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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.

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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 on Ecumenical epidemic of empty pews as attendance dies out

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

Declining Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow (species in decline)

Field Sparrow (species in decline)

Field sparrows are a childhood favorite in part because an adult with fledged young will step out ahead of any farmer’s young son or daughter, faking a wing injury to lure you away away from its own young.

And they’re on the long, long list of beloved birds we have driven into decline.

Habitat loss is the cause. Like farmer’s sons and farmer’s daughters, farm land suitable for them to thrive is growing scarce. They do not, however, require much.

We can save them so that future generations also learn the importance of parental sacrifice from their unfailing, natural example.

March 19, 2009 Posted by | Science | , | Comments Off on Declining Field Sparrow

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

Church brands lose their following

CBN News reports that denominational loyalty is on the decline:

Ellison Research, a national marketing company, found 51 percent prefer their denomination, but would consider others. Thirty-three percent of church-goers do not prefer any one denomination.

For Catholics, the survey shows that denomination is more important. Sixty percent would only consider the Catholic Church.

Comparatively, what does that mean?

Ellison Research president Ron Sellers points out that Protestants are about as loyal to their denomination as they are to their toothpaste.

Julia Duin, Religion Editor at the Washington Times, attrbutes “the exodus of people from churches to a lack of community friendliness, changing worship styles, and controlling pastors. … ‘they can’t get through to their pastors.’ “

The best pastors are, of course, adapting quickly.

January 25, 2009 Posted by | Cultural, Religion | , , , , | Comments Off on Church brands lose their following

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 on Bottom line for a slipping Southern Baptist Convention?