Getting the Blame Backwards on Denominational Decline

Mark DeVine

Rainer vs. Rainer on the Conservative Resurgence; Rainer vs. Reality on Abuse in the SBC

In his recent article, The Unravelling of Our Cooperation, Sam Rainer argues that the Southern Baptist Convention is “on a long, deep slide into irrelevance—or worse.” He identifies three reasons for this urgent state of affairs: the “failure” of the conservative resurgence, a Cooperative Program past its prime, and the SBC’s response to the allegations of sexual abuse within the Convention. While Rainer is wrong on all three counts, I want to focus here on his first and last purported culprits in particular—the conservative resurgence and, in his words, the “horrid injustice of systemic sexual abuse.”

Rewriting History on the Conservative Resurgence

Rainer’s first reason is a real whopper: “The conservative resurgence did not work.” Just that blunt. But that judgment seems to contradict the view that his father, longtime church-growth researcher Thom Rainer, once held. In a 2005 article linked to by Rainer the Younger, Rainer the Elder celebrated the success of the conservative resurgence: “Today all six seminaries are led by undeniably conservative presidents and the faculties are dominated by conservative professors.”

Thom Rainer explicitly recognized that the stated—and limited—goal of the conservative resurgence was to root out liberal teaching from the SBC seminaries and to restore the authority of the Bible in the pulpits of our churches and the classrooms of our seminaries and colleges. Rainer the Elder also credits the conservative resurgence with success “on issues such as marriage, sexuality, and the sanctity of life.” He further applauds the conservative resurgence’s success “in the arena of international missions,” noting significant increases in critical indices of growth and effectiveness achieved by the end of 2004: 5,237 missionaries deployed; more than seven million members in IMB affiliated churches; more than 500,000 overseas baptisms; and 16,721 churches started in 2003 alone—with volunteer missionaries topping 25,000 in that same year.

While both Rainers see evangelistic effectiveness in the SBC as “a resurgence not yet realized,” Rainer the Younger claims that “we were told that the ‘primary benefit’ of the conservative resurgence would be ‘an unprecedented evangelistic harvest in the denomination.’ Instead, the opposite happened.” On this point, Sam indulges in some smoke and mirrors to justify his posture of grievance. Sam was born a decade after the conservative resurgence commenced in 1979. In what sense was he “told” what the resurgence would produce? Was not his father an active participant in the conservative resurgence? Was it Sam’s father, Thom, who did the “telling?” Apparently not, because Sam sources the “we were told” comment to his father’s 2005 article in which Thom offers the promise as a quotation without attribution. So, both father and son “were told” this…but by whom?

Thus, the son has the father’s phantom source making evangelistic effectiveness “the primary benefit” of the conservative resurgence, while the father says it was “one of the primary benefits” promised by this mystery man. Whether it was “a” or “the” promised result of the conservative resurgence, does Sam Rainer understand “evangelistic efficiency” to be exclusively measured by “conversions?” But only the third person of the triune God can birth sinners from above, right? If, on the other hand, Sam rather measures evangelistic effectiveness in terms of faithful witness delivered, then would we not need to know the relationship between that index and the theological fidelity, or lack thereof, of the congregations implicated?

The best we can say about Rainer the Younger’s blaming the decline of the SBC on the conservative resurgence is that he has provided no evidence for that claim. This is the same, tired attack that opponents of the conservative resurgence—both liberals and moderates—used forty years ago to predict a disaster that never came. Now, on this side of the conservative resurgence, Rainer notes the year the supposed “precipitous decline” commenced and then adopts the classic post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy to merge correlation with causation. That does not work.

Sex Abuse Outrage

Rainer also cites what he sees as the failure of the SBC to respond appropriately to “the horrid injustice of systemic sexual abuse” in the SBC as a contributor to falling baptisms. Ought not such a charge cite some hard data for justification? But alas, warrant for Rainer’s outrage and calls for escalating investigations, reforms, and more outlay of dollars is assumed and asserted, not defended, nor supported with evidence.

