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The mythical 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention shrinks again

With a straight face, news services reported this week that in 2008-2009, the number of Southern Baptists declined 0.42% to 16.1 million members. It is the third straight year of decline, according to the 2011 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches.

Yet those are grossly misleading numbers. They say nothing of value about the number of active members, and it is old news that active membership is perhaps one-third of those reported membership numbers.

In 2000, Ernest C. Reisinger and D. Matthew Allen wrote:

The Wall Street Journal reported in 1990 that, of the 14.9 million members of Southern Baptist churches (according to an official count), over 4.4 million are “non-resident members.” This means they are members with whom the church has lost touch. Another 3 million hadn’t attended church or donated to a church in the past year. That left about 7.4 million “active” members. However, according to Sunday School consultant Glenn Smith, even this is misleading, because included in this “active” figure are those members who only attended once a year at Easter or Christmas.

More recent numbers from Jim Ellif’s Founders Ministries article are even smaller:

Out of the Southern Baptist’s 16,287,494 members, only 6,024,289, or 37%, on average, show up for their church’s primary worship meeting (usually Sunday morning). This is according to the Strategic Information and Planning department of the Sunday School Board (2004 statistics).

No need to belabor the point. That 16.1-million-member Southern Baptist Convention is as much of a myth as Bigfoot.

February 17, 2011 Posted by | Churches, SBC | , , , , | 2 Comments

Ecumenical epidemic of empty pews as attendance dies out

The Southern Baptist Convention isn’t the only once-robust denomination afflicted by an apparently incurable shrinking disease.

Dan Horn of the Cincinnati Enquirer writes:

Almost two out of three Catholics in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky won’t go to church this weekend to celebrate Mass, an event they have been told since childhood is the center of their spiritual lives.

The church’s most recent count of people in the pews found that about 290,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and 60,000 in the Diocese of Covington skip Mass in a typical week.

The annual attendance count begins again next month, but church officials don’t expect dramatic improvement.

Mass attendance has been falling steadily for decades across the country as a growing majority of Catholics find other things to do on Sundays, from shuttling their kids to soccer games to hitting the snooze button and sleeping in.

. . .

“There are serious problems, structural problems, all up and down the line,” said William D’Antonio, who has studied Mass attendance for almost 25 years at the Catholic University of America. “If you’re asking what are the future trends, they’re bleak.”

. . .

D’Antonio said national surveys he’s conducted since 1987 show sharp generational differences, with older Catholics attending Mass far more often than younger Catholics. He said just 20 percent of Catholics born after 1978 regularly attend Mass

. . .

D’Antonio said unless young Catholics such as Patton can be brought back into the fold, attendance will keep falling as the older, church-going generations fade away.

Read the rest here.

September 23, 2010 Posted by | Catholic, Churches, SBC | , , , , , | Comments Off

Is IMB taking missionaries in the field and people in the pews for granted?

Former Southern Baptist Convention International Mission Board (IMB) member Wade Burleson persuasively argues that the IMB has its cost-cutting strategy upside down.

In a Dec. 2 blog entry A Recommendation to IMB Administrators and Trustees in the Midst of a Financial Shortfall, he reviews the IMB plans to cut as many as 600 missionaries “in 2010 if the current 8% to 10% decline in revenues through the Lottie Moon Offering and Cooperative Program gifts continue.” And make cuts in benefits to those already in the field:

The IMB administration in Richmond has informed all International Service Corp, Journeymen, and Masters missionaries that they will no longer be reimbursed by the IMB for dryers, cell phones, or air conditioning while on the field. These missionaries will be allowed to have heat in the winter, but the IMB will no longer be able to pay for air conditioning. Phones for communication (an essential in foreign countries) will now be paid for by the aforementioned missionaries themselves. Clothes will need to be dried by air or the missionaries will pay the cost for drying their own clothes. This information has not been publicized except through emails sent to the supervisors of the ISC’ers, Journeymen, and Masters affected. It is hoped by Richmond that these cost saving measures among the front-line staff will allow for more missionaries to be appointed in the short term.

The natural consequence of making those cuts without making equivalent cuts back at the home office, where career administrators are well-paid and board members enjoy meetings under unnecessarily privileged circumstances, will be a crash in missionary morale. As a result, he proposes equivalent cuts for board members and among staff in the Richmond, Va., headquarters offices. Along with curtailments in travel and other sensible adjustments.

Reading down his list of recommendations you will come to:

(4). Let the missionaries ON THE FIELD determine the kind of ministry that is needed. Allow for the creation and adoption of reports that count “conversions” and “church planting” in the various countries by reflecting the different cultural and demographic make-ups of those respective countries. We must resist the cookie cutter approach that forces every missionary in every country to do the same thing the same way. Resisting perpetual world-wide reorganization of the IMB (every five years) will save huge amounts of money in the long term.

