Southern Baptists’ Midlife Crisis

Forty years after its conservative rebirth, the nation’s largest Protestant body is showing signs of age.

Members of a Baptist church pray.
Jonathan Bachman / Reuters

In the summer of 1979, conservatives within the Southern Baptist Convention gathered in Houston for their annual meeting with the goal of seizing control of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. These conservatives claimed that theological liberalism had taken root in the denomination’s seminaries and agencies, and was taking the group down the path of heresy. Seminary professors were openly questioning the historical accuracy of some of the Bible’s miraculous stories, such as Noah’s flood. Progressive churches were embracing the ordination of women and even debating accepting LGBTQ people into the life of the Church. These “problems” could be corrected only by a disruptive overhaul of leadership.

To shift the balance of power, these conservatives implemented a strategy that was as simple as it was genius: Recruit and assemble messengers who would attend the denomination’s annual meeting and vote for a handpicked conservative for the SBC presidency. The new president would, in turn, nominate only conservatives to serve on governing boards of seminaries and agencies. And finally, once conservatives controlled a majority share of these boards, they would replace establishment liberal leaders with conservative foot soldiers.

Some 15,000 Southern Baptist messengers gathered in Houston in 1979, and after the ballots were counted, a fiery 47-year-old conservative preacher named Adrian Rogers was elected president. His unparalleled command of rhetoric and uncompromising belief in the inerrancy of scripture made him the perfect person to inaugurate the conservative revolution. Rogers received only 51 percent of the vote over several other candidates, but that was enough. His election was the toppling of the first domino, triggering a purge of left-leaning leaders and churches from the denomination. Just like that, the Southern Baptist Convention was born again.

This week, the group gathers in Birmingham, Alabama, exactly 40 years since the Southern Baptist Convention as we know it came into existence. Just like many individuals of a similar age, the denomination is experiencing a bit of a midlife crisis, defined by a lack of purpose and deep internal conflict. Our rapidly changing world has, in the words of the Baylor University historian Barry Hankins, “thrust the group into the middle of an identity crisis.” In the early days of their revolution, conservative SBC leaders united around the common goal of defeating their left-leaning brethren. But the liberals are long gone now, leaving no enemies for these “battling Baptists” to fight—except themselves.

The SBC is contracting in both membership and church attendance. It has shed a stunning 1 million members since 2003, and is on pace to lose nearly 100,000 people each year for the foreseeable future. Annual baptisms, which are of obvious importance to Baptists, have plummeted to a 70-year low. Additionally, the denomination is failing to either attract new young people or retain the ones it has. Only half of children raised Southern Baptist choose to remain Southern Baptist. Although the denomination has made attempts to curb the decline through evangelism task forces and mission efforts, such tactics aren’t working as hoped.

There is no easy explanation for this decline. You can’t merely blame secularization or chalk it up to the growing number of religiously unaffiliated people in America, because evangelicals in general have increased in number. So what gives? Underneath the numeric slippage lies a more substantive problem: cultural irrelevance. The denomination used to contribute to, or even drive, conversations on the day’s most pressing issues. At the height of the conservative takeover, the goings-on in the denomination were closely monitored by national media and regularly covered by network nightly news programs such as ABC’s Nightline. In 1985, the wildly popular daytime-TV host Phil Donahue devoted an entire show to the denomination. Now only a handful of religion journalists are paying close attention. The world has moved on.

Conservative leaders who clutched control of the group decades ago were nearly unified in their convictions and hyper-focused on their chosen mission. Today the group is fractured and endlessly consumed by infighting. It’s fought over the growing influence of Calvinism, a theological system based on the teachings of John Calvin. It’s fought over whether its Christian faith means it should care about “social justice” issues. And just recently, it’s fought over whether a woman can teach or preach in a Sunday church service. Cultivating a fresh vision for the future is difficult when you’re preoccupied with putting out fires.

In the past, the election of a Republican president would have unified a conservative group such as the SBC, infusing it with fresh energy. But Donald Trump’s election further fractured the group instead. Some prominent Southern Baptist pastors—including Robert Jeffress and Jack Graham—vocally supported Trump for his conservative positions on issues such as abortion and his promise to appoint conservative judges. But many others—such as Russell Moore, the head of the denomination’s public-policy arm—could not stomach the thrice-married, foul-mouthed, serial-lying candidate’s poor character. (Moore’s opposition so angered Graham and others that it nearly cost Moore his job.) When Vice President Mike Pence was invited to speak at last year’s annual gathering, many pastors protested.