That all manner of sin occurs among Southern Baptists is not news. Nor is it necessarily actionable at the Convention or institutional level and certainly ought not, by itself, result in a reactionary, expensive, and time-consuming investment of Southern Baptist energies and funds. Surely any honest assessment of both the scale of a sin problem in the denomination and the determination of an appropriate response should include the answer to Thomas Sowell’s famous questions to would-be outrage generators: “Compared to what?”    

Thankfully, efforts to answer Sowell’s question have occurred. So far, the results suggest not only that Rainer’s alarmist rhetoric is uncalled for, but instead, may be cause for some measure of relief. In response to the infamous Houston Chronicle report on sex abuse among Baptists, Mark Coppenger found that

“There were 28,000,000 Southern Baptists in the churches over the 20-year period they surveyed…According to the report, 220 were convicted of abuse crimes, amounting to one certified felon for every 125,000 of us. Yes, there were surely others not reported or not deemed worthy of litigation, but when you start with an incidence .00000786, it’s hard to say there’s a crisis.” 

Furthermore, the current President of the SBC, Bart Barber, admitted both under oath in a deposition and during a question-and-answer session at First Baptist Jacksonville that “we know the Southern Baptist Convention has never has never made a mistake in terms of not reporting abuse.” And two days after Rainer set off his alarm over sex abuse, Liam Adams at The Tennessean reported that “The U.S. Department of Justice concluded its probe last week without charging any SBC leaders” (a claim that has since come under dispute and the final outcome of the probe appears to be less certain). Rainer contends that “[h]yperbole seems to be a longstanding rhetorical tactic of Southern Baptist leaders.” Might a “physician, heal thyself” admonition to Rainer be in order here?

Marketing Over Ministry

What accounts for Rainer’s confidence to assume rather than substantiate his claims? Perhaps a clue appears in Rainer’s first paragraph: “[Southern Baptists] are most known for our failures related to handling sexual abuse” and his warning that the SBC is in a “deep slide into irrelevance.” Both of these statements fixate on perception by outsiders, not deductions based on data. Does Rainer view the hundreds of denominations a fraction of the size of the SBC as irrelevant? What of the millions of independent and non-denominational congregations? Are they also irrelevant? 

Concern about “what we are most known for,” is certainly appropriate to any entity committed to the spread of the gospel, but that concern also recalls James Merritt’s now infamous chastisement of conservatives at the Southern Baptist Convention. When messengers criticized Resolution #9, which affirmed Critical Race Theory (CRT) as an appropriate “analytical tool” for interpretation of the Bible, Merritt let loose his cri du coeur, “The world is watching.” In the years since Merritt’s warning, the utter incompatibility of CRT with the gospel of Jesus Christ has been so exposed that all six SBC seminary presidents, including some who previously tried to defend it, felt compelled to scramble to put out a statement against CRT.

How did SBC leadership get so far out over its skis on CRT? What prompts Rainer to such fulminations over the conservative resurgence and sexual abuse without sufficient warrant? Could it be that attention to the sensibilities of the world, in seeker-movement fashion, has so captivated Baptist leaders and an increasing number of pastors that the apologetic tail now wags the evangelistic dog to the detriment of the denomination?

Rainer claims that the SBC is “far less evangelistic now than when we were a moderate-leaning convention.” If we change “moderate leaning” to “moderate led” the statement might gain credence. But then one would need to discover which churches were doing more of the evangelism in those years, the moderate-liberal ones, or the more conservative ones, in order to attach blame as Rainer the Younger does. Again, Rainer the Elder undermined his son’s suppositions when he noted in 2005 that baptisms per capita dropped far more among moderate-led CBF churches compared to conservative SBC churches during the same period: “The results are incredibly noteworthy. The CBF churches in our study have baptismal ratios that are more than twice as bad as the SBC ratios.”

Rainer the elder offered six hypotheses to account for the loss of evangelistic effectiveness, none of which target the conservative resurgence. Here they are:

  1. The evangelistic fields in the United States are much less receptive than they were in past years
  2. Socioeconomic gains tend to reduce evangelistic health in Christian groups
  3. Southern Baptist leaders are not personally evangelistic
  4. The Southern Baptist Convention fails to recognize adequately churches with significant conversion growth
  5. The churches of the SBC are not evangelistic because they have many unregenerate members
  6. Only a small number of churches in the SBC have any significant evangelistic efforts

These concerns are certainly worth considering. Some point to changes beyond our control. But the ones that we, as Southern Baptists, can address lay largely within the purview of the local church. We don’t need to bankrupt the SBC; we need better ecclesiology—and a stronger resistance to worldly ideologies in our institutions. But the tone, intensity, and content of Sam Rainer’s answer to the question his father posed are markedly more accusatory, less nuanced, and ultimately unsubstantiated.

