An Unflattering Take on Southern Baptists

by Dr. Marty Comer, pastor
Sand Ridge Baptist Church
Lexington, Tenn.

I must admit that I am not a regular reader of The Atlantic magazine. I’m more of a Lewis Grizzard or Golf Digest guy myself. The Atlantic is a magazine that started over 150 years ago in Boston. Some of its founding writers were Oliver Wendell Holmes, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Greenleaf Whittier. The magazine has quite a history. It published many works by Mark Twain and other famous American writers.

Thus, I was very interested when I found out that The Atlantic recently took note of we Southern Baptists. And the article was not real flattering. It was titled “Baptists, Just Without the Baptisms.”

I don’t blame The Atlantic for the unflattering article. The fact is that we Baptists haven’t been very flattering lately.

The article noted that we Southern Baptists have lost almost a million members in less than 10 years. We are down from 16.6 million in 2005 to 15.8 million in 2012. But that’s not all. The hits just keep on coming!

The number of Baptisms performed in Southern Baptist churches has dropped by 25 percent since 1999. According to a Southern Baptist Pastor’s Task Force that is set to report at the June meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Baltimore, baptisms in the SBC “reached a plateau in the 1950s” and “peaked in the 1970s.”

Furthermore 25 percent of Southern Baptist churches reported 0 baptisms in 2012. Sixty percent of Southern Baptist churches reported no youth baptisms in 2012. Eighty percent of Southern Baptist churches reported either 0 or 1 young adult baptism (age 18-29) in 2012. And for a denomination that does not practice infant baptism, it is disturbing that the only age group that is growing in the number baptized is children under age 5.

That is troubling!

We must ask ourselves, what is going on and what must we do to address the situation?

First, it seems that we are facing an increasingly hostile cultural environment. The biblical message that all humanity is separated from God due to sin and needs redemption through Christ is viewed with hostility by a culture that believes everyone is born with innate goodness, that there are fewer and fewer limits on human behavior, and that God is somehow obligated to love and approve whatever His creatures choose to do.

Decades ago Karl Menninger asked “whatever happened to sin?” The answer today is that we have redefined behavior so that there are fewer and fewer things considered sin. We haven’t changed our behavior, we’ve changed our definitions. In classic Christian thinking the Seven Deadly Sins were lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. In our society lust is promoted and encouraged by virtually every media outlet, gluttony is rarely mentioned, sloth is covered by many government programs, wrath is viewed as justified behavior, envy is promoted by political leaders who seek use it to promote their campaigns and garner votes, and pride is celebrated on  holidays dedicated to _____ (fill in the blank) “pride month.”

A society that sees nothing as sinful also sees no need for a Savior. A society that sees God as approving all things will never understand the need for transformation, redemption, or a new birth.

Years ago my pastor told me that “before you can get them saved, you must first get them lost.”

Perhaps we Southern Baptists need to refocus our preaching and teaching on a Biblical anthropology. The Baptist Faith and Message states that “Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.”

Man is not innocent. We have inherited a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. The battle in our culture is a battle over anthropology. Is mankind innately good or inclined toward sin? Are we innocent and pure or are we “transgressors” and “under condemnation?”

Perhaps instead of trying to become like the culture in an attempt to influence it, we should stand prophetically apart from the culture and speak  truth to its illusions about mankind. The church should boldly proclaim that all is not well with humanity, that the heart is deceitful and wicked, and that all are in need of redemption.

Through the years I heard the argument repeated over and over that our methodology or our ways of “doing church” must change to reach a new generation. I’m not opposed to new ideas, creative programs, and innovative methods. But could it be that those in the culture have seen our new methodology and have mistaken it for a new theology. Perhaps a watered down theology.

When I was getting my Bachelor’s degree in Communication, I was taught Marshall McLuhan’s theory that “the medium is the message.” His view was that the medium used to deliver a message is more important than the content of the message delivered.

For example, if I am interviewed by a television reporter and put on the evening news, many people will not accurately remember the message I shared, only the fact that I was on television. The medium (television) is the message. People will say “my pastor was on the news.” The medium overpowers the message.

Imagine a lost person enters a church. They hear a powerful band, listen to music with familiar beats, watch videos on screens that overpower their senses, and hear a sermon preached by someone dressed like themselves and peppered with movie clips and anecdotes from current events.

Could it be that our methodology (intended to reach that lost person and others in our culture) in fact overpowers the message we are desperately seeking to proclaim. The medium is the message.

I don’t claim to have the answers. But our culture does not seem to be impressed by the church’s message. Perhaps by attempting to identify with the culture in our  methods, our message has gotten lost. It’s hard to argue that we aren’t much better at technology, stagecraft, dramas, video, lighting, social media, etc., than ever before. But our message is more ineffective than ever.

How do we address our spiritual malaise as Baptists? What are the answers? How do we reverse the trends?

Perhaps I’m off base in my musings. What are your thoughts? Let’s put our minds, hearts, and prayers together so that we can fulfill our calling as followers of Jesus Christ to go, reach, and win the world!

So, thanks to “The Atlantic” for taking note of we Baptists. Your article wasn’t very flattering. But at the present time, neither are we.
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