It’s hard to overstate the importance of soul-winning to Southern Baptists. So they’ve been hit hard by the news that the evangelical denomination’s slump in membership and baptisms has continued for the seventh year in a row. “I am grieved we are clearly losing our evangelistic effectiveness,” said Thom Rainer, president of Lifeway Christian Resources and former dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
The troubles of the Southern Baptist Convention offer an interesting window into the long-term prospects of Christianity in America—partly because the Southern Baptists have been fretting about those prospects louder than almost anyone else. Don’t all Christians think it’s important to redeem sinners? Yes, but the act of conversion is the heart of the Southern Baptist brand.
Is this decline real? The short answer is yes—the social and intellectual authority of churches is a shadow of what it once was.
They are “baptists,” after all, called to persuade the unconverted that Christ is their lord and savior, then dunk them to seal the deal (a mere sprinkling doesn’t cut it). Over 73 percent of the funds that congregations donate to the national SBC organization goes to support evangelistic work. Believers give most of this money during funding drives named for two of the church’s greatest heroes: the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering. Moon, born in 1840, was a 4’3” dynamo who mastered a half dozen languages, never married, and devoted her life to evangelizing in China. Armstrong stayed stateside and led the foundation of the Women’s Missionary Union. (In the 19th century, missionary work was one of the few vocations open to middle-class women who wanted to work outside the home.)
The denomination had nearly 5,000 professional missionaries in the field as of 2012, and many thousands more Southern Baptists participate in short-term mission trips each year. More importantly, the evangelistic ethos is supposed to infuse everyday life. The Southern Baptist Convention of Texas, for example, offers its members a “Game Plan” of different strategies and tools for proselytizing everyone from students and athletes to Muslims and agnostics, including helpful conversation starters like the “Evangecube” (a Rubik’s Cube with images of Jesus). There’s no doubt that when the SBC convenes for its annual meeting later this month in Baltimore, church leaders will be discussing why all of these resources and tactics are falling short.
Last year the denomination summoned a team of pastors and church officials to form the Task Force on SBC Evangelistic Impact and Declining Baptisms.The Task Force’s report confirmed that the denomination’s baptism rates plateaued in the 1950s, stayed constant for the next few decades, and had been inching downward for the past six years. Among the churches that reported statistics in 2012, 25 percent baptized no one at all that year.
The report proposed a time-honored solution: pray for spiritual revival; encourage pastors to lead by example with more personal evangelizing; and gear church activities and education toward “multiplying disciples who know how to grow in Christ and lead others to Christ”—especially among the younger generation. This is more or less the same plan that theologian Jonathan Edwards followed in the 1730s when he sensed that his Northampton, Massachusetts congregation was drifting from God. He got the spiritual awakening he prayed for. A string of revivals later known as the Great Awakening blazed up and down the eastern seaboard—although scholars suspect that many of these new converts soon backslid into their unregenerate ways.
The Task Force report is a blend of modern bureaucratese and the old Judeo-Christian tradition of the jeremiad. “We need a sense of brokenness and repentance over the spiritual climate of our churches and our nation,” the authors write. Woe to you who have fallen away from the righteousness of your ancestors! Repent, be saved, and preach the true faith! Religious leaders have always had an interest in preaching a story of decline. It’s tough to prod your congregation into action if they think everything is swell.
So is this decline real? The short answer is yes—the social and intellectual authority of churches is a shadow of what it once was. That doesn’t mean that Jonathan Edwards wouldn’t recognize many of the challenges today’s evangelicals face. He, too, worried about how to keep teenagers from leaving church and succumbing to the temptations of the world, and how to persuade non-believers (in his case, the Indian tribes of New England) that Christianity was true. Effective evangelism has always required careful negotiation with the surrounding culture. Lottie Moon learned Chinese and ditched her Southern belle dresses for indigenous attire. Centuries before her, Jesuit missionaries fashioned crucifixes with the Buddha, rather than Jesus, at the center. Since the time of the Apostles, Christians have argued over how much compromise is too much: when does cross-cultural translation or embrace of worldly knowledge cross the line into heresy?
