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.