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Southern Baptists face red in in their book of numbers

 


It was the rare Billy Graham Evangelistic Association event in which Graham was in the audience — incognito in a hat and dark glasses — and his brother-in-law Leighton Ford was in the pulpit.

Graham was set to preach the next day, noted Ford, who told this story many times. At the altar call, Graham saw that the man seated in front of him was struggling. Leaning forward, but remaining anonymous, Graham asked if he wanted to go forward and accept Jesus as his Savior.

No, the man replied, “I’ll just wait till the big gun preaches tomorrow night.”

There was a time when Baptists and other evangelicals could count on ordinary people — unbelievers, even — showing up at crusades and local “revivals” for a variety of reasons. Some were worried about heaven, hell and the state of their souls. Some were impressed by strong local churches and figured they had little to lose, and maybe something to gain, by walking the aisle and getting baptized.

That was then. Anyone who has studied Southern Baptist Convention statistics knows that times have changed. That will be a big subject looming in the background when America’s largest Protestant flock gathers June 11-12 in Birmingham, Alabama, for its annual national convention.

For decades, Southern Baptists have “relied on revivalism” as an evangelistic engine that would deliver church growth, noted the Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

“The problem is that revivalism only works when Christianity is triumphant or on the rise,” he said. “Revivalism ... isn’t going to be as effective when Christianity is seen to be in eclipse — like it is in American culture at this point.”

Southern Baptist membership hit 14.8 million last year, down from 16.3 million in 2006 — falling 8 percent in that era. That reality cannot be ignored, even if it isn’t as stunning as the 30 percent-50 percent declines seen in mainline Protestant churches since the 1960s. The most telling statistics point to declines in baptisms, which fell 3 percent in 2018 — down to 246,442 baptisms — following a 9 percent drop in 2017.

 

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