SBC baptism, membership numbers fall

Southern Baptists declined in most statistical categories reported in this year’s Annual Church Profile compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources.

By Bob Allen

Annual baptisms in Southern Baptist churches have declined by 100,000 in the last 12 years, last year dropping to the smallest number in 64 years.

LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention released figures June 5 reporting 314,959 baptisms in 2012, down 18,385 – or 5.5 percent – from 2011.

Total membership of 15,872,404 marked the sixth straight year of statistical decline for the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics. Membership dropped by 105,000 – two-thirds of a percent. Weekly worship attendance, meanwhile, fell below 6 million to 5,966,735, down 3 percent.

sbcstatsLong regarded a sign of denominational vitality, SBC baptisms plateaued after an all-time record 445,725 in 1972. They have declined six out of the last 10 years to the lowest number since 1948, the year Southern Baptists first exceeded the 300,000-baptism benchmark with 310,266.

Concerned leaders offer various explanations for the trend, which experts say began in the 1960s.

Professor William Day of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary cited two factors in a 2003 article in the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry.

One is an increasing ratio between church membership and baptism rates. Before 1935 Southern Baptists baptized one person for every 20 members. Between 1935 and 1959 the ratio was less than 25:1. In 2012 it took 50 church members to baptize one person. Day said that indicates an overall loss of evangelistic zeal.

Another factor is the changing role of Sunday school. During the 1950s Southern Baptists viewed Sunday school as the “outreach arm of the church,” he said. In most churches today Sunday school functions to assimilate members in small groups after they walk the aisle in worship to join.

Ed Stetzer, head of LifeWay Research, has suggested that the “conservative resurgence,” while affirming the convention’s commitment to the Bible’s truthfulness, failed when it comes to evangelism.

"Satan has used our incessant bickering over non-essentials to promote his last great mission on earth -- to keep lost people lost," Stetzer wrote on his blog in 2008. "The communities in which we live simply do not want to hear what we have to say when we cannot speak kindly to one another."

Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and co-founder of the conservative movement, disagrees, saying Southern Baptists would be reaching even fewer converts if the denomination’s leftward drift had not been corrected.

Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, contends in his new book I Am a Church Member that evangelicals have shifted toward a “me first” rather than “others first” attitude, viewing church membership as something similar to joining a country club that caters to their needs.

Other leaders have tried various approaches to fix the problem. After his election as SBC president in 2004, Florida pastor Bobby Welch embarked on a cross-country bus tour to promote his personal goal of 1 million baptisms a year. Baptisms that year reached 387,947 before falling the next two years to the lowest number since 1993.

Johnny Hunt, SBC president from 2008 to 2010, called for a “Great Commission Resurgence,” a renewed zeal for proclaiming the gospel modeled after the earlier campaign for biblical orthodoxy.

Hunt appointed a “Great Commission Task Force,” which after two years of study returned a comprehensive report in 2010 calling on the denomination to reprioritize spending so that maximum resources go toward reaching the non-evangelized.

The theme of next week’s SBC annual meeting in Houston, “Revive Us, That We May Be One,” is current president Fred Luter’s attempt to prime the nation for a needed revival.

LifeWay Christian Resources, the SBC publishing arm originally named the Baptist Sunday School Board, has been collecting vital statistics through its Annual Church Profile – previously called the Uniform Church Letter – since 1922.

Congregations voluntarily submit data to their Baptist state convention, which compiles numbers in various categories that are forwarded for tabulation to LifeWay’s headquarters in Nashville, Tenn.

The reports are due in February but are not released publically until all the cooperating state conventions have reported. The final report routinely includes a footnote indicating that some of the changes may be due to inconsistencies in reporting rather than actual growth or decline.

While most key metrics in 2012 showed decline, there was a modest increase in the number of churches – up 270 from the previous year to a total of 46,034 – and church-type missions, which increased by 40 to 4,992.