August 28, 2018

Playing the Southern Baptist Blues?

Recent days are unprecedented and place the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in a crucial time, says Dr. Chuck Kelley, the president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS).

During a chapel address on August 21, Kelley told NOBTS students and faculty that “Southern Baptists have the blues” and that “the future is unclear” for the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.

“The tone after Dallas in 2018 was very, very different. As different as different could be. There was not triumph and excitement. There was not anger or frustration. There was a bewildering confusion over Southern Baptists behaving differently,” he said, reading from his personal journal.

The “Baptist blues,” he said, stem from “unprecedented circumstances” including moral indiscretion, growing tensions between older, traditionalist Southern Baptists and the rising young and theologically Reformed, steady membership and baptism decline.

According to Kelley, the Southern Baptist blues include the termination of Dr. Paige Patterson, the former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, after he failed to investigate and report two separate rape allegations by female students.

The increasing influence of theologically Reformed leadership, including the SBC’s newly-elected president, J.D. Greear, raises another alarm, especially among the denomination’s old guard.

“One final ingredient I should mention has been mixed into the jumble of all these unprecedented actions. Completely different, completely unrelated. And that is the increasing tensions over the advance of Calvinism in the SBC, bubbled over a bit in the SBC presidential election at that Dallas Convention,” Kelley said.

“Although neither nominee promoted the election as such, the election became in the eyes of many a choice between younger, Reformed leadership or older, traditional Baptist leadership. The younger, reformed candidate won, adding to the concern of many on the future of the traditional convention emphasis on evangelism and missions and the traditional theological focus on the Bible as the centerpiece of theological conversation and discussion,” he added.

He insisted that his remarks are not about “putting each other in camps” and even praised Dr. Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Dr. David Platt, former president of the International Mission Board. Both are NOBTS alumni and well-known Reformed Southern Baptist leaders.

The dominant area of concern for Kelley seemed to surround purported decline in Southern Baptist church planting, conversion, and baptism statistics.

“This is now year 17 of the longest decline in baptisms in the history of the SBC. Unprecedented. And that decline in baptism shows absolutely no sign it is slowing down,” he said.

Kelley explained that since 2009 the SBC planted 871 new churches. But since 2009, 772 Southern Baptist-affiliated churches either closed their doors or disassociated from the convention. “Where is the fruitfulness in evangelism that Southern Baptists became so accustomed to?” he asked.

He added, “It would have been one thing if our only decline was in that single area of baptisms. But it’s worse than that. For most of the last decade, the SBC has been declining year after year in membership, worship attendance, and Sunday school, Bible study, small group…the typical common churches of the SBC are struggling on an unprecedented scale.”

Some Southern Baptists likely disagree with popular exaggerated claims of an SBC identity crisis and shrinking influence and evangelism. Fruitfulness is found within SBC churches planted especially in urban areas, like Washington, D.C. for example. And interestingly, Kevin Ezell, president of the SBC’s North American Mission Board (NAMB),  reported to the 2018 Dallas convention that SBC church plants baptize at a 67 percent better attendee-to-baptism ratio when compared to traditionally established churches. Ezell also noted that recently tightened standards for church planters likely contribute to a decrease in total church plants.

“When we raised our assessment, we knew church plant numbers would go down. But we will not compromise our quality in order to present bigger numbers the second week of June,” Ezelle stated, as reported by Baptist Press. “We must not focus on quantity, we must focus on quality.”

Baptist Press also reported that nearly twice as many representatives, called messengers, attended the 2018 convention than the previous year. Of the demographics gathered, 35 percent reported being first-time attendees and an encouraging increased number of messengers, 25.2 percent, were between 18 and 39 years of age.

There are certainly areas within Western Christianity to be concerned, watchful, and prayerful. But Southern Baptists’ Christian witness continues to spread, especially when considering church plants in urban areas. When one considers Washington, D.C. or even my own SBC-affiliated small town local church as case studies, the Southern Baptist Convention is thriving, not dying. We pray for the SBC’s continued faithful witness and the Lord’s blessing.

