Are the Southern Baptists Facing a Crisis as They Lose More Members?

Baptist church

Most of the evangelical Christians I've encountered in Mississippi have been Southern Baptists. They aren't the only Christian denomination in the area. There are also lots of Methodists and some Catholics, but they aren't the ones knocking on my door. They aren't the ones who cover the local gas stations with religious flyers, most of which end up as litter. And they aren't the ones who proselytize in local businesses.

Southern Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. The good news is that there aren't as many of them as there used to be. According to Religion News Service, the Southern Baptist Convention has lost 3 million members since 2006. Most of this loss has taken place in the last five years, suggesting the trend is accelerating.

This sort of long-term decline likely has many contributing factors. What is clear is that church membership has been dying off faster than it can be replenished. This suggests that it has become less appealing to young people. But why?

Some have pointed to changes in the perceived relevance of religion in the lives of young people. If they no longer see it as relevant to their daily lives, they may have less interest in being part of a church. This is a valid point, but it raises two more questions. If this was the case, why wouldn't it apply to most denominations? And why wouldn't it have been a factor long before 2006?

The scandals and infighting haven't helped, but plenty of churches weather these problems. Consider what we've learned about the Catholic Church in the last 20 years or so. At worst, these seem to be short-term distractions that are soon forgotten. At least, they are soon forgotten by those with the motivation to forget.

My guess is that much of it has to do with bigotry. Many people associate the Southern Baptist denomination with bigotry and intolerance. Why would any fair-minded young person want to associate themselves with something hateful? Most of them grew up with LGBTQIA+ friends. They know better.

The Southern Baptists could have reformed to prevent this. They could have welcomed women into the clergy. They could have stopped preaching hate when they saw the impact it was having. They could have backed off on some of the most aggressive proselytizing. There's plenty they could have done. And of course, it isn't too late.

I don't expect we are witnessing "the beginning of the end" of the Southern Baptist Convention. I'm not that optimistic. I have no doubt that they'll outlast me. The Religion News Service article notes that church attendance and baptisms are both up since 2021. Despite the historic drop in members, donations have also remained stable. Fewer people may be giving, but they're giving more.

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