America’s largest Protestant denomination cracked down on moderates when the culture wars hit, arguing that liberalism led to decline. Now they’re hemorrhaging members just like everyone else.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of soul-winning to Southern Baptists. So they’ve been hit hard by the news that the evangelical denomination’s slump in membership and baptisms has continued for the seventh year in a row. “I am grieved we are clearly losing our evangelistic effectiveness,” said Thom Rainer, president of Lifeway Christian Resources and former dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
The troubles of the Southern Baptist Convention offer an interesting window into the long-term prospects of Christianity in America—partly because the Southern Baptists have been fretting about those prospects louder than almost anyone else. Don’t all Christians think it’s important to redeem sinners? Yes, but the act of conversion is the heart of the Southern Baptist brand.
They are “baptists,” after all, called to persuade the unconverted that Christ is their lord and savior, then dunk them to seal the deal (a mere sprinkling doesn’t cut it). Over 73 percent of the funds that congregations donate to the national SBC organization goes to support evangelistic work. Believers give most of this money during funding drives named for two of the church’s greatest heroes: the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering. Moon, born in 1840, was a 4’3” dynamo who mastered a half dozen languages, never married, and devoted her life to evangelizing in China. Armstrong stayed stateside and led the foundation of the Women’s Missionary Union. (In the 19th century, missionary work was one of the few vocations open to middle-class women who wanted to work outside the home.)
The denomination had nearly 5,000 professional missionaries in the field as of 2012, and many thousands more Southern Baptists participate in short-term mission trips each year. More importantly, the evangelistic ethos is supposed to infuse everyday life. The Southern Baptist Convention of Texas, for example, offers its members a “Game Plan” of different strategies and tools for proselytizing everyone from students and athletes to Muslims and agnostics, including helpful conversation starters like the “Evangecube” (a Rubik’s Cube with images of Jesus). There’s no doubt that when the SBC convenes for its annual meeting later this month in Baltimore, church leaders will be discussing why all of these resources and tactics are falling short.
Last year the denomination summoned a team of pastors and church officials to form the Task Force on SBC Evangelistic Impact and Declining Baptisms.The Task Force’s report confirmed that the denomination’s baptism rates plateaued in the 1950s, stayed constant for the next few decades, and had been inching downward for the past six years. Among the churches that reported statistics in 2012, 25 percent baptized no one at all that year.
The report proposed a time-honored solution: pray for spiritual revival; encourage pastors to lead by example with more personal evangelizing; and gear church activities and education toward “multiplying disciples who know how to grow in Christ and lead others to Christ”—especially among the younger generation. This is more or less the same plan that theologian Jonathan Edwards followed in the 1730s when he sensed that his Northampton, Massachusetts congregation was drifting from God. He got the spiritual awakening he prayed for. A string of revivals later known as the Great Awakening blazed up and down the eastern seaboard—although scholars suspect that many of these new converts soon backslid into their unregenerate ways.
The Task Force report is a blend of modern bureaucratese and the old Judeo-Christian tradition of the jeremiad. “We need a sense of brokenness and repentance over the spiritual climate of our churches and our nation,” the authors write. Woe to you who have fallen away from the righteousness of your ancestors! Repent, be saved, and preach the true faith! Religious leaders have always had an interest in preaching a story of decline. It’s tough to prod your congregation into action if they think everything is swell.
So is this decline real? The short answer is yes—the social and intellectual authority of churches is a shadow of what it once was. That doesn’t mean that Jonathan Edwards wouldn’t recognize many of the challenges today’s evangelicals face. He, too, worried about how to keep teenagers from leaving church and succumbing to the temptations of the world, and how to persuade non-believers (in his case, the Indian tribes of New England) that Christianity was true. Effective evangelism has always required careful negotiation with the surrounding culture. Lottie Moon learned Chinese and ditched her Southern belle dresses for indigenous attire. Centuries before her, Jesuit missionaries fashioned crucifixes with the Buddha, rather than Jesus, at the center. Since the time of the Apostles, Christians have argued over how much compromise is too much: when does cross-cultural translation or embrace of worldly knowledge cross the line into heresy?
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