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Stetzer (Handout photo)

Changing tide

Religion | Southern Baptists see membership decline for fifth straight year

Issue: "2012 Books Issue," July 14, 2012

Membership numbers for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) reflect disturbing trends for the nation's largest Protestant denomination. Although the SBC saw slight increases in baptisms and the number of congregations in 2011, its overall membership dropped for the fifth straight year, to just under 16 million.

Ed Stetzer, vice president for research at SBC-affiliated LifeWay Christian Resources, says that patterns behind the raw numbers are of even greater concern. Many have noted the long-term decline of America's mainline denominations, such as the United Methodist Church, but Stetzer argues that the SBC is also locked in its own cycle of stagnation. Unless the denomination changes its approach to evangelism and church planting, he says, Baptists should expect the numbers to get even worse. Based on the current trajectory, Stetzer writes, "we are catching up with the Methodists, and will match their decline rate consistently by 2018."

Duke Divinity School professor Curtis Freeman counters that the SBC's traditional commitment to evangelism had forestalled the numerical freefall experienced by mainline denominations, but that growth in any church is simply becoming more difficult. "The tide is going a different way," Freeman said. "[America is] increasingly becoming a secular culture, not a Christian culture."

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Bone contention

Associated Press/Photo by Damian Dovarganes

Scientists have revealed evidence that bones discovered in an ancient monastery on a Bulgarian island could be those of John the Baptist-or at least a contemporary of John. Two years ago, archaeologists working on Sveti Ivan island unearthed a reliquary (a container for the remains of saints) that held six bones and bore an inscription of John's name. Researchers usually scoff at such discoveries, as bogus relics have a long, sordid history. Many churches and mosques claim to possess relics of John the Baptist. The Grand Mosque in Damascus, Syria, for example, claims to have John's head. (According to the Gospels, King Herod had John killed when the daughter of Herodias asked for the preacher's head on a platter.)

Professor Tom Higham of the University of Oxford's Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, and atheist, said he was skeptical of the claim until he analyzed a knuckle bone and dated it to the first century AD-much earlier than the age of typical relics. Subsequent study revealed that the bones all belonged to the same individual, who was probably from the Middle East. The researchers acknowledge that the bones' relative antiquity alone do not prove they belong to John the Baptist. -Thomas Kidd

Crystal crossover

Associated Press/Photo by Damian Dovarganes

Roman Catholic officials in Los Angeles announced that they will rename the former Crystal Cathedral as "Christ Cathedral." In late 2011 the Catholic diocese of Orange County purchased the glass-walled modernist landmark, once the church home of Robert H. Schuller, an early pioneer of television ministry and longtime host of the Hour of Power broadcast. The church has struggled since 2006, when Schuller chose his son Robert A. Schuller to become the new senior pastor. The younger Schuller left the church after two years because of disputes with his father and sister, Sheila Schuller Coleman, over the direction of the ministry.

Coleman subsequently became the new senior pastor, but she also left the church earlier this year. The only remaining family member on the church staff is Schuller's grandson Bobby, who preaches at the church under the title "volunteer pastor." Crystal Cathedral filed for bankruptcy protection in 2010, and the senior Schuller resigned from the church board last year. Crystal Cathedral's remaining members will relocate to a nearby Catholic church building in 2013, when Los Angeles' growing Catholic community will begin using the sanctuary for worship. -Thomas Kidd

Thomas Kidd
Thomas Kidd

Thomas is a professor of history at Baylor University and a senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.

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