The total number of baptisms and Sunday school enrollment fell in 2001, following a 2000 doctrinal statement by the fundamentalist-controlled Southern Baptist Convention. The statement was an effort to purify the denomination.
Not only did the number of mission churches decline, but the overall rate of membership growth also slowed.
The 2001 baptisms declined 4.52 percent from the 2000 figures, reported Baptist Press. “The decline ends four years of baptisms totals above 400,000, ” BP wrote.
“Sunday School enrollment declined 3,671 or 0.04 percent of a total of 8,182,744, following an increase of 0.48 percent in 2000,” BP reported.
The number of “church-type missions” declined 5.91 percent, while 2001 membership increased at a lower percentage than in 2000.
The article’s headline and lead paragraph trumpeted the denomination’s most positive numerical success in 2001: The SBC set a record in membership, topping 16 million.
Southern Baptists have an abiding interest in church-related numbers. We record and study numbers related to Sunday school attendance, Wednesday night church suppers, church membership, baptisms and visitors. We look at weekly offerings and mission giving. We judge our numerical health against last year’s numbers. For generations, Southern Baptists have said that numerical growth reflects God’s blessing.
Beginning in the 1970s, Baptist fundamentalists warned of approaching storm clouds. The SBC would experience a numerical slide, like Methodists and Presbyterians, unless the SBC purified itself theologically.
Denominational decay resulted from bad theology, fundamentalists cried. To prevent decay, Baptists needed to endorse the inerrancy of Scripture, oppose women in ministry, back pastoral authority, practice expository preaching and make seminaries even more conservative.
A common argument was that conservative theology produced growing churches. The lack of doctrinal integrity resulted in decline.
An example of this numeric theology appeared in the specially called May meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. BP reported that Jeff Riddle, pastor of Jefferson Park Baptist Church, voiced opposition to the new direction proposed for Virginia Baptists. Riddle rhetorically asked, “Do you think that the numerical decline of BGAV churches … might be related to a doctrinal crisis in our churches?”
If doctrinal integrity results in numerical growth, then why did SBC numbers of baptisms decline? Why did Sunday school enrollment fall? Why has the rate of membership growth slowed?
James Merritt, president of the SBC, told BP this week, “Doctrinally, we’ve never been stronger.” Then he said, “To be extremely candid, I am greatly afraid this denomination is getting away from evangelism.”
How could this be? Could it be that the doctrinal integrity claim is not the silver bullet for evangelism or numeric growth?
Robert Parham is BCE’s executive director.