|LifeWay Christian Resources' recent annual statistical study demonstrated in rather clear fashion that the Southern Baptist Convention, which had long defied the trends of mainline denominations by continuing to grow, appears to have peaked and begun a gradual decline. Baptisms continue a steep slide despite fervent efforts to prop them up, and even the amorphous "membership" category showed a dip in 2007.
LifeWay missiologist Ed Stetzer analyzed the statistics, pronounced the Convention to be "in decline," and suggested some reasons for the fall-off.
A new financial report from the SBC's Executive Committee adds yet another weakening statistic: Cooperative Program giving is down--just barely, at minus 0.30 percent--but still down from the previous year at this time.
The significance of this is that, through the past several years, despite a struggling economy and falling revenues in many state conventions, the SBC Cooperative Program continued to post 2-3 percent gains on a regular basis. The April report, however, just over halfway through the SBC's fiscal year, shows CP to be $360,255 behind the $120,638,766 received at the same point in 2007. The monthly report was even more striking: April receipts of $15,765,017 were 15.07 percent, or $2,797,103, behind the $18,562,121 received in April 2007.
Has the nation's financial flop finally come home to the SBC, or does the drop reflect other indications of decline? Time will tell, I suppose, assisted by a whole bunch of commentators who are very certain of their opinions.
Trevin Wax, minister of education at First Baptist Church in Shelbyville, Tenn., noted in a first-person post on Baptist Press that there's likely to be a great deal of finger pointing as various factions within the SBC fault their opponents for the denomination's apparent slide. Calling on Europe's "Thirty Years' War" in the mid-17th century as an example of the damage religious factionalism can do, Wax notes appropriately that Southern Baptists' own infighting has now raged openly for nearly 30 years.
Wax calls on Southern Baptists to "end the fighting, reunite around the Gospel, love those with whom we disagree and continue to cooperate."
What a concept.
Many called for a similar response in the early days of the conservative insurgence, but appeals to love could not compete with the appeal of power.
There is nothing more divisive than absolute certainty, especially when manifested as the belief that one position is right, all others are wrong, and the "right" way must triumph.
Absent a miraculous inrush of humility, I suspect Wax's timely challenge will remain an honorable dream.
Tony Cartledge is associate professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School and contributing editor to Baptists Today. This column appeared previously on his Baptists Today blog and is used here with permission.