The first response of many people may be “I don’t care”. That’s fine. You have that right. But you ought to care. More about that later. Keep reading.
Why Are Baptisms Down Among Southern Baptist Churches?
First, take note of the report that came out recently discussed in the article Pastors’ Task Force Releases Report on Declining Baptisms. The annual number of baptisms is down 25 percent in the last 15 years. They are the lowest they have been in over 30 years. This is devastating news for a denomination that prides itself on evangelism that leads to conversion and baptism. Or is it? Keep reading.
Second, membership in Southern Baptist churches is also down. In the seven reporting years beginning with 2005 total membership has declined from 16.6 million to 15.8 million. Where are these 800,000 people? An article on The Atlantic magazine’s web site points out that the decline in baptisms preceded the decline in membership by five years. See Baptists, Just Without the Baptisms. Do you think the baptisms drop caused the membership drop? Keep reading.
Third, most embarrassing for Southern Baptists is that this decline in baptisms and membership has happened during the early years of the denominational wide emphasis called the Great Commission Resurgence [GCR] that was guaranteed to transform and grow the denomination.
Some prognosticators—myself included—felt the GCR was also intended to keep young adult Southern Baptist pastors in the denominational fold by repositioning the denomination to do something dramatic that would reach the “Next Generation”. The baptism report implies that reaching the next generation is not working and remains one of the biggest challenges. Does this represent a failure? Keep reading.
Before proceeding let me indicate this post is not about bashing Southern Baptists. If you think that you are mistaken. It is about sounding an alarm about denominational reality in the second decade of the 21st century.
Why Should You Care?
You should care because if Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination in North America, the supposed leading edge of conservative evangelicalism, the model for evangelism and church planting, is declining in the midst of a Great Commission Resurgence focused on church planting and reaching the next generation, then a whole lot of other denominations may be in trouble.
The Southern Baptist model is not working. Denominations that have little or an insignificant focus on growth are likely declining faster than Southern Baptists. Research studies tend to support this idea among many denominations. Some are in a dangerous free-fall.
If it is important to you that your denominational family thrives, you have a more serious challenge than you thought. Perhaps you are thinking you do not buy into the church growth model that characterizes Southern Baptists anyway. That’s fine. What is your model for helping your denomination thrive? How is it working for you?
If it is not working for you perhaps you have adopted a stance that denominations should not be about growth. They should be about advocacy, social justice, ecumenism, high quality theological education, formal ordination systems that produce a clergy of excellence, and congregations with quality worship and fellowship.
Fine. I like these things. Show me the denominational family growing long-term while making those things their focus. Oh, I forgot. Church growth is not your goal. Well, as you slowly die out who will take up those causes you cherish—like the Holy Grail of quality congregational worship and fellowship—when your tribe becomes too weak to do them?
If extending the ministry of advocacy, social justice, ecumenism, etc. is a worth journey for a denominational family then growing the denomination is an important part of a and/both approach to future denominational ministry. Southern Baptists are just teaching us their model for growing a denomination is not working.
What is My Answer?
The fastest growing denomination for the past 20 years or so is the one called Non-Denominational. It uses an organic networking approach that does not have to feed a denominational structure and staff. It is growth-oriented. It is successful and as an overall movement fast growing. It emphasizes a congregational multiplication movement.
A few existing denominations are infected with the spirit of the non-denominational movement and appear to show their own signs of success. But, they also tend to have less than 1500 congregations in their denominations, be regionally focused rather than evenly scattered throughout North America, and have a specific ethnic, cultural, and/or national historic background.
They are moving from a non-exit relationship with affiliated congregations, to a paradenominational approach that focuses on three to five priorities and any congregation who wants to go forward with them under this banner. Three examples that fit some or all of these criteria are Converge Worldwide, Evangelical Covenant Church, and the Reformed Church in America.
But, they are not large denominations of 3,000 or more congregations with a complex structure and many institutions to feed financially. They are not Southern Baptists, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the Episcopal Church in the USA, Christian Church [Disciples of Christ], Presbyterian Church-USA, or a host of other denominations that could be mentioned.
What is your answer?