When I was serving on the staff of an inner city church in Houston several years ago, and started writing this blog, I made note of the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention, as a denomination, had a membership crisis rolling toward it, and for the most part, didn’t seem to be aware of it. After a peak of evangelistic activity in the 50’s and 60’s, the denomination’s growth began to slow down, and the thousands of churches that had been started to accommodate the new believers began to see the effects of demographic change, in that the membership began to age, and the available pool of Caucasian, middle class families in the inner cities and suburbs, from which most of the membership was drawn, was declining. At the same time, the “church culture” solidified around the kind of people who made up the majority of the membership. Unless change occurred, decline was inevitable.
Some change has occurred, and there are places where Southern Baptist churches are seeing strong evangelistic outreach and growing, thriving churches. Ironically, most of this is happening in the Northeast, Midwest and the far West, areas outside of the traditional Southern Baptist strongholds in the South. But generally, aside from swapping members, or mega churches draining them out of existing congregations, the growth has stagnated. I believe there are a couple of reasons for this. One, traditional evangelism approaches and training people to “witness” has focused on the assumption that the people you are talking to already have some kind of an idea of the subject matter. That is no longer the case. Most younger Americans, the under 40 generation, have never been to church, and are not exposed to the “gospel culture.” So the frame of reference that launches a discussion into the four spiritual laws just doesn’t fall on interested ears. They’re not convinced that the Bible, or the Christian faith, has anything relevant to offer them. It’s a different world. And it makes it difficult for churches that have been built around the way the members have wanted it to be for years to adjust and be evangelistic.
There are some initiatives from NAMB, and from other SBC agencies, that are beginning to shift the focus. Southern Baptist churches are growing in the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and in the far West, though most of them are small, and it takes a while for that to affect the numbers. There is a new emphasis, with real enthusiasm, and realistic training, to reach the cities. We will see where these things go over time.
The Influence of Calvinism
The second article I cited deals with the report that the Executive Director’s committee has been wrestling with over the past year. As expected, the committee, made up of individuals from both sides of the spectrum, called on Southern Baptists to work together over this obstacle. What that means remains to be seen. Calvinists will have to stop thinking of non-Calvinists as heretics, and understand that they may wind up serving a church that has a minority of members who belong there, but don’t share Calvinist views. They cannot view the convention’s institutions and agencies as places to advance their own theology. Non-Calvinists, likewise, will have to acknowledge that the convention works best when it is shared, not dominated. This is a beginning point. There will be a lot of discussion down the road, and it will have to involve a lot of people who have a stake in the convention. This isn’t the first time Southern Baptists have had to have this kind of discussion as a denomination. It’s part of congregational rule and local church autonomy, both principles which I believe are consistent with the way the founders of the early church intended it to be. So the discussion is worth the effort.
Now you might think, “Why is he writing about the SBC? Isn’t he now a member of a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church?” Yes, I am. But you can’t be involved in a denomination for virtually all of your life, except for three years, and not still be interested. I still work and serve with Southern Baptists, I hold a graduate degree from one of the seminaries, and that has provided me with the educational background necessary for me to do the work I am now involved in. In this part of the country, the lines between different branches of conservative, evangelical Christianity are quite blurred, and the Southern Baptist churches I’ve visited up here are a mixture of individuals from different denominational backgrounds, attracted to Southern Baptist congregations which uphold the authority of the Bible, and use it as their primary text in preaching and teaching. The Alliance shares a lot of common theology and beliefs. It may well be that I will join and serve in a Southern Baptist congregation again at some point in my life. So I like to keep up with what’s going on.