The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the country, but it continues to lose members and baptize fewer people each year.
The latest statistics, compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources from church reports, show membership has dropped by more than 204,000, down 1.3 percent to 15.3 million members in 2015. It’s the ninth year in a row there has been a membership decline.
One out of five Southern Baptist missionaries overseas — or nearly 1,000 total — have volunteered to leave their posts to help the denomination’s mission board deal with its financial straits. That’s in addition to the departure of a third of the staff of the International Mission Board, also mostly through a voluntary program.
More people in the pews, more energy for programs, more funds to maintain the roof — these are all keys to survival for such small congregations, according to the latest Faith Communities Today report, released Jan. 4 by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
It finds that congregations with fewer than 100 in weekend attendance — the most vulnerable to collapse — rose to 58 percent in 2015, up from 49 percent five years ago.
Yet the report is optimistically titled: “American Congregations 2015: Thriving and Surviving.”
It would be God’s incarnate presence in human life. Not the only presence, but one that many people could enter into. Not so much an institution with structures, rules, and layers of leadership, but rather a dynamic, ever-shifting community that gathered in various ways, ranging from small circles of friends to mass assemblies for special purposes.
It would look outward, unlike other human institutions that look inward. It would see people wanting to draw closer to God. It would see human needs such as grief and tragedy, hunger and hopelessness. It would see key moments in people’s lives, such as partnering and parenting. It would see the ways people hurt each other and the tendency of injustice to become systemic.
A lot has been written about the decline of the mainline church over the years. Numerous theories have been passed around. Nearly every pew-sitting faithful Christian in America has her or his own opinion. As a minister I have heard a lot of these complaints from the masses; the request is simple. They want the church to be the center of social and political life as it seemed to be in the 1950s and 1960s. They want the pews packed with people, the nursery overflowing with babies, and the church to have the same level of particularity that it did years ago. The church today finds itself having to share time and attention with the rest of the world. Because of this (and numerous other factors), the church for the most part has seen the number of people attending the hallowed halls of a church house begin to decrease.
In an effort to find a culprit for the shrinking size and popularity of church, a scapegoat has been named and they are "young people today” — a catchall term for people under the age of 35 (or thereabouts) who have seemingly left the church en masse.
They are vilified as the sole reason and cause for the church to not be busting at the seams with people. If only those "young people" could just stop being so selfish on Sunday mornings and just come to worship God at 11 a.m. like people have been doing for years, the world might be a better place.
At a church I used to serve there was a well-intentioned person who after every service would tell me how many people were in attendance. “We had 47 today, Preacher,” he would say. I could hear the disappointment in his voice when he would have to tell me a low number like 35. A smile beamed across his face when we had more than 50. No matter the number, he would tell me without fail.
In every church that I have ever visited or served there has been an emphasis on the number of people that attend the morning worship services.
After years in the ministry, I have come to the conclusion that the church needs to stop taking attendance — immediately.
For many churches the process of collecting attendance is to get an accurate account of people in worship, to measure how many people occupy space in a pew. Some churches have notepads in the pews so people can fill out their information and place it in a designated area. Others have a volunteer to manually count the people in attendance. No matter how small or big the faith community is, an attendance is taken. Some congregations publish the number of people in their church bulletins or have it on a sign in the sanctuary to compare last week to this week.
For too long churches have measured their ‘success’ and ‘failures’ on the number of people that darken the door on 11 a.m. on Sunday morning. The quickest way to get people to wring their hands in worry is to tell them that numbers in worship have dropped. Visions of the church closing its doors will run through people’s minds inciting more and more anxiety.
It’s no secret that the church in the American culture is not where most Christians would like it to be. The church that was once the central hub of the community is now a place where a subset of people goes on Sunday mornings. The church has been in a decline for some time, and I believe this has caused us to become more inward focused. As the church began to experience decline numerically, the church’s reaction was to try making everyone left happy — from the ministers and worship leaders to the custodial staff. The boat was not rocked, things stayed the same, a course was laid, and no deviation would be acceptable.
The contemporary fast-paced, capitalistic, U.S. free market society has lost the traditional commitments to and comprehension of ‘church.’ Our parents and grandparents understood church as a community to which they belonged. Church was a place where many aspects of social life happened. The pastor was hired by the church people to care for and nurture the community, both individually and collectively. People looked to the pastor for spiritual inspiration, ethical guidance, sound counsel, and pastoral care. The pastor was an extended member of the family and people were happy to make a personal financial contribution to pay the pastor's salary and to keep the church building in repair. Somewhere along the line our society ‘outgrew’ this version of church.
A recent article in The Atlantic titled "Higher Calling, Lower Wages: The Vanishing of the Middle-Class Clergy" laments the shift away from the traditional model of financing church and clergy as well as the increased costs for training clergy. The average Master of Divinity student (the degree for pastoral training) graduates with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans — sometimes entering into the six-digit category. According to the U.S. department of labor, the median wage for a pastor is $43,800 — not a salary that lends itself to paying off high-end loans.
Is the Mainline Liberal Church in decline? Numerically, sure. Absolutely. But what this means, I cannot say. Many have tried to make sense of it. In the wake of recent editorials, some theologians and others have offered up their thoughts. I surmised it might be helpful to collect one or two of the links here on the outside chance that you missed them.
Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved - Ross Douthat offers some sharp critiques of the tradition. Once the bastion of the Social Gospel movement, the liberal mainline is not all "social" and very little "Gospel."
"But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves."
There have been a couple of good direct responses to Douthat's OpEd piece.