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The Southern Baptist Convention is Yesterday's News

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If you know that the Southern Baptist Convention recently finished its annual meeting, you are either a Southern Baptist or a truly addicted news junkie.

The SBC met in Orlando, in the mouse-eared shadow of one of the denomination's best-known recent adversaries. And if you're interested in the official doings of the SBC, it did some interesting things. Of which more in a moment.

But contrast the news coverage this time with what happened a decade or so ago. Back then, SBC meetings received major attention from the secular media. The pressroom would be packed by wire service reporters, writers from large and not-so-large newspapers from across the South, and from most of the top 10 largest papers not in the South. This time, I can find evidence of exactly six representatives of the secular media in attendance: Reporters from the nearby Orlando Sentinel and Lakeland Ledger, the Tennessean, (AR) Democrat-Gazette, Claremore (OK) Daily Progress, and Religion News Service.

Which leads to this question: Did the SBC get too much attention back in the day, or is it getting too little attention now? My answer to both: Probably so. (And for another good analysis of this question, check out Bobby Ross' post on the excellent GetReligion blog.)

Let's deal quickly with an easy explanation for the difference in media reports: The economic earthquake that has flattened the news industry has been particularly damaging to specialty coverage. Far fewer reporters are assigned to religion these days, those who write about religion mostly focus on local topics, and travel budgets have been slashed even more than staffing.

But that's not the whole answer. Even the Associated Press, which still aspires to national scope and writes about some relatively minor events, took a pass on the SBC in Orlando.

Did the Southern Baptists get too much media focus in the Olden Days?

I was as guilty as any: I slapped on the boilerplate "largest Protestant denomination in America," cited the claim of some 16 million members, and happily jumped on the hot button issues addressed in resolutions at every annual meeting:

Proselytize specifically at Jews? Check. Make the theological case that a wife is to "submit herself graciously to the servant leadership" of their husbands?" Check. Condemn abortion? Check and check. Swing a biblical bat over and over and over at homosexuality, including a call to boycott gay-friendly Disney? Check and check and double-check.

Atop those reader-friendly news hooks, we had the 25-year internal battle between what we always called "conservatives" and "moderates." That fight ended with the conservatives in firm control of the denominational leadership and the moderates purged at about the same time the Republican Party was becoming increasingly defined by a publicly political conservative Christian base.

All factors that totally demanded intense news coverage for the SBC, yes?

But dig down a layer. We all knew that the claim of 16 million Southern Baptists was puffery. Almost all religion stats are puffed, after all. I knew that at least one large, old Southern Baptist church in my town included as "official" members anybody who had ever attended any function there in the previous five years. I was told that was common practice.

Church worship attendance is a more trustworthy number for the SBC and that's been around 6 million for a while. Toss in another couple of million for people who don't show up every week – Sunday School enrollment is closer to 8 million -- and we're still down to half the official total.

But size isn't the only measure of newsworthiness. Influence counts, as does success. Has the SBC racked up a record of either one?

In 1992, the Gallup folks asked adult Americans their annual "what religion are you?" question. About 9 percent said they were Southern Baptists. Last year, about 4 percent said they were Southern Baptists.

Consider some of the issues that the SBC has identified strongly with since the 1980s: Evangelism, biblical inerrency. abortion, and homosexuality. What effect has that advocacy had on the larger American culture? Whether or not you like any particular poll, the results are consistent across the board: American support for the positions taken by the SBC on those issues has been flat or declined.

Take a few Gallup numbers as representative: In 1975, about 2 in 10 Americans said abortion should always be illegal. Ditto in 2010. In 1996, 27 percent of Americans said they thought same-sex marriage should be legal. In 2010, that had risen to 44 percent.

And on the one issue closest to the core of the SBC -- eternal salvation through Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone -- the most recent large surveys point in other directions. A Pew survey from a couple of years ago indicates that 70 percent of Americans, including 57 percent of members of what Pew calls "evangelical churches," say that many religions can lead to eternal life.

So: A small and shrinking denomination that has had little impact on the larger culture? Let's just ignore 'em.

Not so fast.

