I was surprised to hear a report on NPR by Blake Farmer about the meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptists compete with the Catholic church for being the Christian sect that most stridently opposes equal rights for the LGBT community. But the report quoted some pastors at the meeting who shocked the audience into silence by saying that it was time to tone down the anti-gay rhetoric when other problems such as divorce were much more important moral issues.
Farmer quotes one pastor Jimmy Scroggins who said:
“If you spent 20 years and you’ve never said anything about divorce in the church culture then shut up about gay marriage… We’re all in agreement that the cultural war is over when it comes to homosexuality, especially when it comes to gay marriage.”
He also quotes the church’s current spokesperson Russell Moore, who replaced the much more hardline Richard Land, as saying:
“When I hear people who are simply screaming in outrage, right now. Let me tell you what I hear, I hear losers… We’re living in a different time, where we have to learn how to understand what’s going on in the world around us.”
But the church has not changed its policy that homosexuality is sinful. So what is going on? Being the cynic that I am, I figured that there must be a more prosaic reason for this shift than just the realization that their message is wrong. And sure enough, there is. It seems like membership is the Southern Baptists is declining at a rate that worries and alarms the leadership and they are trying to figure out ways to reverse that trend and one suggestion is to try and not be so closely identified with right-wing politics and instead craft a more inclusive message that will appeal to the young.
One demographic that Southern Baptists need to listen to more often is the next generation. LifeWay reported in 2008 that the percentage of messengers in the 18-39 age group attending the annual meeting has declined steadily since 1980 while the percentage of messengers in the 60-and-older group has increased dramatically.
American evangelicalism is becoming more politically diverse and nuanced than it once was, particularly among young people. If the denomination continues to operate like a Republican lapdog, it can expect to be seen as a polarizing political institution.
I just don’t see the trend of declining membership being reversed however much they adopt a kinder, gentler tone, as long as their core doctrines remain unchanged. Big religious institutions are splintering into smaller niche ones.