Reversing the Southern Baptist Convention’s decline and loss of influence will demand new leadership and theological transformation, two very unlikely possibilities in the next decade. The SBC’s numerical slide and besmirched image took some 30 years to achieve and cannot be undone by a quick makeover.
After a decade-long internecine war, fundamentalists defeated the feckless moderates and took control in the early 1990s of SBC agencies and seminaries. Their successful campaign was built on two promises.
One promise was that the SBC would enter a golden age of growth when Southern Baptists read the Bible literally and had conservative positions on issues like women and abortion.
Fundamentalists believed the decline in mainline Protestantism resulted from liberalism, such as the critical study of the Bible and ordination of women. A conservative worldview was the best defense against decline.
If the first promise was theological, the second promise was organizational. Fundamentalists claimed that conservatives were neither hired at seminaries nor appeared on convention programs. They said they only wanted parity in positions.
Parity soon turned to purity, driving out those who were neither theological conservatives nor supporters of the Christian Right.
Without a counterbalancing force, fundamentalists quickly marched into an anti-everything posture. The SBC launched a boycott against Disney. It adopted a faith statement against women working outside the home. One seminary president made anti-Catholic statements on national TV, saying the Pope preached a false gospel. Leaders made anti-public school declarations, calling for an exodus of Christian students from public education. Others implied that the Democratic Party was against God.
Purity and negativity had dire consequences. Churches backed away from the SBC; even conservative churches dropped Baptist from their name. SBC-affiliated state conventions turned toward their own priorities. Fearing fundamentalist control, Baptist universities, such as Belmont University, sought autonomy. Attendance at the annual SBC meeting plummeted. Attempts to rally Southern Baptists to baptize more converts and to grow churches flopped. The promised golden age never happened.
Even if rank-and-file Southern Baptists had the power to hold accountable those who presided over the denominational fall, reversing the situation would require fundamental theological changes.
Positive growth requires that an authentic inclusivity must replace a rigid exclusivity for women in leadership. Civil ecumenical and meaningful interfaith engagement must supplant arrogant theological purity. A genuine commitment to non-partisanship must be swapped for the claim that God’s Only Party is the GOP.
Finally, reversing the decline would require Southern Baptists to redefine how they determine God’s favor. The current measurement of success is numerical growth, which the SBC does not have, meaning the denomination is out of favor with God, according to the body’s own definition.
A broader theological definition of faithfulness and cultural engagement would go a long way toward reversing decline, something that a new generation of leaders might advance.
Robert Parham is the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Requested by the editorial page of the Tennessean, this column appeared on Tuesday, accompanying the newspaper’s own editorial about the decline of the Southern Baptist Convention and another column by Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research.