How Do People Perceive Southern Baptists?
Perceptions Vary By Region, but Young Adults Are More Negative
Frank has been working with a young man in his early twenties for several months now. Rob is a nice enough guy; but he definitely needs to have a relationship with the Lord. Frank has prayed for an opportunity to share the Lord with Rob and invite him to church. One day while enjoying lunch together, the opportunity arises.
"Rob, I've been meaning to ask you a question for some time," Frank begins cautiously, wanting to be sensitive to the Lord's timing. "Would you come to church with me this Sunday? We have a great time and there are a lot of people your age at the church."
"I appreciate the invite," Rob replied. "My mom took me to church when I was growing up in South Carolina. What type of church is it?"
Would mentioning the name "Southern Baptist" make Rob more or less likely to attend? We wanted to know--and we wanted to know the results in South Dakota as well as the results in South Carolina. Furthermore, we wanted to know if Rob's age would make a difference.
How Are Southern Baptists Perceived
This summer, the Center for Missional Research partnered with Zogby International to conduct a poll of 1,210 adults. Respondents were asked if their impression of Southern Baptists is very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable, or very unfavorable. Some respondents said they were not familiar with Southern Baptists and others were not sure of their impressions.
Overall, Southern Baptists were viewed favorably (combining very and somewhat favorable) by 57 percent of adults interviewed. Unfavorable impressions were reported by 17 percent, and 24 percent were not familiar with Southern Baptists. The following chart shows how Southern Baptists compare with other denominations or faith groups. Southern Baptists, Catholics, and Methodists don't differ greatly--they have a generally good public perception. Muslims and Mormons are similar in that they do not have a good perception.
Impressions of Denominations or Faith Groups
The Catholic Church was the highest rated group, with 66 percent having a favorable impression. United Methodists and Southern Baptists were about equal, but more had unfavorable impressions of Southern Baptists (17%) than United Methodists (10%). Southern Baptists were viewed more favorably than either Latter Day Saints (32% favorable, 32% unfavorable) or Muslims (27% favorable, 31% unfavorable).
The good news is that Southern Baptists have made the best impression where they are most present, in the South. Two of 3 respondents in the South expressed a favorable opinion of Southern Baptists, compared to 1 of 2 in the East and West regions. More than 1 of 3 Easterners said they were not familiar with Southern Baptists.
Impression of Southern Baptists by Region
Regional differences may be partially explained by the religious preference of respondents. Protestants make up a larger proportion of respondents in the South and Central Great Lakes than the other regions. According to an earlier study by our team, 10 percent of Southerners would be claimed as resident members of SBC churches (with about half of those attending each week). This probably contributes to the more favorable opinion of Southern Baptists in those regions--but only to a small degree. Similarly, Catholics are rated more favorable in the East and West, regions where their presence among respondents is proportionally greater. In both cases, their "favorability" is substantially greater than their "presence," but this is less evident in younger generations (see following).
Differences by Age
Alarming numbers of younger adults either have an unfavorable impression of Southern Baptists or are not familiar with us. One of 5 respondents ages 18 to 24 expressed a "very unfavorable" impression of Southern Baptists, while another 4 percent reported a "somewhat unfavorable" opinion. Young people were intense in their feelings, whether positive or negative. For example, more reported "very favorable" impressions (29%) than "somewhat favorable" (19 %).
The 25 to 34 age group provided another statistic of interest, as 39 percent of this group said they were "not familiar" with Southern Baptists. The lack of familiarity within this age cohort was even greater than the lack of familiarity expressed by those in the East region, 36 percent.
Middle-aged adults esteem Southern Baptists most, with 66 percent of 55-69 year olds reporting a favorable impression. Scores for ages 35 to 54 and 70 and over were similar to the overall favorable rating of 57 percent.
Impact of Knowing a Church is Southern Baptist
Many churches struggle with how they should identify themselves as Southern Baptist to their unchurched community. When asked "If you were considering visiting or joining a church, would knowing that the church was Southern Baptist negatively or positively impact your decision?," only 31 percent of respondents said this knowledge would positively impact his or her decision to visit or join the church. For 1 in 4, this would have a negative impact, while it would not be a factor for 36 percent. Another 9 percent were not sure.
The following chart again shows strong regional differences. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the favorable impact of the Southern Baptist identification in the West, with 36 percent positive only slightly behind the South at 40 percent. The Central Great Lakes and East reported less favorable reaction to a church being identified as Southern Baptist. Note that the indifference in the East, where 47 percent said it made no difference if a church was Southern Baptist, was also reflected in that many there were not familiar with us.
Age Matters Again
The Southern Baptist identity simply does not resonate with adults age 18 to 24. More than 40 percent of respondents in this group said knowing a church was Southern Baptist would negatively affect their decision to visit or join the church. This was the only group with negative responses outnumbering positives. Persons ages 35 to 54 had the largest percentage (36%) reporting that the Southern Baptist label would positively influence their choice of a church.
What people think about our churches is not the most important thing; the gospel is. Many people have negative perceptions about the gospel and we do not fret over such statistics--we realize that unbelievers have scales on their eyes that only the Spirit can remove.
But it also should give us pause when our denominational label causes some to not hear the gospel in our churches. Too often the stumbling block of the cross has been replaced with the stumbling block of the church.
The scope of this study stopped short of asking why there are unfavorable impressions of Southern Baptists. Are we seen as intolerant because we believe that God's best for marriage is one man, one woman, and one lifetime? Are we seen as harsh because we see God's word as inerrant? Or, are there valid reasons why they have negative perceptions of our churches? The answer is probably a mixture of those and other factors.
Regardless, there are major concerns here, particularly for long-term ministry of our Southern Baptist churches.
Perhaps we should ask questions about how we might cause people to see our churches as indispensable members of their community. As Robert Lewis so pointedly asks in his book, The Church of Irresistible Influence, if your church closed its doors today, would anyone but its own members notice? Would the community be saddened because such a great community transformation partner was gone? If the answer to that was "yes," I think that people of every generation and every region would answer these questions differently.
- You can download a PowerPoint of this study by clicking here.
- In the Next CMR Insights: "How do the unchurched (by region and by age) view Southern Baptists."
- The Center for Missional Research is currently undertaking the largest ever study of the "Younger Unchurched and Churches That Reach Them." Watch future issues for more information.
Ed Stetzer is the Missiologist and Senior Director of the Center for Missional Research. Richie Stanley is Director of Research at the NAMB's CMR.