I saw this interesting article being shared this morning: The Southern Baptist Church is in a multi-decade decline and it is accelerating. That article is by Ed Stetzer, who is a statistics guy who has held a job with the Southern Baptist Convention with responsibility to study membership and so forth. This article is his farewell as he accepts a distinguished teaching position at Wheaton College. In the article, he tries to dispel the myths that some within the church keep bringing up as part of a mass denial of the fact that the denomination has been shrinking for many years and there is no sign that the bleeding of the membership is going to stop1.
He tries in the article to layout the problems that denomination is failing to address. And he makes a nice point that simply praying for something without doing the work to make it happen is not merely impractical, it’s actual contrary to the teachings of the Christ they claim to follow.
But he doesn’t come out and say what really needs to be said. I can’t tell for certain if he is being vague in his comments about how they need to engage with the culture and spend less time pursuing culture wars because he knows the article wouldn’t be published if he is blunt, or if he is afraid to say it, or if he’s in denial himself.
He tiptoes around it, saying things like “As of yet, we’ve not made it to the point where we have… become known for what we are for rather than what we are against.”
But the clue that leads me to believe he probably is still in a bit of denial is when he says, after implying that the church is waging battle on two many fronts of the culture war, “For many of our neighbors, our warring is interpreted as being against them.”
No, Mr. Stetzer, it is not an interpretation or perception that you are warring on us. Fundamentalist evangelical churches and affiliated organizations are literally attacking a whole lot of their neighbors.
The attacks on queer rights are the ones I most often link to or comment on, but that isn’t all of it. And even if they were, the way the fight is waged is a series of assaults on the lives and well-being of the queer people in question. At the same time that the church and related institutions keep cozying up to the special interests of big business and billionaires. So they are both ignoring Jesus’s teachings of “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” as well as “sell that you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”
Long before I reached a point where I could fearfully say outloud to a friend, “I think I might be gay3” I chafed at the church’s political choices. It wasn’t until my midteens (the early 1970s) that the SBC officially stopped opposing racial segregation. Even after that, a lot of churchs and affiliated organizations actively opposed civil rights laws, including the Voting Rights Act. That didn’t seem to line up with the command to Love Thy Neighbor.
I’m old enough to remember when official Baptist theology was not pro-life. In fact, among those Baptists willing to voice their anti-Catholic beliefs, the Catholic Church’s strong stand against abortion was used as an argument that Catholics were not a Biblical faith. Seriously! Southern Baptists used to look at the verse in the old testament which stated that a person who injured a pregnant woman such that she lost the baby was not the same as fatally injuring a child and was no worse than injuring a non-pregmant woman as proof that unborn babies were not yet people.
The shift in abortion doctrine was a calculated one by a number of evangelical leaders who met in the 70s to discuss what to do about fundraising now that segregation didn’t whip up the troops to donate. Again, that sudden about-face made no sense to teenaged me.
When Falwell’s so-called Moral Majority rose as a political force and allied itself strongly with the Republicans and doubled down on opposing women’s rights, gay rights, medical treatment for AIDS patients, and nondiscrimination laws in general, that was the final straw.
If there are people in the fundamentalist evangelical community in general–and Southern Baptists in particular–who want to turn around this downward spiral in membership, they have to change. They have organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom suing left and right to thwart gay and trans rights as well as lobbying politicians to pass anti-queer laws. Jesus never said a thing about queer people, but he commanded his followers take care of the poor, the sick, prisoners and even to welcome refugees4. Where is the evangelical organization suing government officials for withholding funds for the poor or the homeless or the disabled? Where is the evangelical organization lobbying politicians for more funding for the poor, the homeless, the sick, the disabled or resettlement of refugees?
Their usual argument is some BS about charity being a private duty, rather than a governmental one. But you can’t demand that government enforce your private religious beliefs about marriage and gender and so forth while claiming to believe that government shouldn’t do these other things your holy book actually demands.
Evangelicals got themselves into this ridiculous hypocrisy because of two things: leaders who are addicted to money or power of both; and the dearly held evangelical myth that they are always the persecuted. The nakedly greedy leaders like Joel Osteen and Franklin Graham harp on the culture war issues and characterize any gains for “other” people as an assault against “true Christians” and rake in the dough. More sincere leaders like the late Billy Graham become so blinded by the thrill of access to Presidents and Congresspeople and other leaders, that they let their proximity promote the fearmongering of unscrupulous politicians.
And too many of their congregants eat up the rhetoric, becoming so inflamed with the fervor to fight so-called evil, that they don’t see the real evil they are inflicting on others. Instead of looking at other people as the neighbors they are commanded to love and care for, they see them as armies of sin. And their advocacy, donations, and rhetoric constitute very real attacks on people, not sin.
If they want to stop this decline, it won’t come from a new emphasis on evangelizing, as Stetzer asserts in his article. That would be as meaningless as praying without working. Instead, they need to focus on things their Christ actually told them to do: love your neighbor, feed the hungry, take care of the sick, clothe those who have nothing, be kind to the meek and powerless.
Do good, and people will see those good works and will stop feeling like enemies under attack.
0. The title of today’s post is a lyric from the hymn “The Kingdom is Coming” words by Mary B. Slade, music by Rigdon M. McIntosh, # 409 in the 1956 Baptist Hymnal.
1. When I first read his assessment that the church will cease to exist for all intents and purposes in decades, my only thought was, “Darn! Not sooner?”2
2. Don’t get me wrong, I was raised Southern Baptist and I have a lot of fond childhood memories of deep friendships there. But as I have said many times, I didn’t abandon the church, the church drove me away.
3. Which didn’t happen until I was 25.
4. Again, I learned my strong sense for social injustice by reading the Bible they claimed to follow.