With the SBC convention this summer came a series of stories … Southern Baptists see 9th year of membership decline, or this story Southern Baptist Convention Membership and Attendance on Decline, but Church Planting on Rise with more details. Over the last year membership is down 1.3%, baptisms 3.3%, average weekly attendance 1.7%, Small Group/Bible Study/Sunday School 3.2 %. The steady drop in both membership and involvement is considered a cause for concern. It is important, however, that we not view this as a Southern Baptist problem. It isn’t a trend limited to a specific denomination. Nor is it possible any longer to dismiss it as a simple consequence of the dilution of theology – affecting primarily “liberal” groups – while those of “us” who take doctrine seriously are holding our own or growing. The Southern Baptist Convention most certainly takes the gospel and the Bible seriously.
One doesn’t have to look very far (especially on the internet) to move from hand-wringing to suggestions to counter the trend. One blogger at Patheos put up a list of suggestions for stopping up the drain: 7 Out-of-the-Box Things Southern Baptists Must Do to Stop the Bleeding and Start Growing Again. You can read what he has to say in the post. I expect that there is wisdom in some of them, while others are Band-Aids on the problem, and may even exacerbate it.
The Pew Research Center has featured results from the Religious Landscape Survey in a couple of stories over the last month that have bearing on these issues. The survey was conducted in 2014 and compared with a similar survey in 2007. As reported in May 2015 (here), over the seven years between these surveys the Christian share of the US population dropped from 78.4% to 70.6% and the Evangelical Protestant share dropped from 26.3% to 25.4%. Those who claim none or unaffiliated (atheist, agnostic, nothing in particular) grew from 16.1% to 22.8% accounting for the lion’s share of the decrease in the Christian population. The results released this year dig into this a bit deeper, Why America’s ‘nones’ left religion behind. The chart to the right comes from this report. Most of the “nones” shed their religious identity in adulthood … 78%, or about 17 to 18% of the US population. Among the common themes:
About half of current religious “nones” who were raised in a religion (49%) indicate that a lack of belief led them to move away from religion. This includes many respondents who mention “science” as the reason they do not believe in religious teachings, including one who said “I’m a scientist now, and I don’t believe in miracles.” Others reference “common sense,” “logic” or a “lack of evidence” – or simply say they do not believe in God.
Another 20% cite the shortcomings of religious institutions, with hierarchy, power, and abuse scandals playing a role. The sample reasons given in the article are not unexpected, and in line with Scot’s study in Finding Faith, Losing Faith. Among the more damning from the Pew study: “Too many Christians doing un-Christian things,” “Rational thought makes religion go out the window,” and “Because I think religion is not a religion anymore. It’s a business … its all about money.“
Not entirely generational! It is also important to realize that the growth in “unaffiliated” is both between and within generations. Among those in the cohort to which my children belong (born between 1990 and 1996) 36% identify as unaffiliated, compared with 17% of my cohort. On top of this, the percentage of unaffiliated in each cohort increased between 2007 and 2014 (well, except my kids’ cohort because they were not adults in 2007 and thus not part of the survey). If trends continue, by 2021 we may well see half of those born between 1990 and 1996 claiming “unaffiliated.”
Finally, the effect is not simply a growing social acceptance for “unaffiliated.” (See: The factors driving the growth of religious ‘nones’ in the U.S.) The decrease between 2007 and 2014 is largest among those with a low level of religious commitment, but also observed among those with a medium or high level of religious commitment. This accords with the statistics at the top of the post – the SBC is seeing real drops across the board. These are likely to grow. The Pew story on factors concludes:
Whether Millennials will become more religious as they age remains to be seen, but there is nothing in our data to suggest that Millennials or members of Generation X have become any more religious in recent years. If anything, they have so far become less religious as they have aged.
Solutions? Most of the “solutions” I’ve seen proposed focus on aspects of Christian practice that could be called “style.” Music style, for example. How we worship on Sundays. Now I’m not against music or other aspects of style evolving over time, but our core problem isn’t style. Nor is it “doctrine.” Rather, we have a credibility problem. The reasons I pulled out above highlight this point.
(1) Christians do not live and behave according Christian principles. “Hypocrite” is too often a valid judgment.
It is refreshing to see the recent story on Christian support for those from war-torn areas (Republican, Conservative, and Supporting Syrian Refugees) but compassion, love for one another and for the poor, oppressed, ill, the foreigner among you, should be commonplace for Christians – not remarkable. It should be apparent within the church and to the surrounding community.
(2) Religion isn’t religion, it is just another business.
The focus is too often on numbers and ‘success,’ profit, prestige, and power, personalities and performance. A church is a Sunday morning (or Saturday evening) audience. This is just, plain wrong. The church is the community of God’s people and this is the only worthwhile thing we have to offer, now and for eternity.
(3) Rational thought makes religion go out the window.
This is front and center in my town and among colleagues. Christians are often seen as opposed to reason, to science, but this goes far beyond science. We need to teach people how to think and live as Christians in a changing world. The Ark Encounter doesn’t do it.
These are the reasons I hear in our college town. Not a need for more rousing music or pretty much anything given as “solutions” from most sources. The changes reflected in the Religious Landscape Study may reflect a social climate change we cannot reverse, but there certainly are things we can be doing better. To begin, we can live immersed in the good news of Jesus Christ and leave the rest in God’s hands.
What is your reaction to the Pew study results?
What should we be doing as Christians and as the church?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net