Weak preaching and cultural adaptability are just two of many reasons Southern Baptists give to explain the decline of membership and baptisms.
"[T]he shallow state of preaching has exacerbated the lethargy of the church and left the lost with no real Word from God," said Paige Patterson, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, in a column in Baptist Press.
"The pastor ought to be the major source of theological understanding and the most able teacher of the Bible," he added.
"Anemic pulpits create anemic churches and denominations."
Since the release last month of the latest data on Southern Baptist membership and baptisms, both of which declined, Southern Baptists have speculated why the largest Protestant denomination in the country has been seeing lower numbers.
"Well, the time has come to identify the real problems," said Patterson.
Many church leaders have been calling for change to respond to what many identify as a shift from modern to postmodern culture. And the latest statistics showing shrinking numbers has made that call even more urgent. But cultural relevance has led many churches to lose the holiness of God and a thirst to be like God, Patterson noted.
A prominent conservative Southern Baptist, Patterson said he is the first to admit that "dullness and 'Baptist tradition' were too often the rule in our churches." But the suggestion that churches must chase after culture in order to be effective in evangelistic efforts is "misguided," he said.
"The more attune to culture Southern Baptists have become and the more we have incorporated the world into our worship, the more our baptisms have dropped!" Patterson noted. "Although I am not certain that there is a connection, as will become evident in what follows, I admit that I am suspicious."
Conservatives have not yet seen the revival that they hoped for following the "conservative resurgence" or what some opponents call "fundamentalist takeover" that began in the 1960s. But Patterson highlighted that they have not abandoned that hope and stressed the importance of not abandoning doctrine.
To be unapologetically Baptist – embracing the exclusivism of Christ in salvation, the inerrancy of God's Word, and the concept of a regenerate church witnessed by baptism and disciplined to live for Christ – may come off as being "mean-spirited" to the world, especially when opposing abortion and the practice of homosexuality, and doctrinal clarity is not popular in the world, the conservative leader admitted. But when following Christ and the Bible, Baptists have no choice about what they endorse and what they reject, he said.
Among other major causes Patterson listed for the Southern Baptist Convention's downturn are prayerlessness and a failure to share Christ individually on a consistent basis.
"The great need is for us to sense our spiritual poverty, seek God's face, and do His bidding. Folks, it is really that simple," he said.
Baptisms in the Southern Baptist Convention fell for the third straight year in 2007 to the denomination's lowest level since 1987, dropping nearly 5.5 percent to 345,941, according to LifeWay Christian Resources' Annual Church Profile (ACP). Total membership also declined by 0.24 percent to 16,266,920.