Chicago Tribune religion reporter and blogger Manya Brachear echoed a familiar liberal media meme about orthodox Christianity in her latest "The Seeker" blog post, "Have Southern Baptists lost their way?" (emphases mine):
As a number of conservative Protestant denominations now face decline, leaders have chosen to batten down the hatches, endorse orthodoxy and herald the importance of sharing their faith with others.
But if these denominations narrow their theology at the same time they widen their outreach, is anybody going to listen?
Again echoing a current theme in American politics, the Southern Baptist Convention this week shifted its focus to unity by unveiling a plan that everyone could agree on. Through an evangelism initiative called God's Plan for Sharing (GPS), leaders hope to unify the fractured denomination and save more souls in the process.
"God positions us every day with opportunities for sharing our faith," Geoff Hammond, president of the North American Mission Board, said in a statement. "If you think of a GPS device, it helps get us to our destination. And our destination is every believer sharing, every person hearing by 2020."
Have Southern Baptists lost their way by narrowing their theology or has something else contributed to the decline of America's mainline? Or, are Southern Baptists still on track despite the fall in numbers?
Of course the premise ignores the fact that religious belief is predicated upon the notion that what one teaches must be anchored in the truth, because pleasing God, not drawing in large numbers alone, is ultimately what matters.
For the Christian, especially for conservative Protestant traditions, that means adhering to doctrine as laid out in Scripture, especially that there is no way to be saved but by trusting on Jesus Christ for salvation and walking out that life of faith marked by repentance from sin.
Additionally Brachear also seems to miss the fact that it is less evangelistic and more doctrinally liberal mainline denominations that are seeing sheep wander from the flock. Indeed, equating the Southern Baptists with mainline Christian denominations would almost certainly offend most conservative Baptists and most liberal mainliners.
Take the Episcopal Church USA, a denomination notable for tolerating Resurrection-denying clergymen like John Shelby Spong, that is presided over by a liberal female bishop, and is tolerant of the consecration and continuing ministry of practicing homosexual Bishop Gene Robinson. The ECUSA has seen much better days. Wrote John Dart of the Christian Century in November 2006 (emphasis mine):
After a period of modest declines and gains, the Episcopal Church has suffered a net loss of nearly 115,000 members over the past three years-with homosexuality issues fueling the departures.
The Episcopal Church, whose active membership has slipped to 2,205,376, has built-in deterrents to growth because Episcopalians have the lowest birth rate among U.S. Christians and nearly 60 percent of the people in the pews are over 50, said Kirk Hadaway, the denomination's director of research.
Though Episcopalians are not known for evangelistic endeavors, the church had offset its death rate and defections with an influx of Catholics and other churchgoers, the formation of new churches and the rising popular interest in spiritual matters. In 2002 the church lost only 8,200 members overall.
"In fact we were actually doing better than most other mainline denominations in the 1990s through 2002, with a few years of growth," Hadaway told the Century. "So it is a precipitous drop in losing 36,000 in both 2003 and 2004, and now 42,000 in 2005."
Half of the losses stemmed from parish conflicts over the 2003 Episcopal General Convention's approval of the election of an openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, according to Hadaway.