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Have Southern Baptists joined the evangelical decline?

 

Original story:  Generation after generation

Related story:  An exit interview with Frank Page

 

AUGUSTA — SBC President Frank Page’s recent prediction that Southern Baptists could lose half of their churches by 2030 may have been based on his private observations, but statistics show his cause for concern may be well-grounded.

Researchers from across the Christian world increasingly point to a fast-moving secularization of society in which the established church is having less and less influence. At some point down the road, they agree, the Church may simply cease to play a significant role in being a serious redeemer of a fallen world.

One of Page’s rallying points during his two years as president of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination has been to call attention to the need for churches to have a relevant presence in their communities. Much of that requires churches that are declining or have plateaued to take a serious look at different ways of reaching their communities.

If they do not, he warns, they may continue on their downward spiral until they have no choice but to close their doors. He believes Southern Baptists are nearing the tipping point where a lack of action on the local church level could spell doom for the denomination as a whole.

Without seeking to be an alarmist, Southern Baptist researcher Curt Watke, executive director of the Intercultural Institute for Contextual Ministry based here, says Page is closer to the truth than many may want to admit.

Watke, a member of Curtis Baptist Church, formerly served in the Church Planting Group at the North American Mission Board where he conducted sociocultural research among neotribal groups. He has served as a church growth consultant and, in his current ministry, keeps a close watch on the pulse of churches as they struggle to reach an increasingly unchurched world.

His research closely tracks what Page has observed firsthand and feels that the times are now catching up with Southern Baptists who have been able to swim against the tide of declining baptisms and membership.

“We are not immune from the decline that other mainline denominations have been experiencing for years; we are just behind the curve somewhat because we have had such a strong emphasis on evangelism and church planting. That emphasis helped us keep our head above water until now, but we are seeing more evidence that those efforts are having less and less success on impacting our culture,” he said.

“When you look at the Church’s lack of effectiveness in reaching the generations – the Builders (35 percent unchurched), Boomers (65 percent unchurched), Busters (85 percent unchurched), Bridgers (96 percent unchurched), and Millennials (unknown) – the view of our future comes into painfully sharp focus.” (See Sept. 13, 2007 cover story of The Index or view “Generation after generation” online at www.christianindex.org.)

Anglos, the traditional base of the denomination, are an increasingly aging group and are fast becoming a minority in society.

“We are not replacing ourselves as well as we used to and, while Southern Baptists are very ethnically diverse, we are not making as much progress in that area as we need to make – especially the second and subsequent generations. And that has very serious ramifications on several levels for the denomination.

“I attended a meeting five years ago where the statement was made that 70 percent of Cooperative Program dollars came from those age 55 and above. If that is true, and those individuals are now 60, there is real concern for the future funding of our missions enterprises,” he added.

While there is no way to document that statement because giving is a private matter – and only the Internal Revenue Service knows for sure – the nugget of truth it contains gives cause for concern. Older givers have traditionally been the backbone of church budgets because their children are raised, some have more disposable income, and others – while not wealthy – have a stronger commitment to the biblical call to tithe sacrificially than younger generations.

As that older generation passes off the scene, it only makes sense that fewer dollars will flow into the denomination’s churches and, after a portion has been kept for local ministry and operating expense, fewer will flow into the CP bucket. Some churches will simply close their doors or merge with others.

Watke’s greatest concern is the lack of Southern Baptists to reach out to younger generations with a relevant message of redemption.

“Other denominations declined before us because there was an exodus of young people that occurred sooner than what we are now experiencing. We were able to hold onto them longer, but that is no longer the case.”

In 1972 the groundbreaking book titled “Why Conservative Churches are Growing” by Dean Kelley reported that conservative churches were growing precisely because they had something to offer that more liberal churches lacked: a compelling belief system.

“If you don’t have something to believe, why join?” Watke said. “Conservative churches were growing because the nation as a whole was very conservative and sought that reinforcement from the pulpit. But now we are declining, or not growing as fast as the population, partially because the country is less conservative, has become more secular and antagonistic toward organized religion, and there are fewer Anglos culturally like us from which to draw.

“That means there is a graying of evangelicals in American life. That is not to say there are no young evangelicals; it means that their numbers are becoming a much smaller percentage of the population,” he explained.

As this natural graying of the population increases speed, budgets begin to shrink and personnel ranks begin to thin out. As local churches begin to retrench, it can only create a situation where Baptist associations, state conventions, and denominational agencies then begin to trim staff, he added.

