06/17/2014 05:47 pm ET Updated Aug 17, 2014

Southern Baptists Waning

This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center of the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Southern Baptists, present in every state of the union, outnumber Jews in the whole world. Only Roman Catholics outnumber them in the United States.

Citizens who care little about religion and less about denominations have learned to watch the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), if for no other reason than because of the political clout of its members and agencies. Long perceived as above and apart from formal and explicit political engagement, since the 1980s its barriers have been battered and the gates opened for Baptist moves to win the religious cultural wars in political trenches.

For all of these reasons and more, fellow Protestants/Christians/Religious people pay attention to trends when the SBC meets annually, as its 5,000 "ambassadors" did in Baltimore last week. A decade and more ago their gatherings often evidenced swagger and sneering at Protestant "moderates" outside the Convention, while voting majorities purged "moderates" inside the Convention as dissidents, many of whom then formed movements which allowed them to remain faithful Baptists, but not under SBC auspices.

One does not hear or see much evidence of Schadenfreude [rejoicing in the misfortunes of others] among non-Southern Baptist church people in 2014. For one thing, many found and still find much to admire in the local churches and often the larger Convention. Also, reports to the gathering in Baltimore by chartered task forces were admirably self-searching, exemplary in their effort to prod or inspire co-SBC members to revise approaches to church and public life. Even selfishly, the "other believers" know they have something at stake when they view SBC stasis and waning.

Southern Baptists waning? Since the middle decades of the last century, observers of religion in America have been trained to see the growth of "conservative" churches as "winners," as they zealously worked and worshipped in the growth sector. No more, said the reports at Baltimore. The SBC continued its now seven-year downward slide.

True, there was a gain in the number of local churches, but for the rest, all the graph arrows sloped down. Startling, say serious theologians (see Timothy George's article in Sources), who were shaken by data showing decreases in baptisms since such activities are the spiritual core of Baptist churches. Other analysts ponder the fact that SBC churches are now less effective "soul-winners" or soul-keepers, converters and enthusiastic participants, among "millennials" and younger generations in general.

Critics within the SBC noted that many of its recent public ventures, based on Convention votes, did little to advance the Baptists or change the culture. In recent years majorities voted on issues relating to Bible translations, the 'War on Christmas' or the 'War on Christians,' support of the U.S. invasion of and war in Iraq, votes which the critics argue were wrong or at least comparatively trivial. (At Baltimore "sex" reared its head as it does in most conventions of most churches, this time with respect to transgender issues. Taken seriously were measures against same-sex marriage and abortion.)

Historian Molly Worthen (see Sources below) most intelligently located the SBC plight in the larger complex of religious-institutional life. Trigger Warning: She closes her article with "The Southern Baptist experience is more proof that Americans' term at the helm of Christ's ship may be nearing an end, and the sailing is more squally than ever."

Voting ambassadors at Baltimore did the predictable Baptistic thing: they urged prayer. Baptists will not be the only Christians on their knees in the squally times ahead.

Sources and Further Reading:

George, Timothy. "Troubled Waters." First Things, June 2, 2014.

Worthen, Molly. "Did the Southern Baptist 'Conservative Resurgence' Fail?" The Daily Beast, June 1, 2014, Religion.

Merrit, Jonathan. "What Southern Baptists must do to slow their decline." Religion News, June 11, 2013, On Faith and Culture.

Tracy, Kate. "Five Reasons Why Most Southern Baptist Churches Baptize Almost No Millenials." Christianity Today, May 29, 2014, Gleanings.

Linderman, Juliet and Travis Loller (AP). "Arkansas pastor is new Southern Baptist president." Houston Chronicle, June 10, 2014, Texas News.

Banks, Adelle. "Southern Baptist Meet as Membership, Baptism Decline Continues." The Layman Online, June 15, 2014.

This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center of the University of Chicago Divinity School.

NOTE: This article is not available for republication without the consent of Sightings. Please contact the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at