For the 13th year in a row, America’s largest Protestant denomination has experienced a membership decline. Data compiled for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) by Lifeway Research reveals a two-percent decrease in U.S. church membership from 2018 to 2019, the largest single-year decrease in more than 100 years. Attendance, baptisms, and giving also were down during that period.
Denominational leaders say evangelism must be a priority for Southern Baptists, while adding that the Annual Church Profile (ACP) data-collection process needs overhauling.
What the Lifeway Research Numbers Reveal
From 2018 to 2019, SBC membership fell to just more than 14.5 million, though the number of churches increased by 74, to 47,530. Average attendance at weekly worship and Sunday school or small groups each decreased by less than one percent. Baptisms, meanwhile, fell by more than four percent, with 10,694 fewer reported in 2019 than the previous year. Last year, one baptism occurred for every 62 Southern Baptists.
“These numbers are not able to tell the story of all the evangelistic efforts that many individuals and churches have put in this past year,” says Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “They do indicate, however, that the efforts of the same number of people in a congregation on average are seeing fewer people come to Christ and being baptized. The Southern Baptist Convention is not immune to the increasing secularization among Americans that is seen in more of our children and our neighbors not having an interest in coming to Jesus.”
After two years of increases, both total church receipts and undesignated receipts fell slightly in 2019. Total church receipts were down 1.44 percent, to $11.6 billion.
Some bright spots appeared in the data, however. Several state conventions outside the traditional Bible belt (including Colorado, Iowa, the Northwest, and Utah-Idaho) experienced membership growth and significant baptism increases last year. And multisite congregations added 505 more campuses to their ministries.
SBC’s Greear: We must ‘point people to Jesus’
“I grieve at the news that our reported baptism numbers fell again this year, continuing our 50-year decline,” writes SBC President J.D. Greear at Baptist Press. “Too many of us care more about whether our side is winning in the news cycle than we do the souls of our neighbors, sow division on secondary issues more than we point people to Jesus, and focus more on preserving our traditions than reaching our grandchildren.”
SBC membership peaked at 16.3 million in 2006. Recently, the denomination has dealt with clergy sex-abuse, debate about women’s roles, and controversy surrounding VP Mike Pence’s speech at the 2018 annual meeting. This year’s annual meeting was canceled because of the pandemic.
Ronnie Floyd, president and CEO of the SBC’s Executive Committee, cites several problems with the ACP: Data collection is labor-intensive, involves significant lag time, and lacks uniformity. “It simply cannot take this long and be this complicated,” says Floyd. “It is past time for us to rethink and re-innovate” the process. Participation by state conventions and individual congregations also varies. For the 2019 ACP, about 12,000 SBC churches didn’t participate, Floyd says, which “definitely impacts our statistical data.”