The Southern Baptist Decline Continues– and Accelerates

By: Ed Stetzer

For a number of years, a LifeWay Research chart illustrating Southern Baptist Convention membership beginning in 1950 brought Southern Baptist leaders a modicum of solace amidst national uncertainty.

From 1950 till 2007 it showed growth—and impressive growth—while other denominations were declining.

I wrote in 2008 that Southern Baptists shouldn’t build their denominational confidence on this chart, because the growth of the Convention seen in the 1950s slowed as it approached the new millennium.

In 2009, I quoted Cliff Tharp, the late, well-known LifeWay statistician, as saying,

We have been slowing in our growth and have now passed into decline. We are right at the top of the arc and beginning to go down. 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.

The just released 2014 Annual Church Profile report shows the pattern continuing—right on track with the trend line first gaining national prominence in 2008. Membership, weekly worship attendance, and baptism numbers continue to decline.

Don’t Be Shocked

Sometimes I miss the days when people debated if we were about to head into decline.

But this shouldn’t shock us. Like Cliff said: it’s just math. And, Cliff warned us we needed to make changes.totalmembership

Yet, in 2008 there was a flurry of articles and debates about these numbers. National leaders spoke of this as a blip. It wasn’t then—I think everyone now agrees—and it isn’t now.

The Southern Baptist Convention is declining and, if the trend continues, the decline will accelerate.

Because, while some graphs like the ones above show us that membership has increased since 1950, others graphs like the one below show us that we have increased at slower rates for decades, eventually dipping into decline, which is where we are today.

The Chart of Concern

The chart that should concern Southern Baptists is one that shows growth vs decline from 1950 through last year. If this trend continues, decline will not merely continue, it will accelerate. (And, this is simply an updated chart from 2007—same trend, seven years later.)

memberchangeFollow that trend line and soon the SBC will be declining at 2 percent a year, then three percent, then…

In 2013, the SBC claimed 15,735,640 members, and in 2014, that number fell by 236,467 to 15,499,173—that’s a 1.5 percent decline. However, on this stat alone, the claim could be made that churches are simply clearing out the cobwebs and tidying up their membership rolls so their numbers more accurately reflect their active members.

The problem is, membership isn’t alone in its decline—it’s joined by baptisms and weekly worship attendance.

In 2013, Southern Baptist churches reported 310,368 baptisms. Last year, they reported 305,301, which is down by more than five thousand baptisms, or 1.63 percent.

The highest percentage of decline last year was in weekly worship attendance. In 2013, 5,834,707 people attended SBC churches for worship each week. In 2014, that number dropped by 2.75 percent (160,238) to 5,674,469.

What Now?

At the core, these numbers tell us this: it is as important as it has ever been for Southern Baptists to share and show the love of Jesus.

But, that does not require a Southern Baptist Convention. That’s true for non-denominational churches as well.

So, for the future, the SBC needs to find a way to cooperatively work together (what Ronnie Floyd has called “visible unity”), to lead out in evangelism and church planting, provide resources for church revitalization, engage young and more non-Anglo leaders, and do so as a denominational family.

Facts are our friends, and the fact is the SBC decline is not reversing, it’s accelerating.

But, it is not too late to make changes that will reverse it—and to do so together.

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  1. Bob Cleveland   •  

    From my seat in my Alabama pew, I think it’s worse than you paint it to be.

    One small example: we moved into our pretty new big red brick building on the highway one month after Chris Hodges started a Bible Study in his living room (he had just moved here from out of town and didn’t know anybody). In the 15 years since, our church membership grew, attendance declined about 20%, and the Bible study turned into the biggest church in Alabama. When I studied it, 10 locations and 22,000 members.

    And I visited to check out what was going on and found real worship and sound preaching and teaching.

    Keep sounding the call, Ed. Please. Perhaps one day soon, folks who can make a difference will finally catch on.

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  4. Norm Martin   •  

    I joined an SBC Church in Atlanta in 1959. I had been called by God, in by belief and understanding for ministry. Of course then I thought that the only calling to that of pastor. What got me in that small (400 members) Atlanta church was the firm teaching of “The Priesthood of the Believer.” That starting in the 70’s. While in New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in the late 60’s, I saw the beginning of the fundamentalist rising to power.

    Then, after taking over they changed the Baptist Faith and Message in 2002.
    removing much of any idea of the priesthood of the believer. It also put women in second place. Now women cannot even teach men in SBC seminaries. Churches are pressured to sign the BF&M to even be a member of a SBC association which allows them to vote in the SBC convention.

    I watched a moderate evangelical SBC turn into a fundamentalist SBC in less than a 10 year period. What they’ve done sense is a mop up to take out any thing that doesn’t fit with there rather Old Testament mind set.

    The anger shown to the gays, to the sinner (actually), to the agnostics and atheist, to anyone who disagrees with the preachers political beliefs and it goes on and on. You know that there lingers racism in each of your congregations.

    The biggest problem SBC is you have lost your faith and now depend on the Republicans to be your religious champion. Have you lost so much of your faith that you think you have to have deeply flawed politicians to see that God’s will be done?

    We are in a post Christian age, the secular is making in roads most every where. The one place is hasn’t is in the service of God’s love. Open your arms wide, call all to come in. Call on Christians to share the love that God has given them to all.

  5. Frank   •  

    When the small church lost its voice and pastors have become over bearing, insensitive and fail to minister because their computers and meetings people walk away. The decline will continue as long as there are those who are willing to let the small church die for the benefit of the CEO model. I have heard it said that “some churches just need to die” because they are too small to make a difference.


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  15. Sharon Williams   •  

    The reason for the decline in worship attendance and people joining other denominations is because Southern Baptists have strongly embraced the contemporary movement. Also, Southern Baptist Churches have begun ordaining female deacons and divorced deacons. They are trying to please teenagers and overgrown teenagers instead of the Lord. Today, anything goes in the Southern Baptist Church.

    The purpose of fasting is to totally focus on the Lord. Southern Baptists can’t go one hour and totally focus on the Lord. They have to have their coffee or soft drinks and some have to be fed (physically) during the service. I have also heard about some texting during the service. It’s pathetic.

    Also, there isn’t any difference in how most people live who sit in church every Sunday and those who never enter a church. The root problem in most churches today is–they can’t recognize sin. There is a blindness to sin. They have created a nice environment for themselves. They are convinced they are forgiven without repentance and no one is supposed to judge them. The Bible doesn’t teach us not to judge. We wouldn’t have most of the New Testament if Paul had not been judgmental and written letters to several churches rebuking them for their sins. Also, does Judge Deborah ring a bell. Also, two people are supposed to visit a brother in Christ when he seems to be behaving in a manner displeasing to God. The Bible teaches not to judge hypocritically. It is does not teach us to let the poor soul keep the spec in his eye and it is none of your business.

    The world is in a mess and it isn’t the fault of those who don’t know Christ and never attend church. It is the fault of those who sit in church every Sunday pretending to be Christians.

    Southern Baptist Churches need to look at what the churches were doing in the fifties and early sixties and use that as their blueprint to win the world to Christ. Nashville killed Sunday evening worship when they discontinued Training Union.

    Anyone who doesn’t recognize the United States and the world were better off in the fifties has his head buried in the sand.

    God no longer comes first.

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