Anyone who has worked in journalism for any time at all knows that some of the biggest, the most important news stories are the ones that are hardest to see -- because they unfold very slowly in the background, like shifting tectonic plates.
This is really, really true when it comes to changes in religion and culture.
Thus, if you care about religion news in postmodern America, then you need to read the short think piece (if that is not a contradiction in terms) that Tobin Grant posted the other day at the Corner of Church and State blog over at Religion News Service.
There is no way to briefly summarize the info in this short story, but there is a good reason for that. Reality is complex. Here is the start of the essay, which -- from a Baptist perspective -- offers the bad news. But hang on, things are going to get complicated really quick.
Baptists are on the decline in America. New research finds that Baptists have lost a quarter of their market-share, and this is likely going to continue (or even accelerate).
Darren Sherkat’s new book Changing Faith gives a detailed examination of why Americans switch religions. Tucked into Sherkat’s book is one of the most important changes in American religion of the past forty years: the decline of Baptists.
Sherkat uses the General Social Surveys to examine the patterns of switching religions in the USA. He finds that since the 1970s, Baptists in the U.S. have declined by a quarter, from 21 percent of Americans to only 16 percent.
Thus, we have one of the most-covered stories on the religion beat, which is the slow decline in the membership totals of the massive Southern Baptist Convention. This has been a happy story for many on the doctrinal left, where leaders have been chanting: "Yes, we have lost about a third of our members (or more), but, look, even the Southern Baptists are shrinking now -- so traditional Christian theology isn't a quick fix." Or words to that effect.
However, Grant notes that seven out of 10 people raised Baptist (a term that must include the giant African-American conventions, as well as the small American Baptist Convention) are still Baptists when they are adults. That's a loss of 30 percent, but the rate for Christians in "similar" Christian bodies is 60 percent or worse.
Oh, and the loyalty rate for Christians in bodies that are radically different from the Baptists is what? I'd love to know.
Meanwhile, here is the huge shift in this report -- the earthquake. Who is rounding up the ex-Baptists? As it turns out, the evidence is that they are headed to Protestant bodies that are even more "free church," even more congregational, even more generic evangelical, than the brand-name Baptists.
Think your way through the following:
The major problem for Baptists is simple: the 30 percent who leave are not being replaced. Overall, Sherkat estimates that Baptists have had a net loss of 13% due to people leaving and not being replaced. Similar churches, however, have seen double-digit gains. Sectarian Protestants (e.g., pentecostals and smaller evangelical denominations) have had a 19% increase from switching. Nondenominational and similar churches have done even better, with a 77% gain from switching.
Baptists, like all religions, are losing members who are leaving religion altogether. But this isn’t the major source of Baptist losses. Among those who have left a Baptist church, only one-in-five are no longer religious. The other 80 percent of former Baptists have simply moved to similar Christian churches.
Read it all, folks. For religion-beat specialists, there are story hooks in almost every paragraph.
So the ultimate "enemy" for Baptists might be a kind of postmodern, evolving, generic evangelicalism?