COLUMBIA — A declining membership and the suggestion to merge two mission boards are getting much attention at the annual Southern Baptist Convention in Louisville, Ky.
The annual convention concludes Thursday and will address a downward trend in membership among Southern Baptist churches, as well as the possibility of merging the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board. Resolutions to be discussed at the meeting will cover topics such as abortion, gay rights and support for the president. They are meant to express opinions on particular issues but are not binding documents for members.
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Declining membership, though, is one of the central topics of discussion, one that many Columbia pastors think is necessary for the denomination.
Brian Evans, pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Columbia, said the decline in church membership is keeping staff awake at night. He admits he's not quite sure how to solve the problem.
In 1988, Calvary had 600 members at its Sunday services. Now that number is 150. A 40 percent drop in its budget over the last 10 years illustrates how precarious the situation is for the congregation. The church spends $50,000 a year on utilities, Evans said.
And if things don't change, Evans said it might be necessary to shutter the church in the next 20 years — or even sooner. An older membership dominates most mainline denominations, including Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches. The generation gap is partly to blame for the downturn in membership. It's the result of three things, Evans said: Young people don't like the concept of authority and find it hard to accept; people prefer sports or recreation to attending church; and the traditional church is reluctant to "change its practices that were forged by previous generations."
Mainline churches surged in the 1940s and '50s but started seeing declines in the 1960s. Membership in Southern Baptist Convention churches rose by 59 percent from 1961 to 1998, according to figures cited in an article by Baptist Press, the denomination's news agency.
However, the downward trend in hallmark Baptist ideals such as baptisms and new church starts has become visible in recent years. Reports show that the annual Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, which supports a large portion of SBC missionary work, dropped by $9 million from 2007 to 2008, and the number of missionaries sent out dropped from 979 in 2008 to about 600 this year.
Some of the convention's problems come from divisions that began years ago when the denomination began a shift toward more fundamentalist thought. "The SBC decided that you couldn't be in their camp, so to speak," said Bill Marshall, president of the Little Bonne Femme Baptist Association. Marshall is a member of Cornerstone Baptist Church, which is no longer affiliated with the SBC or Missouri Baptist Convention.
"They basically shot themselves in the foot," he said. "They excluded people, and it appears that they wanted to be exclusively aligned."
Some churches were dismissed from the national and state conventions because they affiliated with more than one Baptist organization. Other churches didn't take such a strict view and retained affiliation by allowing individual members to choose which groups they joined.
"Sometimes leadership in an organization gets out of control," Marshall said. "I wish they were more open and willing to participate with other people. That's the good thing about our association. We're not like that at all."
The Little Bonne Femme Association includes 20 churches that work independently of any national group. Churches can identify with the SBC, American Baptist Association, Baptist General Convention of Missouri or the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Although Marshall said the SBC's biggest problem is that it's too fundamentalist, Evans said people have been turned off by absolutist ideas since the days of Julius Caesar. Even Evans said he doesn't always want to follow rigid religious guidelines but does so because he respects the sanctity and infallibility of Scripture. In a postmodern world where morals are relative, the church must maintain its ability to articulate its beliefs clearly, Evans said.
Any change in practice wouldn't signify a change in theology for Evans. He would like to see the SBC address the generational divide, perhaps by including younger clergy in the denomination's major decision-making processes.
"That shouldn't be a side item. We need to look at our own selves and start asking hard questions about where we will be in 20 years," he said. "Younger guys like me are frustrated because of the lack of leadership opportunities, and the church needs to change with the times to be more effective."
The Southern Baptist Convention, established in 1845, includes more than 16 million members in more than 42,000 churches in the United States.