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Southern Baptists & The Benedict Option

Pastor and theologian Denny Burk, fighting for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC screenshot)

The Southern Baptist Convention is meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, this week — and it’s got a crisis on its hands. I’m not just talking about the sexual abuse crisis within America’s largest Protestant denomination. Ryan Burge writes in Christianity Today:

By now, Southern Baptists recognize that their movement is in a decline that shows no signs of changing course.

By their own measures, they’re not adding as many new believers to their flocks each year—the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) went from baptizing 321,000 in 2007 to 246,000 last year.

Plus, despite adding more than 10,000 more cooperating churches over the past couple of decades, church attendance across the denomination is also dropping.

In 2006, the SBC had 16.3 million members, now that’s down to less than 15 million, according to the denomination’s most recent Annual Church Profile (ACP).

Outside surveys have also tracked the decline. New findings released this year show the Southern Baptist trajectory more closely resembles the downward trend among the United Methodist Church (UMC), the nation’s largest mainline Protestant body, than fellow evangelicals in non-denominational traditions.


However, where the real worry comes is related to a generational shift in the American population. In the 1980s and 1990s, Southern Baptists could count on a huge majority of the children born and raised in the church to become committed and active members of the congregation as adults. That has eroded over time. Now, it’s likely that half of the children being raised Southern Baptist today will not maintain that identity into adulthood.

Compounding that fact, the average Southern Baptist is now nearly ten years older than they were in the mid-1980s. The water is leaking out of the bucket at an ever-quickening rate and the amount of water that is being added is slowing to a trickle. There is little reason to believe that the SBC won’t sustain serious declines in the next 10–20 years.

Read the whole thing. 

I don’t know much about internal Southern Baptist dynamics to be able to write knowledgeably about the causes of the SBC’s losses. The CT story indicates that most people who leave the SBC do so for non-denominational churches, so it’s not like they’re leaving the faith entirely.

I was going to do some research this afternoon to find out more about the sources of Southern Baptist disaffection, but it turns out that my bronchitis is not getting a lot better, and I have to go to the doctor in a few minutes. Besides, crowdsourcing this research with my Southern Baptist readers would probably get the information faster. I know anecdotally that there’s anger among some Southern Baptists over the role of women in the Church. Others — younger Baptists — are fed up with what they regard as the politicization of the church in the Trump years. Still other conservative Baptists are angry over what they regard as its liberal turn. And I’ve heard too that some younger Southern Baptists are so fed up with things in the denomination that they are going the way of Jen Hatmaker and the late Rachel Held Evans, into progressive Evangelicalism.

In The Benedict Option, I quoted two Southern Baptist laymen that I eventually became friends with: Andrew T. Walker and Denny Burk, who is an ordained pastor. Here’s a passage from Burk, talking about church discipline:

Denny Burk, a seminary professor and Southern Baptist pastor in Kentucky, says the lack of church discipline in churches across his denomination have left congregations completely unprepared for the aftermath of the Sexual Revolution. When churches are undisciplined, the members will be undisciplined too. It creates a climate conducive to immorality and crumbling marriages. It welcomes congregants who are Christians in name only. The problem became so acute that the Southern Baptist governing body passed a resolution in 2008 calling on the churches to renew “the practice of lovingly correcting wayward church members” and “to recover and implement our Savior’s teachings on church discipline.”

The congregation Burk helps lead today requires members to sign a covenant defining the obligations of their fellowship. “Everyone who joins the church knows what they’re getting into, not just to be a follower of Christ, but to be a follower of Christ within our church,” he told me. “Failure to uphold these things means that the church will call you to repent. Any member who refuses to turn away from sin and to follow Christ will eventually be excommunicated.”

This happened to a couple in Burk’s church who were divorcing after over four decades of marriage. They refused counseling from the pastors to help them put their marriage back together again. They even refused assistance from other friends and church members. After months of pastoral intervention aimed at healing their marriage, the pastors reached an impasse with the couple. The couple simply would not cooperate. Eventually, the congregation met and voted to excommunicate them.

“It’s one thing to form a moral majority and lobby politically for public morality, but nobody really cares if the churches themselves have no integrity,” says Burk. “If that doesn’t happen, there will be no difference between the church and the world.”

I would love to hear from Southern Baptist readers how the principles of The Benedict Option can be applied to Southern Baptist churches and communities, for the sake of strengthening them in the face of the SBC’s crisis. Southern Baptists are facing the same crisis that all small-o orthodox Christians are facing in America today, but their response to it will need to be done within fidelity to their own doctrinal and denominational distinctives.

How can Southern Baptists do this? Let me hear from you Baptist readers.

UPDATE: Interesting comment from a reader:

I’m not Southern Baptist, but I’ll offer this.

The Millennial mindset in me instinctively recoiled at the thought of the divorcing couple being excommunicated. This, of course, when I fully understand the need for religious communities to be intentional and to uphold standards of practice that separate them from the rest of the world. Otherwise… they are not a community in any sense, they are simply a collection of people living in the world who claim to have a common belief.

I say all this because you are writing about a generational decline. The typical Millennial mindset is very deeply engaged in “How dare a Church withhold Christ from anyone? Jesus loves everybody, sinners included, Jesus never excluded anybody.”

Well aside from the above being based upon a sloppy and superficial reading of scripture, it also mis-understands that the Church is a community of believers, not Jesus Himself. The Millennial generation is on average much more individualistic than the generations that preceded them; it is often easier for many Millennials to conceive of having a personal relationship with Christ that is always on offer for them to choose or not choose, than it is to conceive of mutual obligations to a community of believers.

