Irrelevant SBC?

Jeffrey Weiss has an interesting story at on the declining media coverage of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Weiss argues that the SBC has taken unpopular stands over the years and as a result has become increasingly irrelevant to the mainstream of American culture. Even though media coverage was overblown in past years, he argues that the coverage is too little now.

One particular part of this report caught my attention, and I thought it worthy of comment. Weiss asked Baptist historian Bill Leonard for his take on the current state of the SBC, and here’s how Leonard responded:

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.

Leonard’s “fork in the road” is a poor analysis of the SBC in my view. He apparently defines relevance as “popularity” in the culture. God help us as Southern Baptists if we ever measure gospel success in terms of our “popularity” in the culture. This is not what God has called us to do or to be. He has called us to be in the world, not of the world, for the sake of the world (John 17:15-21). That means that “Mennonite” disengagement is never an option for us, nor is diluting our message of Jesus Christ crucified and raised for sinners. Leonard gives us a false choice.

It may be unpopular to spread the news that “there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12), but that should never diminish our resolve to preach that message. At the end of the day, God has called us not be please men, but Christ (Galatians 1:10). That means preaching the gospel in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2), not trimming our sails to accommodate the cultured-despisers of our faith. In the last day, God will not judge us according to our popularity, but according to our faithfulness. Our faithfulness to the gospel will define our relevance to the culture, not our waxing and waning media coverage. Even though Leonard misses this, I hope and pray Southern Baptists won’t.

(HT: Jim Smith)


  • Rick

    I disagree. We are not getting media coverage anymore precisely because we are no longer crying out against the sin of our culture. We’re bland and therefore irrelevant. Now we say, “Don’t divorce” and “Do adopt.” Next year we’re going to encourage people to love their mothers. It’s just not news.

    Now, the 5-4 Supreme Court case at Hastings College in California forcing Christian groups to accept homosexuals…a few years ago, we would have taken a stand on five or six such issues and the world would notice that we are different.

    Now we blend in with everyone else. I think the new term is “contextualizing.”

  • Derek

    Leonard’s very last words are illuminating: … dilution of the doctrine. Has Leonard unwittingly admitting that he has already made a personal decision to compromise on principle for the sake of popularity? Put in other words, lose the convictions in order to become relevant.

    Now, imagine if Leonard were to direct these words towards the Dalai Lama or atheist or Muslim? Would he ever direct these words to those groups?

  • Greg Alford

    To loose one’s convictions is to loose one’s anchor in life, and to be set adrift upon the dark and stormy seas of a corrupt culture. Sooner or later, this will always lead to a Shipwreck of one’s Faith.

    Grace Always,

  • Tim G

    It might do us well to remember that the media does not want to publicize our ideas and beliefs unless to mock them. They will stay away in order to promote the Godless agenda.

    I also think as others have alluded that we are growing too soft. Maybe PR is good regardless of whether or not it is culturally acceptable.

    And finally, who really cares if the annual meeting gets covered? The real issue is what are we doing in our local communities, in reaching the world with the Gospel, through our local churches.

  • BDW

    The analysis of Leonard the historian is quite compatible with the rational choice theory of sociologists of religion like Rodney Stark (The Churching of America), who is definitely no liberal. Low-tension vs. High tension. A little Church-sect cycle. Leonard sees the SBC as increasingly against culture and thus drifting towards the sect end of the spectrum. The numerical decline supports his conclusions. We could take this same theory and use it to explain mainline decline (Stark does) and its complete accommodation of culture.

    That’s not the analysis of a liberal. That’s just the perspective of an historian familiar with sociology. Rodney Stark could have made the same analysis, using the language of a sociologist.

    And your annual meeting is getting less attention largely because newspapers are suffering and have let-go or reassigned many of their religion reporters. Jeffrey Weiss was with the Dallas Morning News not long ago.

  • Derek

    Big Daddy Weave (BDW),
    There are some pretty major holes in your theory, not least of which is that the SBC has grown quite strongly during the years that you and your com-padres at CBF tried most strenuously to marginalize the conservatives (with the eager assistance of journalists who didn’t work the religion desk, too).

