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Posted by on Jun 23, 2014 in News | 20 comments

What happened to the Southern Baptist Convention?

What happened to the Southern Baptist Convention?

There have been a lot of tweets, posts, articles, blog posts and discussions online and at the annual meeting asking this question: What has happened to the Southern Baptist Convention? 

The fact is the SBC is not growing at the same pace it used to grow. Our baptisms are down from years before, the convention is on a decline. There must be a reason, there must be someone to blame! Everyone wonders what happened and asks what can we do about it, but are we asking the right questions?

How did we really get so big as a convention?

We are big mostly because we reached the Baby Boomer generation. The Southern Baptist Convention came of age in a time of unprecedented population growth in the USA. The 76,000,000 Baby Boomers born between 1946-1964 drove up the numbers of the SBC membership. This generation single-handedly increased the size of the denomination’s share of the USA total church attendance. Baby Boomers are by far the largest segment of the SBC (approximately 60% of SBC pastors are Boomers).

The history of the SBC parallels the life stages of the Boomer generation. As children they began to be enrolled in SBC church cradle rolls during the “Million More in ’54” campaign. The sheer size of the Boomer generation forced the SBC to adapt to their church ministries with innovations like age-graded Sunday School, church busing, Vacation Bible School, and full-time children’s ministries.

As Boomers became youth, the SBC experienced explosive growth in church-based youth ministry, youth camps, youth musicals, etc. SBC ministries like Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM) summer missions, IMB Journeymen programs were at their height of popularity at the same time SBC Boomers were in college.

Many of the current SBC leaders became believers during the Jesus Movement in the 1970‘s and revivals of the 1980’s. When Boomers became parents they flocked together in our mega churches, and even changed the music used in worship services to suit their tastes.

Boomers are older now, and the SBC market has shifted. SBC has grown over the years because we reached mostly white Baby Boomer young families. That group has aged, and the children of Boomers are going to other churches. They are not leaving church; they were not raised to be brand loyal to the SBC.

How can we involve the next generations more effectively in SBC leadership?

A much smaller Generation X (born 1965-1979) and a larger, more ethnically-diverse Millennial generation (born 1980-1996) are taking the lead in the church at large. There happens to be fewer of them involved in the SBC leadership. How can we change that? How can we connect cooperatively with existing churches that reach other generations?

There used to be only a few options for church membership: Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc. Now there is a proliferation of new churches and increased competition for members from other conservative start-up churches. Visit any of these newer churches, and you will find many people there who grew up in the SBC. Most of these churches are theologically compatible with the SBC. How can we meaningfully affiliate with these churches?

In my opinion, the SBC needs to talk about these questions as much as they need to search their hearts about the other questions that are being asked in the convention.

About The Author

Chris Forbes
Chris Forbes http://www.ChrisForbes.org

Chris Forbes is a frustrated ex-comic, indie film marketer, & co-author of “Guerrilla Marketing for Nonprofits.” As an Oklahoma-based communication strategist he has also worked with various organizations within the Southern Baptist Convention.

Chris Forbes has blogged 11 posts at wordslingersok.com

  • Mark Wilhelm

    Asking the right questions takes courage. I am pastor at a congregation that is affiliated with Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ. Our congregation is going through the process of repenting of asking the wrong questions (how many seats were filled Sunday? How many were in the last new members class etc.) and learning to ask (what we hope) are the right (or at least better) questions such as how many people personally own their role in the Great Commission and the Great Commandment? How many see themselves as missionaries, rather than church members? Do we gather for worship desperate for the presence of God or for ecclesiastical comfort food? I wish the SBC well as they engage in that process. I know how challenging that can be.

    • Matthew Jones

      Sadly Mark, often when people my age (which, according to the article, I’m a Millenial) ask those kinds of questions, we are told to mind our own business. Additionally, the younger generations are not being allowed into leadership positions, frankly. I don’t know if there’s a simple solution other than following God’s word and the Holy Spirit.

      • RonB51

        I think one of the problems we create ourselves is in categorizing people (age, ethnicity, whatever) and assigning them to predetermined slots. One of my personal irritants is being assigned to someone’s idea of where old guys should be, while in my own mind I’m just a child of the King. Though not a Lutheran myself, I would gladly get behind Pastor Wilhelm in God’s army.

  • Bob Cleveland

    These principles apply to any multi-location business that’s losing market share. The real problem is that we don’t get people through our doors by any of these things … we get them when GOD sends them to us. To disciple. And if you look at anybody’s analysis of the numbers, we are failing miserably with the vast majority He’s sent us.

    So the real question is why WOULD God want to send us any more people?

    • Randy R

      Amen Bob!
      Has the SBC been good stewards of what God has sent them? Then why would He send more?

    • Steven Earp

      Bob,

      I don’t want to put words into the author’s mouth or keyboard, but I didn’t get the same understanding from this article.

      Seems to me that Forbes is saying that the SBC naturally and easily related to the baby boomer generation, but culturally they didn’t speak the same language as GenX or Y.

      His observations seem to be sociological in nature. Missiology, evangelism, discipleship and every other aspect of ministry is impacted by the cultural language of the target audience.

