Something the Southern Baptist Convention Can Learn from the Mormons

RayBloggernacle, christianity, church, evangelicals, LDS, Mormon, Mormons, religion 27 Comments

The following article highlights something that the Mormon Church has been criticized by some for doing for years, but it is the Southern Baptist Convention (often the most vocal criticizers of Mormonism) that is doing it in this case.

SBC Membership Reporting Controversy

A second article, linked in the above article, provides very disturbing numbers for the SBC. It can be found here:

Data Problems Within the SBC

What does this mean?

1) Internally, the Southern Baptist Convention is facing pressure to view and report its membership much like the Mormon Church has been doing for years – by reporting (at the very least internally) a total membership AND an “active membership”. This method is being touted internally as the “honest” way to address this issue. (Note that the Mormon Church’s funding of local congregations is based strictly on average attendance of Sacrament Meeting – the worship service portion of the Sunday meetings. It does not include, for example, youth who attend mid-week activities but do not attend the Sunday worship service – and it does not include members who attend Priesthood or Relief Society meetings but not Sacrament Meeting.)

2) With roughly six million members attending worship service weekly out of an official total of roughly sixteen million, the SBC has an “activity rate” of approximately 37.5% – compared to the Mormon Church’s activity rate of approximately 40%. Statistically, they are the same – particularly since my figures are broad estimates only. Obviously, the Mormon Church is not unique in its struggles to retain activity among its membership, and, even given its greater demands on time (both on Sunday and in the fulfillment of callings) and financial investment, it is doing so every bit as well as the SBC.

3) The “new convert” growth of the SBC, measured by baptisms per year, is shrinking annually – and quite dramatically. Since the “Raise the Bar” announcement, the Mormon Church’s North American baptism rate has been flat (-1%) – which is a significantly lower drop than that experienced by the SBC. (World-wide, the Mormon Church’s baptism rate is about 4%-5%, with an international growth rate of about 5%-6%.)

4) I have no idea at the moment how this plays out in the other large denominations, since (to my knowledge) they aren’t reporting “activity rates” in the same way that the Mormon Church does.

***THIS POST IS NOT INTENDED AS A COMMENTARY ON THE SBC.*** I mean that sincerely. Please don’t turn it into a debate about the SBC. It is intended solely to highlight something that I have noticed for many years.

Members and former members of the Church tend to be hyper-critical of it, which is natural given our emotional investment, but too often this criticism lacks broader context – which means, as in this case, that something like the Church’s struggle with activity rates that is very common to religious organizations as a whole (but addressed directly and openly by the Mormon Church and accomplished at the very least as well as others) morphs into a unique example of the failure of this organization and then morphs again into an example of deceit, dishonesty and even blatant manipulation. In this instance, that simply isn’t the case.

I have no idea how many people have used the Church’s inactivity rate as part of their justifications for criticizing it in multiple ways, but I do believe that the issues raised by this article for the SBC highlight the care all of us should take before we accept something (anything, really) without knowing the big picture and end up on a bandwagon that plays no legitimate tune.

Comments 27

  1. Ray,

    A very good post. I think it is important for people of all religion to see our common ground. By doing this people are not able to continue prejudice, they have to start saying “They are like me” ” or “us”. My guess is both church’s could learn something from one another that would help each other. I have no idea what that issue is, but I bet the answer is something they both have in common.

  2. How does the SBC determine membership? Is there a membership initiation (like baptism)? Fill out a form? Just show up to church? I’ve had Southern Baptist friends my whole life but I just realized I had no idea what determines who is a “card-carrying member” of the SBC.

  3. “members who attend Priesthood or Relief Society meetings but not Sacrament Meeting” Who are these nut jobs?

    Cliff – anyone more ‘in the know’ should feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I recall “Baptist” covers a wide variety of groups. Leadership is focused on the local congregation level. Baptism is not always required, and membership can be transferred into some congregations based on ‘compatible protestant faiths’ as deemed by the local congregation. SBC may be stricter than this; I am speaking of Baptists more generally. Again, feel free to correct if anyone is aware I’m wrong.

  4. “members who attend Priesthood or Relief Society meetings but not Sacrament Meeting” Who are these nut jobs?

    Yeah, seems like it would be the other way around in most cases.