    I also can’t help but wonder – if the SBC’s declines (relatively minor in percentage) means that it is trending towards a sect, what does that make the CBF, whose attendance and budget also appears to be in decline. Not trying to poke a stick in your eye about this, but it seems a bit ironic to hear a CBF guy make an argument along these lines.

  • BDW

    What’s the CBF got to do with the SBC? I can (and have) offered similar analysis about the CBF’s financial woes – which are quite significant.

    That doesn’t have a thing to do, however, with Leonard’s analysis which appears rooted in or at least compatible with the rational choice theory of Stark & Co.

  • Derek

    CBF has always sought to offer another option in the religious marketplace, so to speak; i.e. one that is more relevant and less reactionary. If Leonard or you or others at CBF were correct – that SBC has marginalized itself – wouldn’t you expect to see a much bigger shift away from the SBC? And how does this hold water when SBC’s most controversial days preceded major growth (for SBC)?

    Again, SBC has had recent declines, but don’t we see far larger declines in most denominations and especially in the Catholic Church? I fail to see how recent, small percentage declines lends itself to a notion that the SBC is trending towards sect. One might more easily make that argument of many others, including CBF.

    Again, I’m not trying to impugn you or CBF – it just seems ironic to hear this line of argument from someone who is pretty familiar with CBF’s decline.

  • Derek

    I forgot to mention this – if SBC’s supposed cultural irrelevance has put them on a trend towards sectarianism, wouldn’t we also expect to see a good chunk of people who leave SBC moving over to CBF? Yes, I understand that there are many in CBF who are frustrated by missteps and poor leadership, but you would still expect CBF and other similar alternatives to be benefiting at SBC’s expense, correct? Do you have some evidence and/or data to demonstrate that this is happening?

  • BDW


    Your argument implies that if the SBC goes down, the CBF will go up.

    The marketplace is much bigger than the CBF and SBC and provides many many options. Denominational loyalty is at an all-time low. I think a recent Pew study found that people are more loyal to their brand of toothpaste than to a religious denomination!

    Those who leave a Baptist church are much more open to joining a different denomination or non-denominational church or maybe the option is no church at all. So the two groups really have little to do with one another when we’re talking about the entire religious economy.

    The Catholic Church actually experienced growth in 2009. The 2010 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches has the SBC down .24% and the Catholic Church up 1.49%. Of the top 25 groups, the only to report growth were LDS (+1.71), Assemblies of God (+1.27), Jehovah’s Witnesses (+2.0) and Church of God, Cleveland (+1.76)

    Maybe it seems ironic to hear any analysis concerning the SBC coming from someone affiliated with the CBF. At the end of the day, Leonard is a respected historian. Nancy Ammerman is a respected sociologist. Both are former Southern Baptists. And I think both are capable of using their tools as scholars to offer informed analysis about the state of American Christianity even as it pertains to the SBC.

    Leonard is quite capable of critiquing moderate Baptists. However, I doubt he gets many calls from reporters about the financial woes of the CBF.

    I’m no Leonard or Ammerman. But I am finishing up an interdisciplinary Phd program that deals with both history and sociology of religion. And I have several published several journal articles (including an upcoming book) that deal with Southern Baptists. My dissertation is also on Southern Baptists! Baptists are part of my field of study.

    I’m no complete outsider – but then again, I don’t know of many non-Baptists interested in studying Baptists.

  • Derek

    Why did I bring up CBF? Again, for the third time, not to be snarky or take pot shots, but to point out that they have always and very specifically positioned themselves as an answer for those who are put off by perceived sectarianism.

    My argument is that if indeed Leonard or your theory is correct, there should be

    a) a lot more than .24% of SBCers leaving – I don’t know how you can draw any solid conclusions (on why people are leaving) with a number/percentage that is this low, particularly given the larger trends you point to from the Pew study

    b) You would be much more likely to see people going to a CBF church (or similar option) than to a Catholic or Presbyterian Church. I don’t really see how this is a strange or baseless expectation, though you seem to suggest it is.

    I also find it interesting that you didn’t answer what I consider to be the biggest flaw with Leonard’s argument: how does his theory work, considering that SBC’s most controversial days preceded major growth?

  • BDW

    I’ll kinda sorta grant you point A. That’s not a significant decline compared to the decline of other denominations. The sky is certainly not falling. But it does suggest a trend.

