Southern Baptists face a familiar trend: emptier pews

The Southern Baptist Convention has announced a decline in membership, mirroring trends seen in churches throughout the United States and Europe. 

Leah Klafczynski/The Columbus Dispatch/AP/File
Southern Baptists pray before a panel discussion at the Southern Baptist Convention on June 17, 2015, at The Greater Columbus Convention Center. The Southern Baptist Convention has announced a decline in membership, mirroring trends seen in churches throughout the United States and Europe.

The Southern Baptist Convention announced its membership stats this week, and it wasn't a cause for celebration.

Southern Baptists declined in membership by 1.32 percent, marking the ninth decrease in a row. This trend is neither new nor unique, however. The SBC could be merely one more organization feeling adverse impacts from a shift toward individualism that is hitting organizations and churches across the United States and Europe.

"As individualism becomes a more central part of our lives ... people are less likely to do things that are socially constraining," Ryne Sherman, a psychology professor at Florida Atlantic University who has conducted research on trends in American religiosity, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "It's 'I'm free to choose and do what I want,' versus a group compelling me to go out and do something."

The SBC, for which "Southern" is now more of a brand marker than a geographic requirement, is the largest Protestant group in the US. Some have cited the convention's specific policies or conservative views on issues of salvation, family, and politics for the dip in numbers, but Christian churches have been losing membership across the ideological spectrum.

"Actually the whole culture is shifting and it's affecting everyone, not just a particular group," Dr. Sherman says. "We think that there's rising individualism in many western European countries, too, and we see similar effects in these countries."

The decline in membership began among Catholics and mainline Protestants, while evangelical groups such as the Southern Baptists appeared immune for some time. Their membership began declining only nine years ago, when other indicators of private American belief also showed a decline, says Jean Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University in California and author of "Generation Me," which discusses trends in American religiosity.

The percentage of adult Americans who believe that the Bible is literal truth – a key tenet for Southern Baptists – was virtually unchanged from the 1980s until 2006, but then dropped 5 percentage points in less than 10 years, a decrease of 29 percent, according to Dr. Twenge's analysis. 

"In the last nine to 10 years, more conservative denominations seem to be part of that overall decline that the mainline denominations have been experiencing for at least seven decades," says R. Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The Southern Baptists have also been hit by a lower birthrate in recent years, and many members who were raised Southern Baptist are moving toward nondenominational Christian churches, Trevin Wax of The Gospel Project wrote in 2015:

The Assemblies of God, now the second-largest evangelical denomination in the U.S., has seen 25 straight years of growth, and its views are similar to the SBC’s. Likewise, nondenominational churches, most quite conservative, are exploding in numbers and membership. Meanwhile, the more liberal denominations are in a much steeper decline than the SBC.

The continuing ability of nondenominational churches and Pentecostals to resist the overall decline and even attract members of other denominations is a mark of successful evangelism, Dr. Chesnut says. The SBC will likely try the same model and emphasize outreach to immigrants, especially Latin Americans.

The convention's chief executive officer and executive committee president Frank Page has already set this tone, calling the flock to repentance in response to a decline in baptisms: down 3.3 percent, to 295,212.

"God help us all! In a world that is desperate for the message of Christ, we continue to be less diligent in sharing the Good News," he said in a press release. "May God forgive us and give us a new passion to reach this world for Christ."

As the social norm becomes less religious, the most devout church-goers may all be calling on "a new passion" in their faith commitment.

"There's a greater willingness now to say 'I'm not religious,' " Christian Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame and co-principal investigator of the noted National Study of Youth and Religion, told the Monitor. "For people who do continue to practice religion, [their communities] tend to be made up of the seriously committed, not just those swept along by obligation."

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