Why the Southern Baptist decline matters

Written by Peter Smith on .

For a decade now, the nation's largest Protestant denomination -- in some ways the U.S. evangelical movement's largest and best-organized force -- has had to admit it's in chronic decline.

The latest numbers are no different. Membership went down from 2015 to 2016 by half a percent to 15.2 million. Attendance is down nearly 7 percent (!) and baptisms are down 5 percent.

Baptisms are a key vital sign for a denomination that puts a premium on conversions, and which therefore only baptizes those old enough to make a profession of faith. Baptisms are at their lowest level since the 1940s.

As I've reported more than once, Southern Baptists are no longer just Southern, even though they're the closest thing to a state church that the Bible Belt has.

They have planted several churches just in the Pittsburgh area alone, as well as elsewhere across North America (not to mention their longstanding world-missions program).

So their health is of interest to all of us. It's a denomination that, a generation ago, went through a bruising revolution, purging moderates and liberals from official positions and configuring a far more conservative fleet of seminaries and agencies.

And here we have the paradox that the Southern Baptists keep expanding their numbers of churches, even as the numbers of people in them keep decreasing. 

You could argue that their mission and church-planting efforts are stemming off the massive declines experienced by more liberal Protestant groups such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In fact, people have made that argument. But the fact remains that Southern Baptists haven't kept pace with population growth.

In some ways, the white evangelical world is at a peak moment of its power. Its rank-and-file played a central role in delivering the White House to Donald Trump and Congress to Republican majorities. Southern Baptists themselves divided fiercely over this, but its #nevertrumpers are in retreat. Much of the evangelical support for Trump came from leaders of other denominations and movements, although a fair share of Southern Baptist megachurch pastors were among them. As for the rank-and-file, it seems that Southern Baptists were largely among the Trump voters.

One reason the Southern Baptists' numbers matter is that, not only are they the largest evangelical body, they're also among the most meticulous in reporting real statistics. So they're kind of a bellwether of the entire movement. 

So why is such a politically potent force so religiously anemic these days? 


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