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EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: SBC on the Skids, and The Naked Public Square Redux

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Editor’s Note:  Most Saturdays we will feature this “Editor’s Notebook” column. MinistryWatch President Warren Smith will comment on one or more stories in the week’s news, adding an additional perspective or, sometimes, a behind-the-scenes look at how the story came to be. 

SBC On The Skids

The Southern Baptist Convention has proven to be remarkably resilient over the years. It survived after the “conservative/moderate” split of the 1970s and 80s, and controversies and conversations regarding Calvinism seem to have made the theological distinctives of the denomination stronger, not weaker.

But it’s handling of the sex abuse scandal of more recent years has often been ham-fisted and tone-deaf.  New research from its own polling organization, Lifeway Research, indicates a decline unlike any that followed earlier controversies.

The headline is this: Membership in the Southern Baptist Convention was down by nearly half a million in 2022 alone, according to a recently released denomination report.

Lifeway reported Tuesday, May 9, that the SBC had 13.2 million members in 2022, down from 13.68 million in 2021. That loss of 457,371 members is the largest in more than a century, according to the Annual Church Profile compiled by Lifeway.

Once a denomination of more than 16 million, the SBC has declined by 1.5 million members since 2018, and by more than 3 million members since 2006.

We can’t blame all of this decline on such self-inflicted wounds as the sex abuse scandal, controversies involving race, or internal leadership fights. The COVID-19 pandemic surely played a role in the downturn. And we should not discount the general secularization of culture, which has led to declines in membership among almost all Christian groups.

And there might actually be a positive reason for the decline. The SBC has historically been noted for its evangelism, but it has also been notorious for its “evangelastic” counting of people. It’s possible there never were, really, 16 million SBC members, and current numbers are a return to honesty.

But no matter how you slice and dice these numbers, the overall picture is not good. The denomination also lost 416 churches and another 165 “church-type” missions, according to the report. And the most telling number, at least from my point of view, is not the membership number, but the attendance number.

Attendance was up 5 percent in 2022.  That sounds good until you drill down a bit. Attendance at SBC churches was 3.6 million in 2021 and 3.8 million in 2022.  These numbers are still far short of pre-pandemic attendance numbers, and these numbers indicate that a lot of folks who left will not be coming back.

Also, note the ratio of members to attendees. Less than 28 percent of members are actually showing up on a Sunday.  This is an abysmal ratio.

The Naked Public Square

A couple of weeks ago I was in Lancaster, Penn., for the annual meeting of the Evangelical Press Association. I had been to Lancaster before, but this trip caused me to fall in love with the city. One of the things I came to appreciate about Lancaster was the ability of both traditional, Christian residents of the town (including Amish and conservative evangelicals) to participate fully in the civil life of the town.

But that peaceful coexistence seems to be breaking down.  While I was in Lancaster, I learned the story of the Lancaster County Community Foundation. This Pennsylvania foundation had given millions of dollars in grants to Christian groups over the years, but that could end.  LCCF announced that nonprofit groups must post their nondiscrimination policies in order to participate in its annual ExtraGive event.

It also published what it calls an anti-hate policy containing a broad definition of hateful activities, including “misinformation targeting an individual or group based on their…sexual orientation.”

The change in policy caused many Christian groups to pull out of the ExtraGive event. The number of groups participating in ExtraGive dropped from 516 to 452. In 2021, the event raised $16 million, but only $10 million in 2022. Many of those who pulled out of ExtraGive participated in a new event in Lancaster called FaithfulGive.

After we published a story about that controversy, we started getting messages from other MinistryWatch readers, telling us that Lancaster is not alone.  Our reporter Kim Roberts, who did a great job telling the Lancaster story, took one of our reader tips and a few days later wrote about a similar situation in Lincoln, Neb.

I commend those organizations in Lancaster and Lincoln who took the difficult step of taking a stand for their religious convictions. That said, I can’t help but feel that something is lost when the institutions of civil society – from these community foundations to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, to many other institutions – force those with sincere religious convictions to withdraw from participation.

Richard John Neuhaus wrote about this phenomenon in his 1984 book The Naked Public Square. He wrote that such restrictions as those placed on religious groups by the Lancaster County Community Foundation would have the effect of leaving the public square “naked,” or “bare” of religious speech and religious people.  The effect would be that the contributions of religious people would be missing or segregated, “ghettoized” from civic life, to the diminishment of both religious and secular communities. That book will mark its 40th anniversary next year, and it’s hard not to see it now as prophetic.

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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.