MEMPHIS, TN (abc24.com) – It's the largest protestant denomination in America, but according to a new report Southern Baptists are on the decline. It's one of many mainline church groups fighting dwindling numbers.
Experts say part of the reason membership is dropping is because American culture is becoming more secular. Another reason could be the perceived image of Southern Baptists as racist.
In 2011, membership among Southern Baptists dropped below 16 million, marking the fifth straight year of decline. Critics point to it as proof that religion is on the ropes.
“I think a stigma like that is subjective,” said Mike Ellis, who leads a Southern Baptist church in Frayser. He and Mitch Martin, director of the denomination's arm in the Mid-South, say locally it's thriving.
“Here in the Mid-South Baptist Association our churches are growing. Our churches are making progress,” Ellis said.
“Other pastors and churches from other denominations want to be a part of our denomination,” Ellis said.
Even though the denomination is shrinking nationally according to Lifeway Research, neither Ellis nor Martin is losing hope. Change is on the horizon. Southern Baptists are poised to elect their first black President in the church's history.
“Fred Luter is going to be elected because he's the best man for the job,” Martin said.
That's no small feat considering Southern Baptists were birthed out of controversy; its members wanted to preserve slavery, segregation and racial injustice.
“It's a step forward, this is a big deal, this is the first African American pastor to be the president of the Southern Baptist Convention. And everybody, black white, I think we're all excited,” Martin said.
“In order for Southern Baptists to look beyond color, it says that Southern Baptists are allowing God to move in our decision making,” Ellis said.
If Christianity is on the ropes, a comeback could be in the works. The majority of Southern Baptists are white, but the denomination is the most diverse in the nation. The fastest growing aspect of its membership is non-whites.