Total membership in the Southern Baptist Convention dropped nearly 40,000 last year, prompting one official to declare America’s second-largest faith group officially a “denomination in decline.
New statistics released by LifeWay Christian Resources listed total SBC membership in 2007 as 16,266,920, a 0.24 percent decrease from the 16,306,246 reported in 2006. Baptisms, long used as a marker of Baptist vitality, dropped more than 5 percent to their lowest level since 1987.
LifeWay President Thom Rainer called the report “truly disheartening.”
Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, said membership growth has been moving toward a plateau for some time.
“Many have predicted that membership (an inflated statistic anyway) would soon began to decline, but the statement, ‘Southern Baptists are a declining denomination’ was not ‘officially’ accurate,” Stetzer wrote in a LifeWay blog. “Until today.”
“For now, Southern Baptists are a denomination in decline,” Stetzer wrote.
“Some might want to point to the good news (attendance up slightly, more churches, etc.),” Stetzer said. “However, you cannot miss the fact that a dubious historical milestone has been reached–and it needs to be noted in denominational and church offices across the country.”
“Some might say it’s ‘only one year,’ and they would be technically right,” Stetzer continued. But based on long-term membership trends, Stetzer said, “Reality is we have peaked.”
Rainer said declining baptisms point to “a denomination that, for the most part, has lost its evangelistic passion.”
A prerequisite for membership in most Southern Baptist churches, the number of baptisms has now declined for three consecutive years and seven of the last eight years. Baptisms are at their lowest levels since 1970. That is despite an effort known as “the conservative resurgence” launched in 1979 that was supposed to save the denomination from by resisting a drift toward liberalism.
Fueling the conservative movement in part was a 1972 book by Dean Kelley called Why Conservative Churches are Growing that linked decline in mainline denominations to secularization and liberal clergy. Kelley supported his thesis by comparing vitality in religions like Southern Baptists, the Assemblies of God and Mormons with liberal and declining denominations like United Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans.
Others, like Princeton’s Robert Wuthnow, point to Southern Baptists’ aging core white, middle-class constituency and a South that is becoming more heterogeneous as indicators that the SBC’s influence over time also will wane.
Rainer wrote in 2005, before becoming president of LifeWay, that the conservative resurgence failed in its goal of restoring evangelistic zeal.
“An honest evaluation of the data leads us to but one conclusion,” Rainer wrote in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. “The conservative resurgence has not resulted in a more evangelistic denomination.”
Rainer’s predecessor at LifeWay, Jimmy Draper, lamented in 2004 that four straight years of declining baptisms “reflects a denomination that has lost its focus.”
Southern Baptists’ high-water mark for baptisms was 1972, when they numbered 445,725. Back then there were 12 million Southern Baptists out of a United States population just below 210 million. The current estimated U.S. population is 303 million.
In 1950 Southern Baptists recorded one baptism for every 19 church members. Today the ratio of baptisms to total membership is 1:47.
Stetzer attributed stagnant growth to a decline in younger leaders in the convention, denominational infighting and a “loss of focus on the Gospel.”
Recent LifeWay statistics show that the percentage of messengers under age 40 attending SBC annual meetings has declined since 1980 and dropped precipitously since 2004.
Bruce Prescott, a moderate Baptist leader, attributed the decline to the rise of Calvinism.
“Mainstream Baptists have been predicting for decades that the Calvinism being taught in the SBC’s fundamentalist-dominated seminaries would have an adverse impact on evangelism,” Prescott said in his blog. “Now those concerns have been confirmed.”
“This decline comes entirely on the watch of the fundamentalists who seized control of the SBC in the 1980s,” Prescott said. “Moderate Baptists never experienced a single decline in membership during their tenure of leadership over the Convention.”
LifeWay Christian Resources, the SBC publishing arm formerly known as the Baptist Sunday School Board, has been collecting vital statistics from congregations through its Annual Church Profile (previously called the Uniform Church Letter) since 1922.
The 2007 count lists the number of Southern Baptist churches at 44,696, an increase of 1 percent over the previous year, and slight growth in worship attendance. Other gains included discipleship training, mission training for men and boys and increases in church offerings.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.