The SBC Is In Continued Decline. Why?

Dave Miller, our illustrious editor at, where I also blog, wrote a post entitled, “The SBC Has Been In Decline Since Before I Was Born.” I started to leave this as a comment, but then it got so long that I thought it should be its own post. So, to understand this post, you need to read Dave’s post first and see this as a response or a follow up to his thoughts, which are quite good, in my opinion.
Dave said,
“I have a theory, one which I have advanced for years. I believe that the SBC was a perfect cultural storm in the Southern United States. It became part of the heart and soul of the Deep South – in good ways and in not so good ways. Southern (White) American culture and Southern Baptist culture fit like hand in glove. Southern Baptists influenced and impacted their culture in significant ways. Unfortunately, they were also influenced and impacted by their culture in significant ways.”
I agree with this. I wrote a book, When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus (NewSouth Books, 2014), laying out some of the same arguments in detail. The timeline of my thoughts in relation to Southern Baptists, race, and culture that are explored in the first half of my book are listed below. This is not meant to be our full history, by any means, but simply a tracking of ways that we have aligned with culture that have not been good:
1) Baptists pre-1800 were primarily abolitionists when it came to slavery (Heyrman, 1998).
2) When they came South with national expansion, they sought to get along with the prevailing culture for the sake of being able to evangelize. That culture was hierachical, racist, and slave-owning and so it affected Baptists and other Evangelicals who came South (Emerson; Smith, 2001).
3) By 1840, Southern Baptists have been fully subverted by the larger Southern culture that was more attune with Anglican Cavalier social structures (Fischer, 1989). By 1845, we split.
4) Greek philosophy was intertwined in all of this and became the real source of race-based slavery, not the Bible. Through Aristotle’s Natural Slavery philosophy, Southerners embraced the Enlightenment and then used the Bible to support their economic/social position. Southern Baptists helped them in this instead of opposing them (Percy, 1956).
5) By 1860, Southern Baptists were becoming the chaplain to the culture and served as the chaplain to the CSA. By the post-war period, we became promoters of the theology of the Lost Cause and Southern Baptist churches became synonymous with the larger accepted Southern culture, helping to heal the wounds of the damaged South and, instead of leading the South to repentance, soothing us by saying that it was the godless, liberal, Yankees that were the source of our problems and that we were being purified through trial (Wilson, 2009).
6) White Supremacy gets all wrapped up in this soothing and Southern Baptists no longer just promote slavery as a Biblical institution, but now also promote segregation and racism as God’s design from Scripture (1877-1930). Biblical Inerrancy is tied to readings that promote racism. To mix races or to oppose Jim Crow is equal to denying God and declaring the Bible to be in error. Heresy works its way through the SBC. Anyone who opposed racial segregation was deemed suspect and those who read the Bible differently were outcast. Many of them, knowing that the situation in the South was wrong, looked for other theological/social allies and found them among liberals and moderates who agreed that racism was wrong. I believe that that issue was what opened the door for theological liberalism to begin to enter into the SBC (Flynt, 1998).
7) By the mid-1930s, the BWA meets in Berlin and the only Baptists in the world to affirm Hitler in what he was doing were those from the SBC contingent. They could not see the storm clouds brewing and liked the way he was cracking down on immorality in Germany (Allen, 1982).
8) With the post-WWII period (1945-1970), there is massive expansion in the urban and suburban centers of the South as millions come home from the war, start families, and relocate. Churches, based on an industrial model of discipleship sprung up everywhere. White, middle class (mostly), and uniform, SBC churches perfectly hit the chord of the majority culture in the South. Again, SBC churches were serving as a chaplain to the larger culture, but this time, it was over issues of “God and Country,” the fight against godless Communism, and in support of middle-class values that promoted freedom, choice, and prosperity. White Southerners, wanting to be good people, good Christians, and good Americans, flocked to SBC churches in droves (Bishop, 2009).
