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Hi and welcome back! Today, our presses got stopped cold by some breaking news from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). It seems that last year, they suffered their single worst drop in membership in a century! The news follows the denomination’s struggles with money, an ongoing sex abuse scandal, constant revelations of sexism and racism at their highest levels, and their beloved culture wars biting them on their comfortable rumpuses. Today, let’s see if J.D. Greear’s evangelism ethos has done anything to help reverse the decline of the biggest Protestant denomination in America.

how that evangelism ethos is going
(Hans Eiskonen.)

(Related posts about the SBC’s incredible decline: Oh Noes A Baptism Drought; The Baptism Drought Continues; Wanna Hear a Riddle?; Being ‘In the Room’ For Churn; The SBC’s 2018 Numbers (OW); About That Million-Baptism Challenge; Downsizing Amid the Signs of Ruin.)

(Also: Math isn’t my strong suit, so feel free to double-check me.)

The Baptism Drought to End All Droughts.

For years now, the SBC has faced what they call a baptism drought. That means that they’re not baptizing very many new people. In addition, they face the usual churn that all churches do nowadays, with existing members leaving. It all adds up to the SBC facing a long-term decline that’s lasted for many years.

(Mr. Captain: “This ain’t a drought. It’s climate change!”)

They don’t really understand why this decline is happening, either. Consequently, they have no idea how to stop it — much less reverse that trend. As we’ve seen so many times from them, mostly they seek and deploy non-solutions that utterly fail to address their real problems.

And this time, that strategy is wreaking damage that they will probably never be able to fix.

I keep track of the SBC’s statistics in a spreadsheet. For my data, I draw upon several sources — primarily their own annual reports. As the years march by, then, I’ve been enjoying a nice ringside seat to a spectacular decline. It’s like watching the sl0w-burn fall of the Roman Empire.

You can find the 2019 Annual Report here. Page 137 contains the basic stats from 2017 and 2018. (Each annual report covers the previous year’s performance.)

As you can likely guess, the 2020 report’s due out soon. It’ll cover 2019.

And 2019 represents some really bad news for the SBC.

Preparing the Flocks for Bad News.

Before they officially publish their reports each year, the SBC releases snippets from those reports. That’s how we recently found out that teen baptisms are still in decline. Once I get the real thing, I enter their stats into my spreadsheet.

The SBC’s various leaders seem to release these snippets of bad news to prepare the flocks for the worst. That definitely seems like the motivation for the release of this current bit of bad news.

Earlier today, LifeWay (the shoddy-research and publishing arm of the SBC) released a shocking news snippet about the denomination’s membership drop last year. It also contained some spin-doctoring from the current leader of LifeWay Research, Scott McConnell.

Bear in mind that what follows represents very poor number-gathering on the part of the denomination. According to that story from LifeWay itself, only about 75% of their member churches even bothered sending in even partial responses to their leaders’ requests for information. So a quarter of their churches didn’t reply at all, and we don’t know how many churches replied inadequately. Oklahoma’s state leaders, for instance, didn’t send them membership figures, so they had to guess at those.

Knowing what I do about evangelicals, I can easily guess that churches that don’t respond — or respond inadequately — to performance questions are hiding some very bad numbers indeed. If a church succeeds decently well, they want everyone to know about it. So the following is a best-case scenario from churches that aren’t too ashamed of their performance last year to share their metrics.

The Bad Numbers.

In 2019, the SBC’s total membership went from 14813234 to 14525579. That is a drop of 287,655 members in one year. And it represents a nearly 2% drop (1.94%, by my math).

Just to put that in perspective, the year before (2018) they lost 192,404 people, going from 15005638 to 14813234 — which represents a 1.28% drop. The year before that (2017), they went from 15216978 to 15005638 people, a loss of 211,340 people, representing a 1.38% drop.

So a 1.94% drop is incredible. In fact, that LifeWay writeup says it’s the worst single-year drop in membership that they’ve had in over a century!

As for baptisms, they face bad news there, too.

