As you would expect, reading the Religious News Service story about the continuing decline in Southern Baptist Convention membership statistics is rather different than reading the Baptist Press feature on the same trends.
This is exactly as it should be, since one is a secular wire service and the other is a denominational press office. However, it's interesting to note that neither of these stories buried the bad-news lede and both included interesting secondary issues that could point toward important news angles in the future.
Truth is, the slow decline of the SBC is several news stories rolled up into one.
Let's look at the very short RNS story first, starting with the hard-news lede:
(RNS) The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the country, but it continues to lose members and baptize fewer people each year.
The latest statistics, compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources from church reports, show membership has dropped by more than 204,000, down 1.3 percent to 15.3 million members in 2015. It’s the ninth year in a row there has been a membership decline. Baptisms, which have declined eight of the last 10 years, totaled 295,212, a 3.3 percent drop, researchers said Tuesday (June 7).
So what is happening here? For starters the RNS report notes that another doctrinally conservative denomination -- the charismatic Assemblies of God -- experienced some growth in 2015.
This raises questions about the "Why?" element in this news story.
In this short report, RNS only had room for one expert voice and the wire service turned to a sociologist from Hartford Seminary, a liberal Protestant institution. This is interesting, in and of itself. In a news story about the multi-decade demographic collapse of a liberal Protestant church -- let's say the Episcopalians -- would the RNS team turn to an expert at a conservative Evangelical institution for its only source of expert commentary?
Obviously, it would be good to talk to folks on both sides of that doctrinal divide. However, this Hartford Seminary expert did have some interesting and valid insights.
Hartford Seminary sociologist of religion Scott Thumma said changes in denominational totals are driven by such factors as birthrate, retention of children as they reach adulthood, and immigration. He said the Assemblies of God are benefiting from immigration -- particularly from Central and South America as well as Africa -- much more than the Southern Baptist Convention.
Thumma said some of the drop in SBC membership may be due to a growing preference for nondenominational congregations.
“Nondenominational churches have most of the same characteristics in terms of theology and worship style as SBC churches but without the denominational baggage of its reputation or pronouncements,” he said.
Note the brief emphasis on birthrate. That's the demographic factor that your GetReligionistas have been writing about for more than a decade.
Truth is, evangelical churches have (whether their leaders want to talk about it or not) always baptized more children than converts. So what is happening in SBC families when it comes to babies and young'uns? How countercultural are suburban Southern Baptists these days, in an age in which having more than two children is truly countercultural?
The other story here, to be blunt, is the growth of ethnic churches.
Now, if you have followed SBC life in the past decade or two you know that the national convention's statistics would really be in decline if not for solid growth ("Ethnic congregations up 66% for Southern Baptists since '98") among African-American and Latino churches. That's a similar trend to what is happening in the Assemblies of God.
Hey journalists! There is a major story here, one that may challenge conventional wisdom about churches and race in many newsrooms. How are liberal churches doing, when it comes to the growth, or decline, of their ethnic churches? How do the numbers contrast with what is happening in the Assemblies of God and the SBC?
As you would expect from a church press agency, the Baptist Press report on the 2015 numbers looked for a ray of hope, as well as stressing the obvious bad news.
NASHVILLE (BP) -- Southern Baptists may find cause for hope in the latest Annual Church Profile report. The Southern Baptist Convention added more churches in 2015, due mostly to church planting efforts. Churches also experienced an increase in total giving.
However, according to the ACP report compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources in cooperation with state conventions, other key measures declined. Those included membership, average worship attendance, baptisms and missions giving.
A bright spot in the ACP data was the increase in churches. The number of churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention grew by 294 to 46,793, a 0.63 percent increase over 2014. This is the 17th year in a row the number of SBC churches has grown.
While the number of SBC-related congregations increased, reported membership declined more than 200,000, down 1.32 percent to 15.3 million members. Average weekly worship attendance declined by 1.72 percent to 5.6 million worshippers. Southern Baptists also experienced a decline in baptisms, down 3.3 percent to 295,212.
What's the obvious question here? Actually, there are two that journalists should pursue after this blast of SBC numbers.
So, (1) if the good news is those new SBC churches, where are the church plants taking place? What are the trends there? Are Southern Baptists having success outside of rapidly growing Sunbelt suburbs? And (2) what happened this past year with African-American and Latino churches? The initial LifeWay statistics (state-by-state chart here) does not include a breakdown contrasting predominately white churches and predominately ethnic churches. Are those numbers available?
Stay tuned. It's impossible to overemphasize the importance of these trends -- both in liberal and conservative churches -- linked to ministry with ethnic minorities. And journalists need to keep (or they need to start) asking questions about birthrates and demographics.
In short, where is the new life today in pews and church nursery cribs? Where are the converts and where are the young'uns?
Answer those questions and you'll have some very important stories to report.