|Commentary: Reflecting on Southern Baptist trends|
A UMNS Commentary
The Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr.
By the Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr.*
June 30, 2008
Recently, The Associated Press reported that Southern Baptist churches suffered a loss of members in 2007.
United Methodists will find this hard to believe in the South, where
there is an expression about places where "there are more Baptists than
people." It's an expression that reflects the historic focus of Southern
Baptists on evangelism and conversions, but also their tendency to
inflate church rolls. Pastoral success is often viewed in terms of
"additions" and membership growth.
The practices of keeping a "non-resident" category of members and
often leaving inactive members on the rolls have led some senior Baptist
leaders to caution against taking membership figures at face value.
So, what are some of the reasons a system designed to avoid reporting losses can begin to decline numerically? And what might United Methodists discover if we are attentive to factors related to that decline?
Membership tends to be a lagging indicator.
Membership changes, in either a congregation or a denomination, are the
result of many factors that have been present for some time. For
Southern Baptists, declining baptism rates over many decades may have
signaled an impending downturn in membership. United Methodists trace
membership losses to the mid-1960s, but we know that the growth rate and
share of population for Methodists had declined well before then with
little, if any, notice.
Defensiveness and denial. When membership declines,
the natural tendency is to explain it away. In 1998, when Southern
Baptists showed their first membership decline in 70 years, some blamed
the loss on a new computer system, while others said it was a temporary
downturn as churches "clean" their rolls.
Methodists have used the "cleaning the rolls" mantra to explain slow growth or no growth for over a century in the United States.
In the 1900 Episcopal Address of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the
bishops reported that since 1800, the nation's population had grown 14
times while Methodist membership had grown by 97 times. But in the last
four years of that period, the increase was only 4 percent, a much
smaller rate of growth.
"How to account for this smaller gain is not easily seen," said the
bishops. They went on to say that such decline should not be the
"occasion for despondency and evil forebodings." In the future, as in
the past, they projected "small gains may soon be followed by larger."
Even allowing for the imprecise nature of church rolls, membership
decline should be seen for what it is: a lagging indicator that some
other important things need attention.
Conflict. Some level of tension is always present in
healthy and growing churches. However, severe conflict in congregations
and denominations tends to take a toll on participation and membership.
The Rev. Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention,
placed part of the blame for membership loss on a perception that some
of the denomination's followers are "mean-spirited, hurtful and angry."
He contends that Baptists have been known too much in recent years for
"what we're against" rather than "what we're for."
Time takes its toll. As time goes by and churches
become successful, it often becomes harder and harder to maintain
success. With maturity comes a level of organizational complexity that
can be a barrier to growth. And as churches and their members prosper,
there is a temptation to become removed from the practices that led to
growth in the first place. It could be that Southern Baptists had some
of their greatest growth when they were not the largest Protestant
denomination in the United States,
but rather when they often were seen on the sidelines of religious life
that was dominated by more established traditions. United Methodists
should remember that our greatest growth came in such a time.
Change is hard but not impossible. Some demographic
indicators suggest that Southern Baptists may be joining that cohort of
mainline denominations that has been losing members since the 1960s, a
sign perhaps that well-established denominations, regardless of their
theology, are increasingly unable to reach new Christians.
Unfortunately, Southern Baptists will not learn much from the experience
of mainline churches in addressing their decline––except, perhaps, what
not to do.
"Even allowing for the imprecise nature of
church rolls, membership decline should be seen for what it is: a
lagging indicator that some other important things need attention."
Southern Baptists join these other denominations in the need to break
the mold and change enough to turn their fortunes around. They are
already recognizing the implications of the fact that their constituency
has been primarily white and middle class, and this part of the
population is not growing. Southern Baptists are turning their attention
to people of color (to remedy a historic weakness of theirs) by
starting new churches (a historic strength).
The United Methodist Church did very well "growing up" with America
through the 19th century and into the early decades of the 20th
century. Then, as the last century unfolded, the nation changed and the
church did not. Earlier generations had followed Americans from east to
west, from urban to frontier, and from lower to middle and upper-middle
classes. But success led to staying with practices even as they became
increasingly less effective.
Today, The United Methodist Church in the United States
is not only dramatically smaller, but it is older and less diverse than
the population. Southern Baptists and United Methodists will have
faithful and fruitful futures to the extent that they can find ways to
reach more people, younger people and more diverse people.
*Weems is distinguished professor of church leadership and director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. This commentary is adapted from the center’s online newsletter, Leading Ideas, available free at www.churchleadership.com.
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
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