9) The Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968). The SBC had a real opportunity here, but we missed it. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963) nailed the problem. We had the power, the people, momentum, money, and we had
the culture. We could have used our power/strength to change things in the South in relation to Race, but instead, we sought to maintain the status quo. There is a lesson here. Sometimes power, strength, money, etc., are actually hindrances to doing the work of God instead of aids. Moderates in the SBC through the CLC worked for racial unity and change, but they were largely ignored or even opposed by Conservatives. While the Elliot Controversy is seen as the first alarm bell of the Conservative Resurgence, we make a mistake when we separate it from what was happening (or not happening) in our churches and in the South in regard to Race. The SBC could have led the way here and brought Christian change on the issue of Race that would have changed America forever right when the Baby Boom generation was coming of age. Instead, by and large (there were exceptions, of course) we either opposed the needed change or we punted because we didn’t want to make waves. We wanted to be able to keep sharing the gospel and we didn’t want to upset those we were trying to reach (King, 1963).
10) Sun Belt Expansion/White Flight (1960s-1980s) – by the mid to late 60’s, the South and West were exploding in growth. Southerners had gone West since the Depression looking for work, but after WWII, it picked up. They needed churches so they started churches all over the West with the name “Southern” in them. Having gone to GGBTS, I saw the legacy of these Okies and Arkies that went to places like Fresno and Bakersfield and other parts of California and the West. They started churches for them, and in many cases, these churches became colonies of Southern culture. But, with the rise of the Southern white exodus, you also had millions moving to the South from the North and Midwest as the Rust Belt set in. Migration was taking place and this was good for the SBC as we expanded our geographical footprint, but the seeds of losing cultural consensus in the South were being planted and we didn’t see it. White Flight led to the massive rise of suburbs and the churches that were planted amongst those fleeing both the cities and coming in from rural areas, and also amongst those fleeing racial integration so that they could protect their “way of life.” The Religious Right grew in the 1970s and flourished in the 1980s as Religious Conservatives sought to “take America back for God” in light of the social/moral collapse that they were witnessing (Kruse, 2007).
11) The Conservative Resurgence (1979-2000) – what more can be said about this that we have not said over and over again? But, I am always interested in the “why” and the “how” and not as much in the unassailable “what” when it comes to history. Why was the CR needed? How did we get to that point? Then, we can ask “what” the goals of it were and how they needed to be accomplished. I still believe that it was our position on Race that opened the door for theological liberalism to enter the SBC when it did as people who were uneasy with the alliance that SBC churches had with Southern culture looked for other ways of thinking. They looked in the wrong places, obviously. White Supremacy was actually more of a liberal construct rooted in economics, Enlightenment thought, social identity, and evolutionary theory. And, it was decidedly unbiblical. The fact that our Conservative churches were eaten up with it at the same time that the CR was beginning should be noted. We were conservatives of a certain type and the hole in our theology regarding how we treated other people was big enough to drive a truck through. And, I am old enough to remember what would have happened if any blacks would have come into our First Baptist church in my Southern town in Mississippi in the 1980s. Or, the rural church that I was youth pastor at in the 1990s. It would not have been good.
12) Consolidation and Decline (2000-present). The Conservatives won the theological war and when they did, they were surprised that their children were not lining up to inherit the spoils after paying their dues. The culture that began fragmenting in the 1960s reached a full split in the 2000 presidential election and in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Southern Baptists were clearly on the side of invading Iraq after 9/11 and cheered for it openly. The “marriage” between the Religious Right and the GOP that Richard Land called for in 1998 was happening and by 2004 with the passage of traditional marriage amendments across the country, the SBC’s conservative political position was at an all-time high, even though the underlying support was eroding. When the economic collapse happened in 2007-09 and the Iraq War went badly, the GOP was blamed, America took a different direction, and the SBC, which had always been the chaplain to whatever culture it could attach itself too that would help it grow and enhance its way of life, was left behind walking amongst the damage. The Religious Right collapsed completely in 2008 and Obama takes office and the SBC is now shut out of the halls of power for the first time in a very long time.
