May 10, 1999
Concerns about Membership Decline in the Southern Baptist Convention
-- Martin E. Marty
Southern Baptists demand attention. They are so webbed into Southern life that they make up what could credibly be called "the Catholic church of the South," an idea that suggests much cultural interaction. In recent decades they have moved north as well. The largest Protestant denomination by far--there are more of them in the United States than there are Jews in the world--Southern Baptists have helped shape the born again spiritual styles of Americans who know little about them. Perhaps most significantly this denomination, which was once only lightly involved in politics, is now among the most politically active.
Which means? Histories of the Southern Baptist Convention do depict occasions when its churches and national convention made political moves. Many of the Baptists opposed Catholic Al Smith in the 1928 presidential campaign. Most were deeply and loudly involved in supporting Prohibition. But not much more is mentioned until the denomination's Christian Life Commission made moves into the national public order during the civil rights and welfare society episodes. Today the same Commission is politically active on many fronts, beginning with that of abortion. Each summer the national convention sets forth policies that plunge it into cultural and political action--the boycott of Disney productions and products is an example. And individual pastors and congregations are among the most ready to sign and display statements and organize their people for action in the public order.
For all those reasons, people far from the Southern Baptist Convention, far from being inclined to show curiosity about American denominational life, have learned to keep their eye on trends among these Baptists. Thus the announcement of a 1 percent drop in membership in 1998 (to 15.7 million congregants) draws attention in the press. The number of baptisms, the Baptists' major marker, dropped by about 4,800 that year. This prompts no one to pronounce obituaries on the movement, but many are appraising this downtrend--is it only a temporary blip?--for what it tells about American religion in general. It raises concerns.
Here's why: while membership was down so significantly and for the first time in 72 years, attendance at Sunday services actually rose by 174,052. Analysts within and beyond the Baptist group suggest that here is one more sign that Americans respond to agencies that promote their individual spiritual searches; that entertain them; that become "the thing to do." But they are less ready than before to sign on, to make a commitment or participate loyally in communal activities. If and to the degree that that may be the case, Baptists and others will be finding one more dose of reality about American life and, no doubt, more motivation to try to do something to reverse the trend and attract commitment.