By every social and spiritual measure, the Southern Baptist Convention is a disaster.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, especially after Fundamentalists spent 15 years and a fistful of dollars fighting for control of the denomination. “Southern Baptists are falling away,” they proclaimed to pulpit and pew, justifying their efforts,” and we must save it from the destiny of other liberalizing denominations in the United States.”
The presenting issue then was women in ministry; the theological rational was the Inerrancy of the Bible; but the real issue was national politics: they wanted to seize control of the vast resources of the largest Protestant body and mobilize them toward victory in the newly named Culture War. Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell, neither of them Southern Baptists, were the political and religious leaders of this movement.
But it didn’t work, at least for the Southern Baptist Convention.
Consider what has happened in the last 30 years—that is, since the end of their multi-year campaign to save themselves from something.
Both leaders of that crusade—Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler—have been thoroughly discredited and demonized.
Most SBC agencies have either been dissolved (Brotherhood Commission, Radio and Television Commission, etc.), sold (Ridgecrest and Glorieta Conference Centers), or seriously reduced in manpower (Foreign/International Mission Board, Home/North American Mission Board). Baptist Book Stores/Lifeway shut down all their stores. Many others have sold their property and moved into rented quarters.
The largest seminary in the world—Southwestern in Texas—has suffered through one disastrous presidency after another and now enrolls only a few hundred students.
Scores of educational institutions have cut ties with the Southern Baptist Convention and its affiliate state conventions, including Belmont University, Samford University, Baylor University, Campbellsville University, Wake Forest University, Furman University, and many others (including my alma mater Georgetown College).
Membership of SBC churches peaked in 2006 at 16 million people but has been on the downgrade for these last 17 years, losing more than a half million members in 2022, the largest single year loss in its history. Trends point to further numerical decline.
Hundreds of churches departed, some to form two new denominations and others to join the ranks of unaffiliated congregations. Many of the SBC’s most noted personalities took their talents in other directions, including Jimmy Carter, Andy Stanley, Rick Warren, Beth Moore, and Russell Moore.
Years of indifference to clergy sexual misconduct primed the SBC to explode during the national #MeToo movement. This has resulted in an expensive and ugly internal struggle of how—and whether—to respond to this embarrassing history.
What was left of the Southern Baptist Convention became the core constituency of the MAGA political movement, embracing the crudeness and corruption of Donald Trump, and joining the national push back against voting rights, environmental justice, and hospitality to those fleeing danger and death.
All of this trauma has now pulled the Convention into yet another bitter internal struggle for control, pitting one fundamentalist cohort against another, neither with clear vision and none with compelling standing within the wider Christian community.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
But it is, even though there are thousands of good-hearted Christian people gathering each week in Southern Baptist churches. They come to worship, organize for good purposes, and cultivate the kind of friendships that keep congregations alive long after their larger purpose has dissolved into a sad reflection of a former glory.
I trace this sad decline to the effort decades ago to “save” the Southern Baptist Convention, but there are other factors, especially in recent years: the broad disaffiliation of younger people from Evangelical churches (like Southern Baptist), what we might call the Trump Effect pushing people away from congregations that embraced his crazy brand of Christian Nationalism, and of course, the COVID, which impacted not just churches but businesses and organizations of all kinds.
Nevertheless, the slow sinking of a once mighty ship of faith brings a deep sadness, especially to those, like me, who were birthed, formed, and ordained within its care. Baptized in 1960, ordained in 1977, and installed as full-time pastor in 1982, my entire professional ministry has been pursued within sight of this ecclesiastical disaster. I’ve watched as some people jumped ship, as others were pushed overboard, and as many struggled on the bridge and down below to avert disaster. Most, however, have been oblivious to it all.
“Not one stone will be left upon another,” Jesus said many years ago to those who put too much faith in the institutions of religion. And also to us, also to us.