Notebook > Religion

Troubling trend

Religion | Church growth stalls among Southern Baptist churches

Issue: "Rice: Starboard at State," Dec. 4, 2004

A new study of church growth among the 42,000-plus churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, found 70 percent of them have "plateaued" or are declining. It is a 20-year trend that has disturbed many SBC leaders. The study, based on statistics for 1998 to 2003, classified 30.3 percent of churches as growing, 45.8 percent as plateaued, and 23.9 percent as declining-an increase of 6 percent from an SBC study for 1978 to 1983.

But "growing" can be misleading, says study leader Bill Day of New Orleans Baptist Seminary. He said 1,409 churches in the growing category reported no baptisms in 2003, and some others have a member-to-baptism ratio of as much as 1,100 to 1. The lack of conversions suggests much purported growth is really a reshuffling of Baptist members, he added.

Mr. Day proposed new standards for the definitions: a 10 percent total membership growth over five years, at least one baptism a year, a member-to-baptism ratio of 35 or less to 1, and conversions accounting for at least 25 percent of the total membership growth during the final year of the study. Using these criteria, only 11 percent, or some 4,600 churches, qualify as healthy and growing, he said.

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Heads rolled at Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) headquarters in Louisville, Ky. Two high PCUSA executives were fired on Nov. 11 in the aftermath of a controversial trip to Lebanon. Kathy Luechert, the denomination's No. 3 executive, and Peter Sulyok were leaders of a 24-member official delegation whose "fact-finding" visit in late October included friendly talks with members of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite terrorist group committed to the destruction of Israel (WORLD, Nov. 13, p. 33).

Top officials at the PCUSA, including Ms. Luechert's boss, John Detterick, had earlier ordered the leaders to cancel the visit, but they refused. The visit, which included an American theologian's remarks critical of Israel, severely disrupted relations between the PCUSA and Jewish groups. Ms. Luechert, Mr. Sulyok, and Mr. Detterick had no immediate comment about the sudden departures.

Legal Briefs

• The latest religious survey of the U.S. Congress, conducted biennially by writer-researcher Albert Menendez, shows a record 67 Roman Catholic Republicans in the incoming House. Catholics still account for 86 Democratic members of Congress, but the gap has narrowed steadily in recent years. Six of the nine new Catholic members are Republicans, including Nebraska's Jeff Fortenberry, who holds a divinity degree from Franciscan University.

• The new broad alliance known as Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A., which includes the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, mainline Protestant denominations, and a smattering of other churches and religious groups, will start out mainly as a yearly discussion and bridge-building forum, according to some of its leaders. They say CCTUS will avoid taking stands on most controversial public-policy issues and will make decisions only by consensus. Few, if any, evangelical churches are expected to join.

• More women and older adults are showing up at rescue missions than a decade ago, an annual study of 20,500 homeless "clients" at 154 missions by the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions shows. In 1994, women made up 18 percent of clients; this year, it's 23 percent, and would be higher if missions had more facilities for women, an association spokesman said. Half of all clients in 1994 were under age 35; now, two-thirds are over age 36, and 35 percent said they had never been homeless before.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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