In the early decades of the twentieth century, American liberals and fundamentalists fought over missionary tactics abroad as well as the accommodation of secular learning and culture at home. When liberal mainline denominations began to shrink in the 1960s, conservative Southern Baptists and other evangelicals took this as proof that God had abandoned churches that adulterated his Word with Darwinism, progressive politics, and permissive sexual mores. In a book called The Churching of America (1992) sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke argued that in the American religious “free market,” the churches that grow are the strictest, most demanding churches, the ones that permit no “free riders,” require members to live in constant tension with the wider world and promise a big payoff for sticking to the one Truth. “Humans want their religion to be sufficiently potent, vivid, and compelling so that it can offer them rewards of great magnitude,” the authors wrote. By contrast, those religious communities that concede too much to the world are bound to decline.
American exceptionalism has merely delayed secularization, not halted it.
The truth was that for many decades the SBC was a big tent with room for a range of theological inclinations, political opinions, and worship styles. After all, Baptists believe in “soul liberty”: ultimately, your beliefs are between you and God. But as the culture wars hit the South with full force in the 1960s and 1970s, conservative leaders conspired to tighten the reins on their denomination. By the 1990s they had driven most moderates out of the convention and enforced a regime of biblical inerrancy and traditional gender ideology—a worldview that, if Stark and Finke were correct, should have set the SBC on a path for boundless growth.
Except it hasn’t. True, the conservative SBC revolution has produced a vanguard of impressive young leaders: charismatic, handsome pastors like Birmingham’s David Platt and Charlotte’s Steven Furtick (whose Elevation Church has recently taken heat for planting volunteers to come forward for “spontaneous” baptisms). J.D. Greear leads The Summit Church down the road from me in Durham, North Carolina. These pastors wear stylish jeans and wireless mics; they usually have gorgeous wives and children, numerous advanced degrees, and personal websites. Their megachurches are growing, spilling over onto satellite campuses where congregants can watch their pastor-gurus by streaming video. They combine conservative theology with a trendy Mac-user ethos that shows you can be both a cool Millennial and a Christian culture warrior. My classes at the University of North Carolina are full of students with Summit Church stickers plastered on their laptops and water bottles.
But these poster-children of the SBC’s future can’t make those gloomy national statistics go away. Stark’s and Finke’s book was panned by historians, largely because they cherry-picked statistics to divide American churches into “winners” and “losers” without nuanced attention to historical context. If you step back and assess the big picture, few conservative churches are growing anymore (the Assemblies of God is, but by less than 2 percent per year). Evangelicals’ recent strategies—ranging from a hipster makeover to appeal to the Millennial crowd to the mistaken hope that millions of Latinos are leaving Catholicism and becoming conservative Protestants—cannot hold off the world-historical forces of secularization. As the historian David Hollinger has argued, even if liberal churches have lost the battle for butts in the pews, the steady advance of civil rights, the sexual revolution, and gay liberation suggests that they are winning the wider culture.
You’ve probably heard that the United States has been the exception to the decline of organized religion in the developed West over the last 200 years, and that’s true. But American exceptionalism has merely delayed secularization, not halted it. Poll numbers—rising numbers of “nones” who say they have no religious affiliation; slowly falling rates of church attendance—suggest that even if Americans continue to believe that life has a supernatural dimension, many may be drifting out of institutionalized worship. Traditional religious organizations are losing their grip on the public sphere and their influence in the lives of individuals. “All things considered, I think that religion is slowing down, in decline … everything is clearly going in the decline direction,” said Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves, who has written one of the best synthetic studies of the polling data on contemporary American religion.
Thoughtful Christian leaders have already begun to recognize this. But realism doesn’t mean shrugging off the obligations of the Great Commission or ceding victory in the culture wars to liberals. Jesus called his followers to “make disciples of all the nations,” not just the United States. Conservative evangelicals are preaching abroad with a renewed zeal, buoyed by the hope that traditional ideas about gender roles and biblical authority still reign outside the West, and that already “reverse missionaries” from the Global South are beginning to plant churches and save souls in American Babylon.
Christianity has been around for 2,000 years. Over the centuries, the faith’s center of gravity has shifted many times: from Palestine and Northern Africa to Rome and Byzantium; from Western Europe to America. The Southern Baptist experience is more proof that Americans’ term at the helm of Christ’s ship may be nearing an end, and the sailing is more squally than ever.
Molly Worthen is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her most recent book is Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford, 2013).