As we saw last time we met up, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is still in decline. As they ramp up to their big Annual Meeting this June, let’s check out hardliners’ suggestions about saving it!

(SBC Lingo: A messenger is a participating member church’s representative, sent to the meeting. Only messengers can vote, and they come from churches that qualify as actively participating in the SBC. You can see the rules around qualifying on pp 6-7 of last year’s Annual Report. Once qualified, a church can send 2 messengers—but can pay extra for up to twelve messengers total. Also, my story “Those Who Walk Away From Ocabos” was based on the SBC’s Annual Meetings. Just as the original story’s city “Omelas” is a riff on Salem, Oregon, Ocabos is a riff on the SOuthern BAptist COnvention.)

(From introduction: The crucial seven-year eclipse cycle that doesn’t actually exist; New Jersey Jewish leaders jumping on the Endtimes panic; An Original Greek and Hebrew nutjob; Only two cities named Nineveh were in eclipse’s path; No seven-year cycle for eclipses.)

And now, let’s have a situation report on the SBC’s decline.

Situation Report: The SBC decline crisis seems poised to continue at least another year

By now, the churches participating in the SBC’s reporting process should have gotten all their stuff done. Their deadline was April 1st, in most parts of the country. So I’m not expecting to have hard numbers for a while longer. They usually release those numbers shortly before the Annual Meeting. This year, that meeting takes place in Indianapolis on June 9-12. Sometime between now and then, we’ll have a good idea of 2023’s status.

So far, their official news feed at Baptist Press has contained a lot of hopeful rah-rah and local reports of grand success, but nothing to suggest that the denomination’s decline is even bottoming out yet.

For instance, check out these recent stories:

It’s very easy to read between the lines here: The SBC is still struggling with its decline. There may be another slight uptick in baptisms in this year’s Annual Report due to the leftovers ripples of the pandemic, but I do not reckon that this will be a glorious year of recovery.

(Related: The failed Great Commission Resurgence of 2009, and a 2016 postmortem of it. Nothing’s really changed since these writings.)

And the evangelical Christ-o-sphere has noticed the SBC’s ongoing troubles

Naturally, evangelicals in general have noticed all of these troubles the SBC is having. They may disagree in whole or in part with what the SBC teaches and preaches, but they know what the SBC represents to their end of the Christ-o-sphere. For many of them, the SBC functions as a bellwether, a turn light on the Jesus superhighway, the mossy-smelling air before a terrible storm. As the SBC goes, so also shall the rest—if they haven’t already.

So a decline in the SBC means declines everywhere, more and worse for everyone in evangelicalism. As the Gospel Coalition (TGC) pointed out last year (archive):

The Southern Baptist Convention is facing the same headwinds plaguing nearly every other religious institution in the U.S. The decline in institutional trust, the aging of an unusually large generation, and the rise in atheism make it increasingly difficult for denominations to thrive.

The following evangelicals’ observations and suggestions can be divided along the same factional lines as the SBC itself. Old Guard hardliners think the denomination needs to become even more authoritarian and controlling—and to focus like lasers on recruitment.

Pretend Progressives aren’t really progressive in the sense that liberals might use the term. They tend to hold the same overall beliefs and doctrinal stances of their counterparts. But they think the SBC will only revive if it starts focusing on fixing its sex abuse crisis and caring better for its existing customers pew-warmers. Their hearts tend to be in the right place, even if they rarely understand exactly what changes meaningful reform requires.

Their leaders know it full well, though, and they don’t want reform. Pretend Progressive leaders just know that if they want the agreement of the flocks, they’ve got to at least make regular mouth-noises about meaningful reform.

In the wild: Those who’ve walked away from Ocabos

Let’s start with the Pretend Progressives.

Writing for Baptist News (archive), Steve Cothran has no shortage of criticism for the SBC’s leaders. Comparing them to the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, he says that the Knight’s “unbelievable stupidity is being mirrored in real life” in the SBC. He thinks the SBC is foolish to waste valuable time over squabbles like women pastors:

Folks over at the SBC are making a fuss about female pastors because it’s easier than dealing with all the male pastor sex scandals they’ve been covering up for years.

