By the Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr.
Recently, The Associated Press reported that Southern Baptist churches suffered a loss of members in 2007.
United Methodists will find this hard to believe in the South, where there is an expression about places where "there are more Baptists than people." It's an expression that reflects the historic focus of Southern Baptists on evangelism and conversions, but also their tendency to inflate church rolls. Pastoral success is often viewed in terms of "additions" and membership growth.
The practices of keeping a "non-resident" category of members and often leaving inactive members on the rolls have led some senior Baptist leaders to caution against taking membership figures at face value.
So, what are some of the reasons a system designed to avoid reporting losses can begin to decline numerically? And what might United Methodists discover if we are attentive to factors related to that decline?
• Membership tends to be a lagging indicator. Membership changes, in either a congregation or a denomination, are the result of many factors that have been present for some time. For Southern Baptists, declining baptism rates over many decades may have signaled an impending downturn in membership. United Methodists trace membership losses to the mid-1960s, but we know that the growth rate and share of population for Methodists had declined well before then with little, if any, notice.
• Defensiveness and denial. When membership declines, the natural tendency is to explain it away. In 1998, when Southern Baptists showed their first membership decline in 70 years, some blamed the loss on a new computer system, while others said it was a temporary downturn as churches "clean" their rolls.
Methodists have used the "cleaning the rolls" mantra to explain slow growth or no growth for over a century in the United States. In the 1900 Episcopal Address of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the bishops reported that since 1800, the nation's population had grown 14 times while Methodist membership had grown by 97 times. But in the last four years of that period, the increase was only 4 percent, a much smaller rate of growth.
"How to account for this smaller gain is not easily seen," said the bishops. They went on to say that such decline should not be the "occasion for despondency and evil forebodings." In the future, as in the past, they projected "small gains may soon be followed by larger."
Even allowing for the imprecise nature of church rolls, membership decline should be seen for what it is: a lagging indicator that some other important things need attention.
• Conflict. Some level of tension is always present in healthy and growing churches. However, severe conflict in congregations and denominations tends to take a toll on participation and membership. The Rev. Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, placed part of the blame for membership loss on a perception that some of the denomination's followers are "mean-spirited, hurtful and angry." He contends that Baptists have been known too much in recent years for "what we're against" rather than "what we're for."
• Time takes its toll. As time goes by and churches become successful, it often becomes harder and harder to maintain success. With maturity comes a level of organizational complexity that can be a barrier to growth. And as churches and their members prosper, there is a temptation to become removed from the practices that led to growth in the first place. It could be that Southern Baptists had some of their greatest growth when they were not the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, but rather when they often were seen on the sidelines of religious life that was dominated by more established traditions. United Methodists should remember that our greatest growth came in such a time.
• Change is hard but not impossible. Some demographic indicators suggest that Southern Baptists may be joining that cohort of mainline denominations that has been losing members since the 1960s, a sign perhaps that well-established denominations, regardless of their theology, are increasingly unable to reach new Christians. Unfortunately, Southern Baptists will not learn much from the experience of mainline churches in addressing their decline — except, perhaps, what not to do.
Southern Baptists join these other denominations in the need to break the mold and change enough to turn their fortunes around. They are already recognizing the implications of the fact that their constituency has been primarily white and middle class, and this part of the population is not growing. Southern Baptists are turning their attention to people of color (to remedy a historic weakness of theirs) by starting new churches (a historic strength).
The United Methodist Church did very well "growing up" with America through the 19th century and into the early decades of the 20th century. Then, as the last century unfolded, the nation changed and the church did not. Earlier generations had followed Americans from east to west, from urban to frontier, and from lower to middle and upper-middle classes. But success led to staying with practices even as they became increasingly less effective.
Today, The United Methodist Church in the United States is not only dramatically smaller, but it is older and less diverse than the population. Southern Baptists and United Methodists will have faithful and fruitful futures to the extent that they can find ways to reach more people, younger people and more diverse people.
Weems is distinguished professor of church leadership and director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. This commentary is adapted from the center's online newsletter, Leading Ideas, available free at www.churchleadership.com. Weems spoke at the 2008 Mississippi Annual Conference.