True, and his passing reference to reports is of much more than passing interest, because this year’s IMB numbers look a lot like previous years’ (padded, inflated, manufactured) numbers. In a Dec. 1 story on the 2008 IMB numbers, the Biblical Recorder reports:

Bershi’s baptism is among the more than 506,000 recorded by the International Mission Board in 2008 — an average of one baptism per minute. Southern Baptist missionaries and their partners also reported starting more than 24,650 new churches last year. (Baptisms were 10.6 percent below the 2007 total; new churches, 8.6 percent below.) Meanwhile, the total number of overseas churches topped 204,000, up from 111,000 just five years ago.

Those are very much like the 2007 numbers, which Burleson found to be essentially made up. On Jan. 2 he wrote:

For example, in the Fast Facts posted on the International Mission Board web site, one reads that 5,551 missionaries were responsible, either directly or indirectly, for 25,497 new church starts in 2007, and 609,968 baptisms.

Burleson explained that "planting" a church is a complex, time-consuming, typically expensive process. Just as the conversion and Christian nurture process which attends baptism is complex and time-consuming.

Yet those IMB numbers suggested that each of the 5,551 missionaries in the field:

  • Plants an average of five new churches per missionary in 2007.
  • Baptises an average of 120 new members per missionary in 2007.

Those numbers defied belief in January, he and some of those who commented on the blog suggested.

The most recent numbers are little changed, you can see from the table below. Absent compelling explanation with documented answers to the questions raised in January, the latest figures are also difficult to accept.

Year 2007 2008
Church Starts 25,497 24,650
Baptisms 609,968 506,000
Missionaries 5,551 5,512

Read January’s Inflated and fabricated Southern Baptist Mission numbers for the full, thorough dissection.

Publishing another set of numbers so similar as to be similarly questionable, and doing so without compelling explanation, seems to suggest to the folks in the pews that they are regarded as numbskulls.

Watch. It is they from whom cometh the contributions.

They are as acutely aware of being taken for granted as are the missionaries in the field.

December 2, 2009 Posted by | Religion, SBC | , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Incurable Southern Baptist demographic shrinking disease

ReligionInTheNewsCover11_09sm

Doomed by demographics, The [Southern] Baptists Shrink in numbers, writes historian Andrew Michael Manis in the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life’s thrice-yearly journal Religion in the News.

The standard Southern Baptist cure for its wasting disease is “increased doses of fervor and evangelistic aggressiveness,” Manis explains this week. This year’s version of the cure is called Great Commission Resurgence and is driven by desperation.

The SBC isn’t attempting to reverse a declining growth rate, as it had been for five decades. It is trying to reverse real shrinkage in membership numbers, attended by forecasts of future shrinkage.

That the effort is foredoomed by the SBC demand that everyone recruited to the denomination accept not only Biblical inerrancy, but also the arguably homophobic, sexist Southern Baptist brand of inerrancy.

There is ample survey data which demonstrates that as a result, Southern Baptists are drawing from a “diminishing pool” of potential new members, as Manis explains. He writes:

The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) found that less than 30 percent of Americans identify themselves as evangelical or born-again (excluding those Catholics who self-identify that way). For its part, the Pew Forum’s 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey put evangelicals at 26.3 percent of the population. Either way, more than two-thirds of Americans are unlikely to accept Southern Baptists’ understanding of the Bible.

The Landscape Survey’s questions on belief make this sufficiently clear. Only 27 percent of the national total said they believed that “there is only ONE true way to interpret the teachings of my religion.” Only 24 percent of Americans believe their religion is the “one true faith leading to eternal life.” And only 33 percent believed that “the scriptures are the Word of God, literally true, word for word.”

Of course SBC evangelism is full of the conviction that those who disagree can be brought into the tent as part of the process of conversion. But that isn’t what happens. New members join because they already agree. Manis, who attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, further explains:

The vast majority of converts to SBC churches are Bible-believing cultural conservatives when they arrive. According to a 1993 study by the SBC’s North American Mission Board, only 1 out of 9 described themselves as ever having been “unchurched.”

Outside the pews of other fundamentalist denoniminations, national survey data says there is no pool of potential recruits who are somehow being overlooked.

Quite the opposite. Manis writes:

[According to 2008 ARIS] the non-denominationals are the only segment of the American religious community that has experienced significant growth over the past two decades.

Southern Baptists believe that right theology trumps sociology. The fundamentalist takeover of the 1980s was predicated on a bet that inerrancy would be a prophylactic against numerical decline.