I don’t disagree. Neither, I think, does Brian Kaylor, writing for Word and Way (archive). After sharing a heart-wrenching story of the sexual harassment his mother endured at a well-protected state-level SBC leader’s hands years ago, he summarizes the denomination’s Conservative Resurgence very well:

In addition to insisting they knew nothing, the few Southern Baptist leaders to actually speak about [alleged rapist and sexual predator Paul] Pressler’s abuse usually quickly pivot to also defend Pressler’s “conservative resurgence.” [. . .]

Pressler led a movement that defamed pastors and scholars, destroyed careers, and drove people out of churches. Once in control, Pressler’s group protected its own, even when they abused children. As my family and many others learned through the years, the good ole boy network consistently sided with preserving their own patriarchal power, the truth and victims be damned.

Cothran only suggests the SBC start dealing with its sex abuse crisis and stop being sexists in a religion that insists that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And for his part, Kaylor seems to want the entire rotted, poisonous tree to be hacked down.

The hardliners, however, have their own ideas about how the SBC’s leaders should proceed.

Authoritarians gonna authoritarian, always

Though some evangelicals differ from the norm, most qualify as dysfunctional authoritarians. That means they’re focused on gaining and protecting their own power. Whatever their stated goals might be, in truth it’s just about power now.

Dysfunctional authoritarians follow the principles of power. Their goal is to be controlled by the fewest people possible, while commanding the most people they can. I’ve written extensively about this kind of authoritarianism:

That said, it’s always funny when dysfunctional authoritarians who aren’t even leaders in a group try to definitively prescribe fixes to it. We’ve all probably known those arrogant-yet-hopelessly-mediocre, entry-level-forever employees who speak with absolute confidence about what their Fortune 500 company’s CEO should do with regard to crises and problems.

Well, that happens in Christianity too. Even Catholic hardliners, who officially shouldn’t be worrying their pretty li’l feather heads about anything religious but obeying the Pope, are starting to get into this kind of back-seat driving!

How the hardliners want the SBC to proceed

Since authoritarians are always gonna want to authoritarian, it should come as no surprise that hardliners all think that if the SBC drills down super-duper-hard on literalism, sexism, and racism, then the denomination will soon recover from its slump.

Last year, the Conservative Baptist Network (which features Mike Stone, an Old Guard lackey of Tom Ascol’s) put out a blog post implying that SBC seminaries’ enrollment was suffering because they had begun deviating from hardline doctrines and culture-war stances (archive). After laying out in graph format how each seminary had done over the previous two years, writer Collin Hain laboriously outlined each seminary’s doctrinal sins. The conclusion is clear as crystal: If these schools harken back to their hardline positions, they will grow again.

Suddenly, I wonder if that’s why the SBC’s news feed recently featured a glowing health report on one of those seminaries (archive). The story even attributes the school’s success on Jesus’ blessings, implying he’s quite pleased with its leaders’ beliefs and culture-war stances.

Wargames, just in real life with dying small-town SBC churches

Often, the super-duper-Calvinist bros at American Reformer unashamedly jerk themselves off with theocratic visions of (their quirky take on) Christianity attaining complete temporal power over the world. Jesus specifically and frequently stated that he wasn’t interested in temporal power at all, nor even power within his own group, but these guys know what he meant! He totally wanted his followers to force his religion on the entire world! Oh, how they do remind me of what Jesus said in Luke 20:46:

Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.

A post they ran on March 13 this year (archive) reiterates those desires and jerks off over them anew, then claims that all their group needs to do to achieve that vision is ensure the revitalization of the properly most strategic Baptist churches.

