Will Southern Baptists Ignore the Ongoing Decline?

A LifeWay report released today showed that overall SBC membership continues to decline-for the third straight year. Despite adding 162 churches across 42 state conventions, total membership slid from 16,228,438 in 2008 to 16,160,088 in 2009, a net loss of 68,350 members. The decline has occurred in spite of an increase of 7,539 baptisms year over year. The Annual Church profiles revealed a tiny (.36%) rise in total number of churches and a .37% increase in primary worship attendance.

As the chart shows, our membership appears to have peaked.
2009 ACP Graphs membership

Sometimes it is hard to know what to celebrate and about what to be concerned. The increase in baptisms is good news. Every baptism is a person being obedient to the teachings of Christ, publicly professing new life in Christ. The fact that there are more baptisms is a good thing, as is the slight increase in attendance.

Yet . . .

Saying this year’s increase in baptisms is good news is like bragging your state moved from the 47th to 46th state in educational achievement. It’s better, but it’s not time for a parade. The baptism numbers were the third lowest since 1993 (last year was lowest). It should break our hearts that this year’s baptism numbers are considered good news at all-it shows how far we have to go.

Is it the reversal of a trend in the number of baptisms? We hope, but we do not know. Baptisms have gone up and down on many occasions through the decades. This chart shows the pattern.
2009 ACP Graphs baptisms

On the other hand, membership change continues to follow its 50-year trend. The annual percent change of membership continues to move in the wrong direction.

LifeWay today cited our president Thom Rainer, “While the baptism numbers are encouraging, they do not necessarily signal reversal of fortune for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.” He is right. We should always be encouraged by more baptisms but, put in context, today’s numbers are still a warning for us.

LifeWay’s long serving statistician, Cliff Tharp, first pointed out the trend several years ago-before membership had tipped into decline. Two years ago, I illustrated how the one-year decline was not a blip, but simply a continuation of the trend. In June 2009, Cliff pointed out that acknowledging the trend was critical to our future. Cliff said, “We have been slowing in our growth and have now passed into decline… But changes we make now can change that trend significantly. These stats are not new but it has never caught anyone’s attention until now.”

When LifeWay Research pointed out the trending membership change/dedline, some were upset-they said it was untrue. In the first year of decline, they said it was not a “trend” but a “blip”-and some said Southern Baptists were actually thriving. But, as the trend chart showed, that decline was not a blip but it was part of a larger trend line. And that trend does not end well.

Then came the second year of decline and some Southern Baptists warned that all this decline talk was just a figment of our imagination. As I said last year, that figment is rapidly becoming our future. Blips, untended, become dips… and dips, untended, become crypts.

2009 ACP Graphs membership trend

Note: this year’s membership fits right on the trend line… and that trend line is not our friend. The percent change trend line passed over to negative territory a few years ago.

Pretending it is not real won’t make it go away. There is more than one cause. Demographics, where we are located, and evangelistic lethargy, all play a part– but they do not make it acceptable.

We are a denomination in decline. Some don’t like to admit it. But, the decline of SBC membership is not a matter of debate. It is a matter of math. And, if trends continue, it won’t end soon. Expect to hear “membership decline” more times than “membership growth” over the next few years.

What are our options?

  • Option #1: Act as if nothing negative is really happening, proverbially fiddling while Rome burns.
  • Option #2: Acknowledge that the decline is real but blame some “other” segment of the convention for the decline. “It’s those contemporary pastors who have colluded with worldliness.” Or “It’s those old dusty pastors who have confused tradition with the power of the gospel.”
  • Option #3: Blame lost people for being lost. Perhaps complaining about the state of the country will make lost people want to be saved. Unlikely.
  • Option #4: Wish for something else. We can dream of a different future or pine away for a preferred past but without action in the present context of our churches, nothing with change.

The 5th and final option, and really the only option for us to really impact the world, is a serious self-examination as to whether how we make disciples is rooted in Scripture and delivering the gospel effectively to our mission field. We can scarcely hope to impact the world if we do not approach the gospel and kingdom of God in the same way that Christ did.

  • Do we value the kingdom as He did?
  • Do we love sinners as He loved them?
  • Do we serve as He served?
  • Do we remind our neighbors of Jesus and tell them of His gospel?

If we cannot answer in the affirmative to these questions, then we will continue on the present path. If we can or will embrace these concepts (and others), then we can trust that God will work through us to affect a move of gospel influence across North America and the world.