It wasn’t. Isn’t. Will not be. The SBC has the shrinking disease conservatives regard with enduring contempt in mainstream, liberal protestant denominations. Or perhaps it is H.L. Mencken’s wasting disease, taking final hold now that the conservative fundamentalists are in undisputed control of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Whether written on the wall, or elsewhere, the story told by competent, unbiased analysis of the abundant demographic data is the same. Down the well-trod path of resurgent evangelism on behalf of fundamentalist inerrancy lies accelerating decline.

November 6, 2009 Posted by | Religion, SBC | , , , , , | 2 Comments

How many Southern Baptists?

Usually with a straight face, various news services reported this week that in 2006-2007, according to the latest edition of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, the number of Southern Baptists declined 0.24% to 16.2 million members.

Annual % change in SBC membership

Annual % change in SBC membership

Surely no one thinks that “16.2 million” number refers to real, active members? Not for a denomination with a “50 year trend” of declining growth that has become real decline.

Real membership begins with baptism. Southern Baptist decline in baptisms is old news. USA Today reported last March:

Baptisms last year [2007] dropped nearly 5.5 percent to 345,941, compared with 364,826 in 2006, according to an annual report released Wednesday by LifeWay . . . . baptisms peaked in 1972 at 445,725 . . . .

As for active members, their comparatively small number is older news. In 2000, Ernest C. Reisinger and D. Matthew Allen wrote:

The Wall Street Journal reported in 1990 that, of the 14.9 million members of Southern Baptist churches (according to an official count), over 4.4 million are “non-resident members.” This means they are members with whom the church has lost touch. Another 3 million hadn’t attended church or donated to a church in the past year. That left about 7.4 million “active” members. However, according to Sunday School consultant Glenn Smith, even this is misleading, because included in this “active” figure are those members who only attended once a year at Easter or Christmas.

For those with time to spare, Adherents.com has a mind-numbing list of somewhat contradictory claims.

Writing about the “16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention” is somewhat like publishing the transcript of an interview with Bigfoot. Thus defined, with grossly inflated numbers which imply Christian solders in the field, it apparently doesn’t exist.

February 28, 2009 Posted by | Churches, Religion | , , , , | 1 Comment

IMB numbers game

Tony Cartledge of Baptists Today analyzes The IMB numbers game:

imblogoimage

Former IMB trustee Wade Burleson began the new year by suggesting that the IMB make a resolution to put some integrity into its numbers. On its website, the IMB cites statistical reports claiming that in 2007, IMB mission efforts resulted in 609,968 baptisms and 25,497 new church starts.

Burleson points out that such numbers would require that each of the IMB’s 5,500 or so missionaries would have to be responsible for five new church starts and about 120 baptisms, and George Frink picked up on that discussion, pointing to an Ethics Daily post from 2005 that cited several international Baptists who dispute the way the IMB takes credit for baptisms and church starts that are unrelated to its work.

Please read it all here.

January 9, 2009 Posted by | Religion | , , , , | Comments Off

Bottom line for a slipping Southern Baptist Convention?

Annual % change in SBC membership

Annual % change in SBC membership

David Waters may have poked some Southern Baptists in the eye with his Dec. 12 critique and market-based analysis of denominational decline.

Writing for the Washtington Post/Newsweek, Waters attributed the tanking baptism numbers to:

  1. Loss of product appeal: Most Americans no longer agree that Christ is the only way.
  2. Loss of brand appeal: Three decades of denominational infighting that was part of the conservative takeover and is now part of a kind of internal inquisition, plus the church’s clear alliance with the Republican Party, freighted the term “Southern Baptist” with negatives.
  3. Market change: “Nearly all predominantly white Christian denominations” are in decline.

He drew blood, however, when he closed by criticizing the very use of the numbers with which the Southern Baptist Convention has been preoccupied:

Shouldn’t the church find more faithful ways of measuring its success? Mercy instead of membership? Forgiveness instead of financial contributions? Baptisms lived in the world instead of baptisms recorded in a book? Justice instead of just stats?

When it comes to being the church, the bottom line is not ‘the bottom line.’

Malcolm B. Yarnell III , director of the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas, responded Wednesday with a pointed defense.

Yarnell preaches something of a sermon which answers Waters’ concluding remarks, not his entire piece. It proceeds like a piece of clockwork, and defies summary. But take a look.

Yarnell concludes that “God does not call a Christian to forsake church activity. And human activity can be measured through statistics, can it not?”

So, an apparent preoccupation with falling baptism, membership and other numbers is ok?

Or might Yarnell have done well to address the issues on which Waters was actually focused? Namely, the causes of the decline, a confrontation with which might reveal a solution, if there is one for the Southern Baptist Convention.