That battle for the leadership of the SBC really did mirror, and in some ways precede, the broad political movements of those same years. Some SBC leaders -- start with Richard Land -- were particularly visible and effective spokesmen for their point of view. And while the SBC hasn't managed to make many new converts, either religiously or culturally, the denomination has served as an institutional focus for a relatively large chunk of Americans who stand together on matters of theology and morality.

Bill Leonard is dean and professor of church history at the Wake Forest University Divinity School. He was one of the moderates who suffered though the SBC purge. He's also one of the most respected historians in the nation about Baptists in America, so he has a better perspective than most on the importance of the SBC.

The Olden Days SBC was well worth the media attention, he said.

"They anticipated the culture wars and were the framework for the Republicanization of evangelicals," he said. "Every year, they chose to set themselves up against the mainstream culture."

And for a long time, it looked like that strategy was working. But if you set yourself against the mainstream, eventually, the mainstream will move on and leave you behind, Leonard said.

"As they lost culture privilege and numbers, their evangelism failed on them. Their sectarian rhetoric drove people away. They sounded like they didn't like you," he said. "What they missed is that they can't have it both ways."

Which leaves the SBC at a fork in the road, Leonard said. In one direction are, say, the Mennonites, who separate themselves from the larger culture to ensure their own doctrinal purity. In the other direction might be greater popularity but a dilution of the doctrine.

"The real issue for me is not whether the SBC was saved from 'liberals.' It is whether anybody in the next generation cares about being Baptist," he said. "The real problem for them is not liberalism. It is identity. Identity means whether people support the denomination, pay the bills, and promote the doctrine."

Ed Stetzer has a different perspective. He's director of Lifeway Research, an official department of the SBC. He's been sounding an alarm for several years about how the statistics he's been generating do not bode well for the health of the denomination.

The SBC did deserve the earlier media attention, he said.

"It was newsworthy that a denomination with 16 million members would make the shift that it did, especially comparing that number of Americans with 67,000 Tea Party activists and 500,000 members of the National Organization of Women."

More recently, the SBC has been caught in a larger cultural tide, he said.

"I think that in the past most Americans saw the church as more of a 'natural fit' for them. There was something of an expectation that 'good people go to church.' So, churches grew because people who wanted to be good and find God would look to the church. Today, I think that assumption is not longer true for many people," he said. "They believe they can be good without church and, in many cases, good without God."

And he points out that the cultural influence of evangelicals in general and of SBC members specifically can be found in places other than poll numbers.

"Go to the city mission, to the disaster relief efforts after a hurricane, and to the places where real people live, and you will find evangelicals there," he said.

So how about this recent meeting? What happened there that might be interesting to the vast majority of Americans who are not Southern Baptists?

A couple of the resolutions were at least as interesting as any from a decade ago. One resolution acknowledges that Southern Baptists divorce at least as often as the American average and rather gently offers a bible-based rebuke. Another resolution responds to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with a strong endorsement for environmental stewardship. Only four years earlier a resolution had dissed "environmentalism" as "a neo-pagan religion." And yes, there was the obligatory condemnation of the end of "Don't ask, Don't tell" in the military and of the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

For the inside baseball fans, the denomination accepted what could be a dramatic restructuring of its organization and the way it funds missionaries – which was the main reason the SBC was formed in the first place. How dramatic? Imagine if your city decided it would let people send some of their tax money to those programs they particularly liked. Plus, this meeting included some of the most closely contested elections for leadership positions seen in at least a decade.

Scott Thumma has a particularly good seat in the bleachers for everything that happens in American religious life. He's a professor of the sociology of religion for the non-denominational Hartford Seminary's Institute for Religion Research. I asked him for his take on the media attention given to the SBC, past and present.

"After being flooded with religion stories over the past 20-30 years, there is now so little coverage that I have to follow the Christian Post to learn anything," he said. "I also am saddened that just when the SBC begins to feel the pain of decline and struggle that all the mainline denominations have endured for decades, there are few reporters around to document and publicize on their seeming acts of desperation."

Leave aside the schadenfreude of a mainliner watching the SBC's struggles. He's a firm proponent for secular religion coverage -- and not just about the Southern Baptists.