After all, the SBC uses baptisms as a metric to judge their overall effectiveness at meeting their stated goals. And those have been tanking for many years. This year, baptisms fell another 10,694. That maybe doesn’t sound like much, but when their total number’s 235,748 that represents a precipitous drop of its own (-4.34%).

Also, they like to express their number of baptisms as a ratio: baptisms per current Southern Baptists. They like that number to be as low as possible, because that’d mean they’re bringing in lots of new people. Back when I joined the SBC (briefly) in the mid-80s, that number hovered around 1:38 to 1:40 (one baptism per 38-40 Southern Baptists). When it hit 1:50 in 2013, they outright panicked and formed a real live baptism task force.

Well, that ratio now stands at 1:62.

Oh, and total receipts dropped for the first time in years. In recent years, I noticed that despite their overall declines the SBC managed to keep their total receipts on an increase. But this year, total receipts dropped by $170,423,050. Sure, that’s just 1.44%, but that it fell at all surprised me. I guess I just thought they’d keep that gravy train rolling for a while longer yet.

So in summary, everywhere, everywhere, the SBC suffered declines — except in one place.

Yes, friends — one!

In 2019, they opened 74 more churches than they closed.

WOOHOO! Hooray Team Jesus!

The King of Baptist County.

And the accelerating nature of this decline should be worrying their current president and Dear Leader, J.D. Greear.

Overall, Greear’s qualifications for leading the nation’s biggest Protestant denomination consist mostly of the usual religious non-education that SBC pastors always have, leadership of a megachurch, and a real dedication to playing the SBC’s power-politics game.

He has no business management training or anything like that. He’s just a fairly charismatic guy leading a megachurch. Since megachurches have a way better chance of growth than regular churches do, it shouldn’t shock anybody to know that his church grew. Evangelical pastors envy church growth the same way that secular businessmen envy fancy watches. Any pastor who can claim church growth gets lots of attention in evangelicalism, so SBC pastors all figured Greear knew something they didn’t about growing churches in general.

He used that admiration to stunning effect.

For years, Greear’s had his eye on the plum leadership role of the SBC’s presidency. In fact, all he’s wanted all this time was to be crowned the King of Baptist County, as LeekSoup once put it.

In 2016, he lost his first campaign. By 2018, though, he’d gotten a bead on exactly what to say to his fellow Baptist leaders.

He told them he could totally turn their ship around. Yes! He knew how to fix everything. See, he’d once done this one creeptastic evangelism campaign at his own church for this one year, like in 2014, y’all. And it worked so incredibly well that they just never did it again.

(Narrator: “It didn’t actually work that great.”)

Undeterred, Greear dusted it off and presented it to his denomination as the perfect way to solve their decline.

An Evangelism Ethos.

J.D. Greear called his approach an evangelism ethos. Oh, I mean it used a lot of trendy SBC buzzwords, but that was the big one. He based it on the trendy idea of personal evangelism, which means person-to-person sales pitches made by laypeople rather than by trained evangelists.

Cultivating an evangelism ethos essentially required Southern Baptist sheep to evangelize literally everyone they ran across and to make evangelism their one central focus in life.

The formal name of his system, “Who’s Your One?” reveals a great deal. While they were evangelizing everyone in sight, he wanted his flocks to pick one person in their lives that they super-wanted to see “saved” from their god’s bloodlust, and to focus extra on evangelizing that one person.

He thought that if more church members adopted his system, then they’d be living and breathing evangelism. And naturally, that would help them pick up more new recruits.

And the flocks believed him, and thus they made him the new King of Baptist County.

How the Evangelism Ethos Shook Out in Practice.

Most of the time, SBC presidents don’t get a lot done at all. They’re not there long enough to do that. Once they’re elected, they have to spend time appointing people to committees and subcommittees, which then waste more time organizing information-gathering task forces. The next year, these committees reveal their findings and suggest action items.

Then the next year, the SBC elects a new president who ignores all of that stuff to focus on some new campaign he likes better.

It seems like SBC presidents hate continuing a previous president’s program. They want something that’s theirs, that reflects on their turn at the helm, that they can put on their resumes as something they came up with. In a lot of ways, they remind me of Renaissance Florentines back when they were a sorta-republic, with their short terms of office and bunches of governing bodies all changing membership constantly. It drove foreign ambassadors spare because nothing could get done!