      If one uses the term language literally in an ethno-linguistic sense or if it’s used in a larger metaphorical context, every group has cultural norms and lenses that impact the way they communicate and the way the recipients receive the communicated message. This being the case, I gather the author is suggesting that the SBC needs to continue to work to speak the language of the up and coming generations. (Possibly X to an extent, but definitely Y.)

      Your comments on discipleship and the “analysis of the numbers” could be a really interesting and valuable discussion. But I don’t understand how it relates directly to this topic.

      Maybe I’m missing something?

      The author has suggested that missions and outreach is a strong reason to unite under a common umbrella. The article is suggestion one possible reason that some haven’t embraced the umbrella.

      Thanks for the thoughts and discussion!

      Steven Earp
      http://www.ElevateOKC.com

      PS – One way to consider the author’s claims would be to just look around… at your peers, at the age of those in the churches around you. What are the age of those filling the seats?

    • Russell Brown

      Where is that? Where does it biblically say God sends people to the church? Everywhere I see Jesus teaching his disciples he says go and make disciples. Jesus goes himself and loves on the masses. I don’t see God sending Jesus to sit at the temple and await people that God sends to him. I’m missing the connection here.

    • Theresa Bridges

      I’m with you, they aren’t being discipled, but the sbc is no longer going to the list and telling them about salvation either.

  • I, the son of baby boomers, grew up in SBC Churches and served overseas with the IMB. When returning, we tried to find an SBC church and after trying all of them in our community, including attending and trying to grow with one for 6 months, we decided to take SBC loyalty out of our search query and look again. We choose to join a non-denominational church because it was in our opinion more true to scripture, gospel focused, discipling people and growing through evangelism.

    Our choice was not a convention or denominational one but a local church body decision. We are one of those churches that is theologically compatible with SBC and would love to partner, esp. in missions!

    • Chris Forbes

      Thanks Steven, I hope your church does. The SBC originally formed for doing missions, it’s the best reason to associate.

  • Chris Forbes

    Thanks Steven, I hope your church does. The SBC originally formed for doing missions, it’s the best reason to associate.

  • Russell Brown

    In large (generalizing) SBC churches have continued to do what pleases the majority in the pews (the boomers) and not taken adequate steps to reach out biblically to the next generations. Many youth programs are more about making the younger generations like the boomers, then accepting the. For their unique qualities and tastes. Because of that SBC has been stereotyped and new leaders are electing to bypass the SBC name and plant churches that are ‘nondenominational’ or if they use the SBC system for funding they shave off any visual ties to the Baptist name.

    The biggest challenge the SBC has, in my opinion, is how to rebrand. How to shed those existing stereotypes people think of when they hear Baptist. The challenge is traditionally the Baptist church is always a few steps behind playing catch up to the culture. The SBC needs to redefine itself, hold it’s values, but let go of the preferences of the boomers to reach outside that generation, otherwise they will still only reach more boomers.

    This is a generalization, this is my opinion, there are ‘baptist’ churches that are thriving and reaching the younger millennials. I am amazed by the drive this younger generation coming up wants to make a difference, they are going to do it somewhere, but we have to invest in them as a church.

    • Chris Forbes

      Russell I agree. But I think the rebranding is happening by default. It is being led by young new churches of the SBC that remain affiliated. We need to make the ones that are theologically compatible and who share our passion for missions and evangelism that aren’t aware aware of how much we have in common. Not that you are saying this, but if the SBC tried to rebrand, they would make it something the Boomers like. If we can get back to associating for missions and ministry and remain loyal to our heritage of respecting the autonomy of the local church, we could bring in many new ministry partners who are looking for what we are looking for too.

  • Ellis Pitman

    May humbly suggest, and that at the risk of being “thrown out of the synagogue”, that our decline may well be due to our inability to accept the reality that church culture as we have known it is dead. Our methodologies are rooted in the institutional church, going back to Constantin in 313 AD. Add to that the reality that our methodologies have become our theology, and lo, we are at least as traditional as our Catholic brothers ever thought of being. The church of the future I believe will, and should, look very different than church as we have known it for the last 1700 years. It will look more like the churches of the New testament. Lord, please hasten the day, and thereby advance your Kingdom.

  • Joni Hannigan

    The children of boomers are going to other churches? Most of the boomers I have known for 25 or so years, have children (and grandchildren) who are still in SBC churches. Sure, for many, they leave during their twenties, but return in their thirties.

  • Theresa Bridges

    Is the Gospel being preached, are they bring trained to go into all the world and peach the gospel to every creature, or is the SBC so focused on getting people in their church Buildings that they have lost the true meaning of the ecclesia (God’s church, the saved souls)? We weer called to go and peach the gospel, the”church” is the saved body of Christ. We are to give the gospel to the last, when they become saved, then they are part if the church. When they get baptized they become part of the church they were baptized in. But the ultimate goal at that point is to train them to be disciples. I’m not seeing this in the SBC anymore and it used to be there. Maybe that would help with the numbers competition mentioned in this article.

