The SBC: A Denomination in Decline

Posted on April 24, 2009. Filed under: Contemporary Religion, Theological Issues |

Back in the 1970’s many in the Southern Baptist Convention had grown very concerned about the drift towards liberalism within our Seminaries, Colleges, Pulpits, Agencies and Churches. Many professors and pastors seemed to have given up on the idea of the Bible being the inspired, authoritative, inerrant, infallible Book of books, the Word of God. By the mid 1970’s you could study the demographics and membership of the mainline protestant churches and see the fruit of their theological drift towards the left since the early part of the century and realize their declining attendance was directly related to their liberalism. To the conservatives in the SBC, the writing was on the wall, return to our theological roots or face rapid decline like the other denominations.

Thus was born the conservative resurgence and step by step the conservative faction took back the denomination hierachy and from there, the seminaries, and from there the pulpits and churches. Division happened, various state conventions split, a new, more liberal kind of Baptist denomiation was born. But the SBC grew more healthy, it seemed.

But today, 30+ years later, we get the word that the SBC is in fact declining. Some would say the conservative resurgence has failed. Perhaps some of the liberals are saying, “We told you so!” Here is the story about our decline, by Ed Stetzer:

blogs.lifeway.com/blog/edstetzer/2009/04/a-denomination-in-decline.html

For decades we have faced a declining rate of growth, and worse, our percentage of membership compared with the population as a whole has been in decline for decades. Our membership plateaued by 2000 and now is in real decline. For many decades our Membership vs. Active Members has been heavily skewed. When I arrived as pastor at my little church in 1992 in Fort Worth we were averaging 70 on Sunday morning yet posted a membership of over 600. In the 15 years I served as pastor I  did   3 x as many funerals as weddings, baby dedications and baptisms combined (1992-2007).

Stetzer writes:

“we need to face some facts: we face a culture turning its back toward us, a declining and aging membership, and young leaders who are choosing other partnerships.”

“But on a denominational level, I believe we need to heed the words sounding from numerous places in the convention for a Great Commission Resurgence. Our situation would be much worse if we did not have the Conservative Resurgence, but a Conservative Resurgence without a Great Commission Resurgence is an exercise in belief without action.”

Stetzer does not really blame anyone or one thing, but his choice for the cure is a renewed emphasis on the Great Commission. While this is a good thing, I think he is missing something here. Granted his column was brief and he did not want to get into pointing out where the blame lies nor did he want to go too deep in theology/philosophy/history though he does say the “culture is turning its back on us”.

I want to give my theory on our decline.  Our denomination was dominated by the Particular Baptist strain (Calvinistic) in our earliest days until the theology of EY Mullins got us drifting towards a man centered theology by the early 20th century. America was still largely a “Christian” nation until the 1960’s. The 1950’s were a post WW2 era of anti-communism, pro-family, pro-business, Leave It To Beaver mentality. The SBC grew rapidly in that era of “normalcy” and planted thousands of churches and sent thousands of missionaries. Billy Graham, a Southern Baptist, was America’s pastor.

But then the 1960’s hit. In researching the church I pastored I found that their membership and attendance peaked in 1968 and then began a steady decline, with a few years showing a growth spurt (while I was there we grew in 1997/98, then declined again due to a serious sin outbreak and some natural cycles, then grew again 2004/5 only to decline again). Worse, I realized soon after I started pastoring that none of the older members’ children would attend the church, even though they still lived in the area and attended other churches.

When I asked the older members about this disturbing trend, I got fairly evasive, vague answers. When I asked the children I got an earful about the bad leadership, bossiness and hypocrisy of their parents. They didn’t want to worship where their parents worshiped because they disagreed too much.

The broad sweeping cultural shift that happened in the 1960’s-70’s caused a huge generational divide within SBC churches. Specifically in the areas of music and clothing there were differences. I cannot begin to describe the church fights we endured over what people wear to church and what kind of music we use in worship. Those two issues were the flashpoints that allowed the younger generation to drop out of church or change churches.

But don’t be mistaken, those were only the surface issues.

At the core of my particular church’s problems was a fondness for tradition and relationships over a love for the Word of God. Though these people were very moral and upright, and quite faithful to the Church, they preferred to not confront sin with truth. There was a strong Arminian flavor that, many times, went across the line into a salvation by works. This I absolutely also linked with the heavy influence of the Masonic Lodge in my particular church. About 75 % of my church was directly involved with, or  indirectly influenced by, the Masonic Lodge which preaches another gospel.

My church was dominated by the GI generation, fully 2/3 of the church was in that age group; my parents age. Their view of what church is and should be was a view of the 1950’s. The Baby Boom generation was mostly absent except for me and my wife and 1-2 others. There were a few younger families and youth occasionally.

