By Bob Allen
The Southern Baptist Convention is “catching up with the Methodists” in dwindling numbers formerly known as the “mainline decline,” the denomination’s head statistician said June 10.
LifeWay Christian Resources recently released figures indicating baptisms reported by churches in 2012 were the lowest since 1948. Ed Stetzer, head of LifeWay Research, said he is more concerned about a 50-year trend first identified by a predecessor, Cliff Tharp, who died in March.
Stetzer told an audience at the SBC Pastors Conference that Southern Baptists were growing in the 1950s at an annual rate of about 3 percent. In the 1960s that slowed to 2 percent and then gradually to less-than 1 percent in the 1990s.
Since 2000, Stetzer said: “Our growth rate is now our decline rate. This is a 50-year trend.”
Stetzer said when he first started talking about it in 2003, people got angry and wrote articles criticizing him. Now, he said, “We are tracking that trend line like a Baptist tracks a buffet line.”
If the trend continues, he said the SBC will be declining at 2 percent a year by 2027, and by 2050 will be down to 9 million members, the same number as in 1960.
Stetzer said 2012 marked another dubious milestone, the first time that the number of church members per baptism topped 50. “We are every year becoming less and less effective at reaching people and sharing the gospel,” he said.
Acknowledging that it’s hard to turn around a 50-year trend, Stetzer urged church leaders to stop being distracted by secondary issues and rehabilitate the convention’s image so that Southern Baptists will “be known more for what we’re for — the gospel — than what we’re against.”