A movement launched in 1979 to purge the Southern Baptist Convention of so-called “liberalism” failed in its promise to deliver a more evangelistic denomination, according to an SBC statistician.
“The Conservative Resurgence failed to produce a Great Commission Resurgence,” LifeWay Christian Resources statistician Ed Stetzer said in a blog comment about new numbers indicating a decline in total SBC membership. “It restored our denomination’s value of Scripture but application is often absent, at least in the area of evangelism.”
Viewed by moderates on the losing end as a fundamentalist “takeover” of the nation’s second-largest religious body, the “conservative resurgence” was for proponents a battle for the Bible aimed at saving the convention from following mainline churches into liberal theology and numerical decline.
“We thought if we fixed our theology, baptisms would grow,” Stetzer told The Tennessean. “We’ve fixed our theology and then nothing happened.”
Stetzer suggested that infighting may in fact be a factor in denominational decline.
“Satan has used our incessant bickering over non-essentials to promote his last great mission on earth–to keep lost people lost,” he said in his blog. “The communities in which we live simply do not want to hear what we have to say when we can speak kindly to one another.”
“If the focus of every SBC meeting is a new controversy to be debated, new parameters to be narrowed and new issues to be fought,” he predicted, “the trend toward decline will only accelerate.”
An earlier decline in SBC membership reported in 1998 prevented Stetzer from describing last year’s loss of nearly 40,000 members as a first. That year the denomination reported losing 162,000 members and described it as the first decline since 1926.
But Stetzer said that drop may have been result in a change in reporting rather than an actual numerical decline. Either way, he said, 1998 was a one-year “tick.” The current membership loss comes amid a “multi-decade trend that points to a future with more declining years ahead.”
LifeWay researcher Cliff Tharp warned as far back as 2005 that total SBC membership growth was slowing and without change Southern Baptists would soon experience a decrease in membership.
Tharp said the number of baptisms by SBC churches had been plateaued since 1950 and evangelistic effectiveness in steady decline as measured by the baptism-to-member ratio. In 1950 it took 19 members to baptize one person. In the most-recent count, it took 47.
That is despite many activities and emphases over a 55-year period designed to increase baptisms and evangelism. The most recent, an “Everyone Can” campaign by former SBC President Bobby Welch to baptize 1 million people in a year, didn’t make a dent in the downward trend in baptism totals.
“The fundamentalist takeover of the SBC began with an anti-seminary, anti-agency and anti-moderate virus that multiplied radically and morphed into an anti-Disney, anti-women, anti-public schools, anti-Jews, anti-Catholics, anti-Democrats and anti-science agenda,” said Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics. “Without an antidote to the anti-everything virus, the SBC will continue to decline.”
Stetzer labeled the membership drop a “dubious milestone.” Among fixes, he suggested, “We must repent of what we have been.”
“We have built factions on differences which are but a sliver of life: young vs. old; doctrinal distinctions built on a hair’s difference; worship models,” he said. “And, all the while, the pride of each faction has swelled. We must decide to lay down our arms against fellow Baptists who share the same doctrinal confession and worship, reach the lost or do their ministry in a different manner.”
“The promise of the Conservative Resurgence was to reestablish our unwavering belief in the inerrancy of Scripture,” Stetzer said. “Once we had our theology in order we were supposed to reach the world–but that theological change has not birthed a missional fruit. Now is the moment for us to hone our vision and take on a bigger battle–we must battle to build upon our Conservative Resurgence and make it a Great Commission Resurgence.
“If we don’t, why did we bother with the Conservative Resurgence in the first place?”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
SBC Reports Membership Decline