No surprise here …

It should come at no surprise that purging the Southern Baptist Convention of non-fundamentalists did not usher in the great wave of evangelistic growth promised by its leaders. The “takeover of the SBC” — not forgotten by the older crowd, and never known by the younger — made its first push in 1979, just as the Convention was beginning an outreach emphasis called “Bold Missions Thrust.”

SBCstatsThe mission was soon lost in the infighting, resulting in a “Bold Missions Bust.” And despite the current SBC leadership’s continued emphasis on hard-sell evangelism, baptisms have declined for the seventh straight year. Churches don’t die easily  but can be born quickly, so the annual tally usually shows a few more churches than the previous year, but also fewer members — 570,000 less than in 2006, according to numbers released by the SBC in advance of this year’s convention, to be held in Baltimore June 10-11.

SBC leaders, as usual, decried widespread apathy and called for churches to put more emphasis on evangelism. A national task force of pastors was appointed to deal with the decline, which is especially prominent among millennials: according to the SBC’s most recent Annual Church Profile. last year 60 percent of SBC churches baptized no teenagers, and 80 percent baptized either one or zero young adults 18-29. The only age category in which baptisms are growing is for preschoolers age five and under — which should raise questions of its own for a denomination that prides itself on “believer’s baptism.”

Molly Worthen, a history professor at UNC Chapel Hill, offered a helpful analysis in a recent article, noting that even the most fervent conservatism “cannot hold off the world-historical forces of secularization.”

It’s not just millennials who find fundamentalism unappealing these days — any number of former church members have dropped out because they no longer feel at home there. The problem is not unique to conservatives: moderate and progressive churches can’t claim to fare better. We live in a world that is far less religious than it used to be, with growing generations of folk who see more negatives than positives in organized religion.

The downsides of that trend are obvious, but the picture isn’t entirely bleak: when believers find themselves in the minority and others don’t flock to church just because it’s the popular or culturally accepted thing to do, perhaps those who remain will take more seriously the reasons for being church at all.



  1. I remember years ago Daniel Vestal saying something like, “I have come to accept the fact that I will live the rest of my life as a minority.” He wasn’t referring only to moderate Baptists being fewer than fundamentalist Baptists, but to the larger fact of fewer Christians and less influence in his world. I think your last paragraph is where the church in the west will live for a long time. We can continue to look for scape goats and blame all those who don’t think and believe like us, or we can accept the narrow road we are being called to walk. That’s the road the vast history of Christians have walked since Paul traversed the Mediterranean. It’s our road to walk now. We may not have many people to walk with us, but we will have Jesus.

  2. After growing up with indoctrination from the Roman Catholic Church, I started attending a SBC church at age 32 and found it to be a revelation. It was there that I discovered salvation by grace and so I will always be indebted to the Baptist Church for that. But during the years, worship has become more and more like “religion” and the distinction between this and my Catholic upbringing is getting harder to discern. Worship services are now an attempt to imitate what’s seen on megachurch TV broadcasts, complete with lame “pop” music that sounds like the worst the secular world has to offer, and many in attendance seem to require this pap in order to work up to a worshipful state. In addition, “proper” worship now seems to require some type of allegience to knee-jerk conservative Christian political views, and our once politically neutral church now openly embraces “tea party” politics. All this is tied together under the guise of “apologetics,” as if a Christian needs to have some type of logical, worldly explanation for faith in Christ. These developments have once again driven me away from “religion” in search of worship that is “in spirit and truth.” I agree with Kimberly Miller that indoctrinating 7-year-olds into this religious system is going to drive them out, just as Catholic “theology” drove me out. I know these are harsh words, but they needed saying.

