And the numbers are in, according to Lifeway's Ed Stetzer. The hot zone that triggered the greatest concern was the loss in Baptisms. This one dip sent a tremble through the airwaves equal to a whopping 5.0 magnitude on a Richter scale.
The New York Times: Ranks of Southern Baptists Are Still Growing Thinner
ABC News: Southern Baptist Numbers Decline Again
Atlanta Journal Constitution: Southern Baptist Membership, Baptisms Decline
Dallas Morning News: Southern Baptists Report Drop in Membership and Baptisms
Baptist bloggers wasted no time weighing in on the subject. The now, almost defunct SBC Outpost, at one time the most promising online news arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, purported to offer the Lifeway story as their breaking news: This Just In--SBC in Decline. SBC Voices, a new network of over three hundred SBC bloggers, featured a four-part video interview/presentation by Ed Stetzer on Ed Stetzer on the Decline of the SBC.
Timmy Brister wonders if "one factor that we should consider is that perhaps churches are seeking to be more responsible with their church membership" while Nathan Finn, a professor of Church History at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, remarks toward those who, like Brister, entertain responsible church membership as a factor in the equation that "At the risk of being rude, I have to keep from laughing out loud at the suggestion. Our numbers would really decline if we were honest about our statistics!"
The most cautious commentary was offered by Dr. Malcolm Yarnell, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Originally on Ed Stetzer's blog and reproduced on SBC Today, Professor Yarnell inquires to Stetzer:
Thanks for this post. As always, you do provoke thought. However, there are so many assumptions that have gone into your statements, that it is impossible to evaluate them with any depth...
Afterward, Professor Yarnell teased out carefully several of those assumptions that went into the analysis Stetzer offered of the numbers. I think Dr. Yarnell's overall point was, given the nature of numbers and assumptions behind their ambiguous meaning, why must the numbers definitively demonstrate decline? And why the hurry to pronounce such a verdict?
The question that begs to be asked is, when did evidence become the verdict? Evidence is normally offered as the basis for a proposition, not the verdict of it. A prosecutor assembles his case and presents it in a court of law to query a verdict of the accused. His hopes are that either jury or judge will agree with him. In the present discussion of Lifeway, however, the evidence is the verdict.
And, that verdict, of course, validates the special focus we all possess. For Founders, it the lost Gospel they've been lamenting. For those who suggest the SBC leadership is closed to younger Baptist leaders, the numbers tell us we're losing ground because we are running off up and coming Pastors. Some say this shows our squabbles have finally got the best of us (It doesn't seem to dawn on these folks that rifts are inevitable to Baptist people. We have always fought. We always will. Families do that.).
Still others proudly proclaim our narrowing the parameters of who can be Baptist is plain as day in the numbers. Why? Because we're definitively in decline, that's why. The numbers say so. You just have to believe the numbers!
Were prosecutors allowed to make their case as those in the media and among Baptist bloggers who've prematurely pronounced "Stats Are In: We're declining", no prosecutor would ever lose a case; no accused would ever be found "not guilty". The evidence the prosecutor brings is the pre-established verdict. I do not know about elsewhere, but in the rural south. we've known that kind of setup as a kangaroo court.
Know that any retreat in either winning people to Christ or disciples following Christ in Baptism is something no one desires. Certainly not I. But from my perspective, why we must pronounce the Southern Baptist Convention in decline prior to soberly discussing precisely what the numbers mean for us is, in my view, hasty, premature and wrong-headed.
With that, I am...