What Baptists do right

May 18, 2015

River Baptism - southernvisions.net

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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.

A Proviso

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

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Image: A river baptism in Appalachia (source: Southern Visions)

14 Responses to “What Baptists do right”

  1. That rededication is no joke. I’ve probably gone in front of the service 50+ times between the ages of 7-12 for that.

  2. Bobby Grow said

    It is the Keswick Tradition, eh😉.

    I grew up Conservative Baptist (my dad an ordained CBA pastor). I came to Christ, for real, at 3.5 years old because my parents had the talk with me from the moment I could hear it through the womb (my dad was/is an evangelist).

    Anyway, I think our backgrounds are very similar, Kevin! And I too highly appreciate the Baptist tradition in its American form (since that’s what I know). And I would still consider myself a “Baptist” even though we currently attend a non-denominational evangelical church (Imago Dei in Portland, OR) — and it itself is basically Baptistic (as was my training in Bible College and Seminary).

    It is good to know that there are people out there (of our era) who still get all of this, Kevin, and who have this rich background to draw from even if we do so self-critically.

    • Keswick, indeed! For all of its problems, I cannot overlook its merits. You are right to see this post as profoundly appreciative and, yet, self-critical. The older I get, the more I am appreciative. I assume that you would say the same.

      • Bobby Grow said

        Totally, Kevin! I really am appreciative for the spiritual heritage and the type of pietism that I was inculcated with from such a young age. I see it as a gift! And more and more each day!

  3. Fariba said

    Great post! My mom was baptized in a baptist church and is evangelical. It is through her (and a Sunday School teacher) that I developed my love for the Scriptures. Unfortunately, my family attends a church that is more concerned about tolerance than about preaching Christ crucified. The people in the congregation were kind but the denomination is basically Unitarian. I became Christian as a teenager (was an agnostic/atheist before that), so I am thankful for everyone who helped me know Christ. We may not agree on everything but that Sunday school teacher got me so excited about the Bible. She eventually joined a non-denominational Church after a major life-changing conversion and I’m now Catholic.

  4. Joel said

    However things may have been in the past, I think nowadays mainline Christians are just as culturally capitulated as a lot of evangelicals, only in a different way. So much of what I read online from them would fit right in at a place like Slate (who are right about some things) if you take out the God-talk. And very few seem to recognize that this is a problem – self-criticism tends to only be of the “not intersectional enough” variety.

    For all the talk about speaking the truth to power, it reminds me of a teenager who thinks he’s edgy for wearing a Pink Floyd shirt in the 21st century (nothing against Pink Floyd). Evangelicals hitch themselves to mainstream everyday America, liberals to mainstream left-intelligentsia.

    The mainline will probably get slightly more young people from disillusioned evangelicals, especially over issues of sexuality. I think it will make a minor statistical difference at best though, or even none at all.

    My ACNA church has recently started baptizing children*, but as a prerequisite the parents are required to take the same month-long class adults take before baptism and to promise to raise their children accordingly.

    *If you’re wondering why we took so long, the church started as Vineyard, went Anglican about a year before I started attending, and still has a little of the Vineyard in their DNA. So “Anglofying” has been a gradual process.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Evangelicals hitch themselves to mainstream everyday America, liberals to mainstream left-intelligentsia.

      Yep, that’s a good summary. The difference now, going into the future, is that the mainstream culture is increasingly hostile to evangelicals, whereas the liberal Christians will continue to enjoy support from the culture. The upshot will be, hopefully, that evangelicals foster a more serious sense of counter-cultural witness and discipleship.

      And, yes, the mainline will continue to be a receiver for disaffected evangelicals, who will then be their most vibrant and enthusiastic members. But it will indeed make a very negligible difference statistically.

      Our church also does a class for parents wanting their infants baptized, though I’m not sure how long it is. We also do a catechetical class (8 or 9 weeks) every year for all new members, taught by the pastors.

  5. Ivan said

    I am increasingly realizing how much of a Baptist I am at heart myself. I guess it helps that my own denomination is quite baptistic. And I would agree most Evangelicals are Baptist in all but name.

    A Presbyterian pastor I know explained the difference between credobaptist and paedobaptists like this: credobaptist assume guilty until proven innocent while paedobaptists assume innocent until proven guilty. The credobaptist mindset seems to be healthier though. A friend of mine from a presbyterian church mentioned how all of these children end up not knowing the Gospel simply because they were baptized as infants (and they’re Evangelical).

    • credobaptist assume guilty until proven innocent while paedobaptists assume innocent until proven guilty.

      I like that. The most common Reformed defense of paedobaptism, where children are born into the covenant and objectively benefit therefrom, can easily lead to the unhealthy disregard for the salvation of the children. It need not necessarily lead to this, but it frequently has and still frequently does. I also think that there is often a sneaking hyper-Calvinism that goes unnoticed, mostly because no one actually admits to being a hyper-Calvinist or having hyper-Calvinist sensibilities.

  6. Mike Cheek said

    This morning I was reading a bit on Alice Cooper’s decision to return to faith in Jesus and when I read your article I was reminded of it. Although the Baptists can sometimes seem to just camp out at the moment of decision nonetheless I agree there is a decision that each of us must make.

    Alice Cooper hit super rock bottom and then he started going back to church. On top of that he went to what he describes as a “hell fire and brimstone” church. He describes every week it was torture, yet every week he kept coming back. He says “I finally realized, I had to go one side or the other” He did and then he joined another church, Camelback Bible church. Link: http://cnsnews.com/blog/michael-w-chapman/alice-cooper-christian-world-belongs-satan

    I was thinking about this because sometimes it seems we Christians want to be so sure we communicate in culturally sensitive ways to the cultured despisers of Christianity, yet here is a debauched rock and roll superstar who is initially reached via a hell fire fundamentalist. Similar to how Herod liked to come and listen to John the Baptist (Mark 6:20).

    I grew up in a (sometimes) hell-fire and brimstone church. I don’t want to go back to that. But at the same time I would want to strive for certainty and clarity when communicating the good news about Jesus. The Baptists can do this.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Excellent, Mike, I had not seen this. It makes sense to me, and I am increasingly seeing the Baptist merits. For many of us, we reacted against their, as you rightly say, camping out at the moment of decision. But we often overreact. It reminds me of Helmut Thielicke’s comments after witnessing Billy Graham preach: “What is wrong with us [in the mainline churches] that makes Billy Graham so necessary.” He still had criticisms for Graham, but he was humble enough to see what his own tradition (German mainline Protestant) had forgotten and was lacking.

  7. […] discussion elicited by the Pew study continues unabated. I offered one response, “What Baptists do right,” which is not at all contingent on the Pew study. It is what I have thought since college, […]

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