Calvinism on the Rise in Southern Baptist Life

Calvinists in the Southern Baptist Convention make up a small minority but are steadily growing, particularly among younger Baptists, a recent study showed.

Nearly 30 percent of recent SBC seminary graduates now serving as church pastors indicate they are Calvinists, according to Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research. Only around 10 percent of SBC pastors at large affirm the five points of Calvinism, or Reformed theology, noted Stetzer, comparing the latest results with an earlier 2006 survey conducted by LifeWay Research.

The five points of Calvinism, also called the doctrines of grace, include total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.

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Stetzer presented the data at the "Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism" conference, which concluded Wednesday, at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina. The recent study was conducted by the North American Mission Board's Center for Missional Research which surveyed those who graduated from master's degree programs at SBC seminaries between 1998 and 2004.

The number of gradates who affirmed Calvinism rose steadily between students who graduated in 1998 and those who graduated in 2004, Stetzer said.

"It would be difficult to say that Calvinism is not a growing influence in SBC life – and certainly a growing influence in the graduates of our seminaries," he told the conference crowd.

However, the steady growth may be a growing issue for Southern Baptists.

"I recently read that one key Southern Baptist leader was quoted as saying the two biggest problems in Southern Baptist life are contemporary churches and Calvinists," Stetzer said. "So there is obviously a growing concern but we're here to talk and build some bridges."

"Calvinism has generated a lot of interest in recent years in Southern Baptist life," Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary, noted. "Unfortunately we have often talked at and not with one another. Unhealthy rhetoric and misrepresentations from all directions have led to confusion and even ill will among brothers and sisters in Christ."

Nevertheless, Stetzer could not deny the growth of Calvinism in SBC life.

"Calvinism is on the rise among the most recent seminary graduates," he said. "If present trends continue, Calvinism will continue to grow as an influence in our convention."

The Nov. 26-28 conference was designed to facilitate honest discussion on theological issues and help Southern Baptists gain a common understanding.

Explaining the evangelistic implications of the recent studies, Stetzer noted that churches pastored by Calvinists tend to have smaller attendance and typically baptize fewer persons each year. While the study did not look at the "why" factor, it also revealed that the "baptism rate" – the number of annual baptisms relative to total membership and a statistic used to measure evangelistic vitality – of Calvinistic churches is virtually identical to that of non-Calvinistic churches.

A majority of both Calvinistic and non-Calvinistic churches believe that local congregations should be involved in sponsoring missions and planting new churches. Also, Calvinistic recent graduates report that they conduct personal evangelism at a slightly higher rate than non-Calvinists.

At the end of the day, however, both Calvinists and non-Calvinists in Southern Baptist churches are failing to engage "lostness" in North America, Stetzer highlighted.

"This theological discussion has to lead to missional action and that missional action needs to cause Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike to love each other and to encourage each other and to provoke one another on to love and good deeds."

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