The next day, the site ran a second post called “Make the SBC Great Again.” Its writer smeared and vilified Russell Moore and his entire faction, which Old Guard guys like to call “evangelical elites” —as if they’re not all evangelical elites who are utterly disconnected from the pew-warmers. Here is that second writer’s suggestions (archive):

The question comes down to this: Does the SBC need to be razed and taken over by its critics or does it need to be renewed according to Baptist distinctives? This is the choice that SBC leaders confront as the 2024 SBC Annual Meeting approaches.

Seriously, these guys all need to discover the wonderful world of tabletop mini wargames so they can masturbate over war and conquest all they want and leave the rest of us alone.

Don’t listen to any of these warfare-lovin’ cranks: Accountability for the SBC is the key here

Over at the Center for Baptist Leadership (CBL), we have still another opinion (archive). Tom Ascol helps lead this ultra-Calvinist Old Guard stronghold, so you know they’re gonna pop out quite a corker!

(BTW: I know I mention Calvinism a lot today, but it’s important to note that the Pretend Progressives also include a surprising number of Calvinists. Greear is just one of them. In the case of the Old Guard, the most hardline of these hardliners are almost always Calvinists, is all, as are the most obsessed with temporal power. The less hardline Old Guard, like Al Mohler, aren’t Calvinists but Arminians, which might be one reason behind them being the ultra-hardliners’ worst enemies.)

On March 2nd, their writer opened with a provocative assertion:

The path forward for addressing sex abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is deceptively simple: Baptist accountability.

Oh, okay! And what might that look like in lived reality, one might ask?

By Baptist accountability, we mean the accountability that naturally flows from the biblical and historically Baptistic principles that undergird the cooperation of autonomous local churches while preserving their direct accountability to God.

This Baptist accountability, as G.K. Chesterton might say, hasn’t been tested and found wanting; rather, it has been deemed challenging and left unexplored.

No, no, really: What does accountability look like?

To stay healthy, the Convention’s accountability tool–disfellowshipping churches that are out of step with our confession–must be employed. Yet lately, SBC leaders have found countless reasons to keep taking money from, and giving votes to, congregations that undermine our mission.

Related to that shortcoming, SBC pastors have not succeeded in controlling their congregations enough to force them to abide by SBC rules. The results? “[T]he rotten fruit this of [sic] hyper-voluntarism and individualism,” their writer asserts. The solution clearly looks to him like pastors obtaining that power.

He’s also particularly upset about SBC churches allowing women to be pastors—and protecting male pastors who have put their dicks where they do not belong.

GYAHH, stop worrying about the SBC’s sex abuse crisis!

Worse, though, in this CBL guy’s eyes is any action on the SBC’s sex abuse crisis:

Beyond the activists, liberal evangelicals have risen up again to say that the SBC’s “Conservative Resurgence” was really a “pursuit of power” driven by “abusive” theology and engineered by bad actors, so the only answer now is to listen and learn from liberal voices. Feminists want us to deny complementarianism. Psychologists want us to subordinate the Bible to their theories. Other “advisors” appear to want us to measure success by DEI measures.

These voices are not doctors for the SBC, and they are not offering a return to health. They are selling institutional assisted suicide.

Like other evangelicals we’ve seen lately, this CBL guy doesn’t think there’s actually even an SBC abuse crisis in the first place. Anyone saying there is cannot be trusted to have the SBC’s wellness at heart. Furthermore, only a new Conservative Resurgence can fix things:

[T]he Conservative Resurgence was thousands–tens of thousands–of Baptist pastors and laymen who insisted our only hope is an inerrant Scripture that tells us the truth. They knew that justice and beauty are found in the Bible. [. . .]

Today, the battle is only slightly different. It is not about whether the Bible speaks inerrantly and authoritatively about supernatural creation. It is about whether the Bible speaks inerrantly and authoritatively about the nature of men and women, and how we must respond to the charge that Christian morality is bigoted.

But did the Conservative Resurgence really do more good for the SBC than its previous hands-off stance regarding its member churches?