  3. In 1960, SBC membership was 9,732,000; in 1996 (“takeover” about complete), 15,614,060; in 2007, 17,144,002; in 2013, 15,735,640. The SBC grew through the 1979-1996 period, including through the takeover years, though it suffered then and suffers now. It grew by 76% from 1960 to 2007 but lost 8% between 2007 and 2013. Fundamentalism is not a primary factor in the loss, though most SBCers are not fundamentalists. It has grown by 62% since 1960 and grew significantly between 1996 and 2007, when the takeover was supposed to pronounce doom upon it. The Episcopal Church lost 43% between 1960 and 2013; the Presbyterian (USA) by 35%; the United Methodist by 29%. The Catholic Church doesn’t count since people are born into that denomination. The greatest growth has been in the LDS at 314% since 1960.

    The SBC-splintered denominations like the CBF are perhaps more stagnant since they don’t know what they believe or stand for. The Kentucky Fellowship has aligned itself with the Kentucky Church Council (actually with the NCCC), meaning that it gives its imprimatur to whatever the KCC announcers as policy. This means that the KBF aligns itself with same-sex marriage and every other perverted position the KCC takes on everything from women in combat to homosexual behavior as normal. While it’s true that the culture trends constantly toward hedonism/secularism, it’s also true that the church does, too. The church was once the voice crying in the wilderness but now it’s just an adjunct of the entertainment-driven religiosity that permeates every denomination and considers the wilderness just the place to be, with hugs and warm-fuzzies all around.

  4. Like so many I grew up in an SBC church which is still very vital as CBF church today. I belong to a wonderful CBF church in Hendersonville, NC. I looked at the SBC statistics in your article and agree that many of today’s young adults do not feel at home in SBC churches. During her youth, my daughter cherished her SBC church home in the 1980-90’s. As an adult, she no longer felt at home as SBC churches became more fundamentalist. I am happy that she did not stop seeking the fellowship of a church. She now attends a non-denominational church in Nashville, TN that is full of adults her age. It is not fundamentalist and is open and warm to all.

  5. Jim, your comment begins with stats with which most denominations are currently dealing. By God’s grace, we can hopefully find some answers for ways to communicate Christ to this generation of millennials without losing the truths of the gospel. However, in your second paragraph you abandon your stats for such phrases as, “denominations like the CBF are perhaps more stagnant since they don’t know what they believe or stand for.” Jim, remember that numbers of our churches are associated with both the SBC and the CBF, and are also very involved in their local and state Baptist conventions. Tell me, Jim, have you ever been to a worship service in a church that is heavily involved in CBF? Have you ever read CBF literature, especially as found in “Baptists Today.” or worked your way through the Bible study lessons printed therein? From such materials and experiences, you should be able to discern easily what CBF believes or stands for. Then you can deal with the issue from an informed perspective.

    • I belong to a dually-aligned downtown church, Calvary Baptist, in Lexington, Ky. – runs between 600 and 700 in SS and did not head to the suburbs like the larger SBC churches and borders the campus of the University of Kentucky. Before that, I taught SS in a dually-aligned church in Danville, Ky., but used the literature only for suggested subjects. Neither is involved, or at all, in SBC state convention activities other than in designated offerings. The SBC left me mostly account the women-ordination thing and I am far from a fundamentalist and even wrote a book outlining my beliefs. If the women in the SBC are happy, then I say more power to that denomination, which will not be embarrassed over the “sex-questions,” which are the main contributing factors to the disintegration of the main-liners now. All denominations and churches will trend downward now because the culture is changing. At 84, I speak from watching this change in constant real time for a long time and have seen “religiosity” become squeamish and wimpish until now it’s a subject for the comedians. The KBF is aligned with outfits that figure that anything is okay if it feels good and doesn’t hurt anyone, never realizing the ramifications. My perspective may not be informed but it’s fairly well established. None of this means that I speak pejoratively of my church, which has many young adults and children but which I believe has a pronouncedly graying membership. It remains “traditional” in its worship, thank God (though the applause grates and speaks of entertainment), but has an early service for the youth, who must not be subjected to actual hymn-singing, an evil organ, and other harmful activities. I have NOT attended those services so I am out of order there – just hearsay or informed imagination. A reasonable measure of success, perhaps unfortunately, can be made on the basis of finances, thus both the CBF and SBC are hurting.

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