a sinking ship
Reading Time: 6 minutes (Milan Seitler.)
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Hi and welcome back! If you like to keep tabs on evangelical Christians, then the annual reports of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) should be on your summer reading list each year. Not only do these reports cover the denomination’s recent performance, but they also give us hints about evangelicals’ strategies for the year(s) ahead. They even reveal the various stresses on evangelical leaders’ minds! So they’re important. Today, let’s check out this year’s “Book of Reports” and get some first impressions about how the SBC is doing right now.

a sinking ship
(Milan Seitler.)

(Here’s the link to the report itself, the 2020 report, and 2019. And here is the link to every SBC Annual Report since 1845. All reports cover the previous year, so the 2021 report covers 2020. These reports get compiled and finalized around the time of the big Annual Meeting, then released a couple of months later. Usually. Also, when I talk about evangelism as a salesmanship process, the product here isn’t Jesus or even conversion. It’s active membership in the evangelist’s own Christian group.)

Akshully It’s a “Book of Reports,” THENKYEWVERRUHMUCH.

In 2020, the Annual Report was simply called the “Annual of the Southern Baptist Convention.” This year, however, the SBC released a “Book of Reports.” No explanation appears forthcoming in the book itself regarding why these leaders have made this decision. To be sure, no motions or resolutions last year suggested the name change. It’s just here now, and everyone just has to get used to it, I suppose.

However, I do notice that other SBC state-level bodies, which are also called “conventions” just to keep us all guessing, also use this phrase to describe their annual reports. This seems consistent with past years as well. So maybe the main body of the SBC decided to get consistent with their state conventions, which mostly seem to draw a distinction between “Books of Reports” and “Annuals.” Otherwise, the front page looks pretty normal — dates, years, main leaders, etc.

After some digging, I discovered that this report doesn’t include anything that happened in the Annual Meeting. We see nothing here of the tumultuous vote for President, for example, nor the motions presented, nor the sermon preached.

Accordingly, this Book of Reports thing is only half the length of an actual Annual.

I’m guessing that in a month or so, we’ll get a more official Annual that includes the motions, votes, and elections that took place at the actual meeting.

That’s fine. For our purposes this weekend, we’ve got everything we need right here.

The Foreward That Fires the First Shot.

Moving right along, we next get a simple Foreword from someone named John L. Yeats. He’s billed as the Recording Secretary of the SBC. And the SBC has given him quite an important task for what I suspect is a very good reason.

John Yeats has been the Recording Secretary for 24 years. This year, though, he saw a challenge to his post from the younger, scraggly-bearded Adam Blosser, a Calvinist pastor from Virginia. Blosser’s bid failed, but still, I think Yeats might have been worried.

The Recording Secretary is not, as Blosser himself noted, much of a “glamorous” job. This person (haha, who are we kidding: this man) keeps records of SBC meetings, finishes the editing work on the Annual Reports, and apparently also trains volunteers for business sessions conducted by the convention. Officially, the Recording Secretary is a member of the SBC’s top-level Executive Committee.

So it’s not that the role isn’t important. I’m sure it is, and very much so. It’s that Yeats’ Foreword pushes super-hard on the little name change that the SBC’s been flirting with for a while now. He begins:

We are Great Commission Baptists. The Great Commission is what our churches do above all things.

Haha! A couple of years ago, the SBC’s top leaders tried really hard to change the denomination’s name to “Great Commission Baptists.” In my opinion, they were trying to leave behind their completely tainted brand. Nobody cared, and they’re still the SBC.

It’s hilarious to see an SBC officer drilling down this hard on it now.

Really, the whole Executive Committee needs to stop trying to make “Great Commission Baptists” happen. It’s not going to happen.


Takeaway: That whole cringeworthy, dishonest “Great Commission Baptists” thing? It’s staying for a little while longer at least. Ugh.

Hop to! Daddy REALLY Needs More Sales!

Next, John Yeats waxes eloquent about missionary work and drills down on a minor culture-war topic, sex trafficking, tjem tries gosh-darn hard to inspire readers to get right out there and SELL SELL SELL WITHOUT MERCY:

If we ever move away from the main themes of extraordinary prayer, soul-winning, and missional engagement, then the three-cord rope that binds us begins to shred into a past memory of what once was.

It’s like he doesn’t actually know any actual Southern Baptists. They’ve made it crystal-clear that as a group, they despise selling. But okay, fine. Whatevs.

What’s so funny is that Yeats encourages Annual Meeting attendees (officially called “messengers”) to get out into Nashville to evangelize strangers. He also subtly reminds them not to be total jackasses while they’re representing the denomination:

While in Nashville this week, engage someone in a conversation about Jesus and may our kindness and respect toward one another be a living demonstration of our Lord’s transformational grace in our lives.

J.D. Greear and Ed Stetzer tried this same strategy. I doubt any of these earnest entreaties changed much. I’m not kidding: Southern Baptists do not like selling.

Thank goodness for that dislike. I bet Nashville residents who weren’t already evangelical were just thrilled at the idea of getting sold at by people with no training whatsoever in sales, a scorching collective case of frustrated authoritarianism, and no sense of boundaries.

And I bet those attendees still tipped just like usual.

Takeaway: SBC-lings really, really, no joking here totes for realsies, need to make more sales for Daddy.

Whee! Stats Are Up Front in the 2021 Book of Reports!

There’s one big change I really appreciate in this “Book of Reports.”

The SBC put their most important metrics right up front this time around.

We’re talking about their various ride-or-die statistics that measure the denomination’s progress as a whole:

  • Baptisms (and baptisms per members)
  • Total membership and attendance
  • Sunday School enrollment
  • Total receipts
  • Missionary stats, including special collections

As one expects of authoritarians, Southern Baptists put great store by their metrics. All the stuff that actually apparently matters to Jesus, like the Greatest Commandment, is really hard to measure objectively. But metrics that barely even relate to cultivating the qualities and behaviors he told Christians to care about? Oh, those are much easier. And so they are the ones in the report.

And they’re on pages 6-8. In 2019, they started on page 135! Of course, all the Annual Meeting business takes up those intervening pages, usually. Oh well.

I’m still likin’ this change. I hope they keep it when they go back to Annuals.

And What the 2021 Book of Reports Tells Us.

Those stats tell us an absolutely, positively dismal picture — at least, from the SBC’s own point of view.

Pretty much every single stat listed has declined from the year before.

Everybody got all het up about baptisms, because of how seriously they declined (from 235k to 123k). And that is indeed a very serious change. Maybe the stat’s absolutely dismal nature explains why the SBC report-preparers decided not to offer a year-to-year comparison this time around. In every other year, that’s how it works — they’ll offer two or three years side-by-side so you can get a feel for the trends. This time, we just get that stark number by itself without context.

In 2019, baptisms declined 4.34% (from 246k to 235k). This year, they declined by about 48%, by my reckoning.

Every other metric that matters to the SBC also declined, though not to that extent. We’ll cover them more tomorrow.

So it’s not just their imagination. This really was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day year for the Southern Baptist Convention. And we’ve only just barely scratched the surface of how bad it really was.

NEXT UP: A deep dive into the SBC’s all-around tanking stats. It’s not just baptisms — not by a longshot. 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,...