Southern Baptists Decline for Twelfth Straight Year

Both RNS, the non-denominational religious news service, and CP, an evangelical newspaper, report the continuing loss of members of the SBC or Southern Baptist Conference (RNS, CP) – the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. CP has better coverage.

Not only did membership decline, so did attendance at church, Sunday School, and small groups – losses across the board. RNS also notes, “baptisms have declined in eight of the last 10 years and are down more than 100,000 from 2009.” In other words, SBC is spiraling downward – though it has a long way to go.

The President of the Southern Baptists, Ronnie Floyd, said “it's time to press reset spiritually and strategically.” But he neglected to mention how SBC would change, and why it has taken so long to hit the reset button. More importantly, he said nothing about what Southern Baptists got wrong for over a decade.

On “Conservative” Churches

Back in the 1980s Rodney Stark, a sociologist, made a big splash by claiming that more “conservative” churches – like the Southern Baptists, would out-compete more liberal or mainstream churches. Not only did the talk shows eat this up, but even “conservative” Catholics jumped on the bandwagon.

This turned out to be the result of bad data analysis. The only way that “conservative” churches were outcompeting mainline or liberal churches was in fertility. If you adjust for the fact that people in conservative churches had more kids than those in mainline churches, there was no difference. Nor did many mainline Protestants convert to “conservative” denominations, as that theory predicts.

Now the Southern Baptists are older. Their average age went from 42 in 1990 to 51 today. The younger generation is leaving in much greater numbers than previously. I also suspect that today’s younger Baptists are having fewer kids than those of twenty or thirty years ago. In the past, Southern Baptists were largely poor whites, many of whom did not practice birth control. Today, they are more middle class, and do practice birth control.

The most important trend in religion today is the growth of “Nones.” People - especially younger people - are fleeing institutional religion. In Europe, most people have already fled the church. The U.S. is playing catch-up, but is on the same path. It may not catch up to Europe, but the best days for the grumpy old white guys of the SBC are far behind.


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