Incurable Southern Baptist demographic shrinking disease
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.
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