A scholar who specializes in American religion and culture says the Southern Baptist Convention’s loss of a million members in the last decade exposes as a false narrative the conventional wisdom that only liberal denominations decline.
“If you stretch back for five or six years before that, it would be well over a million,” Diana Butler Bass, an author, speaker and independent scholar living in Alexandria, Va., said in an interview with host Welton Gaddy that aired June 24 on State of Belief radio.
“Cultural circumstances surrounding religious life and religious choice are far more important than the specific theology of any one denomination,” Bass said, noting that she has long been skeptical of the idea that only conservative churches grow.
“The issue is not whether you’re a liberal or a conservative denomination,” she said. “That’s irrelevant. The issue is: Are you a congregation that provides a way of meaningful life for people to be able to navigate chaotic times and to be able to connect with God, to experience a new sense of the Spirit, to be able to love and be compassionate? That’s what makes religious communities vibrant, not whether they are liberal or conservative.”
Bass said conservative religious denominations like Southern Baptists are now going through what liberal churches went through about 30 or 40 years ago. In the mid-20th century, she said, mainline Protestants had grown so cozy with cultural power and the status quo that it “undermined their ability to have any kind of prophetic vision and really undermined their ability to be anything other than just sort of the church of just getting along.”
That fell apart in the 1960s, Bass said, when things like Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement and women’s liberation began to stir in culture, and the mainline struggled with how to respond.
Conservative churches filled the void, she said, and likewise cozied up to the state and became closely identified with conservative politics. Now they are being confronted by gay and lesbian communities, issues of race and other “new voices of justice.”
“Evangelicals have been completely unable to address them in any meaningful way,” she said. “The leaders of evangelical churches have continued their alliance with the powers that be, and the children of evangelicals are saying, ‘We don’t buy it.’”
Bass said that is exactly what is happening right now in the Southern Baptist Convention.
“The younger generations are going away,” she said. “They’re saying, ‘We won’t be the church of the status quo. … We don’t want you to be the church of Caesar,’ and meanwhile the people who are in charge are saying, ‘Look, that’s where the money comes from.’”