Call it Moral Therapeutic Deism of whatever you will, but there is a very strong sense among the Millennials of wanting a direct hotline to a deity who will provide immediate customized solutions for every individual’s problems in order to maximize their happiness; being tied down by rules and having obligations to a community are very alien to most Millennials, as is the idea that serving God may lead to suffering in this life and reduce options for trying to achieve maximum “Earthly” happiness.

This is the heart of what’s going on with all religious practice in the 21st century. It won’t change until the younger generations stop seeking instant gratification (unlikely) or expectations of what a church is and does changes. And today, the average Millennial thinks that a church exists solely to exclude and judge others and help its members to feel superior to everyone else. That’s what caused me to instinctively shudder with the excommunication story. It’s hard for a Millennial to see the deeper reasons for exclusion.

I wonder, though, if the people who don’t immediately see deeper reasons for the exclusion would be open to giving the argument for exclusion a fair hearing. Or would they just decide it doesn’t feel right to them, and bolt?

UPDATE.2:Terry Mattingly tipped me off about this May 31 column by Albert Mohler, head of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Excerpts:

First, the numbers tell us about a larger pattern of religious decline in the United States. Just a few weeks ago, Gallup released a major report that included this bottom line: “U.S. church membership was 70% or higher from 1937 through 1976, falling modestly to an average of 68% in the 1970s through the 1990s. The past 20 years have seen an acceleration in the drop-off , with a 20-percentage-point decline since 1999 and more than half of that change occurring since the start of the last decade.”

Southern Baptists are not immune from these trends in the larger society. Such immunity is impossible. SBC churches and membership have been concentrated in the South and Southwest of the United States, the so-called “Bible Belt.” This offered Southern Baptists some delay in the secularizing trends that more quickly transformed other regions. But geography offered only delay, not defense. Southern Baptists grew quickly and steadily when Christianity was a major shaping influence in the culture. Geography still offers some delay in these effects as compared to other regions, but the “Bible Belt” is disappearing fast.

Second, we have to recognize that SBC trends looked great when our neighbors gained social capital by joining our churches. They gained social status and trust within the community by joining the First Baptist Church or another evangelical congregation. That is no longer the case. Now, given secularization and the sexual and moral revolutions utterly reshaping our culture, our neighbors may well lose social capital by joining our churches. The age of cultural or nominal Christianity is fast coming to a close. Until recently, most people wanted to claim some kind of Christian identity or affiliation, even if they rarely attended church. That is increasingly no longer the case. The rise of the “nones,” those claiming no religious affiliation, now includes about 20% of the population and 30% of Americans age 30 and under. The SBC gained millions of members it could not find and did not know due to the phenomenon of cultural Christianity. We knew it wasn’t real and most knew it couldn’t last. Well, it wasn’t and it didn’t.

There are other reasons. This is a really searching essay. Here’s the real Benedict Option part of the Mohler piece:

Beyond the question of birth rates, what are we (not) doing with the kids we have? I think the answer to that is direct and straightforward. We have surrendered Sunday School and youth ministry in many of our churches. I am the product of being involved in the local church many hours a week as a young boy and teenager. My frame of reality was largely set by my parents’ design — and it was church whenever the church offered an opportunity, and there were many opportunities: Sunday School, youth choir, Royal Ambassadors (for boys) and Acteens (for girls). There were weekly youth fellowships and youth meetings and regular retreats. There were wonderful and faithful adult volunteers, as well as a faithful youth minister. Christian Smith and his research associates found that one of the distinguishing marks of young people who continue in their church participation as adults was that they had developed a warm and trusting relationship with an adult in the church (even just one) other than their own parents.

How many young people in middle school, high school, or college have that experience today? For many children growing up with Christian parents, the priority of the family is told otherwise. Many Christian parents have bought into the larger culture’s portrait of the good childhood, complete with incessant sports activities, violin and ballet lessons, and activities perceived to boost a child’s eventual college admissions application. When it comes to church activities with children and teenagers, the scariest words might well be “traveling team.” Priorities become clear, both on the part of the church and of parents. Parents can hardly claim shock when their kids grow up and leave what they have never really known. At that point, the opportunity is lost.

Read it all. 

Longtime readers will recall the interview Dr. Mohler did with me on his radio show when The Benedict Option came out. He asked me at the end of the interview if I thought Evangelicals had what it took to do the Ben Op. I told him that in all honesty, I don’t know enough about Evangelicalism to say — but I certainly hope they do. Here’s what he said to that:

MOHLER: But that’s going to make the point where I would have to answer my own question. I do not believe evangelicalism has sufficient resources for a thick enough Christianity to survive either this epoch or much beyond.

DREHER: So what we you do then? What do you do?

MOHLER: Well it’s because I think evangelical-ism as an-ism, is a particular moment in history. The identity has to be, as I see it, in the best way to describe the conversation between us, as historic Protestant. In other words, it takes historic Protestantism, in other words, I am deeply, unashamedly rooted in that which we mark in terms of a 500th anniversary right now. I do believe in the necessary reformation of the church and what the Reformers taught. But modern evangelicalism lacks the theological substance either of the Reformation or the Reformers because the Reformers themselves, Luther and Calvin amongst them, were not at all hesitant, even as they affirmed sola scriptura and did so with full heart and soul, to go back and cite Augustine. They knew they were standing on the shoulders of those who had come before, and they sought to make that very clear. They stood on the creedal consensus of historic Christianity and thus confessional Protestantism, I would argue, is and must be—can be—sufficiently thick. But evangelicalism? Well, not so much.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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