I, for one, will work for the latter. Let’s unite around our common mission and do it together.

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  30Comments

  1. Josh McManaway   •  

    Where is everyone going? Is there any data concerning how many people are going into more liturgical churches (Anglicans, Catholics, Orthodox, etc)?

  2. Sam   •  

    When is the SBC going to stop reporting membership numbers that everyone acknowledges are overinflated by local churches? These numbers are more often than not, number of people on a church membership roll. These are not the actual number of people in SBC churches on a given Sunday. Why is the running joke that even the FBI cant find 16 million people in SBC churches each Sunday? How can the SBC move forward with the GCR but have such little integrity in a simple matter of reporting actual membership numbers? Is the SBC SO prideful that they can not admit that they may no longer be the largest protestant denom?

    And lets be honest about baptisms. How many of this number, again self reported…we know how well churches report their membership numbers, so why would we trust the baptism numbers,.. I digress. How many of these baptisms are “rededications” (where is this in the Bible), people of non-baptist background joining church, and very young children?

    Lastly, I thought the idea was to grow the Kingdom not the SBC. Couldnt the SBC be effective in evangelism whil losing numbers? Is the GCR just so narrowly focused in reaching the lost in order for them to join SBC churches? I would think not. I think we need to keep what is most important in sight

  3. Charlie Wallace   •  

    If baptisms are up and membership is declining, that means several things. (1) More people are being saved which means the churches are becoming more evangelistic (2) People are either dying more (and off church roles) or are moving to other denominations for whatever reasons (churches undergoing worship and cosmetic change, etc, becoming more intentionally evangelistic, etc).

    I wouldn’t be surprised if more pastors are ‘cleaning up’ their roles and are getting serious about regenerate church membership. I have a feeling that is happening, especially with younger pastors. Therefore, our membership may have to decline before it can grow. How else do you explain more baptisms but less members?

  4. Malcolm Yarnell   •  

    Last night, I was asked two questions. Why does the church exist? And what is the guage of our success? These were my answers:

    1. The church exists because Jesus Christ established it and preserves it (Matthew 16), gave it its covenant and discipline (Matthew 18), its two ordinances (Matthew 26 and 28), and its mission (Matthew 28).

    2. First, we are not the ultimate judges of our success or lack thereof. Christ is our judge! And he calls us to faithfulness. So, I think we can only guage success by measuring our obedience to His commands. According to the same measures as His commands, we are successful of we are confessing Him (Matthew 16), discipling ourselves (Matthew 18), practicing the two ordinances faithfully (Matthew 26 and 28), and fulfilling our commission by going, making disciples, baptizing and teaching all things He has commanded (Matthew 28).

    I would be interested to know whether Dr. Stetzer would care to evaluate my response. Could a decline in membership be the sign of faithfulness to Matthew 18? Could it be that our churches need to experience a season of intense discipleship even as we beg God to cast workers into the harvest? Could it be that the numbers do not tell a story of a current spiritual decline but of the beginning of a return to faithfulness to the entirety of the Great Commission?

    My prayer is for both growth in spiritual maturity in faithful discipleship and as a result a renewed sense of every member engaged in consistent and effective gospel proclamation. However, we may need to see a renewal of the former prior to (and hopefully soon followed by) an expansion of the latter.

    In Christ,
    Malcolm

  5. Jerry   •  

    How can we claim to have 16 million members when we cannot find half of them? I, for one, would be more than happy to see our “official” numbers drop by 50% or more, assuming that they reflect true membership. Maybe the 68k “decline” was the result of some honest roll cleaning.

    We will never see revival so long as we hide behind phony numbers. The hypocrisy and dishonesty of this practice needs to be a point of repentance and humility.

  6. David Pope   •  

    Yes, Sam. We should not be concerned about declining membership numbers until we have an ACCURATE membership number (or at least something closer). As a pastor, I led every church I pastored to increase baptisms AND correct the inaccuracy on the church rolls. In almost every case this led to a 40% decrease in membership numbers. Perhaps others are finally understanding the need for honesty.

  7. Bob Garbett   •  

    I tend to agree with Sam’s point that we have too many people who are “members” but who cannot be found in our churches. I can find not Biblical basis for an “inactive” church member – except “they went out from us, because they were not of us.” We are preparing to purge our rolls of these folks. While it will not be good for the stats, I think it would be good for the SBC if we all did this. It would show both integrity and expectation in membership.