"Religion is clearly still important and a significant force in our society; there is no such thing as too much coverage of it," he said. "And now we have too little."




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12 Comments

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osopinsky

Excellent job, as always, Jeff. You might also have mentioned that the second or third week of June tends to be a very slow new time. which invites controversy. All I can remember, after all these SBCs, is how often I missed Father's Day. Mark Pinsky

July 05 2010 at 9:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
paulandamy2002

I am SBC and a lot of what you write is accurate but some is off. For example, the abortion issue. Abortion stats have greatly changed - you managed to pick one that hasn't changed much. But recent polls show for the first time in polling, multiple polls in the last year or two have come out showing the majority of Americans are pro-life. Your article ignores that.

Also, your comment listing only a handful of secular press there as a sign of low coverage. I'm sure it is less than in the past, but not as bleak as you made seem. Today's journalism means a lot of media writes on things without being on the ground. Stories were done on the SBC annual meeting by: USA Today, Washington Post, The Examiner, The Republic, United Press International, Charlotte Observer and more.

June 30 2010 at 5:09 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Amanda

Baptists are not Protestants. Protestant denominations are those that branched off of the Catholic church.

Protestants date from the sixteenth century. They are the Lutherans, the Reformed, and others who were once Roman Catholics and left the Roman Catholic faith to start denominations of their own. The Baptists never left the Roman Catholic church as did Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. They never left because they were never in. They did not begin their existence at the time of the Reformation, but hundreds of years prior to the Reformation.

June 30 2010 at 4:55 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
newhopehab

I am a Baptist but from Cuba and after I has been living here in USA for several years knowing the people and the religious leaders from the Southern Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, most of them sucesfully bankers, my conclusion it is simple, they are another denomination that it is losing the compassion of Jesus. All the leaders from Southernd Baptist at some point, they has been participing in the destruction of the reference of one of their co workers in order to survive inside the billonaire denomination. This is trying to make a simple case of the level of ambition and apostasy in that denomination, when they are not different as religious leaders than the Religious leaders of the United Church of Christ with the peculiar definition of inclusivity of the gay people to overcome the level of extremism for several years before in that Church and survive as denomination getting some money of the government but not with real conviction about what it mean Grace and justices under God and love to all kind of people. After all, the Catholics they are in the same boat and the Baptist getting money sending missionaries CIA to all over the world it is not different. The secularism of the Church grow when they are trying to became bigger and control the financial situation. So, faith it is the illusion of the sucessfuly people in the Church. The same ambition of the Catholic Church and others religious group.
I have ambition for see a Church with only a local body with the key of the kingdom of God doing what Jesus did, not a denomination, not a President, not a Pope. After all, I can not see any different between a Pope and the President of any religious intitution today in America. I can not see any different between a bigger government in America with the Republicans and Democratics, and the structure of theses denominations today in the world. The world it is divide today in two section, Conservatives or Liberals and the translation of this two words for me tring to make it simple about this topic it is: "Grace and the Law" or "flexibility vs. inflexibility."

So, it is simple the chalenger for the Baptist today, became as a Church more independent doing what they are supposed to do as local church under the Grace of God, not as denominations. This it is going to help the Church in America be more pure, because the normal way that we see today it is secularism. So, we are afraid live by Grace and I can not see Grace in any action of the Church today, Catholic or Evangelic Christians, because Grace mean for many people socialism. Then, the marker of our salvation can not be free according with any denomination. None one it is free today in any religious group, because everybody it is far from Jesus even me, but I can chalenger any religious pastors in America or outside if in pragmatism they can show me what it mean be a christian without understand what it mean Grace in doctrine as the Bible said and the praxis in the real world. A few people today in the church they are living this experience with God, a few people.

Lazaro Javier Garcia

717-910-5524

June 30 2010 at 2:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jcrisw3453

Much to the chagrin of non-Christians, Jesus Christ and His people just won't go away. The reason? Jesus rose from the dead! Now, seated on a throne next to the Father, He transforms human lives with his indwelling Spirit, and waits to rule over a new heaven and a new earth, to be inhabited solely by His followers. Yep, the Gospel is an amazing 2000 year old phenomenon that's attracted the devotion of billions of human beings, but unbelievers still fight to discredit Him and us. News flash: all the anti-Christ blogs in the world won't work. As for sharing Christ with Jews, if the author doesn't want to hear the gospel from a Baptist, there's a wonderful group called "Jews for Jesus" who would love to share their experiences with him. Either way, to deny Him is eternal suicide.

