Southern Baptists: Adapt Or Die?

The Southern Baptist Convention is having its general meeting in Baltimore this week. The 160 year old denomination is the largest Protestant church in the US and one of most significant evangelical groups in the world. Nevertheless, the SBC is something of a crossroads.

The SBC faces the notable decline of baptisms and monetary giving within its churches. On a larger scale, Southern Baptists find themselves in a changing cultural climate. Same-sex marriage is legal in twenty states and a majority of Americans support the trend. About half of evangelicals in the US believe that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to be saved.

It’s safe to say that the scene has changed since the 1980s, a decade which saw the conservative wing of the denomination achieve a remarkable comeback to power within the denominational infrastructure and amongst the SBC’s six seminaries. The “conservative resurgence” was focused on churches and religious institutions rather than culture; yet it is reasonable to think that the context of Reagan and the Moral Majority provided a fulcrum which conservative Southern Baptists could use. Those days seem ancient history now, and some are questioning whether the SBC’s now-established conservative evangelicalism can thrive in an increasingly liberal America.

Predicting religious trends is notoriously difficult. It might even be easy compared to predicting denominational futures. The SBC could do everything from totally collapse in a mainline-esque heap to re-emerge in exhilarating fashion. Anyone who says they have the scoop on the SBC in 2030 is either kidding or dangerous.

Much has been made about the SBC’s fledgling relationship with millenials. But that data requires interpretation. Millennials tend to be characterized by lack of religious affiliation across the board. It seems disingenuous to predict dire straits for the SBC based on trends that seem to apply so broadly. Additionally, the mainline churches don’t seem to be receiving the fruit of the exits. Among those 18-29, evangelical affiliation still outperforms mainline by a significant margin.

Some of progressive Christianity’s talking heads, like Rachel Held Evans, have anticipated changes within evangelical culture, moving away from the conservative theology representative of the SBC. But often this prognostication is based on publishing trends, social media and the Christian blogosphere rather than actual church data. In fact, it’s worth mentioning that notable progressive Christian personalities, such as Donald Miller, Rob Bell, and Evans herself, do not promote church membership.

The SBC has prioritized, through its education and resources, vocational ministry, seminary education and church planting. Those are the assets that denominations rely on for growth and health. When the SBC meets this week in Baltimore, it will hear reports from its six seminaries, two missions agencies, several colleges and thousands of churches. Without minimizing the cultural challenges of a postmodern culture, I can say that the SBC appears much healthier and more stable than almost every progressive Christian fellowship.

I would not at all discount the possibility of further declines in SBC church attendance and giving. In fact, that seems to be the safer bet. But those trends cannot be met with theological uncertainty or wringing of the hands for populist approval. As Ross Douthat has pointed out, the proliferation of “bad religion” has not produced a unified theological consciousness but a smoky, nihilistic-smelling religious vacuum.

History is instructive here. In the early to mid 20th century, preachers like Harry Emerson Fosdick  and John A.T. Robinson predicted that the onset of modernity would whisk away the supernatural and dogmatic identity of confessional Christianity. But they were wrong. Instead, the mainline denominations that had adopted the progressive blueprint were left with no authoritative word to speak about human evil, death, sex or the reason for the universe. Congregants were bereft of a Gospel to share (almost 70% of mainliners do not feel an obligation to evangelize). Thus the mainline watched as fundamentalism and evangelicalism, flawed as they were, kindled anew a sense of orthodoxy and Christian Gospel.

The SBC is flawed, owning a racist history, an often unsavory present and an uncertain future. But Jesus never said “adapt or die.” The future of the SBC depends on the fidelity of the convention’s churches to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. That Gospel is the power of God for salvation to whoever believes, to the Jew first and then to the Greek. The power of God never lacks a future.

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