Baptists and Methodists adopt differing responses to Boy Scouts

The recent decision by the Boy Scouts of America to permit gay scouts is drawing interesting responses from the faith community.

This photo shows a close up detail of a Boy Scout uniform worn by Brad Hankins, a campaign director for Scouts for Equality, as he responds questions during a news conference in front of the Boy Scouts of America headquarters in Irving, Texas.(Photo: Tony Gutierrez, AP)

This photo shows a close up detail of a Boy Scout uniform worn by Brad Hankins, a campaign director for Scouts for Equality, as he responds questions during a news conference in front of the Boy Scouts of America headquarters in Irving, Texas.(Photo: Tony Gutierrez, AP)

The two are inextricably linked since thousands of churches across the country sponsor Boy Scout troops. Many denominations have expressed varying degrees of disappointment with the BSA decision, which permits gay scouts, but retains the ban on gay scout leaders.

Now that the dust is settling from the May decision, the response to it is worth debating, particularly in light of declining faith adherence. I believe that decline is playing a role in how churches are viewing the Scouts.

Take the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. According to data released this week by LifeWay Research, the arm of the denomination that tracks such trends, the number of SBC-affiliated congregations grew while reported membership of those churches declined by more than 100,000.

This number is down 0.7 percent from last year with primary worship attendance declining 3.1 percent to 5.97 million Sunday worshippers. Baptisms decreased by 5.5% over the previous year with the lowest reported number on record since 1948.

The SBC made a somewhat surprisingly tame announcement regarding the Scouts, declining to adopt a resolution urging its churches to cut ties with the BSA. Instead, they condemned the decision to allow openly gay Scouts while acknowledging the right of churches to remain in Scouting.

I find that muted response interesting.

Then you have the Methodists, who announced that any of the 3,981 Scout units dropped by Southern Baptist churches would be warmly welcomed by neighboring United Methodist congregations.

“The United Methodist Church is the second largest sponsor of the Boy scouts with 363,876 Scouts in 10,868 units chartered by 6,700 churches,” said Larry Coppock director of scouting ministry for the denomination. “I would love to see those numbers increase. Scouting remains one of the finest youth-serving agencies in America and it will continue to serve as a positive influence on boys and young men.”

For what it’s worth, the United Methodist Church reported sharp declines in membership last year (although central Pennsylvania was cited as an area of growth).

Interesting that the UMC called out the Southern Baptists by name in this Wednesday press release on the Scouts. Should church declines continue, the competition for members could similarly turn fierce.

I don’t want to discount the serious theological considerations involved in the decisions being made with regards to the Scouts. But I will note that in 1997, the Southern Baptist Convention was much more aggressive in calling for an all-out boycott of Disney Co. for what it saw as the company’s pro-gay policies.

At any rate, if membership concerns are making these denominations more compassionate, that has to be a good thing.

Do you think membership losses are playing any role in how denominations are responding to the BSA decision?

About John Hilton

I grew up in Susquehanna County, Pa. and graduated Syracuse University with a dual degree in journalism/political science in 1998. After working for nearly three years for a weekly paper in upstate New York, I came to southcentral Pennsylvania. I spent 13 years as a reporter and editor for The Sentinel in Carlisle and joined the York Daily Record as religion reporter in September 2011.
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