Nothing said here will come as a surprise to most Southern Baptist leaders, particularly younger ones. They see their crisis as clearly as outsiders do. Last year, Southern Baptists elected the North Carolina pastor J. D. Greear as their president in hopes of ushering in “a new day in the SBC.” At 45 years old, Greear is one of the youngest men elected to the post, and he has asserted his desire to call off the culture war and partisan politics. He wants to promote “racial reconciliation and cultural diversity.” But as Greear concludes his first term, little seems to have changed.

Perhaps his election was a cosmetic solution to an existential problem, a change akin to a middle-aged friend purchasing a cherry-red sports car. The hum of the Corvette engine is exciting at first, but in a blink, you realize that the same person with the same problems is behind the wheel. Southern Baptists can’t simply vote their way to revival this time. They must do some deep self-examination and get their house in order.

This week in Birmingham, Southern Baptists have an opportunity to do just that. The emerging sexual-abuse crisis in the denomination should undoubtedly be the first priority. An investigation released by the Houston Chronicle in February revealed decades of sexual abuse and a pattern of repeat offenders stretching back decades and affecting hundreds of victims. New revelations continue to emerge, and Southern Baptists should expect this story to get worse, not better, for them.

Though Greear has made several proposals for seriously addressing the matter, denominational leaders are split. Some claim that Southern Baptist churches are autonomous and that the denomination has no place interfering in the matter. Others believe that sexual abuse demands a serious response, including restitution for victims. The latter have the better argument.

The Roman Catholic Church’s failure to adequately respond to its sexual-abuse scandal has had devastating effects. Donations have dropped, members’ faith in clergy has fallen, and the total number of Catholics in America has plummeted by more than 3 million since 2007 alone—more than any other religious group. Parents will avoid any space, no matter how sacred, if they question the safety of their children, and few people will donate their hard-earned money to an institution they don’t respect and trust. Southern Baptists must learn from Catholics’ mistakes and deal aggressively with this scandal in its early stages.

According to the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, midlife marks a period of time when one must choose between “stagnation” and “generativity.” You can stay the course, retreating to a life of nostalgia, regret, and fear. The other option is to accept the new normal, stop trying to reclaim past glories, and transform to meet the needs of the moment. For Southern Baptists, a posture of generativity would require leaders to refocus on the emerging moral issues of our age.

Few issues are more relevant now than racial division. The Southern Baptist Convention, which was founded over the issue of slavery and was mostly supportive of segregation and Jim Crow laws, is still 85 percent white. It issued an apology for its racist past in 1995, but the group struggled to pass resolutions condemning white supremacy and the Confederate flag. As Greear wrote, “In theory, very few people in the American church are opposed to the idea of racial and cultural diversity. But experience would suggest that on this issue good intentions do not equal forward progress.”

When the denomination’s executive committee, which oversees the day-to-day business of the denomination, set about selecting a new leader this year, many minority leaders pressed for a person of color as a tangible marker of progress. The suggestions were disregarded, and instead the committee selected Ronnie Floyd, a white Baby Boomer from Arkansas. When a prominent black Baptist pastor criticized Trump for racist remarks in which the president called Caribbean and African nations “shithole countries,” he was largely ignored. Several prominent Southern Baptist pastors continue to serve on Trump’s religious advisory council. This kind of tone deafness by white Southern Baptist leaders sends a message to people of color that the denomination does not take their concerns seriously.

And what about the dignity and equality of women? The SBC has bombed in that department as well. Last year, troubling allegations emerged about the revered Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson. Recordings of his sermons revealed Patterson body shaming a young woman and downplaying domestic abuse. For weeks, the Southern Baptist old guard rallied around their friend, even in the face of a petition calling for his resignation signed by thousands of Southern Baptist women. Finally, evidence emerged that Patterson had mishandled an abuse allegation at a seminary he led and he was terminated.

Recently, the wildly popular Bible teacher Beth Moore was bullied online by prominent Baptist leaders and bloggers for teaching men in a Sunday church service. Attacks on Moore grew so intense that The Washington Post reported that the issue was dominating official denominational discussions. Southern Baptist teaching holds that the office of the pastor is reserved for males, and some parishioners presumably wouldn’t support a woman preaching in their church. But what message does it send that such a petty matter sparked such furor? Given that half of Southern Baptists are women, the denomination must find ways to elevate women, affirm women’s gifts, and oppose gender-based violence and discrimination.

For some, discussions about reinventing the Southern Baptist Convention elicit fear that conservative control is slipping away. But they can no longer be avoided. If the decline continues and leaders remain unable or unwilling to make changes, America’s largest denomination won’t just be over the hill; it’ll be in the grave.