8 Responses to Playing the Southern Baptist Blues?

  1. Mike says:

    As a former Southern Baptist, I am glad to see some movement in the denomination toward the historical theological position of our forefathers, which indeed was the Reformed position. It may be that the reason for some of the losses in membership and baptisms is God’s way of cleaning out the dross that has collected over the years with too much emphasis on getting people “saved” without asking if those “converts” were genuine.

  2. Josh says:

    No, there is a reason to be concerned. The people in the pew value the Bible above anything else and any kind of doctrine that goes askew of the truth that God “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son”(John 3:16) and that He “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4) will cause people to become distrustful and not believe the messenger.

    I graduated from a SBC school and I saw the tension growing between everyday, ordinary Baptists and academic leaders/ students. And I totally get it. Many of the antics and evangelistic strategies found in the SBC are embarrassing and lacking in theological foundation. Many of the “young, restless, and reformed” are really great folk who seek to be rooted in the Scriptures. But hardcore Calvinism carries some major problems with it. There is no skirting those problems. And also, the SBC is severely lacking in an emphasis on spiritual formation. And so, even those who turn to something a little more theological robust often end up failing to develop virtue and godliness . . . which doesn’t help living together with others in Christian community. Just like their non-Reformed counterparts, the Reformed SBC folks can easily rub people the wrong way. And I would guess that this probably the main reason for the decline in the SBC. SBC’ers are just often hard to get along with.

    • Alan says:

      I think the real problem with declining evangelism and baptisms centers on apathy. People sitting in the pews think everything is someone else’s job. They stand and don’t sing during worship and they aren’t that involved in service within the church. So, they don’t really share their faith.

      Baptists once held camp meetings, crusades and revival meetings. Today we can barely get folks to show up for one service every couple of weeks….

  3. Alan says:

    The SBC is facing a serious crisis. It has planted too many urban churches and neglected evangelism training for the already established churches. NAMB is spending $15 million on one…yes, ONE…church in metro Atlanta complete with 4 soccer fields, retail, gym and more that will occupy about four city blocks of a town on the I-285 perimeter. That’s foolish at best.

    The SBC is being destroyed by the acceptance of race baiting (we all know Thabiti, an SBC pastor and leader of the recent ERLC conference on race) said all white evangelicals were should repent of parents/grandparents role in assassination of MLK. The new SBC president said Christians and Muslims worship the same God, embraced Wokeness and urged the tearing down of all hierarchy.

    Yeah, the SBC has a serious problem. No other way to spin it.

  4. David says:

    The SBC actually approved resolutions supporting abortion rights before and after Roe v. Wade. Then there was a conservative takeover of the denomination in 1980 and these were hastily withdrawn. Such swings are not conducive to a steady membership.

  5. Does anyone else relate the growth of Reformed theology in the SBC ranks with the drop in growth, baptisms, etc? I do, because the passion behind evangelism is that EVERY lost person can be saved by hearing and responding the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration and new-birth. Think about it! I just retired after 53 years of planting and pastoring the Gateway Church, Staten Island. The new leadership made a prayerful and wise decision enter into a cooperative relationship with the SBC. I am happy!

  6. Terry Lowry says:

    Is the ‘rock’ cracking? The Bible predicts a great falling away in the end times. The late D. James Kennedy often stated, “… 80% of those sitting on pews on any given Sunday are not saved…” Where is the weeping in church over individual sin? Where is the weeping in church by those praying for a lost loved one? Why aren’t millennials in church: they have been taught that the universe just happened. They do not believe in God. Others have just enough religion to be convicted but not converted. But don’t blame me. I go to church. The preacher preaches. And I go home. Because that’s what Christian’s do now.

  7. Janice E. Beck says:

    While I was a member of several Southern Baptist churches over 15 years, I found I rarely heard more than one sermon subject, that of being saved. As important as that is, the need for discipleship teaching is also important. I came to view the Baptist theology as a “get your ticket punched” theology. There is much more to consider in Christ’s teaching.

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