic virus, with California linking churches to a third of their virus cases a few days ago. But fine, sure, whatever, it’s alarming and horrific that fewer teens want to join a science-denying, cruel, bigoted, human-rights obliterating, democracy-destroying, racist, sexist, classist bunch of control-lusting, narcissistic theocrats. Yep, that’s deffo THE definition of alarming and horrific! Whatever shall we do?!? Besides bake a cake, I mean.)
Jason Walters, the MBC’s “specialist for age-based ministry,” blames the decline on the trend of paid youth pastors in SBC churches. This position came into style in the early 1970s through the mid-1990s, he said. He thinks it led to Baptist parents deciding to leave their kids’ indoctrination to the experts.
Walters thinks churches led parents to believe if they just left their kids with the church, then that’d indoctrinate the little darlings just fine. Now those kids are parents themselves, and they don’t have any idea how to indoctrinate their kids because they themselves weren’t indoctrinated very thoroughly.
I’m laughing as I type here. This is too absurd (and therefore funny).
It’s All the Parents’ Fault!
Ross doubled down on the blame game:
“This vacuum has allowed many parents to develop a me-centered faith and to abdicate the spiritual development of their offspring to the church. Me-focused parents produce me-focused teenagers. …”
Oh really. Yes, let’s blame parents. That always works great. I’m not being sarcastic, either — that’s the fundagelical playbook to the letter.
Further, Ross declared that gosh, if parents would pick up the slack, then that’d lighten the load on overworked “sincere youth leaders.”
Redefining Creeptastic as Wonderful (for 2000 Years).
Yes. And if parents do that, then a miracle will occur:
But if Christian parents would once again take responsibility for their teenagers’ spiritual growth, then [Ross promises,] “youth leaders would again have more time to eat lunch in the schools, knock on the doors of lost teenagers after school, connect with lost students at school events, organize evangelistic clubs on school campuses, etc.”
And then chocolate coins and rainbows will shower down from the skies, everyone on Earth will receive their very own corgi puppy, and dinosaurs and Southern Baptists will once again rule the earth!
Because an adult youth pastor hanging around a school to eat lunch with children isn’t weird and creepy at all. I’m sure they get all these kids’ parents’ consent before invading schools with their indoctrination nonsense. Oh, and non-Christian teens just love it when creepy fundagelical ministers knock on their doors at home to hard-sell them Jesus (because their fundagelical acquaintances at school gave their address and personal info to a total stranger without their consent). And these “youth leaders” always obtain their victims’ parents’ consent. Right?
I love it when fundagelical leaders reveal their Dream Come True scenarios and their dreams turn out to be creepy, weird invasions of privacy and vastly inappropriate behavior.
The Actual Problem.
Once again, the SBC’s problem comes down to fundagelicals’ recent loss of coercive power.
Tellingly, everything in Richard Ross’ dream-come-true involves inappropriately imbalanced power dynamics between adults in positions of authority and children whose parents aren’t around to protect them. It occurs only in the absence of meaningful, enthusiastic consent.
Here’s the big problem with this common fundagelical wet dream:
Ministers and parents can indoctrinate helpless, vulnerable children as completely as they like, but many of those children are leaving all the same — and as quickly as they can.
Sure, parents can force their kids to attend church and to endure endless indoctrination sessions from colluding pastors. But for every adult fundagelical stoutly insisting they’re totally happy their parents did that to them and that this approach totally works to create lifelong Christians, I bet dozens more would say the approach backfired on them by alienating them further from religion.
Christianity’s never been able to achieve and keep dominance without also holding coercive power over non-consenting people. They’ve never been able to figure out a message that actually wins and retains converts on its own merits.
Their religion muddled along for many decades after its invention, maybe even a couple of centuries, and would likely have petered out if it hadn’t won the jackpot in some high-level political squabbling in the 3rd and 4th centuries.
The moment Christians gained coercive power over others, they leaped on it with both feet, grabbed it with both hands, and began using it. They pushed it to its ultimate ends every chance they got, took a mile for every inch given, till they held literal life and death power over everyone living in the countries they dominated. Nor did they show mercy or hold back their vicious hands.
In fact, they did not stop abusing their power until forces more powerful than themselves made them stop.
Every Christian alive today and every single person who converts these days is there because their spiritual forebears held the power of fire and the sword over millions of people for hundreds of years. Rejecting Christianity in those dark days meant torture, dispossession, ostracism, imprisonment, and even death.
Losing Power — and Trying to Regain It.
All that “free will” warbling Christians do nowadays only came about because their tribe lost the power to literally murder dissenters and apostates. For many centuries, they didn’t think anybody should have free will (except their leaders, of course: freedom for me, not for thee).
Christian leaders didn’t give up their power over concerns of “free will.” No. Rather, forces more powerful than themselves took that power away over their vehement objections.
If they could get it back, they would. “Free will” wouldn’t be a concern at all for them any more than it was for Joe Morecraft, a pastor who openly yearned in 2013 for the ability to literally legally enslave atheists to himself. (He ain’t close to the only one pining for a totalitarian theocracy, either. See this fundagelical paper.)
Christian leaders learned very early on what happens when people have enough freedom to accept or reject the “good news” on offer: they reject it, or they accept it briefly and then leave.
And that’s exactly what’s happening now.
A Dropped Torch and Hope in Dark Times.
We’ve still got months to go before we see the 2020 Annual Report. (Yes, I’m sure they’ll still release one.) However, the sneak peeks we’ve had so far indicate really bad news for them, which means really good news for progress, freedom, liberty, and real free will.
If Christians can’t capture the teen generation, that’s tremendously bad news for them. Right now, the adults they have are aging in place just like we see in most other denominations. Those old folks are starting to die off. And there are very few younger adults in the congregation to pick up the
sword torch and carry it forward.
And all the SBC has in answer to that loudly-ticking demographic time bomb is pointing fingers of blame — where they don’t employ illegal coercion and trickery to sneak indoctrination into schoolchildren against their parents’ wishes, of course.
The SBC’s biggest names are in a blind panic about their tanking teen engagement rates.
If you ask me, that’s a real ray of sunshine in an anxious age.
NEXT UP: More fudged facts in service to the evangelism-success narrative developing in fundagelical Christianity — and these particular lies-for-Jesus come from a venerable source indeed. See you tomorrow!
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(Mr. Captain: “Wait, we get our own corgi puppy if we buy into this?”)