J.D. Greear didn’t alter that order of operations much.

In 2017, he starred (along with Paige Patterson, ouch) in the SBC’s official EVANGELISM TASK FORCE, which presented some findings in 2018 and then vanished off the face of the planet. The only sign the committee even ever existed is the appearance of a new holiday on the SBC calendar for September 8, 2019: Baptism Day. Really.

As his reign progressed, Greear largely ignored the serious sex abuse scandal unfolding under his nose to concentrate on blaming the flocks for not evangelizing often enough.

How that Evangelism Ethos Thingie Is Going Now.

Of course, I’m a reasonable little cat. I didn’t expect to see results immediately. I decided to wait a year or so to pass judgment. So now that time’s passed. Let’s see how his idea fared!

Here are baptism and membership numbers from their Annual Reports starting with the one published in 2015:

  • 2015: 305k baptisms; 15.49M members; 1:51 ratio
  • 2016: 295k baptisms; 15.29M members; 1:52 ratio (<— this was the year Greear lost his first campaign)
  • 2017: 280k baptisms; 15.21M members; 1:54 ratio
  • 2018: 254k baptisms, 15.00M members; 1:59 ratio (<– Greear won this election)
  • 2019: 246k baptisms; 14.81M members; 1:60 ratio
  • 2020 (preliminary): 235k baptisms; 14.52M members; 1.62 ratio

(Ratio means the number of baptisms per active Southern Baptist members and they want that number as low as possible. Each annual report covers numbers from the previous year and is published after their big Annual Meeting, which is when they elect their new president every two years.)

Offhand, it sure looks like J.D. Greear’s pet strategy is an abject failure.

I mean, I guess it’s possible the dips would be even more pronounced if Greear hadn’t stepped in to tut-tut and shake his finger at the flocks for not selling hard enough. However, it’s way more probable that his efforts were just as abysmally ineffective on the grand national scale as they were at his individual megachurch.

Maybe a Reprieve.

Of course, Greear has now gotten himself a reprieve — and a second chance. The SBC can’t have its annual meeting because of the plague, so they can’t elect a new president this year.

Seriously. They have always refused to institute electronic or mail-in voting. Instead, they all have to stand together in the room, as they put it, at their Annual Meetings. There, voters hold up sheets of paper which the leaders then eyeball from their stage to see which candidate has the most papers held up. And that’s who the president becomes.

(I feel like I lost ten IQ points just typing out the above paragraph. Yes, of course many SBC members have voiced frustration with all of that backwardsness. But the SBC’s Dearest Leaders like it this way, and so this is how they vote.)

So the SBC has put off their election till next year, which means Greear has one more year to try to turn the SBC’s Titanic around.

But he won’t.

“The Task” At Hand (Isn’t Addressing Decline).

But J.D. Greear won’t be spending that year dealing with the decline, I don’t think.

He told the Houston Chronicle in March:

“I don’t think any of us saw this coming. [. . .] I certainly didn’t plan for a third year but trust that the God who ordains our days will give us strength equal to the task.”

He saw this “task” as dealing with the sex-abuse scandal, not his denomination’s ongoing decline. So I’m guessing the decline is taking a way backseat in his priorities.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t disagree with such a prioritization. A denomination facing a sex-abuse scandal had better be devoting the bulk of its energy, money, and time on fixing that.

However, I don’t think Greear will meaningfully address or resolve the sex-abuse scandal either.

Instead, he’ll just keep swanning around as the King of Baptist County. He’ll blame the flocks for not having enough of an evangelism ethos to reverse their decline, and hope against all hope that nobody actually holds him accountable for anything before he can finally scuttle back under his rock in North Carolina to capitalize on his success in some new and odious way.

You can count on this, though: Southern Baptists will not even remember the total failure of J.D. Greear’s big ideas, much less hold him accountable for anything.

NEXT UP: Yes, the Lee Strobel list! See you tomorrow!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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