The Common Good

Could a Decline in Numbers Bring New Hope to Southern Baptists?

Although I've never been a Southern Baptist, I have a special place in my heart for them. I experienced a teenage, under-the-stars spiritual experience (which I describe in my book Naked Spirituality) which occurred at a Baptist camp on a retreat hosted by my best buddy's Baptist church.

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In recent years, I've been saddened to see the fundamentalist and culture-wars turn in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The strident superiority of some SBC leaders has not reflected well on the tradition. A group that traditionally upheld the autonomy of the local church has behaved less and less in line with that tradition, as a kind of group-think monoculture has gained ascendancy.

For years, SBC leaders took pride that while those liberal mainliners were declining, they were growing -- a testimony, they believed, to the legitimacy and superiority of their conservative agenda. But recent data challenges that confidence. Ed Stetzer, one of the SBC's more innovative leaders, evaluates the newest data frankly: "This is not a blip. This is a trend. And the trend is one of decline."

I have long been suspicious of the standard conservatives-grow/mainliners-decline narrative. I think the reasons for mainline decline were many and complex, as were the reasons for conservative growth. And (as I explained way back in A Generous Orthodoxy) I believe that both liberals and conservatives share assumptions that mean both are in danger of long-term irrelevancy -- unless they're willing to "deconstruct their paradigms," (sorry for the cliché, but it fits) and imagine new ways of seeing, believing, belonging, and serving.

So I meet this latest news with mixed feelings:

  • sadness that a once-vibrant and still-powerful movement is losing much of its former momentum,
  • disappointment that a common response to the decline seems to be "do what we've always done, just harder and louder," and
  • hope that the downward trend may challenge some deeper rethinking in Baptist circles.

Deeper thinking about what?

  • The gospel for starters -- the gospel, not of evacuation, but transformation; the gospel, not of "sin management," but of the incoming and outworking kingdom of God; the gospel of grace and reconciliation that is good news of great joy for all people -- not just for one religion.
  • The Bible, too -- since Southern Baptists have bought into the "constitutional reading" that has become so problematic.
  • The relation of faith and public life.
  • Evangelism in a post-Christendom, post-modern, post-colonial context.
  • And the list goes on: What it means to be caretakers of God's beautiful creation; how our gay brothers and sisters should be understood and welcomed; how Christians should respond to other religions and their adherents (the topic of my current writing project); what it means to be peacemakers; the relation between faith in Christ and patriotic militaristic nationalism, etc.

So, concurrent with this release of discouraging data, I feel the stirrings of new hope for Southern Baptists, because they care about evangelism and disciple-making, and they care about numbers. And because they care about numbers, they can't easily ignore this data that chronicles the beginnings of a conservative decline. For some, the "do-what-we've-always-done-just-louder-and-harder" response will suffice. For others, a "hunker down and preserve what we have gained" mentality will win the day. But for at least a few, this data will stimulate questions and conversations that could open the way for a new kind of Baptist faith and life in the future. That's good news for Baptists -- and for the rest of us too.

Brian McLarenBrian McLaren (brianmclaren.net) is a former pastor and the author of over a dozen books, including Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in Twelve Simple Words.

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