The Southern Baptist denomination fell to its lowest point since 1987 per the evangelical group’s Annual Church Profile. The statistics show that the number of Southern Baptists fell to 14.8 million in 2018. This was the first year that Southern Baptists numbered fewer than 15 million since 1989.
Baptisms fell by three percent in 2018, which was a slower pace of decline than the nine percent drop from 2017. Weekly attendance fell by just under half a percent to 5.3 million and the number of Southern Baptist churches declined by 88 to 47,456.
The report was not all dark. Four states, Minnesota, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin posted double-digit growth in the number of congregations and giving increased by $82 million to a total of $11.8 billion. The sharp rise in donations is likely due to the good economy and congregants tithing based on larger incomes.
Still, the falling number of members and baptisms is alarming for Southern Baptist leaders. “Heartbreaking to see these ACP declines. We must do better as Southern Baptists. God help us,” said Adam Greenway, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
As I wrote this weekend in “The Laodicea Church Is Now,” the decline of the Southern Baptists, the denomination to which I belong, is part of an across-the-board decline of organized religion in the United States. Evangelical denominations are following the Catholic Church and mainline protestant denominations in withering as the “religious nones” rise sharply.
The reasons for the decline are many. Several years ago, we were members at a thriving Southern Baptist church in Georgia that it would have taken an FBI investigation to determine was Southern Baptist. This “community church” did not identify as Southern Baptist because so many people had been alienated by other Baptists throughout the years that the pastor and deacons considered public association with the Southern Baptist brand to be a stumbling block in spreading the gospel.
The denomination has been famous for its teetoler preaching on alcohol and other aspects of pop culture. One Southern Baptist church that I belonged to split over a requirement that Sunday School teachers sign a pledge to abstain from alcohol. A Southern Baptist ban on dancing was the subject of the 1984 movie, “Footloose.” Southern Baptists even launched an ineffective boycott of Disney in 1997 over the company’s “anti-Christian and anti-family direction.”
A few months ago, I wrote about our search for a new church following a move. What we found as we visited many Southern Baptist churches was that quite a few were unprepared for visitors and lacked the programs that church-seekers are looking for. In some cases this is due to resistance to change from older members (ask any pastor about the phrase, “We’ve never done it that way before”) or that the members view the church more as a social club than an evangelical outreach organization. Very few churches seem to have any organized plan for outreach and are waiting on members of the community to find their way into the pews instead. This is increasingly unlikely in today’s society with its multitude of distractions.
The modern church’s political mission is also to blame. It seems to be no coincidence that the Southern Baptists peaked in the 1980s when Jerry Falwell entered politics with his Moral Majority. The shift of focus from soul-winning to political power likely raised walls between churches and about half the country who were being implicitly called immoral if they disagreed with Falwell.
Southern Baptists are a denomination that is run from the bottom. There is no head of the Southern Baptist church that is equivalent to the pope. Instead, churches send delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention each year. The problem with this system is that when the public sees Southern Baptist leaders, it no longer sees men like Billy Graham and Russell Moore. Today, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Robert Jeffress are identified as Southern Baptist leaders. The pro-Trump message of these men often drowns out the gospel message of their denomination.
Franklin Graham, son of the apolitical Billy Graham is an unabashed Trump supporter. On Sunday, Graham tweeted out a partisan call for prayer, saying, “I don’t believe any president in the history of this nation has been attacked more than Donald Trump… If he succeeds we all benefit, but if his enemies are allowed to destroy him and pull down the presidency it will hurt our entire nation.”
Likewise, Jerry Falwell, Jr. was an early supporter of Trump in 2016. The backing of the Liberty University president enabled many Christians to look past Trump’s past and behavior to support the serial adulterer and foul-mouthed candidate.
Robert Jeffress, the pastor of Dallas First Baptist, has made news time and again, not for spreading the gospel, but for his adulation of President Trump. In 2017, the choir at Jeffress’ church sang a “Make America Great Again” hymn while earlier this year Jeffress himself attacked evangelicals who do not support the president, saying, “Let me say this as charitably as I can. These ‘Never Trump’ evangelicals are morons. They are absolutely spineless morons, and they cannot admit that they were wrong.” It is hard to find a more explicit message that if you aren’t sold on Trump, you aren’t welcome at church.
While people like these do not represent rank-and-file pastors of Southern Baptist churches, they are the public face of the church to much of the country. When paired together with local church members who present a legalistic and unfriendly view of the denomination, it is no wonder that seekers are going elsewhere. Or nowhere.
As Jesus said to John the Revelator, many Southern Baptists have lost their first love, that of the gospel message, or have diluted it with an unpopular and divisive political message. If the denomination wants to turn its decline around, it should return to the tactic that made it successful in the first place: going outside the church walls to spread the Biblical message of Christ’s love and forgiveness.
A declining number of Bible-believing Christians is not going to change American culture from the top down. Whether on abortion or the content of movies and television shows, pursuing political victories as a minority is destined to fail and hurt the church in the process. Instead, churches should focus on changing the culture from the bottom up by changing people through Jesus.