    As for Baptists, they’ve always been the most virulently anti-Mormon denomination, at least from my experience in rural KCMO. Them and the nondenominationalists, which movement is, I think, just a guerrilla-tactic and front-group of the Southern Baptist Convention (or an off-shoot of the Southern Baptist Convention, a pseudo-reformation within the system of Baptist conventions).

    Since nondenominationalism is just another denomination, maybe it’s time we call them by their real name: Protestant-protestant.

    Nondenominationalism is certainly a strictly Baptist movement, and since these churches are unaffiliated with any convention, and since most of the growth within Christendom in recent years has been through “born again” nondenominationalist conversions to nondenominationalist churches, I expect the “Baptist” figures would be much more awe-inspiring if somehow these non-affiliated “Baptist” churches could be numbered.

    I have a close SBC friend that is currently being brainwashed at a moshav/kibbutz in Israel. Now her language involves a lot of talk about “believers”, which is a new buzzword for her. In the past, we’ve had lengthy discussions about the necessity or meaning of full-immersion baptism (one of the few doctrines we share with them), the corporeal resurrection and the final judgment, etc. In all these things, she knew little to nothing of such fundamentally Christian concepts and she was very unsure if they had any importance at all. The only thing she seemed to be sure about was “personal relationship with Jesus” and “Jesus in your heart”, which I don’t mean to dog on those ideas, but that was the extent of her education/indoctrination. The Baptist churches, even those aligned with the various conventions, have done a very horrible job teaching their “believers” the most simple and fundamental of Christian doctrines.

  5. PS: About the only inspiring thing about my friend’s new “believers” lingo is that it seems to include openness to the idea that, e.g., Mormons and Jews for Jesus are included in this new category or division. “Believers” seems to now mean everybody that is down with Savior-Jesus and his imminent Second Coming (and I mean IMMINENT, from the way these guys are talking), and whether or not the Baptists agree with the rest of their doctrines.

    For the lastest in Baptist theologies currently evolving in Israel, see:

  6. Thanks, everyone. Let me simply reiterate that I really don’t want this post to turn into a discussion of the SBC – although questions of how membership numbers are totaled are legitimate, since they deal specifically with the issue of reporting.

    Todd, if you still are reading this thread, can you enlighten us?

    (I would exempt from all discussions of “membership”, simply out of personal bias, estimates based on “people saved” by evangelical revival meetings. I have to draw my line to make the distinction outlined in the SBC article – regular attendance at worship services. To me, that shows a degree of dedication and commitment that would warrant being classified as a member.)

  7. I think it’s much more commom for the less active and/or lapsed in other denonimations to still publically identify themselves as members thereof which, btw, makes future return far more likely. LDS stats are grossly inflated on that score. There’s also the huge demographic hole in our church of the loss of most of the current single young adult generation. With the inflated stats, that hole will soon hit us like falling off a cliff rather than gradually when the children of those now single people are missed. The damage is largely irreversible. It will take major reform and generations for the LDS church to even begin to recover from this self inflicted wound (chasing the young away, not the inflated stats).

  8. Steve EM – why do you think the YSA have been chased away? And what could the church do/have done to prevent it? Oops, threadjack?

    My POV is that the SBC/LDS activity problems are probably endemic to all religions these days (with the possible exception of Islam), due to societal influences, scientific influences (ie evolution), the internet, etc. I look at declining activity rates as a large social/cultural trend which is probably not reversible by any church(es) attempts to bolster programs or make institutional changes. I could be wrong and am happy to have rebuttals here.

  9. Steve, I return to my original point:

    Whether or not your assertion is correct, and I don’t think it is relative to self-identification among those who do not attend other religious worship services regularly, how is this unique to Mormonism? From my own observations and studies, it appears that all major Christian denominations are losing active membership – and it is happening particularly among the young single adult populations for all.

    One more point: Part of the first article focuses specifically on the issue of the SBC not excommunicating those who have removed themselves from the SBC and live lives in active opposition to its teachings. It is easy to justify this lack of action by looking at the fallout when the Mormon Church does it, but the argument by those inside the SBC who are leading the “regenerative Christian” movement are pushing for more proactive designation of those who do not prove their faith through their actions – and excommunicating them.

    This is fascinating to me. Absolutely fascinating.

