As the pastor of a Mainline Protestant congregation, I know all about membership decline. My congregation, actually is holding its own after years of experiencing decline, and hopefully poised for growth. More liberal or moderation congregations have been told repeatedly that conservative/ideologically narrow congregations grow, while more open ones don't. I think that theology could play a role, but I think cultural adaptation plays a bigger role. Conservative churches appear to have been first adapters of technology and they tend to have larger families. But, I digress. In this week's edition of Sightings, Martin Marty notes that both the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Church are experiencing declines of their own. What all are encountering is a changing attitude among younger people, who are no more enamored with Baptist mega-churches as they are with organ-playing Mainline ones. So, with Dr. Marty, we contemplate the realities of the day. Decline really isn't inevitable, but the future depends on how we respond to our realities!
Southern Baptist Decline
-- Martin E. Marty
The two “big kids on the block” of American denominationalism are making front-page and prime-time news this early summer in ways which crowd out other stories of events and trends in most other groups. Only the Mormons are in competition for the spotlight right now. The two churches which are hefty enough to throw their weight around are the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention (a.k.a. “Great Commission Baptists” after a vote in convention last week). Most of the headlines are unwelcome in the eyes of their Public Relations agents and the hearts of most serious members, but there they are. We do not even need to remind readers of what these churchly involvements in politics, scandal, etc. are. (P-s-s-t: but do notice that the Southern or Great Commission Baptists, their denomination born in slavery, did elect their first African American president in the bad-news weeks.
Through all the decades-long travails of sects, cults, confessional bodies, dissenting and minority denominations, and more, people could always look at the big two and gain confidence in the knowledge that those two, with their millions, knew what they were doing. Critics of what went on in moderate and mainline and liberal church bodies could always point to these two as models: they are doctrinally firm, conversion-seeking, and not wishy-washy as the others are. So, what do we make of current trends?
Sightings is not announcing anything new when we mention that Catholicism, apart from its Mexican (etc.) masses, mirrors most trends of the Protestant decliners. Sociologist Everett Hughes many decades ago said something like “everything that can happen sociologically has already happened in the Catholic Church.” Non-Hispanic Catholicism has “happenings” to match social trends in Mainline Protestantism.
The Baptists of the Southern/Great Comission persuasion were supposed to be exempt from (largely) white-Protestant-wide downward trends. Yet in convention in recent days they announced declines in membership every year of the past five, with more decline most recently. You can be sure that leadership will work strenuously to reverse trends, and one may hope with them that they will recover, but . . . .
Google, or use any search instrument on your computer, and type in “declines” and pair it with the names of churches such as UCC, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, Reformed, United Methodist, Disciples of Christ, and on and on, and you will not lack data about decline. Link almost all of these with their more conservative acronymic partners, e.g., RCA/CRC, ELCA/LCMS, PCUSA/PCA, etc. and you will find the word “decline” easily. These bodies were looked to as potential winners by church growth experts because they blew against the Zeitgeist with their own spirit, were staunch and not flabby, counter-cultural, God’s own people in conflicts. Yet, while not all of them have declined as much as their more moderate counterparts, they also have not been able to resist cultural trends which work against them.
This is not the day to isolate all the trends affecting all the groups, but they include the demographic along with so many more. It is the day to suggest that they are demonstrating that there is no place to hide from cultures named “millennial” or “youth” or “pop” or “consumerist” or any other one might name. One does not have to be an ideological “declinist”—I refuse to be one, and I have plenty of company—to know that by amassing the stories of decline one can paralyze or, perhaps, awaken and nudge.
Bob Smietana, “Nation's largest Protestant group faces 'decline',” USA Today, June 11, 2012.
Kathy Finn, “U.S. Southern Baptists Elect First Black President,” Chicago Tribune, June 19, 2012.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.