By now, Southern Baptists recognize that their movement is in a decline that shows no signs of changing course.
By their own measures, they’re not adding as many new believers to their flocks each year—the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) went from baptizing 321,000 in 2007 to 246,000 last year.
Plus, despite adding more than 10,000 more cooperating churches over the past couple of decades, church attendance across the denomination is also dropping.
In 2006, the SBC had 16.3 million members, now that’s down to less than 15 million, according to the denomination’s most recent Annual Church Profile (ACP).
Outside surveys have also tracked the decline. New findings released this year show the Southern Baptist trajectory more closely resembles the downward trend among the United Methodist Church (UMC), the nation’s largest mainline Protestant body, than fellow evangelicals in non-denominational traditions.
According to the General Social Survey (GSS), nearly the same percentage of Americans identified with the SBC as the UMC in the 1980s, then the two denominations’ trends began to separate, and both experienced a slow, steady decline from the mid-’90s on.
While close to 1 in 10 Americans identified as Southern Baptist in 1987, that number has been cut in half to 1 in 20 (4.8%) in 2018. Data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) reinforces this point as well, with 5.4 percent of the sample identifying as SBC.
There are four major ways for a religious denomination to change in size over a longer period of time: They add members through conversions, they keep those born into the faith as they grow up, they shed members through people defecting to other religious traditions, or members die and are not replaced by young adults.
Every religious group experiences these losses to some extent—like a bucket that has sprung a few leaks. While some of the water will inevitably trickle out, it’s possible to put more water back in the bucket from other sources. If the amount of water that leaks out is greater than the amount of water that is replaced, then a decline will occur in overall members. The Southern Baptist Convention has a bucket that is aging and springing more leaks every year.
Conversion and Defection
As evangelicals, Southern Baptists put particular emphasis on conversion as a potential source of membership growth and celebrated around a quarter of a million baptisms last year, according to ACP figures. However, nearly all Southern Baptists have been part of the denomination for a while.
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[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Ryan P. Burge and originally published at Christianity Today. Title changed by P&P.]
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