We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, June 15, 2012

The SBC a Year Later

Just one year ago, I reported (here) on the continuing membership decline of the Southern Baptist Convention.  In 2011, the SBC marked its fourth strait year of decline.  As I said then, the decline was modest compared to that of several mainline denominations, but it was real and continuing.  Now, a year later, SBC decline continues and is increasing.  Ed Stetzer of LIfeWay Research reports on his blog (here) that not only is this accelerating trend clear, but it also replicates the pattern of decline seen in mainline churches such as the United Methodist Church.  He writes that he has been warning the SBC year after year that the decline has to be addressed, but his warnings have largely fallen on deaf ears.  In the past, there has been some denial over the weight of the data, but Stetzer claims that such denial has to come to an end.  The facts are clear.

The decline in SBC membership becomes more and more significant the longer it continues.  It suggests that the national decline in organized religion is spreading to the South, the most religious region of the nation.  It also suggests that institutional religious decline is a growing reality across the nation.  From the perspective of mainline churches, it points to a third important reality.  Church decline is not a function of theological position, liberal or conservative, and specifically it is not related to a declared commitment to evangelism.  In the case of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the point is that those churches that are leaving the denomination because of its supposed lack of commitment to evangelism and an evangelical theology are not themselves going anywhere significant.  Withdrawal into evangelical ghetto denominations offers no assurance whatsoever that they will discover new growth.  Indeed, the likelihood is the opposite.

The SBC apparently is also following in the footsteps of the mainline church in another way.  The mainline has been declining for fifty years, that's two generations.  Everyone knows it is declining.  A vast literature of decline has emerged.  A ton of research has gone into studying the phenomenon.  There are a large variety of programs and approaches designed to reverse the decline.  And yet it continues.  While not a few mainline churches are growing, they are the minority.  Most are not.  Something much larger is going on, and I don't think we really understand it for all of our books, studies, journals, seminars, and programs.  We certainly have not learned how to contend with it.  If any denomination in the United States today has the size, resources, ideology, and commitment to transcend decline, it is the SBC.  And the SBC is headed in the same direction as the rest of us.  Something is going on.