A Southern Baptist official who has been a frequent critic of the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant inaccurately attacked the Celebration and those present for not focusing on evangelism. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, claimed that the Baptist bodies at the Celebration were not growing because they were not evangelistic.
“If they were strong on evangelism, then all of these groups would not have declining membership,” argued Land. “And every one of the groups that was there either has declining membership or is stagnant in its membership growth.”
Although Land did not attend the Celebration, he claimed that the gathering’s speakers and special interest sessions offered little attention to evangelism. He also contended that the gathering and its groups focus on the social gospel instead of evangelism, which was why the groups are declining in membership.
“That’s what happens when you don’t emphasize evangelism and when you compromise with the culture,” he added.
Recent membership statistics of the Baptist denominations represented at the Celebration do not support Land’s assertion that “all of these groups” and “every one of the groups” are declining or stagnant. Of 13 denominational groups listed among the participating organizations, four groups actually reported an increase between 2005 and 2007. Another six groups reported the same membership and only three groups reported declines.
During the two-year period, the Baptist General Association of Virginia, Canadian Baptist Ministries and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship all reported increases in their numbers to the Baptist World Alliance.
Additionally, the Baptist General Convention of Missouri, which was not yet a BWA member in 2005, confirmed to EthicsDaily.com that the reported 2007 number represented an increase over 2005.
The Canadian Baptist Ministries represents four different Baptist denominations that were participating organizations in the Celebration: Baptist Convention of Ontario & Quebec, Baptist Union of Western Canada, Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches, and Union d’Eglises Baptistes Francaises au Canada.
Six groups–Baptist General Convention of Texas, Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Society, National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., National Missionary Baptist Convention of America and Progressive Baptist National Convention–reported the same numbers for 2007 as in 2005.
The three denominations that reported declines were the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., General Association of General Baptists and North American Baptist Conference. The declines of the American Baptists may have more to do with divisions over homosexuality than issues related to evangelism.
Although several Baptist bodies participating in the Celebration have reported declining or stagnant membership, nearly one-third of the groups reported growth during the most recent two-year period. Additionally, the overall numbers for all participating conventions marked a growth of 1.3 percent during the two years.
The growth rates of the four groups and the overall growth rate for the participating organizations at the Celebration are all greater than recent growth rates reported by the SBC. The SBC’s membership self-reported numbers jumped less than one-quarter of a percent from those reported in 2005 to those in 2007.
Land’s claim that the Celebration ignored evangelism also misrepresents the facts. In addition to discussion about evangelism and missions by plenary speakers, there were special interest sessions that focused entirely on evangelism and on helping youth get involved in missions. Land’s office told EthicsDaily.com that he was unavailable for comment.
Land’s inaccurate attack on the conventions participating in the Celebration mirrors recent claims made about the SBC. In coverage of the Celebration, Associated Press religion writer Rachel Zoll offered: “In the last few years, Southern Baptists have been struggling to reverse stagnant membership. SBC leaders blame a lack of emphasis on effective evangelism in their churches.”
The SBC’s own membership counts have sparked controversies in recent years. SBC leaders have previously attacked the CBF’s method for counting churches and members, but the SBC has itself been criticized for making similar accounting decisions. Two years ago, the SBC changed previously reported numbers that would have demonstrated a decline. Additionally, others have claimed that Southern Baptist numbers are inflated because church rolls are not updated to accurately remove those who no longer attend.
Brian Kaylor is communications specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Missouri.