The Southern Baptists, you ask me, buried the lead (or lede if you’re old school) about their 2019 national convention as deep as possible:
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in Birmingham, Alabama last week was driven by recent, sensational news reports of hundreds of unaddressed sexual abuse cases involving SBC pastors and other church staff. There were impassioned speeches, apologies to recovering victims, fancy big-screen graphics, fervent pledges and new programs, etc.
This year, with the U.S. Catholic bishops meeting on a similar topic in Washington the same week, and major media buzzing like dragonflies around both events, it’s a thing.
I admit, though, that preacherly blather (or bishops’ blather) did not hold my attention about the meetings.
Not that clerical sex abuse, especially of the young, should be trivialized. But talk of it is everywhere. And given the record of Baptists and Catholic denominational leadership, such talk, even if it resounds in fancy hotels and high-end conference centers, is cheap.
So I admit that in the long Associated Press story about the SBC, that filled most of a page in the Montgomery (AL) Advertiser on June 13, I was looking for something else — news of the other topic that’s on all minds in such conclaves, though soft-pedaled in these public sessions.
That is, I wanted to see the numbers. Not more data about abuse victims, or predatory preachers. But the “butts in the seats” report.
For my money, that’s the real, continuing lead story in American mainstream religion.
Finally, in the article’s nineteenth & 20th paragraphs, almost at the very end, I found it:
“The SBC’s meeting comes as U.S. Catholic bishops convene in Baltimore to address a widening sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, the largest denomination in the U.S. It had 76.3 million members as of last year — down from 81.2 million in 2005.
The Southern Baptist Convention says it had 14.8 million members in 2018, down about 192,000 from the previous year.” (Emphasis added.)
[That’s a decline of 1.3 per cent for the SBC in a year. In 2009, the group claimed membership of 16,230,000; it’s now down more than 1.4 million from that, over 9 per cent.]
Researchers and church leaders are churning out alarmed reports pointing to numerous factors in the decline (coverups of clerical sex abuse scandals being among the prime suspects). They seem most alarmed by the quiet departure of younger members, who appear to be streaming out of their churches into the inchoate but burgeoning fellowship of the “Nones.”
As far as I can tell, neither Baptists nor most other formerly larger denominations know how to slow this broadening, ecumenical exodus. (Nor, for that matter, do I.)
But where numbers are concerned, if given a tally of the sermons, reports, proposals, consultant pitches, commissions, committees and power point blitzes about how church leaders are sure enough, scout’s honor, hands-on-the-Bible, for real this time, going to fix their sex abuse scandals, alongside the reports of steady and increasing attrition especially by the young, the latter strike me as the more weighty for the long haul.
That’s not because such exits are of more moral weight than church sex abuse scandals. Not at all.
It’s because empty churches can’t fix those issues, themselves, or anything else.