What happened in my church was that in the 1960’s-70’s, despite having a large youth group and lots of mission trips, choir trips, retreats,camps and pizza parties, the youth of my age were not discipled, were sucked in by the world, and turned off by our parents who would not change how church was conducted. My generation walked away. Some went to other Baptist churches that did change, some went with the charismatics, but most just quietly quit believing. How this affects the decline of the SBC today is that the GI generation is dying off in huge numbers. Whole churches are literally dying. With that older generation passing we will see a huge decline in attendance, giving and missions. The “Me first” generation and its children will not be as faithful in any category.

In looking at the sermons in the churches of my youth, and in listening to the complaints of the older members of my church about my preaching it seems to me that one reason for the decline is the lack of expository, doctrinal sermons. The congregation told me they wanted to hear less scripture and more stories and jokes. You heard me right. They really said that. Repeatedly. That was what they were used to and I came in and started preaching expository sermons through books of the Bible and sermons with strong doctrinal content. I’m surprised I lasted for 15 years.

The level of doctrinal understanding amongst the older generation I pastored was minimal. They knew Bible stories and the basics of the gospel. But not much meat. Meanwhile, the world around them changed, the matrix had shifted, and left them behind. Very subtly their worldview had also shifted in many ways. Their faith was very works based, very experiential and emotional, traditional, and not able to relate to the world at all.

Why did the children of this Greatest Generation drift away? Raised on simplistic, revivalistic, feel good sermons and moralistic Sunday School lessons, raised attending the godless public schools, raised in the 20th century entertainment culture that is hedonistic and existentialist, the kids, my generation, didn’t stand a chance.

And then those of my generation who did stay in church or come back, have now raised our kids and even fewer of them are staying in the church.

Yes, the conservative resurgence was a blessing for the SBC, the Battle for the Bible was fought and won. But while that battle was being fought, most of us trusted our kids to youth programs that were based on sand and schools that were anti-Christ.

What is to be done? The SBC MUST TAKE A SERIOUS LOOK AT STARTING A MISSIONS PROGRAM FOR OUR CHILDREN, i.e., BEGINNING A HUGE EFFORT TO GET OUR KIDS OUT OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS AND INTO CHRISTIAN SCHOOLS OR HOMESCHOOLING. THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS ARE KILLING THE SOULS OF OUR KIDS. GOVERNMENT SCHOOLS ARE THE ENEMY.

For decades we emphasized missions overseas. We lost the battle for our own children. The culture won. Shame on us.

What is to be done? OUR SUNDAY SCHOOL LITERATURE IS PATHETIC, WEAK, AND IS CONTRIBUTING TO OUR DECLINE. WE SHOULD IMMEDIATELY MOVE TOWARD A CATECHISM AND DISCIPLESHIP BASED CURRICULUM THAT IS ROOTED IN THE REFORMED THEOLOGY THAT NURTURED THE SBC IN ITS FOUNDING. I HAVEN’T USED SBC SUNDAY SCHOO LITERATURE SINCE ABOUT 1994. MY CURRENT CHURCH  DOES NOT USE SBC LITERATURE.

What is to be done? We must gear up as a denomination for a long fighting withdrawal into a guerrilla insurgency. We have lost the culture war, we are surrounded and outnumbered. I am not saying surrender, I personally will fight to the death. But we need to fight smarter. We need to prepare Today for the coming wave of lawsuits over our refusal to hire or marry homosexuals. We need to prepare today for hate speech legislation that will take away our right to freely proclaim all of God’s Word. We need to prepare today for what to do when America recognizes sharia law for muslims in our own borders. We need to prepare today for the coming persecutions of Bible believing Christians and the Jews. In a pagan Amerika, we will both be persecuted. We need to prepare today for the inevitable taxes on our church and denominational properties.

What is to be done? We need a moral and theological reformation. The church too much resembles the world because we are no longer God centered in our theology. The brightest spot I see in the SBC right now is what I see in our church in Fort Worth, Redeemer Church. God centered worship, expository gospel preaching (Pastor Tim has preached through Ephesians, Ecclesiastes, and is currently going through Matthew), doctrinal teaching in our Sunday Schools, and a large number of homeschooling families. This church is very much about the Great Commission directly involved in missions in East Asia, Africa, India, Mexico, the Middle East and Utah. This church is very much about theological education with a handful of professors from SWBTS as members and dozens of students as members. And yes, we are Reformed in our theology.

In conclusion, I do not view our decline as necessarily a bad thing. It is a pruning and we needed to be pruned. We are in a similar situation to Gideon at the water. We are being tested and the weak will be sent to the house, the strong into the battle. I realize that the normal “reset button” for the SBC is the Great Commission, and I do not intend to say that needs to change. I will say that if we lose our children, if we lose a  third or fourth generation in a row, of what use will our foreign missions efforts be then? Without cutting back on foreign missions at all, we must also fight the battle at home. This is not a two front war, we are surrounded. It is time to fix bayonets and sound the bugle. The enemy is through the wire.


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    This blog exists to study the bi-vocational ministry, explore the Bible & Theology, and look at current events, history and other world religions through scripture, and have fun doing it!

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