It should come at no surprise that purging the Southern Baptist Convention of non-fundamentalists did not usher in the great wave of evangelistic growth promised by its leaders. The “takeover of the SBC” — not forgotten by the older crowd, and never known by the younger — made its first push in 1979, just as the Convention was beginning an outreach emphasis called “Bold Missions Thrust.”
The mission was soon lost in the infighting, resulting in a “Bold Missions Bust.” And despite the current SBC leadership’s continued emphasis on hard-sell evangelism, baptisms have declined for the seventh straight year. Churches don’t die easily but can be born quickly, so the annual tally usually shows a few more churches than the previous year, but also fewer members — 570,000 less than in 2006, according to numbers released by the SBC in advance of this year’s convention, to be held in Baltimore June 10-11.
SBC leaders, as usual, decried widespread apathy and called for churches to put more emphasis on evangelism. A national task force of pastors was appointed to deal with the decline, which is especially prominent among millennials: according to the SBC’s most recent Annual Church Profile. last year 60 percent of SBC churches baptized no teenagers, and 80 percent baptized either one or zero young adults 18-29. The only age category in which baptisms are growing is for preschoolers age five and under — which should raise questions of its own for a denomination that prides itself on “believer’s baptism.”
Molly Worthen, a history professor at UNC Chapel Hill, offered a helpful analysis in a recent article, noting that even the most fervent conservatism “cannot hold off the world-historical forces of secularization.”
It’s not just millennials who find fundamentalism unappealing these days — any number of former church members have dropped out because they no longer feel at home there. The problem is not unique to conservatives: moderate and progressive churches can’t claim to fare better. We live in a world that is far less religious than it used to be, with growing generations of folk who see more negatives than positives in organized religion.
The downsides of that trend are obvious, but the picture isn’t entirely bleak: when believers find themselves in the minority and others don’t flock to church just because it’s the popular or culturally accepted thing to do, perhaps those who remain will take more seriously the reasons for being church at all.