    To point B: The .24% in this year alone went somewhere. Maybe they went home. Maybe they went nondenominational. Going from a Baptist to Methodist church just isn’t that radical of a move anymore. I’ve got more friends that went Baptist to Catholic in the past 5 years than I do Baptist to any other Protestant denomination. Obviously, a non-denominational church is attractive to many people. While the CBF may have competed with the SBC back in the 90s, they largely don’t anymore.

    To your last point: the SBC may have experienced numerical growth since the 1980s but they’ve also experienced a decline in “market share.” The “religious marketplace” or religious economy continues to grow but the SBC hasn’t kept up with the growing market in terms of their percentage share.

    A similar point can be made about the SBC’s Cooperative Program. The CP budget for 1979-1980 was 83 million. The CP budget for 2008-2009 was 205. 7 million. Factor in inflation and that 83 million in 1979-1980 would have a present-day purchasing power of roughly 248 million. Whatever inflation calculator you use, the number is significantly higher than 205 million.

  • Derek

    I’m honestly surprised that the Cooperative Program is as well funded as it is. I don’t really see how this really addresses my last point and here is why: the debt crisis has disproportionately affected programs like this. Why? A local church body is much more likely to reduce or eliminate giving to the SBC Cooperative Program if they can’t pay their staff or pay their bills. I’m sure this isn’t news to you, BDW.

  • WM

    The early Christians were known for their love for the people around them–even non-Christians. Do you suppose this has anything to do with declining interest in
    “church” (conventions) today? The gospel can be preached over and over again; but if there is no love for other people and the responding actions of treating all people with dignity and respect, whose going to be interested? While the gospel must be preached and never compromised if there is no love from the people who preach the gospel, then you are preaching a false gospel.

  • Pam

    Does any of this really matter?
    Having been a pastor’s wife for twenty years, my family has been more free to share the gospel and freely worship since leaving the pastorate. SBC and CBF affiliates would be better off if we stopped counting how many people walk through the door of our church or how many times our name is mentioned on the nightly news. Our goal as believers is to “personally” live our lives outloud, share grace and forgiveness with those who work, live, and worship beside us everyday.

  • Derek

    I agree with you 100%. I stated three times that I was not bringing up these statistics to pit the SBC against the CBF. Yet the data does matter in this sense – it can either support or contradict Leonard’s hypothesis. I believe the data actually contradicts Leonard’s hypothesis.


  • Derek

    Actually, Pam- I shouldn’t have said that I agree with you 100%. I mostly agree. I disagree with you when you say “does any of this matter?”, for the same reason Denny mentioned when he said “God help us as Southern Baptists if we ever measure gospel success in terms of our “popularity” in the culture.”. That is precisely why Leonard’s hypothesis should be challenged and critiqued.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Thanks for the shout-out!

    I think the leakage from SBC is not to CBF, which has never been an equivalent organization. More to None of the Above (for the nominal Baptists who decided they just want out) or to nondenominational churches (for those who just got weary of the high-level battles). But that’s just a hypothesis.

    A better comparison than SBC-CBF might be looking at what has happened in Texas with the BGCT vs SBTC. There, the organizations are intentionally parallel. I’ve not checked into that for several years, though.

    And BDW, I still survive at the DMN. Though the Religion beat was pretty much axed, my job was not. I’m writing about the Richardson school district by day, freelancing on faith/values for Politics Daily on my off time in between the rest of my life. Which is another look at how the journalism environment has shifted…

  • WM

    Thank you, Pam, for your comments! Do you not feel that most of these people commenting on this forum just do not get it? They do not want to point the mirror so that it is facing their face and ask the hard questions of themselves.

    “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, . . .” (Bill Leonard) Why did their evangelism fail them? This is what needs to be discussed!!

    “Our goal as believers is to “personally” live our lives out loud, share grace and forgiveness with those who work, live, and worship beside us everyday.” You are absolutely right! But there are too many of those who share grace and forgiveness but then do not walk the walk. They do not treat people with dignity and respect much less Christian love–even at church! The outside world sees this hypocrisy and turns away. What is really sad is that they do not care about the people who turn away. Loving people is not on their agenda.

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