  8. Ed Stetzer   •     Author

    David (and others),

    I think your practice in regards to membership is great. I have done the same.

    However, as we look at the data, the numbers don’t point to a widespread practice of regenerate church membership (one of the best things we approved at a convention in a long time).

    They do, however, just continue the pattern we have seen– a decreasing growth rate has now led to a slow decline. If the trend continues, the rate of change will increase.

    If we are a smaller convention (in regards to membership) that is not the worse thing. Perhaps we will have fewer lost people on our rolls.

    Membership is one measure and it is not perfect. It is the measure that almost all denominations use, however. And, when it was growing, people were celebrating. Now that it is declining, many want to say it does not count. I understand.

    For me, the greater issue is the baptisms– I am an evangelist / church planter at heart. We still remain at one of the lowest points in decades. I’m glad it’s up, I’m sad it’s still so low.

    I’ll be posting more about how those baptisms are increasingly getting younger and younger as well.

    I hope we will change, but I am afraid that too many are saying things are OK. It concerns me that we could have baptisms this low and some can think we are OK because we have a .36% rise in the number of churches and a .37% rise in the number of attendees.

    We may have different solutions. That’s OK– good people can disagree. But let’s agree that it’s not OK as it is and encourage all God’s people to join Him on mission to seek and save the lost.

    God bless,

    Ed

  9. Nathan Petty   •  

    Of course there is a problem with inaccurate reporting. Friends, should the Lord tarry there will be inaccurate reporting in a hundred years.

    Thank you, Dr. Yarnell, for your post. I will print out your post and let it serve as a reminder of what is truly important. As our small (250 30 years ago) seeks God’s will during a time when we are between pastors, I will pray along with Dr. Yarnell:

    “My prayer is for both growth in spiritual maturity in faithful discipleship and as a result a renewed sense of every member engaged in consistent and effective gospel proclamation. However, we may need to see a renewal of the former prior to (and hopefully soon followed by) an expansion of the latter.”

    Amen.

  10. Alyson   •  

    I hate to say it, but this comes as no surprise to me. My husband (and I) led a youth group at a So. Baptist church in our area for five years until about a year ago when we very painfully chose to part ways with the church, and ultimately, with the denomination.

    The church we were part of may have reported fifteen or so baptisms in a year. That number included those we “rebaptized” (who stated they had been baptized previously but either it was not in a Southern Baptist church or who had experienced some major life change or rededication since being baptized many years prior). It also included baptisms of those who had been church attenders and professing Christians for YEARS who were talked into being baptized. There were some “genuine” baptisms of children or teens. The church was extremely poor with evangelism. All of the few baptisms that did occur were done in our regular morning services, on the 4th Sunday of the month…with no exceptions. The church’s GOAL was to baptize one person a month….how sad.

    This is, unfortunately, typical of what we experienced with other So. Baptist churches we visited. Small, aging congregations who have fallen into what I refer to as the “7th Heaven” syndrome – churches who are content with their small attendance, large salaries, and pastors who do little to encourage their congregations to reach out to neighbors, and who rarely, if ever, do so themselves.

    In my opinion, it isn’t about contemporary, traditional, pianos, a band or any of that. It’s about having a passion for those around you, about breaking out of your bubble and meeting some non-Christian folks and not being afraid to share your faith with them. Let’s face it, we don’t live in a time when people are out “looking for a good church”. Unless So. Baptists are willing to personally evangelize their friends and neighbors, the denomination will continue to decline as most of their congregations age and literally die.

    As a (fairly) young person, I have seen this denomination focus solely on salaries and buildings and give very little care to the last, the least and the lost. I realize there are churches who don’t fit this description. But there are far too many that do. WAKE UP! We are not called to gather and have potlucks and game nights! We are not called to be a mere social clique! There is a mission we are called to and we are totally missing the blessing of being involved in it!

  11. Jamie   •  

    maybe because as the denomination becomes more pure after their decades of spiritual decline, the tares are becoming uncomfortable and leaving.

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  13. Jim Bohrer   •  

    I believe Ed has rightly raised the alarm. The SBC did her best work in the 50’s (Just look at the stats… we had about half our membership of today and still had more baptisms and growth percentage.) Then, pastors and churches rightly understood the need to prospect people, not simply hope they come or come back. They took names and numbers. They had a system of follow-up channeled through Sunday school (it doesn’t matter what you want to call your small group, but it has to be an outreach arm of the church). We prayed for those people by name and followed up with small group ministry.