  • Shelvin Lamb

    Respectfully and humbly, I feel like I am
    someone who can speak to this issue with knowledge and experience. I am a
    mid 40’s, lifelong SBCer, married an SBC PK, worked two summers at a
    Baptist conference center, went to an SBC seminary, and a 20 plus year full
    time minister. If you need a label: the ‘traditionalist’ would call
    me too contemporary, and the ‘contemporary/ modern’ crowd would call me
    old fashioned. A lovely place to be. 🙂 Several things stand out in
    this article: If I may borrow Ellis’ phrase of ‘risk of being thrown out,
    …..’ The bottomline is we are living in the last days and we aren’t
    very smart if we didn’t see this decline coming. Does this mean we quit
    trying? Quit praying and fasting? Quit having a ‘whatever it takes’
    mindset? Absolutely not! If anything, because of this fact, we try
    harder, pray more, and do more. If I may, let me get specific with some
    things that I have observed that we as the SBC have done to unnecessarily
    accelerate this decline: With all due respect to the writer of this article, I
    believe the next to the last paragraph is a bit misleading and one of the main
    contributors to our decline (other than the bottomline I stated above)
    While there may be more churches (denominations) that are closer to us
    in basic theology than the traditional Methodist, Presbyterian, etc
    of the 50’s/ 60’s/ 70’s ….. in many of these newer groups and leaders,
    we have allowed to them to take prominent roles in the SBC. They
    have brought with them to the forefront issues that have been divisive, or at
    least cause us to stop and shake our head. (and therefore, occupied our
    conventions, conferences, sermons and blogs often at the expense of the Great
    Commission) Issues such as Calvinism (oh, no, I can hear you say, here we
    go), performance based worship, private prayer language, boycotts and
    resolutions against politics/ political groups and ‘ungodly’ organizations,
    debates about the sinner’s prayer, ‘elephant rooms,’ discussions/ writings that
    say there is no power in prayer, and how we can we eliminate our bloated
    SBC bureaucracy to get more $$$ straight to the mission field. (yet, how many
    of those same leaders/ prominent speakers have bloated bureaucracies/
    staff in their own churches often to do pastoral roles that are now considered
    too time consuming and not important) I believe we have given the
    platform to some who make guys like me uncomfortable with the little depth in
    their theology and endless blogs that show arrogance and eventually lead
    to discrepancies in what they say, which means creditability
    issues and the abrupt end of their impact for Christ. I
    see a great lack of a humble spirit, and lack of joy and contentment in being a
    shepherd of the flock. The ‘we have done so much wrong’
    attitude and proclamation puts them, and all of us in a very dangerous
    spot. Because, if in 10-15 years we don’t see a major turnaround, the ‘we
    have done things wrong’ has to be the reason again according to what is be
    stated now. And if we continue to ‘do things wrong,’ no one will
    listen to our message. For me personally, while there was time that I
    enjoyed SBC life, conventions, discussions, etc, ………… that time has
    passed. While I still serve faithfully in full time ministry in an
    SBC church (and will not leave the SBC), and give more than ever to mission
    causes, CP, church planting, seminary training, etc, ……… I don’t feel
    there is a place at the table of the SBC for people like me. And
    honestly, I am fine with that and desire no ‘position/ platform’ in any
    way. I have peace and God’s call on my life where He has placed me
    to impact the world for His name. I haven’t responded to things like this in
    a few years. However, in recent weeks, I have seen quite a few
    ‘what happened’ articles so I thought I would give me personal belief/
    story. And I have a feeling I am not alone in what I just said.

  • dlplife

    Good article. A bit too simplistic, though. The reasons for our success
    and decline are most often caught up in many different factors. School
    of Church Growth states that four factors determine church growth:
    National social trends, local social trends, national denominational
    trends, and local institutional trends. Only one of these (25%) is the
    SBC influence on the local church. Churches will not grow if the
    convention searches itself and asks the questions. They will grow when
    the pastors and leaders of the churches decide that they will do
    whatever it takes to reach people for Christ.

  • As suggested by the article, “they were not raised to be brand loyal to the SBC” and “increased competition for members from other … churches” are contributing factors – this is true, from a certain point of view. Amazingly, what the SBC doesn’t understand is that those are not organic problems, they’re marketing issues.

    And there’s your problem. Talk about it all you want, but until the SBC (and other christian-like organizations) learn how to live in and demonstrate the spirit of God, nothing will change.

    “…when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. … my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.”

    Rarely does one come across an SBC church where anything but the wisdom of men is demonstrated. And that is why (IMO) it has ceased to be highly useful to the kingdom of God, and why it is not growing.

  • The problem with this post is simple, it relies upon ideas of a generation divide to discuss a problem that seems much deeper than the generation divide. The focus has been on programs that supposedly appeal to a generation as opposed to a focus on what makes a Southern Baptist a Southern Baptist.

    The Southern Baptist problem began when the focus was on these other things and diminished the Gospel and doctrine as their uniting force.

    And as a Psychologist, there are few evidences of the radical generational divides that people often advocate. One of my professors for my Ph.D. has often noted the myth we have built around these divides that a built upon poor evidence.

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