The editor of Georgia’s Christian Index makes some interesting points in this March 13th editorial. Though I would disagree with his apparent thesis, that joining up with an SBC now under the control of the conservative resurgence is the solution to avoiding the decline that “other” denominations have experienced, he did make some good points.
Martin Marty, quoted as a “noted interpreter of religion and culture,” admits that denominations demand money, build a bureaucratic structure, and that the things that they represent corporately often overshadow the mission and ministry of the local congregations that belong to them. However, he also notes that denominations provide some necessary elements for churches in working together that they could not do for themselves, particularly training of ministers, literature publishing, efficient missionary enterprises, representation of the common interests of churches in the government arena and refugee and relief ministries.
Sometimes, we Baptists complain about the “bureaucratic” nature of our convention operations, and sometimes that’s justified, in light of certain developments. But most mainline denominations that have experienced decline in their churches are far more connectional in their governance than Baptists. And in those denominations, the people in the pews are far removed from the decision making process. The implementation of more liberal theological positions without the full support of the people in the pews has led to a long, steady decline in most mainline denominations.
In quoting a Methodist layman involved in a renewal movement in the United Methodist Church, the editorial makes the claim that while liberal theology is responsible for the decline of most mainline denominations, conservative theology is the ticket to growth in the church. George Mitrovich says that the churches that are growing in America today are theologically conservative and evangelical. And eventually, that leads to the conclusion that the SBC isn’t among the declining denominations because it is conservative and evangelical.
It would be great if it were that simple.
Mitrovich notes that the United Methodist Church has lost three million members over the last 30 years, that the median age of church members is 60, and that youth enrollment is down to around 500,000. These statistics, he says, point to a dying denomination. By comparison, the SBC looks much better. Or does it?
We have a rather quirky and unusual way of keeping membership records, as opposed to most mainline denominations. Basically, each church does their own thing. The end result is that most of our statistics are not accurate, good measurements of what is actually happening in our churches. In the Methodist church, and many other mainline denominations, the congregations pay a “head tax” to their district, region and national offices based on their membership. This is a significant amount of money, and goes toward pastor salaries and other expenses that most Baptist congregations take care of themselves. Thus, those churches make sure that their membership roll closely reflects those who are actually attending and participating in the church on a weekly basis. So the 8.5 member United Methodist Church estimates a weekly average worship attendance of about 7.9 million.
The SBC’s statistics show a slowly increasing total membership figure. Since 1980, our total membership has crept forward, and has increased by about a million and a half. With the exception of a couple of years in the late 1990’s, when the total membership declined, it has actually grown by about 1% per year. However, our average weekly worship attendance is reported as 6.1 million, which means that, on any given Sunday, almost two thirds of our members aren’t in church. Is that just a coincidence, or is it a glaring discrepancy? Not only that, but the weekly worship attendance reported by the churches in 1980 was slighly more than 7 million*, which means that what is probably our most valid measureable growth statistic shows that we are in at least as steep a decline as the UMC. We’ve lost 2 million people since 1980. Our other “vital signs,” baptism and Sunday school attendance, are also down. We baptize about 100,000 fewer people per year now than we did three decades ago, when we had fewer members, almost no “megachurches,” and our Sunday School attendance is down by half a million from what it was in 1980.
Not only that, but 75% of our churches, according to our own Lifeway publishers, are plateaued or declining. That’s about the same percentage of declining churches you will find in the United Methodist Church. And most of our growing churches are adding members by transfer from other churches, mainly because of where they are located, and not through increased evangelism. Lifeway’s statistical analysis shows that half of those enrolled in Sunday School in SBC churches are senior adults past 60, and our youth enrollment is down considerably from what it was in 1980, and our college-age enrollment is almost non-existent. There must be more behind what is going on than a church simply remaining conservative and evangelical, since it is clear that most of those kinds of churches are also experiencing decline.
Non-denominational churches appear to be growing. But are they growing simply by appealing to the disgruntled in denominational churches, through cutting-edge programs and contemporary worship, or are they being more “evangelistic,” and reaching lost people? It appears that evangelism, reaching those who are not believers, or who are not the children of believers, is not occurring in any kind of significant numbers anywhere. So is it just a matter of “denominational identity” becoming a thing of the past, or is there something happening in the way we do church in our culture that is causing a general decline in the total number of people practicing their faith in local churches?
*The weekly average worship attendance figure for the SBC for 1980 is taken from a quote in the 1980 book of reports, and from a similar quotation in a 1981 BSSB publication referencing the 1980 book of reports. The digest of letters in 1980 did not ask SBC churches to submit their average worship attendance, as it has since about 1990, so worship attendance was estimated. The UMC figure is based on an estimate by a UMC pastor.
The figures provided by Lifeway, stating that 75% of our churches are plateaued or declining, as well as the difference of over 10 million between our reported membership, are rounded estimates based on recent reports, as are the statistics related to baptisms.