13) Decline Accelerates, Culture War turns, Multiethnic America emerges (2009-future). Seeds planted in the 1960s are bearing fruit now. Builders and Boomers who once filled SBC churches are dying or are not as influential as they once were. The rural South is drying up, SBC churches in the West and North never made a massive cultural impact, and the proliferation of the Megachurch is slowing considerably. Through issues like Gay Marriage, the larger culture now firmly aligns itself against the SBC and for the first time in around 200 years, Southern Baptists have to consider what it means to be Christian when we no longer are chaplains to a host culture that is friendly to us, even if we had to adapt ourselves to it instead of it adapting itself to us. The problem is that ALL of our institutions and churches were built during the period of this cultural adaptation, even if we employed heresy (race-based separation) to do so. So, we are in a panic, not because God has changed or His Word is not true, but because we have been so dependent upon being acceptable, that we don’t know how to function otherwise. Our energy today is spent trying to figure out how we can protect ourselves from losing what we have – our “way of life.” In many ways, that has always been our concern and that is what has kept us from really making disciples. But, the immigrants have been coming and they are on the margins. And, we still have ethnic minorities in our midst – even more so than before. So, will we pivot toward those that we once separated ourselves from? I think that we will because now we too will know what marginalization feels like, so we will find our home with those who have no power. And, there on the margins, the Church will be reborn – outside the camp just as we, as Baptists, started.
The decline that is happening now is largely because of death rates and aging churches and it will just increase. The “bubble” of religious involvement after WWII was lik
ely not sustainable and was based somewhat on sociological characteristics instead of purely spiritual work. Those factors did not continue into the next generation. Now, we are getting older and are losing influence, despite our best efforts. But, there is a new vitality coming in if we would have the eyes to see it and if we would open the doors to it. It is in our ethnic and multiethnic churches and it will be found in unlikely places. The new alignments happening in America will help us heal the wounds of the past and actually experience real unity and reconciliation, if we learn to love others sacrificially. I think that is happening and, while we might continue to experience numerical decline for years to come as the older generation passes away, the seeds of renewal are being planted even now. Our job is to cooperate with what God is doing.
The really good news in all that is above is that God has continued to work through everything and that many, many people continued to cling to Christ alone. There has been reform and repentance and a desire to know God above all things. That enables us to continue to return to God and to love Him and love people in extraordinary ways. The timeline above primarily charts where things went wrong. Fortunately, when we walk in the better way of Jesus, everything can be made new again.
Bibliography (each book hits on an aspect of the argument in the numerical point and gives further information. In pointing to these books, I am not fully endorsing each book or saying that everything in them is correct or that I would fully agree with all that they claim):
1) Heyrman, Christine Leigh. Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. The University of North Carolina Press. 1998.
2) Emerson, Michael O., Smith, Christian. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford University Press. 2001.
3) Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Oxford University Press. 1989.
4) Percy, Walker. “Stoicism in the South.” 1956. From Signposts in a Strange Land: Essays. Picador Press. 2000.
5) Wilson, Charles Reagan. Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920. University of Georgia Press. 2009.
6) Flynt, Wayne. Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie. University of Alabama Press. 1998.
7) Allen, William Lloyd. “How Baptists Assessd Hitler.” The Christian Century. September 1-8, 1982.
8) Bishop, Bill. The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. Mariner Books. 2009.
9) King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” 1963.
10) Kruse, Kevin. White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Princeton University Press. 2007.

2 Responses to The SBC Is In Continued Decline. Why?

  1. This sentence seems to sum it up, as far as I’m concerned…
    “So, we are in a panic, not because God has changed or His Word is not true, but because we have been so dependent upon being acceptable, that we don’t know how to function otherwise.”
    Thanks for your insight, Alan.

  2. If the Convention ever wakes up to the fact that it’s GOD who sends people to us, and that we’re doing a poor job as a Convention, in making disciples, and that making disciples IS the “Great Commission”, then perhaps they’ll figure out the decline. THEN, they might be able to effectively address it.
    I’m not optimistic about that.