“According to the United Methodist News Service, that denomination is currently in the midst of eliminating its entire Southeastern Jurisdiction Administrative Council (SEJAC) staff. This change is due to declining membership of Bible Belt churches and increasing costs in that nine-state region. For example in 2005 alone, 84 UMC churches in the Southeastern region were closed or merged. The elimination of SEJAC staff means jobs are being lost as administrative responsibilities are shifted to another jurisdiction to take up the slack. They are facing some serious issues down the road with combining other districts and are asking how they are going to fund pensions for employees who are retiring out of the system.

Benchmarks of a decline
 

Watke identifies four benchmarks in the decline of evangelicals. Among those:
• Increase in immigration
• Decline in Anglo growth
• The graying of current believers
• Decrease in percentage of generational groups that are being reached. As each group, especially the Builders and Boomers, move off the scene the number of evangelicals steadily decline.

“It’s a simple matter of dollars and cents. And at some time down the road we will need to begin to bring our international missionaries home from the field because the resources are just not there to provide their support. If Frank Page is correct, we would have to pull a couple of thousand missionaries off the field to remain within budget and Cooperative Program giving levels,” he explained.

Many of Southern Baptists’ struggling, smaller churches, like those of their United Methodist kin, are in rural areas and represent the backbone of the denomination. When those small churches close their doors, it cascades into a considerable loss of tithes and Cooperative Program dollars.

The problem of slowing growth is multi-faceted and is hard to get a firm grip on, Watke continued. But shifting demographics cast a long shadow over the growth of conservative denominations.

“Another reason for the decline in evangelicals is the increase in immigration. There are now more Muslims than Episcopalians in the United States and it appears there will be a tipping point between 2030 and 2035 when Muslims will outnumber evangelicals if current trends continue,” he says.

But immigration is not the only reason for the growth in Muslims. According to BeliefNet, more than 50 percent of America’s six million Muslims were born in the United States, adding to the group’s six percent annual growth rate. Islam is now the third-largest and fastest-growing religious community in the nation.

“It’s just a matter of time before this becomes a reality. There will be a point out in the not-too-distant future when the numbers reflecting Muslim growth and evangelical decline will intersect.”

The solutions are not easy.

“Too often the solution has been ‘How do we take what we have and reconfigure it, ‘pretty-up’ our programs to make them more attractive?’ The true missions enterprise as found in Scripture has never been about attracting people and bringing them to a building. The early church didn’t even have buildings.

“Jesus Christ never said we should go out and invite people to come to a meeting; instead, He was attracting them to an incarnational lifestyle. He was living out, among them, who God was and He wanted them to live out that lifestyle wherever they went. Being a Christian in the First Century was not about joining a social club like it has become today.

Gallup Polling data on Southern Baptists

The reported membership of the Southern Baptist Convention has risen slowly, which indicates better growth than many “mainstream” or “oldline” denominations, which have actually declined steadily in size over the last twenty years. But the proportion of Americans who identify themselves as Southern Baptists has declined steadily and significantly over the past ten years, from 10% in 1993 to just 6% in 2001.

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“I think a big problem with reaching the lost world is that we project the image that to be a Christian new believers must come and be with us and act like us. We should spend less time trying to get them to adapt to our evangelical subculture and more time helping them live out the incarnational lifestyle among their unchurched friends.”

Watke says that about 95 percent of today’s church structure did not exist 150 years ago, and Christianity grew quite well without it.

“The way we do church today, the institution that it has become, came out of the late 19th Century’s attraction to a more organized approach to life. Virtually all of today’s societal structures emerged from a cultural desire to join clubs and organizations during the heyday of the volunteer movement. Unfortunately, the Church bought into ‘being a volunteer society’ and hasn’t been able to move beyond that very well.”

The Bible, he says, teaches that believers are to “go and tell,” and not seek people to “come and hear.”

“Today, most of our evangelism efforts center around inviting people to church to hear the gospel. In reality, all missions and evangelism should occur primarily in the community outside the walls of the church,” he says.

Watke’s comments parallel those of Page’s when asked how Southern Baptists are going to break out of that approach.

“We have to rethink how we do church … our ecclesiology, our doctrine, has to flow out of our missiology. The dollars are slowly beginning to dry up and it’s not going to get any better; it’s going to be increasingly difficult to maintain our current infrastructure.

“We need to go back to Scripture and determine what church is really about. It’s not about buildings and budgets and programs, though those are good. It is about being a missionary people and equipping them to be missionary whether or not they are funded.”