The Southern Baptist Convention is Church-Planting Itself Out of Existence. Is That Good?
Church plants are on the rise, so are the “nones” and the “dones.” The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is getting smaller. Not only do I think these trends will continue, I think they are a good thing for Christians, the Gospel, and America.
I’ll confess that I am highly interested in church cultural trends. I’m not just a theology geek, but a geek in general that is fascinated by trends that I can see happening around me. When I read a statistic that matches up with the reality in my community I am curious. The trend of shrinking denominationalism coupled with more churches being planted is both fascinating and obvious. These trends, in conjunction with the rise of the “dones” is also interesting and obvious.
Christianity Today recently reported several statistics that are worth noting relating to the Southern Baptist Convention:
The number of SBC churches grew last year to 46,449.
The number of SBC members declined to 15.5 million.
The SBC planted 985 new churches last year.
Why are these statistics interesting, and related?
Having been a part of newer SBC church plants and an established SBC church within the last several years it is crystal clear to me how these statistics make sense and are obvious.
The established SBC church I was part of confirmed the statistic that SBC members are aging. To be exact, the median age rose from 49 to 54. This is a no brainer as many millennials and younger generations simply want no part in a traditional church. If they are willing to give church a try, it will be at something that looks nothing like the one they went to as a kid. So the established, traditional churches are seeing the greatest decline – mostly in younger generations.
But if the SBC is planting churches, and if the overall number of SBC churches grew last year, how is there a decline in SBC membership and those claiming to be SBC?
The answer is very simple.
Many SBC church plants don’t claim to be SBC church plants, and downplay their affiliation with the SBC significantly. In fact, I could name several SBC church plants that downplay their affiliation so effectively that many members and attenders don’t even know they are an SBC church plant.
The reason for this is also simple. The people these church plants are trying to reach with the Gospel are not interested in denominationalism. I would argue that the pastors leading these church plants are not denominationally loyal and less interested in denominationalism than many people think. They are “part” of the SBC because of the networking opportunities, and resources available to them as a church plant.
But there’s more to it than this. Part of the reason for these statistics has to do with the current cultural landscape we are seeing in America. As Russell Moore aptly points out in a recent article:
“Secularization in America means that we have fewer incognito atheists. Those who don’t believe can say so—and still find spouses, get jobs, volunteer with the PTA, and even run for office. This is good news because the kind of ‘Christianity’ that is a means to an end—even if that end is ‘traditional family values’—is what J. Gresham Machen rightly called ‘liberalism,’ and it is an entirely different religion from the apostolic faith handed down by Jesus Christ.”
What this means is that the decline in people claiming to be southern Baptist, coupled with the rise of those calling themselves “nones” is a good thing for the Gospel. For too long people have sat in churches pretending to be Christians while their lives tell a very different story. But as our culture becomes increasingly secular these people are more comfortable simply walking away from church and being honest: they are unsaved.
For those of us that know Jesus this is good because it further defines our mission and clarifies our mission field. We now understand, perhaps better than other times in recent history, that our mission field is our family, close friends, immediate neighbors and co-workers. This doesn’t mean we abandon going into “all the world.” It simply means we have a better understanding of the great need around us.
I agree with Moore when he says that “we do not have more atheists in America” but instead “we have more honest atheists.” Culture has finally rooted out those that have pretended to be something they’re not. That’s good. That means those who have truly placed their faith in Jesus can share Jesus with the honest atheists in a way they never could previously.
First, we must see our churches (and denominations) shrink. This refining, pruning if you will, ultimately will be best for healthy growth. That being said, it’s no surprise that the SBC is shrinking even as they plant more churches. People aren’t denominationally loyal as they once were, and new churches care more about lost souls than denominational loyalty. All these things are good, and necessary. It all leads to an old Gospel that continues to save. As Moore stated:
“Christianity isn’t normal anymore, and that’s good news. The Book of Acts, like the Gospels before it, shows us that the Christianity thrives when it is, as Kierkegaard put it, a sign of contradiction. Only a strange gospel can differentiate itself from the worlds we construct. But the strange, freakish, foolish old gospel is what God uses to save people and to resurrect churches (1 Cor. 1:20-22).”