I know what you’re thinking. What is an atheist like me doing commenting on changes within the Southern Baptist Convention? Well for starters I spent the first 21 years of my life mostly going to Southern Baptist churches. Moving on though, I have read about some changes going on within the SBC that are interesting to say the least.
The SBC has had four years of declining membership and will likely continue to decline going forward as the country becomes more and more secular. To turn around this losing streak churches are trying various methods. Some are opting to not even use the word Baptist in their name though they still retain membership in the SBC. Some are moving toward non traditional music and worship styles in order to attract more of the younger crowd. What is most interesting for me though is that some churches are also doing away with altar calls.
What is an altar call you may wonder. Well, an altar call is an invitation by the church’s pastor to come forward publicly at the end of the service and make a public profession of your faith. Some churches are doing away with this. It is primarily some of the larger churches that are doing this. The primary reason given is that people can pray the “sinner’s prayer” from their pew and the public profession of their faith should be their baptism. I would suggest that it has more to do with adapting to modern culture. After all if your in the middle of a crowded pew and you decide to accept an altar call in a large church then it is very much like having to go the bathroom in a crowded theater. You have to negotiate around the other people in the pew. Some are suggesting that it may also have to do with a growing acceptance of Reformed theology over Arminian theology within the SBC, and while I think there is some merit to that happening I don’t think that is the case in this instance. I won’t bore you with the differences between Reformed and Arminian theology except to say that Reformed theology essentially teaches that there is an elect that God has chosen that will be saved regardless whereas Arminian theology says not so fast we have to get out there and spread the word because people have free will. That is a simplistic way of putting it. If you are interested in looking at the differences in more detail look it up on Wikipedia.
Another change that is interesting is that apparently the President of the SBC has appointed a task force to consider a name change because Southern Baptist sounds too regional. That maybe a good move though whether the Convention will go along with it is hard to say as they have rejected name change suggestions eight times before in their history already.
There are some good reasons to consider the name change besides the regional reason given. One being that Southern tends to remind people of the racist past of the convention. They were originally one convention including Northern Baptists in a group called the Triennial Convention, but in 1845 the Triennial Convention wanted to ban slaveholders from being missionaries. Of course the southerners didn’t want to step on the toes of their slave-holding brethren so they formed their own convention.
The SBC has tried to move away from its racist past by building more diverse congregations and there are some African American Southern Baptist churches now, but in some of the smaller, more rural churches, prejudice still remains largely in place. In my experience I’ve heard of pastors and deacons ask visiting African Americans to not come back. That is often because in the smaller rural churches the congregation tends to be old, set in their ways, and prejudiced.
Of course that doesn’t really happen in the larger churches anymore and it is the more urban larger churches who are pushing for change within the SBC. They do have some influence and an African American was elected for the first time recently as a Vice President of the Convention.
The Southern Baptist Convention was once called the “Catholic Church of the South” largely because of the influence it held when it held a majority of the population of southern states as adherents. Yet this isn’t the case anymore with the exception of Mississippi. Why you may ask. Well the answer is largely due to immigration. The Hispanic population that immigrates here tends to remain Catholic.
Is there anything Southern Baptists can really do to stem their losses? I doubt it. The country is becoming more and more secular and from my perspective that’s a good thing.