    I believe the trend has been to rely simply on a morning worship (event) experience (and that can be either contemporary or traditional) as our outreach. We need to train our members to reach out and minister to new and lost people. And this cannot be done generically through mailings or events, there needs to be boots on the ground that know these people by name and really try to connect and minister to them.

    Sure our culture has become more and more cocooned. People don’t want to commit. But that’s how it was during the Great Awakenings too. People worked long hours and Wesley was able to put the working class to ministry. It has been estimated that he got close to making 20% of his converts leaders of some sort. They worked long hours at their job and still devoted substantial time to ministry.

    For my part, I need to dig in deeper to develop more leaders who will put the Kingdom first. But, it will take a conscious effort to be more concerned about people rather than my middle class lifestyle and social comfort to break out of the natural decline. We can get comfortable in our churches when the bills are paid and not want to rock the boat.

    Blessings to all and glad to hear the discussion. I wish I was more on fire than I am.

    Jim

  14. Davidinnashville   •  

    I am so glad that I attend a Church that because of new by-laws will remove after the first of this next year a good number of people from the rolls of the Church for various reasons. We became honest, and transparent and because of that we are seeing God do some incredible things. Some will be saddened and I am sad to see them removed, but they can fix that by attending the services. I often wondered why some build Churches that do not equal their membership. I am glad that we are on track for some wonderful blessings.

  15. Bryan Laramore   •  

    Well, unfortunately baptism in SBC life is not always or even often equatable with “new believers being obedient to the teachings of Christ.” As an SBC pastor I can honestly say that there are many, many more baptisms recorded than are active and ongoing discipleship relationships occurring, which naturally will lead to individual believers falling off the radar (as is incredibly evident) This, though, is changing in our local church as discipleship continues to take root in the life of our church.

  16. Bryan Laramore   •  

    Well, unfortunately baptism in SBC life is not always or even often equatable with “new believers being obedient to the teachings of Christ,” at least in the sense of the ongoing spiritual development of the believer. As an SBC pastor, it appears to me that there are many, many more baptisms recorded than there are active and ongoing discipleship relationships occurring, which naturally will lead to individual believers falling off the radar (as is incredibly evident) This, though, is changing in our local church as discipleship continues to take root in the life of our church.

    If discipleship (defined as one mature believer leading and teaching one to three other new believers “everything that Christ has commanded,” according to Matt 28:19-20) does not take root in the life and practice of our churches, expect a continued falling away of members.

  17. Mike   •  

    One trend to skew the numbers is than emerging generations tend not to join the way we did. Many at our church consider themselves “members” if they attend most weeks, participate in one or more church-sponsored ministry programs, and refer us to friends. And the church leadership affirms their presence in all but vetted service (nursery, etc) even without formal joining. Therefore, membership has become a less valid indicator, and average or median attendance more of one.

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  19. Patrick W   •  

    Our church family went from 100+ members two years ago to 36 members. We have baptized 6 over those same two years and our attendance has increased from the low 30s to the high 30s/low 40s. This doesn’t look good for the SBC or our annual church profile, but we are as healthy as we have ever been.

    I am not going to go so far as saying the current declines are healthy, but I also would not go so far as to say that the past increases were healthy either.

    We are basing our success/failure of today upon false success of the past. To genuinely know if we are succeeding today, we need to take an honest look at and repent over, our apparent success of the past.
    Thanks for listening
    Pat

  20. Sean   •  

    I echo many of the comments above, and just want to add that our church chose to clean up the rolls in 2009. We reported 2300+ members in 2008 and less than 300 in 2009. Our church attendance didn’t drop that far…we just decided to take a hard look at the numbers we were reporting. This is but one of several steps we need to take to become more healthy.

    As for the baptism numbers, I too am skeptical about what churches report. A sister church in our area will baptize anyone, anywhere, with little to no knowledge of what he or she is actually doing. They’re on pace to baptize over 100 this year, and the congregation is blissfully ignorant of what is going on. My friend, the former youth pastor there, left because he just couldn’t stomach what was happening.

    This might not be par for the course in the SBC (and maybe it’s just because I’m a younger dude), but I just don’t have confidence in what is reported.