  10. Iow, I agree with you, working mother. If we can find a way to reach the YSA population, we will have unlocked the mystery of the ages. (Think of the description of the same issue with Alma and the Sons of Mosiah. This is not a new problem – and it certainly is strongest among those religions who hold to a strongly “conservative” lifestyle in a strongly “liberal” society [morally, NOT politically]. Again, think of Alma and the Sons of Mosiah. What I just described fits their society perfectly.)

  11. This is an even bigger threadjack but I hope you will forgive me! It seems like losing so many YSAs is a huge issue, but one that gets surprisingly little discussion at least at the rank & file level. And I can’t remember ever seeing a blog post about how we treat the kids who return home early or who are sent home from missions. We are losing generations of people who have had enormous resources invested in them and we are losing them seemingly without batting an eye. It’s tragic.

  12. 12. More threadjack – I agree with you that it is phenomenal how so little attention is being paid to the problem of YSA activity. This trend if not reversed is basically fatal. You can’t keep growing, or even surviving if the younger generation abandons ship. If all the young women go, all the young men go – and they don’t raise their children in the church – no young missionaries – no missionary work – no converts – vicious cycle IMO.

  13. Working Mother, believe me, there is NOT a lack of attention to YSA activity. It is a core concern of the global church leadership and many local leaders. That is another example of what this post addresses at the core.

  14. working mother (#9) —

    My POV is that the SBC/LDS activity problems are probably endemic to all religions these days

    I think you’re right, there is something about the younger generation these days.

    Personally, I think it’s because we’re in the stage when the righteous are called out of the world just before the fall of Babylon (Rev. 18:1-7). Just remember that because of the plagues and pestilences which are about to befall you, it is better that your younger generations remove themselves from the world and the (corrupt) Church, so that they are spared the judgments and punishments that are upon you.

    We also seem to be in a time when the young women do not want to get pregnant and bear children (“But woe to them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!”, etc.).

    I suppose They(tm) say that teen pregnancy is epidemic, and the Church is even making lame videos urging single mothers to give their “accidental” children away in adoption to be sealed to other families (woe indeed!), but the world I live in seems different from the propaganda.

    Most of my female peers intend either to never give birth and raise families or they seem to be waiting for the their 30s. There is lots of talk about the world already being too overpopulated and not needing to bring more people down here, that down here it is torturous and therefore it’s immoral to bring children here, etc.

    Or maybe what I’m seeing is the Idiocracy Effect(tm): those who should be breeding are not (i.e., the educated), and those who shouldn’t be breeding are (i.e., the uneducated), having the net effect of dumbing down society. 500 more years of this general trend should be interesting!

  15. In past callings as District and Ward clerk in areas with large numbers of military members we were instructed to add 10% to the sacrament meeting attendance to account for any member who might be deployed or standing duty. Funny thing is, in my last ward, when you would actually count the number of military folks actually absent for official military duties, the number was generally 2 or 3, but yet we would consistently increase our sacrament meeting attendance by 16-20.

    So I am always skeptical as to the accuracy of the “active members” number reported.

  16. Kari, I can’t comment directly on that issue, since I have no experience in military wards. I understand the concept and have no real issue if it’s as accurate as possible, but adding 16-20 if the “real” number is 2-3 is wrong. Plain and simple.

    Fwiw, I would have no problem with units in areas with a high concentration of doctors counting them in the regular numbers weekly if all they can do is attend monthly – and if they actually do attend monthly. If they are attending every week they are able to do so, I would count them as “active”. (and I would apply that to anyone who also can’t attend weekly but attends every time possible) That’s just me, perhaps, but it seems to fit the spirit of the law.

  17. Regarding my opinion on how young singles were chased from our flock, I previously commented about it on Hawkgrrrl’s Gerontocracy post. The reforms needed to prevent recurrence would yield a church none of us would recognize, but which would be much more inviting to all. Better, more diverse music program, local variations in worship such as call and response, PowerPoint, energetic preaching, etc, eliminating silly modern LDS circumcisions such as WofW as requirement, updating the temple liturgy, dumping G’s for something less cultish, stop treating adults like children w/ prying rogue Bishops questions that aren’t anybody’s business, stop applying a biblical LoC from a time of arranged marriages of teens to adults who marry out of love, stop ex’ing people who put out an innocent calendar, etc, etc. Basically, quit making it so f-ing embarrassing to be a with-the-program LDS in 2008. Step #1 is a retirement tradition for apostles if we are to have a prayer of opening the reform floodgates.

