a dead end sign on an iowa highway
Reading Time: 7 minutes (Everett Bartels.)
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, we took our first sneak peek at various statistics that will be formally released in the 2021 Annual Report of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) (archive link here). And oh boy, their numbers were not good. Not at all, nope. But then, various SBC leaders tried their darndest, bless their li’l cotton socks, to make their denomination’s decline sound a lot less dire than it really is. Today, let’s look at why a bunch of Southern Baptist leaders felt they had to lie for Jesus about their 2021 Annual Report.

a dead end sign on an iowa highway
(Everett Bartels.)

Lying for Jesus: An Anatomy.

When we talk about Christians lying for Jesus, what we’re really talking about is a form of pious fraud.

Christians often encounter facts that completely contradict their own claims. Sometimes, these unpleasant and troubling facts might even cost them some credibility. Now, many Christians just shoulder these facts and move on with their lives. We call those Christians “decent human beings.” They know reality has a few things to say about their beliefs, but they’re not making problems of themselves for anybody. Their beliefs please them, that’s all, but they don’t ask anybody else to play along with those beliefs.

No, we shall turn our gaze away from them.

We look instead to those Christians whose identity is completely wrapped up in their claims. These Christians choose to lie about those facts. They try their best to maintain a facade congruent with their claims, even if doing so requires deceptive behavior.

These Christians lie because they think the end justifies the means. Yes yes, even though lying is a sin, the results of that lie will make it very easily overlooked by Jesus, the tribe, and anybody else. Besides, TRUE CHRISTIANS™ get insta-forgiveness for everything anyway.

If liars-for-Jesus get caught, of course, then their would-be marks now know at least two unpleasant facts that contradict their claims. But the liars are completely okay with that risk. They would rather lie than deal meaningfully with all those unpleasant facts.

The Conservative Resurgence as a Test of the SBC’s Health.

We keep going back to the Conservative Resurgence when we talk about the SBC, don’t we? But there’s a reason for that. Ultra-conservative, hyper-politicized Southern Baptists — addled by Calvinists and furious about feminism — methodically and systematically took over the denomination. These schemers operated according to a very specific plan that took ruthless advantage of the SBC’s inept organizational structure and rules. Their opponents called them “hijackers,” but nobody could stop the takeover.

Well, these “hijackers” took over the denomination for a reason. They thought their way of Jesus-ing was far superior to what they saw gaining in popularity in the SBC. They were deeply worried that the SBC was losing its way, and they thought that they could steer it back to that path. Once the takeover had completed, once they completely ruled the denomination, then the “hijackers” were certain that its numbers and fortunes would improve.

The aftereffects of the Conservative Resurgence should have been revival, renewal, and increased fervor and faithfulness. It should have put countless more butts in pews (BIPs) and vastly improved Southern Baptists’ overall witness before a supposedly weary and Gospel-hungry world.

And those responsible for this “hijacking” completely knew that this would be the standard by which they would be judged. They embraced that test because they were sure they’d pass.

The Million Baptism Challenge of 2005.

Around 2005, the then-president of the SBC, Bobby Welch, pushed out a new initiative called “Everyone Can.” He wanted the flocks to convert and baptize one million new members.

This year-and-a-half-long initiative was meant to address and turn around a five-year slump in baptisms.

Wait, what? Was that a five-year slump I mentioned there?

Why yes, yes it was.

For about five years, the denomination had been struggling with a decline in baptisms. I mean, they’d kinda been all over the map way before that. Sometimes they’d have a really great year, like in 1995 (393,811), and then the next year baptisms would nose-dive (379,344), and the next year still they would soar into the stratosphere again (412,027) before falling again (407,264). But starting in 2000, the numbers almost all trended downward. From their Annual Reports:

  • 1999: 419,342
  • 2000: 414,657
  • 2001: 395,930
  • 2002: 394,893
  • 2003: 377,357
  • 2004: 387,947
  • 2005: 371,850

Remember, the people behind the Conservative Resurgence completed their takeover around 2000. So those baptism figures are what happened afterward.

So yes, Bobby Welch knew perfectly well what those baptism numbers meant.

The Crossroads Bobby Welch Perceived.

It’s impressive in a way to read Bobby Welch’s interviews from back then — like this one or this one. If the Conservative Resurgence didn’t lead to more baptisms, then he knew it’d mean something was seriously wrong with the SBC.

And indeed, that “hijacking” did not lead to more baptisms.

