Do cutbacks at the Southern Baptist Convention International Mission Board signal the early stages of denominational decline? It’s an important question for Southern Baptists, who have traditionally viewed missions as a primary focus and a key indicator of denominational health.

The IMB this week announced staff cuts and suspended publication of its 66-year-old flagship magazine The Commission. Earlier the agency said it was limiting the number of new missionaries it would appoint for the first time since the 1930s.

Officials blamed losses in the stock market and a $10 million shortfall in the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for the cutbacks. IMB President Jerry Rankin said in a news release that he hoped the draconian measures would “be a wake-up call to Southern Baptists” to increase their missions support.

It is unclear what might happen should Southern Baptists not respond to that call. Rankin said no further cuts are anticipated but couldn’t rule them out in the future. “As much as it hurts, we must remain fiscally responsible and keep expenses within the bounds of the income the churches provide,” Rankin said.

Rankin said churches have increased their giving to international missions, but not fast enough to keep up with the rate of missionary appointments. After appointing 1,000-plus missionaries the last two years, the current mission force stands at 5,545, according to an IMB press release.

IMB trustees last year approved a 2003 budget including what Rankin described as a “faith projection” of a $6.5 million increase through the Cooperative Program—the SBC’s unified budget–and a $21 million increase in the Lottie Moon offering. Though Lottie Moon receipts for the previous year fell $6 million short of a $120 million goal, the IMB budgeted the full $125 million new goal amount, noting that offering receipts would have to increase nearly 19 percent to keep up with the surge of new missionaries.
The 2003 budget included funding for 150 new missionaries, but the IMB expects to actually send out far more. That is because the agency has long relied on operating reserve funds to supplement income it receives from contributions.

Due to increased expenses and losses in the stock market, officials now say most reserves are committed to retirement and medical benefits for personnel or are otherwise restricted.

As a result the IMB is eliminating 61 jobs from its home office in Richmond, Va., and reducing missionary appointments for the next two years. For the first time in decades, about 100 missionary candidates who hoped to start missionary careers this year have been deferred or put on hold, Lloyd Atkinson, the IMB’s vice president for missionary personnel, said in a news release.

One symbolically significant item in the recent IMB cutbacks is a decision to suspend publication of The Commission. With a complimentary and bulk-paid circulation of 250,000, the award-winning magazine was traditionally viewed as a tangible link between the mission agency and its constituents. The magazine will continue to be published on-line, as it has been the last three years. Suspending the print edition is expected to save $800,000 a year in printing and postage costs.

The IMB isn’t the first American denominational entity to shut down a flagship magazine. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) suspended publication of its 144-year-old The Disciple, citing declining circulation, in 1999.

But when actions like these occur in other circles, they often are cast as part of a larger discussion about “mainline decline.” Established denominations like the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ and American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. all reported annual growth for generations before slowing down in the 1960s and declining sharply in the decades since.

A controversial 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches are Growing, by Dean Kelley, argued that mainline denominations lost members because they had become weak as religious bodies through secularization and disconnection between parishioners and a liberal clergy. While some dispute Kelley’s thesis, for others it has become a truism that conservative denominations that provide dogmatic teaching and require high demand from congregants are immune from a similar fate.

SBC president Jack Graham told journalists last fall that the SBC is at its strongest point in history. “Southern Baptist life and work and witness is extremely healthy at this time,” Graham told the annual gathering of the Religion Newswriters Association.

But others, including Princeton’s Robert Wuthnow, say Southern Baptists’ core white, middle-class constituency is aging and that the South is becoming more heterogeneous, suggesting the SBC’s influence might wane as well.

Several indicators may apply:

–Baptisms. The number of baptisms in Southern Baptist churches, historically considered a key indicator of vitality, declined for the third straight year in 2002.

Despite claiming more members and a larger base of churches, Southern Baptists are baptizing fewer people now than in the 1970s. And that was before conservatives launched a “course correction” to repel theological forces they claimed that if left unchecked would weaken Southern Baptists’ evangelistic zeal.

–Attendance at annual meetings. Convention sizes have been shrinking of late, and not only from the days when the heat of the SBC controversy brought 45,000 messengers to Dallas in 1985. Recent crowds have been running even behind pre-controversy numbers from the 1960s and 1970s.

Just more than 9,600 messengers registered at last year’s convention meeting in St. Louis, 30 percent fewer than attended previous meetings in that same city in 1971 and 1980.

Not only has the convention size shrunk, but so has the number of churches represented at the annual meeting. Lee Porter, who lost his bid last year for a 26th term as the SBC’s registration secretary, said it was common for between 8,000 and 9,000 congregations to send messengers to the SBC during the 1980s and most of the 1990s. Two years ago in New Orleans, the number of churches represented was 3,829. Porter hypothesized that might reflect a feeling among grassroots Baptists that they are disconnected from the convention’s leadership.

–Schism. Infighting between moderate and conservative/fundamentalist factions during the 1980s and 1990s prompted some churches to leave the SBC and others to diminish their support. In addition to spawning breakaway groups like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the controversy took a toll on relationships with state conventions, most notably the Baptist General Convention of Texas, the largest state SBC affiliate, and the Baptist General Association of Virginia.

As recently as two years ago, the now cash-strapped IMB refused to accept funding from what later became a new state convention in Missouri, started by churches disenfranchised by a conservative takeover of the Missouri Baptist Convention.

Early casualties of the SBC holy war included several universities that for generations had been strongholds of Southern Baptist culture but loosened ties to their respective Baptist state convention as a way to shield themselves from denominational politics.

–Postdenominationalism.  Much has been written about the declining importance of denominational labels, including some who say it is overstated.

Doug Weaver, a professor of Christianity at Brewton-Parker College in Georgia, said the SBC continues to work in old ways in terms of organization and hierarchy, while many of its churches follow community mega-church models that favor hands-on missions over sending money to a denomination.

With a few exceptions, Weaver said his students in recent years think of themselves as “Christian first, evangelical second and then Baptist.” He said he sees higher loyalty to para-church groups than to the denomination.

“I have always thought the older moderate generation has just not been replaced by the younger SBC folk,” Weaver said. “They might be conservative theologically, but they don’t express a denominational identity in terms of loyalty to SBC ministries.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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