It’s not just the mainline: Decline in the Southern Baptist Convention

For the fifth straight year, total membership in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) declined. Membership fell nearly one percentage point to just less than 16 million members. Baptisms and the number of churches rose slightly—by 0.70 percent and 0.08 percent, respectively. Baptisms hit a 60-year low for the denomination, though still totaled more than 330,000. The denomination planted almost 1,000 new churches, of which 50 percent were non-Anglo; however, the net gain of 37 churches was one of the lowest totals in 40 years.

These trends are not new but should refute the claim that mainline decline is due to liberal theology and progressive social stances. Read the article here.

The analogy between bookstores and the church

David Lose, whom I respect immensely, wrote recently on the parallel decline of bookstores and institutional Christianity:

This means things may – actually, strike that, things will  – look different. But it may also lead to a renewed sense of the nature and purpose of our congregations.  After all, there are a lot fewer book publishers and bookstores than there were a decade ago. At the same time, more people are reading – print books, ebooks, blogs, webzines, etc. – than ever before. The question isn’t whether people will keep reading, but who will help them do it.

The same is true, I think, of congregations. This present generation reports a greater interest in mystery, the divine, and spirituality than has any generation in a century. So the question isn’t whether people will seek God, but rather who will help them find God

Then I came across this. In 1931,

“In the entire country, there were only some four thousand places where a book could be purchased, and most of these were gift shops and stationary stores that carried only a few popular novels,” Davis writes. “In reality, there were but five hundred or so legitimate bookstores that warranted regular visits from publishers’ salesmen (and in 1931 they were all men). Of these five hundred, most were refined, old-fashioned ‘carriage trade’ stores catering to an elite clientele in the nation’s twelve largest cities.”

Read the whole article.

The rise of book publishing, “the paperback generation,” perfectly mirrors the growth in institutional Christianity in the twentieth century. The decline in “bricks and mortar” retailing, perfectly mirrors the decline in institutional Christianity.

What should we conclude? Lose is right: “The question isn’t whether people will seek God, but rather who will help them find God.”

The Failure of Institutions–In Middletown and across the country

After reading my post about institutional failure in the Episcopal Church, a friend pointed me to an article in National Journal (via Salon) about the failure of institutions in Middle America. It looks at Muncie, Indiana. Muncie is famous as Middletown, USA, an early twentieth-century sociological study of the city.

The article includes a lengthy comparison of a downtown United Methodist Church and a suburban megachurch. The authors do little more than compare the optics, however–attendance, demographics, the gym and coffee shop at the megachurch, and don’t explore some of the other dynamics at play. In fact, they seem not to notice that in an article focusing on the failures of a city’s institutions, the one megachurch member they quote moved there, not from a downtown church, but from a rural congregation.

And although the authors want to blame institutions for the decline in Muncie, institutions including mainline Christianity, the Gallup chart they reproduce shows that confidence in “church and religion” has increased by 3%.

Alex Pareene comments:

The piece as a whole lays blame for the sorry state of affairs in Muncie at the crumbling of institutions — church, school, government — but Whitmire is actually a victim of elites. It’s elite consensus that loan modifications have to be limited and difficult for homeowners in order to preclude “moral hazard” and save banks from having to overexert themselves. Mitch Daniels, a leading GOP presidential contender among George Will-style Republicans, slashed state payrolls, in the name of fiscal responsibility. The sorts of people who pay for National Journal subscriptions are actually responsible for this guy’s life going to hell.

I’m tempted to side with Pareene on this one.