Nor did his “Everyone Can” initiative. As Baptist News wrote at the time,

It’s been a quarter century since conservatives, alarmed that liberal views of the Bible were dulling the SBC’s fervor for evangelism, wrested control of the SBC from moderates. But evangelism statistics have declined while conservatives have been in charge — hardly a badge of honor for the SBC messengers who gather June 212-22 for their annual meeting.

Here’s what Welch had to say on that topic:

“After that year has past, it will be as clear as the handwriting on the wall,” Welch told Associated Baptist Press June 14 in a telephone interview from Nashville, site of the 2005 convention. If Southern Baptists can’t turn around the baptism decline after more than a year of “extraordinary effort,” he said, “we are going to have to face some reality out here in the convention.”

“When we get to the end of that year, if something significant hasn’t happened in baptisms, we’ll have to look ourselves in the face and say, ‘Something is wrong.'”

Well, 2006 brought the SBC 364,826 baptisms — another year of decline.

With very few exceptions, in fact, the SBC’s baptism rate has been doing nothing but declining for the past 20 years.

And Now, the 2021 Annual Report.

Now, the SBC faces its worst year yet for baptisms. They recorded 123,160 total, which is just a bit less than half of what they bagged the year before. Sure, a lot of that’s probably the pandemic speaking. Next year, I fully expect it to bounce back at least a little bit. But still, it’s an incredible drop — especially for a denomination claiming that its evangelistic fervor has resulted in a striking increase in sales engagements.

But nobody in the SBC’s top leadership seems even vaguely inclined to look at their baptism decline as an indication of the failure of their conservative, over-politicized, authoritarian worldview. It’s like people realized that the Conservative Resurgence should have various tangible effects before the takeover was finished, but then once it was finished and those effects completely failed to materialize, those same people are just ignoring that fact or denying it entirely.

(In 2006, one of their seminary presidents, Daniel Akin, insisted that The Big Problem Here wasn’t “Calvinism” at all, which is a strawman he substitutes for the Conservative Resurgence as a whole. No, The Big Problem Here, he said, was akshully the flocks’ refusal to evangelize enough. Yep. That must so. Apparently, Thom Rainer also tried to make a case around that time for the SBC faring worse if the takeover hadn’t happened. I guess that moved goalpost was good enough for him.)

Worse than ignoring the abject failure of their darling “hijacking,” though, SBC leaders keep trying to pretend that actually everything’s going great. Yep! In fact, what the SBC needs right now, they imply, is even more Calvinist-addled, hyper-politicized, feminist-hating authoritarians willing to push the denomination even further rightward.

Then their baptism numbers will look pretty again. Yes. Totally, they will. Just give them more power.

The Two Contradictory Goals in the 2021 Annual Report.

I can see why the leaders of the SBC are doing their best to make this year’s bad news look like great news.

They can’t engage at all with what their baptism numbers should be telling them. Those numbers have told them for years exactly what they need to know:

Their one and only product, active membership in their groups, is simply nowhere near as appealing as it used to be. If they want to see baptism numbers increase, then their product needs a serious retooling. It either needs to be less expensive to purchase or the SBC needs to make it worth the price they’re asking for it — or they need to be okay with seeing steady declines in all the metrics that matter to them. The Conservative Resurgence, which should have turned everything around, has failed in every single way imaginable.

Alas, nobody in the SBC’s top leadership is willing to engage with this reality. They want to make their product even more noxious, which they know will turn off a huge number of potential and existing customers. But they also want more people to purchase their product.

So in essence, the SBC’s leaders want both increased popularity and increased toxicity.

Only one of those two things is under the SBC’s direct control, of course. They’ve been ratcheting that one thing up as high as they can for years now. But when their desired popularity doesn’t come in as predicted, as expected, as commanded even, they don’t stop to wonder if their sheer toxicity might be the issue here.

The Endgame of the 2021 Annual Report: Lying for Jesus, As Usual.

Instead, the SBC’s leaders lie through big toothy Jesus smiles about how their ailing denomination is really doing. And they lie. And they lie.

Who knows? Maybe Jesus will magically make their lies into truths one day.

Or maybe their lies will trick a few extra marks into wandering into lonely little SBC baptismal pools.

At the very least, perhaps these lies will convince their current flocks to keep their butts parked in SBC pews for just a bit longer.

Southern Baptists are on the #WINNINGTEAM, after all. Their leaders say so, and TRUE CHRISTIANS™ never lie. 

NEXT UP: The one tangible number on the 2021 Annual Report that the SBC praised was a small net increase in church plants. Tomorrow, let’s look at why that’s not actually a good number at all. And then we plunge back into Hell. Busy busy week around here! See you soon!

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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,...