January 9, 2009 Posted by | Religion | , , , , | Comments Off

IMB trustees refused money-saving reform

Enid, Okla., Southern Baptist Pastor Wade Burleson argues that the International Mission Board (IMB) system of trustee oversight is unnecessarily expensive in structure and process.

Frink summarizes:

The 89 IMB Trustees who are ultimately responsible for the statistics serve, Burleson reports, eight-year terms rich in expense-paid travel whose “costs are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.”

Burleson, a vocal former IMB trustee who has blogged about the Southern Baptist Convention agency for years, recently wrote that during his tenure:

The waste associated with such an archaic system of oversight caused me and a handful of other trustees to advocate the reduction of trustees meetings to two a year; the first would be in January and held in Richmond and the second would be in June in conjunction with the Southern Baptist Convention. I further argued that the “commissioning” service for each missionary should be held at missionary’s “home” church, and that the “selection” of qualified Southern Baptist applicants should be up to the professional missiologists at the IMB who are paid to interview, train, and support missionaries across the Convention.

The money-saving proposals got nowhere:

Trustees opposed to such a radical reduction in trustee meetings and numbers argued against it by spiritualizing, as is the Southern Baptist habit, by saying: “We have such a HUGE ministry at the IMB that we have to constantly meet to provide proper oversight.”

This from a board whose “key mission numbers are inflated and some are fabricated” as a result of the pressure of a long-standing SBC drive to reverse decline.

With their budget tight and tightening, making such logical changes toward greater efficiency of board operation seems like the least they could do.

January 7, 2009 Posted by | Religion | , , , , , | Comments Off

Inflated and fabricated Southern Baptist mission numbers

Former Southern Baptist Convention International Mission Board member Wade Burleson persuasively argues that key mission numbers are inflated and some are fabricated.

In a Jan. 2 blog entry A Proposed New Year’s Resolution for the Southern Baptist Convention: Integrity in Numbers, he writes:

For example, in the Fast Facts posted on the International Mission Board web site, one reads that 5,551 missionaries were responsible, either directly or indirectly, for 25,497 new church starts in 2007, and 609,968 baptisms.

He explains that "planting" a church is a complex, time-consuming, typically expensive process.

Likewise, the conversion and Christian nurture process which attends baptism is also complex and time-consuming.

Yet IMB numbers suggest that each of the 5,551 missionaries in the field:

  • Plants an average of five new churches per missionary in 2007.
  • Baptises an average of 120 new members per missionary in 2007.

The numbers defy belief, he and some of those who commented on the blog suggested, and are not supported by the documenting data required to answer questions like:

“Where do these churches exist?”, “How many people attend?”, “Who pastors them?”, “How many are still in existence?” etc . . .

He reports having inquired:

I have asked some of our SBC missionary personnel to give me the names of those baptized under their care as reported on the Annual Statistical Report – only to be given a blank stare by many. It seems there is no record of either the names of those baptized or churches they attend. The baptism number is simply that – a number.

How are the numbers padded?

. . . all that IMB field missionary personnel have to do is simply say they started a church, and it is recorded as a “new” church start. Or, sometimes, as reported to me by several field missionaries, they report on some excellent Bible study groups they have started, and “presto” – several new churches are born and wind up being reported by their supervisors on the Annual Statistical Report. Or, as has happened in various regions, statistics are given about “new” church starts that have nothing to do with SBC personnel; they have been started by indigenous people groups that have absolutely no connection with SBC personnel in the area.

He bases his views on confidential reports from those in the field:

I have had missionary personnel from different regions in the world write me with concerns about the reporting process and ask “When is somebody going to challenge the numbers?”

His view is supported by comments from Montgomery, AL., pastor Alan Cross, who wrote:

I wrote a similar post on the now defunct SBC Outpost last May. To back up what you are saying, I communicated with missionaries from 4 different regions before writing my post. None of them were connected but they all told the same story. Pressure from superiors (both administration and trustees) had created an environment where numbers were being exaggerated and sometimes fabricated.

Cross also indicated sweeping problems with the reported numbers. He wrote:

There are CPM’s (church planting movements) that have been reported that do not exist presently, or if they ever did, they are not able to be found now. There are church plants that have been reported that do not exist, or if they do, they are totally the work of indigenous believers. The baptism numbers are totally wrong.

They seem to agree about why numbers are being exaggerated and fabricated. As Burleson wrote:

The fault lies with the system we have constructed that puts such an ungodly emphasis on numbers.

Their desire for simple reform is painfully clear.

Such systems are, unfortunately, rarely self-correcting.

January 6, 2009 Posted by | Religion | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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