June 30 2010 at 2:25 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
kellrene

I found this article fair and very interesting. Thank you! I have followed Christ for nearly 50 years. I happen to attend a Southern Baptist Church. Our country was founded with a desire for religious freedom. It based that desire on the Holy Bible. There are differences in our denominations, but only one issue that matters eternally. We live, we die, and according to the Bible, then comes Gods judgement. That judgement is based on whether one accepts Jesus Christ as God's only begotten Son, and the only way to heaven. Everything in life is based on that decision. Denominations will and should grow and change in the ways they present the messages that the Bible teaches. This world is broken and sinful. The Bible shows us how to overcome sin. It is only by the God's grace, Jesus' sacrifice and the leading of the Holy Spirit that we can experience joy on this earth and a hope for eternal life.

June 30 2010 at 2:04 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to kellrene's comment
jcrisw3453

Amen. Nice post!!!

June 30 2010 at 2:26 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Kent

One other reason why coverage of the SBC is down is the Roman Catholic Church. With coverage of its sex scandals around the globe, and the Church facing a backlash from the faithful, that becomes the story that news organizations want to cover.

A point about membership. In the United Methodist Church, each local church has a list of members. If a member hasn't attended or contributed for several years, then the process starts to remove that person from the list. That process takes several years. If at any point, the member says he wishes to remain a member, the process stops.

While there are many people in all denominations who are completely inactive, they are loathe to be without a membership, in case of the need for a funeral, a wedding, a confirmation, or a baptism.

June 30 2010 at 1:22 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
vobox3343

And, of course, the antics of a Westboro Baptist Church have not helped. When it appears you're moving up to cult status, beware.

June 30 2010 at 10:23 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to vobox3343's comment
xxo1984

Surely you jest, if you believe that the "Westboro Baptist Church" is anything more than an a Cabal of political Activists with a "membership" mostly made up of one extended family with several or more law degrees, and a "religious" Tax Exempt Status. Not to mention a glaring example of "By their fruits ye shall know them." ,

June 30 2010 at 4:22 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
James

Fundamentalist Baptists like Jerry Falwell long regarded The Southern Baptist Convention with distrust and vice versa. Fundamentalism usually falls outside the boundaries of socially acceptable religions and, at the time, Southern Baptists were very socially acceptable in most communities. To Falwell and others in groups in the Baptist Bible Fellowship, this was a sign of incipient apostasy.

Social exclusion was a hallmark of true Christianity according to Fundamentalist preaching in the 1960s and 70s. But Fundamentalists also wanted a seat at the table of power and the Southern Baptist theology was the closest thing to Fundamentalist Baptist theology. By embracing the conservatives in the SBC, Falwell helped to nudge the denomination towards Fundamentalism and increase the ranks of those helping turn the tide of American culture towards a favorable view of Fundamentalists.

Now the SBC has replaced the denominational beliefs of traditional Baptist theology with Fundamentalist beliefs and thus has lost the interest of mainstream Americans. If it continues to pursue conservatism of the Fundamentalist ilk, the SBC will ultimately be regarded as socially irrelevant because the real power will lie with the hard core Fundamentalists outside the denomination and the moderate and liberal former Baptists will have swelled the ranks of other denominations.

June 30 2010 at 7:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to James's comment
paulandamy2002

Your timing is off on your assessment. Falwell did not direct his church toward the SBC until a few years before his death. The conservative battle was long over in the denomination by the time he joined. He played no roll in any direction of the SBC. And there is very little in common between a fundamentalist indep. baptist church and an sbc church other than believing the gospel and the Bible. The SBC has no statements, for example, against dancing, other translations of the Bible outside of the KJV, certain attire, and no official doctrine on alcohol.

June 30 2010 at 5:16 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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