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  23. Cory McDonald   •  

    My family and I attended a SBC for several years. My wife was a teen ministry leader and because of issues within that ministry and the lack of discipline that should’ve taken against another teacher because of things he said and did my wife quit the ministry and after a month left the church. The Pastor is a good friend of mine, but he is too nice and therefor doesn’t handle things the way he should. I think that’s part of the numbers issue. The other thing that I think is the problem is the teaching going on in the church. Two months ago my wife came home and asked for a divorce. When she (my wife) sought Godly advice about marriage and divorce she was told “talk to your husband and if he won’t change the things that are bothering you then God will release you from your marriage”. All of us know that isn’t sound Godly advice and is against what the bible teaches. The other issue is the lack of worship services and the music being sang and performed. Teenagers during Sunday services don’t want to sing and listen to the same hymnals our grandparents sang. Think Klove and Air1 and that’s what teens and even young adults in my age group (I’m 32) want to sing and listen to that kind of worship music.

  24. Nathan M   •  

    I agree with Jamie and others with similar concepts. Hopefully some of the declines can be attributed to cleaning up church roles and more cautious membership procedures.

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  26. Teresa W.   •  

    Although I believe you all have a valid point about church membership roles and the report of baptism’s, I believe the problem runs much deeper than what you may realize. The problem comes with the erosion of a Biblical foundation in our society at large.

    In the ’50’s most children had an understanding that God created the world in 6 days, that He made the first man and woman and placed them in a garden paradise called Eden with instructions not to eat from the Tree of the Knowlege of Good and Evil or they would surely die. Most knew that Adam and Eve disobeyed and as a result brought sin into the world and it was that sin that caused us to need a Savior.

    Today’s young adults, teens and children mostly have attended public schools where God is not allowed. They are taught that God is good for Sunday but irrelevant to the rest of life. They are taught that science has all the answers to how the world was made, that is was made from chemicals that exploded in a big bang and slowly over billions of years it evolved to the point where we are now. They are taught that we have evolved from monkeys and apes, not that we are made in the image of God.

    For those who do attend Sunday School with their families when they are kids and teens, they are taught Bible stories but not given the foundation they need to demolish the strongholds of the views they are taught for the other six days of the week. They are taught they need Jesus but they are not given the apologetics they must have in order to defend their belief in Christ. So when they are asked to defend their faith, they have no defense.

    I have recently read a very good book that explains this further. It was based on a study done of people who came from Christian evangelical homes that attended church regularly for their growing up years. Now they do not attend church at all. The study’s purpose was to find out why. The book is called “Already Gone” and was written by Ken Ham. I highly recommend it.

    As a the body of Christ we must not compromise Scripture in order to accommodate the world. We must stand firm on the Word of God. That means all of it, from the very first verse. Many pastors do not understand how vitally important it is that they provide clear teaching about evolution, sin, and God’s Word. They will say it is ok to believe in evolution and confess Christ. If that is the case, then the authority of Scripture gets undermined and the salt loses it’s saltiness.

  27. Timothy   •  

    An observation from one outside the SBC family. At my workplace which is largely SBC, the SBC women have only 1 child, which isn’y even replacement level. Eventually demographics kick in.

    We had three births. My brother has had five. Our branch of the “ekklesia kath olus” (Acts 9:31) is still growing.

    Might look at other verses in scripture other than Mat 18, 26 & 28, namely Gen 1:28

    God bless…

  28. David   •  

    When the SBC is listed as the second largest church in the US, behind the Catholics, it gives us and our members a sense of complacency that, “all is well in Zion.” Report an honest number and stir everyone of us of the need to share the light of Christ. So what if the Methodist or the Mormons get ranked in membership above us. We understand that there’s more people in our churches Sunday morning than even the Catholics. Honest is as honest does….

  29. Jim   •  

    I left the church and have been much more at peace. For me, it was the church’s obsessive stand against gay people that became very, very disturbing. At least one sermon a month had an anti-gay slant, and after a while, the whole church experience began to feel “slimy.” I know I’m definitely in the minority on this issue among conservatives, but I thought I’d express my opinions anyway.

  30. Raymond Takashi Swenson   •  

    Some insight into the larger trends in American religious belief and practice are provided by recent comprehensive research studies if American religious believers and of teens, which are reported and analyzed in the books American Grace and Almost Christian. Both discuss at length the trend among youth to disaffiliate from any specific denomination, in favor of a general spirituality or even generic Christianity that makes few demands in individual behavior.

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