H. Richard Niebuhr

Thinking about the United Methodist future and (parts of) the Southern Baptist past

Thinking about the United Methodist future and (parts of) the Southern Baptist past

GetReligion readers who have been around a while may recall that I grew up as a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid in Texas. Then I did two degrees at Baylor University in Waco, long known as Jerusalem on the Brazos.

This was all before the great Southern Baptist Convention civil war broke out in the late 1970s. That all went down as I was breaking into journalism and then into religion-beat work.

Looking back, I would say that I was raised on the conservative side of “moderate” SBC life and then went way over to the liturgical “moderate” left — but only on a few political issues (I was very pro-abortion rights, for example). I never was a “moderate” in terms of doctrine. That’s what pushed me over into Anglo-Catholicism and then on to Orthodoxy. You can see signs of that in this 1983 magazine piece I wrote entitled, “Why I Can No Longer Be A Baptist: Giving the Saints the Right to Vote.”

While at The Charlotte Observer, I wrote one of the first stories about the formation of the “moderate” alliance against the more conservative SBC establishment.

Now, if you lived through all of that the way I did, you know this name — Nancy T. Ammerman. Writing as a sociologist of religion, she became one of the go-to scholars who interpreted the SBC civil war and, thus, a popular source for reporters in elite newsrooms (see her “Baptist Battles” book).

If you spoke fluent Southern Baptist, it was easy to see that she was totally sympathetic to the moderates on the losing side of this fight. Still, her views were interesting and often quite perceptive.

That brings us to this weekend’s “think piece,” an Ammerman op-ed for Religion News Service entitled: “How denominations split: Lessons for Methodists from Baptist battles of the ’80s.” Here is a very typical Ammerman summary of the thesis:

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Maybe there's a story here: Lutherans on left, right share some common decline issues

Maybe there's a story here: Lutherans on left, right share some common decline issues

If you hang out in the world of organized religion for several decades -- either as a participant, a reporter-outsider or both -- then you reach a point where there is something refreshing about reading an honest report by a faith-based group that's trying to address a real problem.

It's so easy to ignore problems, year after year, until you look up one day and your pews contain a dozen or so people over the age of 70. The next thing you know, you're trying to see how many nonprofits can lease space in your building so that you can keep the heat on and the doors open.

Sound familiar? Plot lines linked to declining numbers and aging sheep have been getting more and more prominent in recent decades, especially among the oldline Protestant churches on both sides of the Atlantic. That's an old story. We talked about that story in this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), but only because it was linked to something more complex and, I think, more interesting.

You see, many churches on the doctrinal right are facing some -- repeat "some" -- of the same issues as those on the left. Yes, there is some truth to the claims that American Catholics have been able to hold things together because of rising numbers in Hispanic parishes (while also importing some priests from the Global South). Southern Baptists have drifted into a slight decline, facing numbers that are not as staggering as those seen in the "Seven Sisters" on the Protestant left, but they are bad (especially when it comes to baptisms). The old-guard SBC knows that continued growth among African-American and Latino churches is crucial.

So this brings me to a report that I bumped into last year published (.pdf here) by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in its Journal of Lutheran Mission. What's it about? It's about the 40 years or so of decline in membership in the churches of this conservative synod, a decline that is quite similar to that seen on the left.

Want to see some candor? Check out these bullet points from the introduction to the Journal package:

* ... (A)ll denominations gain the overwhelming majority of their membership from natural growth: from children of adult members raised in the faith. Thus, the retention of baptized and confirmed youth is a key area on which to focus.
* The LCMS’s persistent, long-term decline manifests itself both in a massive decrease in child baptisms (down 70 percent since their peak in the late 1950s) and a smaller but still significant decrease in adult converts (down 47 percent since their peak, again in the late 1950s).

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Agnus Dei: Presbyterian hymnal fight makes news

Before we look at a news story from The Tennessean, a little background. Last week I read a fascinating piece in First Things about a particular kerfuffle in one denomination’s hymnal development. It began:

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