There's no doubt that the Covid pandemic has been enormously challenging for religious congregations, especially those that went into this frustrating time knowing little about technology.
As this RNS story reports, since 2006 the congregations in the SBC have lost a total of more than 2 million members, going from 16.3 million members to just over 14 million.
The denomination, once a leader in attracting new members, is bleeding Baptists. Of course, it's not alone in this kind of decline. Mainline Protestant congregations and denominations have been experiencing similar drop-offs for decades. And perhaps the only reason the number of Catholics in the U.S. hasn't dropped in the same way is because of immigration.
The RNS story to which I've linked you, mentions several reasons for the decline peculiar to the SBC: "Southern Baptists, long known for denominational infighting, have seen several high-profile departures of leaders in the past year, including Bible teacher Beth Moore, ethicist Russell Moore and a number of Black pastors. The SBC has also faced controversy over revelations of abuse, disputes over support for Donald Trump and a debate over critical race theory."
I once dropped out of church, starting roughly with my first year in college. And I remained out for about a dozen years. Why did I leave? I was convinced the church was full of hypocrites. In my small hometown, I knew the people in the congregation and knew what they did on Monday through Saturday. A lot of that I couldn't square with what they professed to believe on Sunday mornings.
So I walked away. Only later did I come to realize that I was among the hypocrites and that, as the old saying goes, the church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners.
What I have heard anecdotally a lot in recent years is that people are leaving the church because sometimes what it teaches doesn't match up with the Jesus they have come to know in the Bible. When the church oppresses members of the LGBTQ+ community or women or people of color or immigrants, the only rational conclusion to draw is that the church isn't following Jesus. And if that's the case, who would want to be a member?
When people abuse religion -- such as voting for people whose lives contradict almost every value for which the religion allegedly stands -- it hurts not only that particular religion but religion generally. That's part of what's happened in recent years in response to the overwhelming support white evangelical Christians have given to former President Donald Trump. As the RNS story indicated, that's part of what's driving people out of the SBC.
Whether that denomination -- and religion in general -- can recover from all of this is unknown. Stay tuned.
* * *
LOSING YOUNGER MEMBERS?
Continuing the theme here today: Another factor in church membership shrinkage may be related to what RNS reports in this story: "(N)ine out of ten young people say they didn’t hear from a religious leader during the pandemic." And yet, the story says, most of them didn't lose their faith. But it's going to take a major effort to reintegrate these younger members into congregations (of whatever faith tradition) now that the pandemic has begun to ease. If that doesn't happen, the future for many congregations and traditions looks even dimmer.