    Sorry, but many churches do a much better job of sinner retention than we do.

  18. #20 – So, in summary, become a Protestant church.

    Steve, my problem with that **as it relates to this post** is that it appears most churches actually don’t do a much better job of it than we do when dealing with YSA. I would love to see stats for the other large denominations, but if the SBC is any indication . . .

  19. Ray – to Steve EM’s point, tho, SBC is hardly the poster child for progressive doctrines.

    But I do feel we could be more successful at retention if we stripped away things that are not core and got back to basics. I would not go so far as to lose a sense of uniqueness or of exclusivity, both of which are vital to weathering the storm, IMO.

  20. Steve M – I was interested in your 60’s statistics of 10-15% activity. Where did this come from and how did the church improve it, if you know? Also you have a lot of interesting ideas of how to improve activity.

    17. Derek, I quite agree with your assessment of who is reproducing and who is not – it rather frightens me.

    In general I see young people as actually being extremely idealistic and really wanting to make a difference in the world. I truly believe if the church could update its ideas on what is important to the young and activate their idealism it would have a huge impact. By this I mean – start emphasizing more of the things that the young generation sees as important – things like equality of opportunity worldwide, breaking down cultural barriers, global warming, the energy crisis.

    My idea, and I know this has been brought up elsewhere, is that the church begin promoting humanitarian/ecological missions for the youth in addition to proselytising missions, that really allow them to feel they are making a difference and empower their creativity. The reason I feel this would be successful, is I take humanitarian missions to Honduras every year, and many of those who go are late teens/early 20’s. They pay their own way, are willing to take time off work and school, work incredibly hard before and during the trips, and come back amazingly energized and changed. They tend to go year after year, and are very devoted to the people and communities they serve. There is nothing like meaningful, Christlike service to energize and empower the young and old – I think we are missing a lot of opportunity here by emphasizing so much conversion as opposed to selfless service with no ulterior motive. It is not that I do not understand why the church focuses so much on conversion, I just don’t think it is working all that well in the world right now. But fact of the matter is, I don’t really know if this would retain the youth any better – I just think they would respond with more enthusiasm to these kinds of opportunities, than to the traditional youth conferences, etc.

  21. things like equality of opportunity worldwide, breaking down cultural barriers, global warming, the energy crisis.

    The thing is, these aren’t the concerns of our generation… It’s sad, I know, that the disparity is this great, but these are the concerns manufactured by The Media(tm) in an attempt to mask and replace what is really the root of the problems. The idealism of the young generation is the result of their open eyes and ears, not media manipulation, and they have more to say than many of us are willing to hear… But you need not wait long. They are coming, and they will be heard.

  22. But fact of the matter is, I don’t really know if this would retain the youth any better – I just think they would respond with more enthusiasm to these kinds of opportunities, than to the traditional youth conferences, etc.

    I don’t think you could be more right on.

    As you say yourself, the youth are already doing service, empowering others and being empowered, outside of the Church, and you say you see this as you do service outside of the Church. By their works ye shall know them! It sounds to me like you’re in close quarters to the true body of Christ with the youth of these secular mission trips.

    I could certainly see the Church transforming itself into a truly revolutionary organization, but when this happens (and I think it will happen [again]) it will be catalyzed by the youth and the priests, and not by the elders and the fathers.

    We are rebuilding your world around you. It is a slow process at the moment, but these inter-tubes are making it easier. It will probably not gain much haste until after some apocalyptic cataclysm science calls “punctuated equilibrium”. But the seeds are sown, and the eventual outcome is inevitable.

    In the mean time, you can thank the hackers:

    (Next week’s lesson will be on the Law of Consecration in relation to software, intellectual property, copyright, and financial markets.)

  23. I think working mother’s got it right about the idealism. Another very real issue for YSAs is that people are getting married older and the law of chastity isn’t very compatible with that. So, if you are a YSA (vs. a YMA), at some point you are probably going to feel like the 40-year old virgin (even if you are 25 or 30). All the YSAs I know struggled with that – not even with the compliance so much as the feeling like the only single person and like some kind of loser for keeping the law of chastity at such an old age.

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