After plunging due to COVID closures, baptisms in the Southern Baptist Convention rose again last year but remained well below 2019 levels — a year in which baptisms continued a decline that started in 1999.
That’s the good news in the SBC’s annual statistical report, released May 9.
The worse news is that membership numbers continued to slide downward, this time marking the largest single-year decline in a century. That decline has been ongoing since 2006.
A battle cry of the “conservative resurgence” that took control of the SBC’s agencies and institutions in a schism that lasted from 1979 to 2000 was that reclaiming a conservative heritage would save the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination from the fate then befalling all mainline Christian churches.
It turns out, the SBC was just as vulnerable to societal change, although delayed in feeling its effects. Recent membership declines nearly match the annual percentage declines of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
“There’s no other way to say this: The decline the SBC is experiencing is at a scope and scale that has not been seen in any other Protestant denomination in American history,” said religion researcher Ryan Burge, who was raised Southern Baptist and now is an American Baptist pastor. He is considered one of the foremost authorities in America on the demographics of religion.
In a May 10 column about the SBC numbers, Burge illustrated how from 1946 to 1982, the SBC gained about 1 million members every five years. But then growth slowed. It took nearly two decades (1982 to 2006) to add another 2 million members.
That was the high-water mark for SBC membership: 16.3 million in 2006.
Now, 16 years later, membership in the SBC is back to 1978 levels, at 13.2 million.
Denominational officials sought to put a happy face on the new data. A news release from Lifeway Christian Resources — the SBC agency that collects information from all churches through something called the Annual Church Profile — called the results a “complicated picture” with “some positive news.”
The positive? Baptisms increased by more than 16%, in-person worship attendance climbed by more than 5%, small group attendance grew by 4% and giving to SBC congregations grew by almost 2%.
Worship attendance and small-group attendance, while increased over 2021, still fell well short of pre-pandemic levels. And both measures have been on the decline for more than a decade.
COVID so ravaged most SBC metrics that none of the 2022 increases — which would have been impressive in any other year — have staunched the overall trend of decline. And the membership numbers didn’t even bounce back from COVID; instead, they continued the two-decade pattern of decline.
That corresponds with national trends reported by other polling firms that show church membership in America — across all denominational lines — is at historic lows.
Membership and attendance, of course, are two different things. Of the 13 million members of SBC churches, only 3.8 million attended those churches on an average Sunday in 2022. That means only 1% of the U.S. population attended an SBC church on most Sundays — compared to only 4% of the population who are members of SBC churches.
Yet the SBC remains by far the largest Christian denomination in the U.S. apart from Catholics.
Last year, in a single year, the SBC lost 457,371 members — a number equal to the entire population of the city of Miami.
Southern Baptist churches have experienced membership declines of about 3% annually the past three years, accelerating the trend begun after 2006.
One denominational official said he believes SBC churches nationwide must have done some major scrubbing of their rolls last year. While removing inactive members is common among United Methodist churches, which have to pay apportionments based on membership, Baptist pastors often joke that is it nearly impossible to be removed from the membership roll of an SBC church.
Yet Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, posited: “Much of the downward movement we are seeing in membership reflects people who stopped participating in an individual congregation years ago and the record keeping is finally catching up. Membership totals for a congregation immediately reflect additions as well as subtractions due to death or someone removing themselves from membership. But many congregations are slow to remove others who no longer are participating.”
Another thing on the decline in the SBC: Number of congregations. And not just because the SBC is kicking them out for ordaining women. The statistics show 416 fewer churches affiliated with the SBC in 2022 than in 2021 — a 1% loss.
That comes amid a multi-million-dollar push by the SBC’s North American Mission Board to start tens of thousands of new congregations nationwide. NAMB is spending more money than ever and getting fewer results than two decades ago, a point of frequent exasperation among convention insiders.
Despite the challenges in baptisms, membership and attendance, one other metric remains strong: Giving. Last year, undesignated offerings to SBC churches hit $9.9 billion, nearly a 2% increase over 2021.
“The increased generosity among churches is a high point in the Annual Church Profile. In a season where pennies are having to be pinched and spending is strategic, church members are demonstrating an increased dependence upon their faith in God,” said Willie McLaurin, interim president of the SBC Executive Committee, which distributes offering monies to SBC entities.
Burge noted there is a connection between decreased numbers of baptisms — the entry point to membership in a Baptist church — and membership decline. While either numerical trend by itself is bad, the combined effect is worse.
“No denomination can sustain losses like the SBC is experiencing and not be fundamentally changed,” Burge said. “If the 2020-2023 numbers hold throughout the rest of the decade, the SBC will be closer to 10 million by 2030.
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