Overlooked Factors Contributing to Decline

In his haste to advance a particular agenda, Sam Rainer ignores other factors worth considering, such as the impact and influence of Timothy Keller on Southern Baptist seminaries and pastors. Let’s consider two. First, Keller adopted a seeker-sensitive posture toward blue communities that prioritized a “Tillichian” search for scriptures to scratch itches presented by these populations. Such seeker approaches secure the triumph of the therapeutic, not zeal for evangelism. And such approaches are now, lamentedly, the dominant evangelistic method of many megachurch SBC pastors and entity heads.

Second, the non-denominational mindset adopted by many SBC pastors has undermined denominational identity and, with it, a sense of denominational esprit de corps, ownership, and protectiveness. This is, again, part and parcel of Keller’s vision for a more ecumenical (and egalitarian) evangelicalism. That loss distanced denominational goings on from the pews and left elites much freer to “climb aboard the Keller train,” taking on a seeker, business, and market-oriented posture largely abhorred and eschewed within the conservative resurgence. 

One result is that the SBC has become far more responsive to its own reading of “the watching world,” which is essentially Woke, than to the bulk of its constituency, which is not. Another result is that we have had, and still have, faculty in our seminaries who tout liberation theologians James Cone and J. Deotis Roberts—influences unfriendly to evangelism and fixated on left-wing notions of social justice, and decried by the conservative resurgence.

Reversing the Unravelling

While I agree with Rainer the younger that the ties which bind the SBC together are unraveling, his assessment of which hands are pulling the threads apart is little more than unsubstantiated rhetoric. And, on at least one major point, his revisionist history contradicts the testimony of his very own father. The conservative resurgence did materialize and secured the specific goals it aimed to accomplish: purging the SBC of the deadly infection of higher criticism that W.A. Criswell so movingly warned would bring about the death of our denomination if left unchecked.

Declining baptisms may be due to any number of factors, such as demographics, or the influence of urban prophets from outside the Baptist fold who encouraged us to water down our distinctives to gain favor with the increasingly secular world. Regardless, Rainer appears uninterested in anything more than the old whipping horse of the liberals from yesteryear who also tried to pit doctrinal faithfulness against gospel mission, as if such a tension could ever exist.

As for the supposed “systemic” crisis of abuse and coverups within the SBC, the facts again refuse to go where Rainer attempts to steer them. Yes, abuse has occurred in Southern Baptist churches, but the numbers do not constitute a crisis, neither local nor systemic. And no investigation yet has revealed any coordinated coverup. If you don’t believe me, believe Bart Barber.

The SBC is indeed in decline, and we who love her must do what we can to fight that decline. Just yesterday, another conservative church, pastored by a SEBTS graduate, announced that they “voted unanimously to leave the Southern Baptist Convention.” The reasons given had nothing to do with the conservative resurgence, the Cooperative Program, or abuse. Rather, the pastor cited concerns with mission drift at the ERLC and NAMB.

Rainer is, in his own words, willing to let the entire system go “bankrupt” if that’s what it takes to fix things—putting thousands of IMB missionaries on notice that, should certain factions prevail, they may soon need to book a one-way flight back from the mission field. But now is not a time for arsonists, but intuitionalists; specifically, Baptistic institutionalists who know that the path back to “raveled” strength in the SBC comes from telling the truth, standing on the Bible, and embracing our confession of faith. 

We can have the Word of God or the praise of the world, but we cannot have both. Obsession with how the world views us (or what we are known for) is not the solution, it’s a big part of the problem.

  • Mark DeVine

    Mark DeVine is an Associate Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School. He is the author of multiple books and has written extensively for theological journals. Mark also writes on the intersection of faith, work, culture, and politics for national online magazines and has served as pastor for churches in Indiana, South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, and Alabama.