Segue: NOPE

To answer that CBL guy’s own question (because he sure won’t), we must dive into the murky past of the SBC itself.

The Conservative Resurgence erupted in the 1970s, though it took place mostly in the 1980s and 1990s. Its architects and fomenters claimed the fight concerned literalism and inerrancy. In truth, it was over women pastors. By the end of the 1990s, the hardliners had more or less completed their hijacking of the SBC. They’d placed other hardliners in positions of power everywhere, too. Though they’d lost many hundreds of disaffiliating member churches and good leaders, they won.

One of the hardliners’ promises to SBC-lings on their side was that adopting this childish take on the Bible would revive the denomination’s sagging recruitment metrics. One of the takeover’s architects, Paige Patterson, boasted to adoring audiences in 1999 (archive) that the denomination now stood “at the crossroads of a new era of ecclesiastical adventure.” That article also told readers that the conservative winners of the takeover needed to “move from fighting for control of the denomination to enhancing its evangelistic efforts.” Indeed, that was Patterson’s conclusion as well.

Now let’s fast-forward a bit. In 2004, the then-president of the SBC, Bobby Welch, issued the denomination a million-baptism challenge. To put that number into perspective, I need only note that at no point in the denomination’s history have they ever busted past 430k. From 1997-2000, they’d dipped their toes briefly into the 400s, so I guess Welch felt like this challenge was doable.

More importantly, Welch saw this challenge as a way to gauge the truth of those promises the Resurgence side had made for years. He even told one evangelical news site so (archive):

“After that year has past, it will be as clear as the handwriting on the wall,” Welch told Associated Baptist Press June 14 in a telephone interview from Nashville, site of the 2005 convention. If Southern Baptists can’t turn around the baptism decline after more than a year of “extraordinary effort,” he said, “we are going to have to face some reality out here in the convention.”

This doesn’t look like facing reality to me

That source also notes the problem the hardliners faced in Welch’s challenge:

It’s been a quarter century since conservatives, alarmed that liberal views of the Bible were dulling the SBC’s fervor for evangelism, wrested control of the SBC from moderates. But evangelism statistics have declined while conservatives have been in charge — hardly a badge of honor for the SBC messengers who gather June 212-22 for their annual meeting.

However, the results were sadly predictable. The challenge took place between October 2005 to September 2006. Not only did SBC-lings fail to deliver anything near a million baptisms, their baptisms declined in number in both 2005 and 2006.

Even former SBC leader Thom Rainer realized around the same time that the Resurgence had failed to keep its promises:

An honest evaluation of the data leads us to but one conclusion. The conservative resurgence has not resulted in a more evangelistic denomination. Indeed, the Southern Baptist Convention is less evangelistic today than it was in the years preceding the conservative resurgence[. . .]

But somehow and against all odds, Rainer did enough mental gymnastics to decide that despite failing to improve the number one stated goal of the SBC, the Resurgence had still been a net positive:

[W]ithout the resurgence, the evangelistic effectiveness of the denomination would be much worse. To use a medical metaphor, the resurgence slowed the bleeding of lost effectiveness, but the patient is still not well.

I’d tell Rainer to never change, but he will never be in danger of it. So why waste time doing it?

How the SBC’s own leaders seem to want to proceed

Meanwhile, the leaders of the SBC itself have embarked on a number of sleight-of-hand strategies to disguise their decline’s devastating progress. One very popular strategy is replanting (archive). This word is advanced Christianese and a derivation of the more commonly-heard church plant. Since most SBC churches leave the denomination through simply closing for good, it makes sense that they’d pursue this strategy.

A church plant is a brand-new offshoot of an older, more established church. Often, the older church helps the new one find its footing. It might donate funds, leaders, and even church members to the new plant.

In a replant, the church being replanted doesn’t move anywhere or change overmuch. Instead, they try to reinvent themselves somehow. (Sometimes, you hear this process called revitalization. That term’s at least a decade old. But most evangelicals already know it doesn’t work.)

