(RNS) — Anecdotally, clergy have talked about the disruption in worship attendance in this pandemic age. Now, Southern Baptists have statistics to prove it.
The average in-person weekly attendance at Southern Baptist Convention churches declined 18.75%, from 4,439,797 in 2020 to 3,607,530 in 2021.
Christian education saw an even larger decrease of 22.15%, with Sunday school, Bible study and small groups reduced from 2,879,130 to 2,241,514.
The Annual Church Profile, a compilation from the denomination’s state conventions, was released Thursday (May 12) by Lifeway Christian Resources, the convention’s data gathering division.
Researchers also blamed COVID-19 for the slowdown in baptisms in the past two years. While there has been a 26% annual increase in baptisms at Southern Baptist churches, from 123,160 in 2020 to 154,701 in 2021, overall baptisms are nowhere near the total of 235,748 reported in 2019, the year before the pandemic began.
Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, said the recent rise in baptisms was due not only to churches’ reopening as the pandemic eased earlier this year, but to the increased evangelism the easing allowed.
“Some people could have been ready to be baptized but delayed it until their church was meeting again,” he told Religion News Service. “But we attribute most of the growth to individuals and churches resuming activities where they have shared the gospel with others.”
Willie McLaurin, the SBC Executive Committee’s interim president and CEO, said in Lifeway’s announcement of the 2021 profile that he rejoiced at the “uptick” in baptisms.
“I am incredibly proud of local churches that have stayed steady with evangelism during the pandemic,” said McLaurin. “The increase in baptisms highlights that local pastors and churches prioritize soul-winning, evangelism and discipleship.”
The only other growth Southern Baptists saw in 2021 was in financial giving. Contributions increased by $304 million for a total of $11.8 billion overall.
But membership is continuing its decline of many years with a 3% loss, from 14,089,947 in 2020 to 13,680,493 in 2021.