What Baptists do right
May 18, 2015
There has been a lot of discussion about the recent Pew study on the “US Religious Landscape.” The report from Christianity Today puts a wee bit of a positive spin on it for evangelicals, just as Jonathan Merritt puts his own spin on it for RNS. I will briefly respond to some of Merritt’s points at the end. But first, I was struck by the percentages of those who stay within their denominational family or tradition. The Baptists are the highest at 57%. The least likely are Congregationalists (31%), Holiness (32%), Reformed (34%), and Presbyterian (34%) — that includes three “Reformed” denominations (Holiness is Wesleyan).
The Baptist Difference
If I may be so bold, I think I know why the Baptists are at the top in this regard. I will have to be partly autobiographical in order to answer this. I was raised in a devout, loving evangelical Baptist home and church. My parents were not Christians when they began dating in the late 70’s, except in the sense that every Southerner at this time would still claim to be a Christian. They were indifferent to the church and not attending anywhere. But when another couple, friends of theirs, invited them to their large Baptist church in Florence, South Carolina, everything changed for my parents and, unknown at the time, their future sons. They were taught the gospel in a very Billy Graham-ish sort of way, for which I praise the Lord. It was this same gospel that they taught me.
Here is the point. When I was born, my parents did not see me as a Christian. My parents saw me as an object for evangelism! I may have been cute as a button, but I was still a rebellious sinner, separated from the love of God in Jesus Christ. What this meant for me and my brother, and all of my fellow Baptists, is that we were evangelized by our parents. I repeat, we were evangelized by our parents. This begins usually at four or five years old and continues long thereafter. I still vividly remember my mom telling me about the gospel in my bedroom when I was five. Did I have a full grasp of what it meant to be a sinner or that there is a God who intervened? Of course not. I still don’t. The important thing is that it was made real and personal for me, by those who I loved the most. The struggles, questions, doubts would come, but there was an anchor.
I am still amazed when I encounter other Protestants (and Catholics) who did not have this experience. Their parents assumed that they were Christian. They never had “the talk” — no, not the sex talk, but the gospel talk. And is it accidental that Baptists would never do such a stupid thing as forget the gospel talk? No, because Baptists reject infant baptism. With infant baptism came a lot of problems, like forgetting the gospel talk. I will not discuss baptism here, and I am a paedobaptist now. So, obviously, I think that paedobaptism is compatible with the above concept of evangelism, but it is not normative. That is a tragedy.
So, that is my proposal for why Baptists do a better job at keeping their kids. It is evangelical piety at its best and most necessary. I am fully aware — more aware than most — of the problems that come along: an overemphasis on the individual, emotional manipulation, doubts about salvation, re-baptisms and endless re-dedications. I get it. That’s where Reformed theology is a salve for so many, even with its own problems.
The Pew Survey
According to the Pew study, evangelicals have declined at 0.9%, the mainline at 3.4%, and Catholics at 3.1%. The time frame is only between 2007 and 2014. The new thing is the evangelical decline (or plateau-with-slight-decline), whereas the mainline decline is just compounding a decades long problem. If you look at page 21 of the full report, you can see the percentage breakdown for each denomination. The Southern Baptists are down from 6.7 to 5.3 percent of the total population, but the independent Baptists have remained the same as in 2007. Nondenominational evangelicals have increased from 3.4 to 4.9 percent. These are Baptists in all but name but without some of the restrictions that are found in the SBC, which frowns upon charismatic expressions and has a more tightly defined confessional basis (the Baptist Faith & Message).
So, as I mentioned above, the CT article has a fairly positive outlook for evangelicals, bolstered by Ed Setzer’s article for CT, “Nominals to Nones.” Jonathan Merritt has a sort of rebuttal, with four bullet points that you can read for yourself. I guess because evangelicals invest in proselytizing but are still struggling, that means something. In his second bullet point, he says that the Assemblies of God and the Presbyterian Church in America “failed to grow at all,” which is not true. The PCA was 340,736 in 2007 but 367,033 in 2013 (the latest denominational report). The AG went from 2,863,265 in 2007 to 3,127,857 in 2013, not counting outside of the US.
Merritt notes, “The nation’s largest evangelical body, the SBC, is declining at roughly the same rate as the largest mainline denomination, the United Methodist Church.” True, but why? The UMC still has a strong evangelical contingent, whereas evangelicals in the other mainline denominations have largely fled, especially in the last tens years. The UMC gives voting privileges to its African bishops, which is a blessing for the evangelical minority in the UMC here, and this is why the UMC has not seen breakaway denominations like the NALC, ACNA, ECO, and more. Also, the SBC is a unique body for evangelicals. It was once the equivalent to the mainline in the South, and (prior to the 80’s) its seminaries were not much different from other mainline Protestant seminaries. Like the mainline, it suffers from demographic changes, as much of the population shifts from small factory towns to major urban metropolises.
But Merritt notes another demographic change: “population data has always indicated that the mainline decline was mostly attributable to birthrates.” Alright, let’s set aside whether “mostly” is warranted, I am happy to grant it as a big factor. But that’s a problem, not a neutral determinant, as Mary Eberstadt has persuasively argued.
Lastly, I have to challenge Merritt’s comment: “Roman Catholics — also theologically and politically conservative — are also declining significantly. This, despite these groups’ evangelistic zeal, orthodox theology, and conservative political stances.” Really? The RCC in America is a different beast entirely, and to say that it has “evangelistic zeal” is downright laughable. There is, of course, a vibrant contingent of evangelically-minded, Vatican-loving, conservative Roman Catholics in America. But you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between an average Catholic and an average mainline Protestant. There are complicated historical and cultural reasons for this, which I am perfectly willing to discuss, not the least of which is the “mainline” mindset of Rome’s past cultural privilege.
In closing, we have to ask ourselves about the importance we attach to these surveys. Numbers matter, as any dying church can testify. I’ve heard enough of these testimonies from mainline Protestant congregations — where sometime in the ’80’s or ’90’s, they realized that they didn’t have any kids in the sanctuary. At that point, there was no turning back.
Yet, it is also the case that Christians should have a basic expectation of cultural marginalization, which may translate into a loss in numbers. I am not convinced (not in the slightest) that this is why the mainline has declined so precipitously. I think the mainline decline has much to do with lethargy, privilege, and an anemic theology. Even so, the evangelical churches may indeed experience an increased decline over the years, not because of their lack of gospel but precisely because of their gospel. I am not saying that we have lacked privilege or that evangelicals do not have our own self-inflicted wounds. We harbor a neo-fundamentalism that is scared and irresponsible and lacking in basic integrity. If this were to dominate and overwhelm us, then we deserve what we get. We are also responsible for a capitulation to American ideals and social expectations, though this is an enormously tricky thing to parse. Is this why the evangelicals have fared better, as my liberal Protestant friends think? To some extent, sure, but it does not have the exhaustive explanatory value that they think — far from it. But to the extent that this is true, it just means that evangelicals will return to the marginalization that we once enjoyed.
One More Thing that Baptists Do Right!
Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Glen Campbell, Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, and many more — all Baptists.
Thank you, Baptists, for country music.
“Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord),” Johnny Cash and the Carter Family
Image: A river baptism in Appalachia (source: Southern Visions)