Replanting works kinda like the restaurants in Kitchen Nightmares. In that old show, Gordon Ramsay relaunched failing restaurants. He revised their menus, taught their chefs basic cooking skills, and ensured that their kitchen-hygiene and food-handling procedures were safe. Some relaunches worked out in the end, though many didn’t.

Segue: Replanting doesn’t usually work either

However, in the case of SBC church replants, nothing really changes—except the level of forced rah-rah.

And I don’t think Ramsay ever attributed a successful “res-trunt” relaunch to Jesus. Evangelicals sure do, and for good measure the SBC’s description of replants tacitly spells out who to blame for church closures:

There is nothing about a dying church that brings glory to God! As Christians, we need to lock arms and fight to stop the trend of the dying churches in our communities. [source]

Alas, a lot more needs to happen for dying churches to revive than simply “locking arms and fighting.”

(For that matter: fighting whom? or what? invisible demons? apathy? ickie heathens? zoning laws? Do these numnuts really think they’re like Marines in that Katy Perry video instead of a Mutual Admiration Society? O.M.GEEEE, I think they do.)

Some sources use replanting and revitalizing interchangeably, incidentally. That leads us to this interesting info:

In talking to church replanting experts and church consultants, estimates of how long an effective revitalization takes range from six months at the very least, to a decade. The SBC’s Send Network claims an 80% survival rate for its church plants, which they define as still standing four years after their founding. [Source; archive]

Over at Summit Church, which former SBC President (and Pretend Progressive, laying the emphasis very heavily on “pretend”) J.D. Greear runs, one of his underlings laments the uphill battle the denomination faces with congregation loss:

“The rate at which churches are dying means that we are needing to plant more and more churches just to maintain the number of churches that exist in these cities, as well,” said Matt Love, who oversees Summit Church’s church planting cohort that trains pastors. [Source; archive]

That’s been the plan for a long time now. Just as evangelicals themselves are barely recruiting more people than they lose these days, that strategy has kept church growth positive—until last year, of course.

The SBC is far from finished, but the writing’s on the wall

Of course, not one bit of this locking-arms-and-fighting is going to matter. Nor is kicking out dissenting churches, or getting even more rigid in doctrine, or anything else the hardliners suggest.

What really makes a group grow, be it a neighborhood kids’ play group, a satellite-TV company, or a gigantic evangelical denomination, is attracting new members while also keeping the existing ones happy enough to stay.

A business often finds this balancing act difficult to manage. If it concentrates too much on attracting new customers, the existing ones get chapped over feeling neglected. But it can’t cater too much to the existing ones. If they do, then potential new customers get distracted by other companies’ offers.

If the SBC wants to halt its decline, much less turn it around, its member churches need to focus on being groups that people want to join and support.

It won’t happen, though

If you’ve checked out any of those revitalization/replanting sources, you’ve likely noticed that many of them advise struggling churches to become an asset to their local communities. Some sources suggest renting out space if they own their own building(s). Others recommend starting a local charity or school.

That’s actually good advice. Evangelicals won’t follow it, though.

They can’t.

Because their culture is dysfunctionally authoritarian, they can’t get too close to people they view as inferiors. Further, too many evangelicals frown upon charity given without opportunistic recruitment attempts. If churches become too community-centered and useful, someone’s inevitably gonna sneer that they’ve neglected their primary mission: recruitment. It’s a tough tightwire for dancing!

Meanwhile, great groups exist in and out of Christianity. They can be found in hobbies and fandoms all over the world. Their members hail from every religion and from no religion at all. These facts tell me that doctrines and beliefs don’t matter when it comes to starting and growing a group of people. They’ll gravitate to great groups on their own without dedicated recruiters going all over the place to emotionally manipulate normies.

I just think it’s funny that all these SBC guys are so incredibly certain of what The Big Problem Here is—and what its solution must be. And yet almost none of them can grapple with their denomination’s very earthly growth and decline enough to recognize what actually has to be done.

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Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.

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