While the number of churches in the Southern Baptist Convention has increased slightly, total membership in those churches suffered the largest single-year decline in more than 100 years, according to recent measures from LifeWay Christian Resources.
In the Annual Church Profile prepared by the publishing and distribution division of the SBC based in Nashville, Tennessee, data show that the denomination lost some 287,655 members, nearly 2% of its adherents from 2018 to 2019. Current membership stands at 14,525,579.
While the number of churches in the denomination increased by 74 for a total of 47,530 churches over 2018, it did not reflect an increase in the number of congregations. Overall, the number of SBC congregations fell to 51,138 over 2018. Multisite congregations, however, grew by 505 campuses.
Southern Baptist baptisms also fell by more than 4%, dropping from 246,442 in 2018 to 235,748 in 2019. In 2019, there was one baptism for every 62 Southern Baptists. And Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, said the decline in baptisms is a reflection of the increasing secularization of America.
“These numbers are not able to tell the story of all the evangelistic efforts that many individuals and churches have put in this past year. They do indicate, however, that the efforts of the same number of people in a congregation on average are seeing fewer people come to Christ and being baptized,” McConnell said in a statement.
“The Southern Baptist Convention is not immune to the increasing secularization among Americans that is seen in more of our children and our neighbors not having interest in coming to Jesus,” he said.
A study from the Pew Research Center last October noted that only 65% of Americans now identify as Christian, while those who identify as religiously unaffiliated — a group which includes atheists, agnostics and people who don’t identify with any religion — swelled to 26% of the population. The drop in the number of Americans identifying as Christian reflected a 12% decline when compared to the general population 10 years ago. The decline was visible across multiple demographics but particularly among young adults.
Research by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2016 on why Americans are leaving religion also pointed to the increasing share of American adults who have been joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated, and said it is being “fed by an exodus of those who grew up with a religious identity.” Younger Americans today are also more likely than seniors to be raised without a religious identity.
In addition to the decline in membership, giving in the SBC was also down. Total church receipts and undesignated receipts were both down in 2019 after two years of growth. Total church receipts fell 1.44% to $11.6 billion while undesignated church receipts decreased 0.01% to $9.6 billion.
Congregations reported total mission expenditures of $1.1 billion and Great Commission Giving of $541 million.
Some 75% of Southern Baptist congregations participated in the reporting for the profile with at least one item which is similar to previous years, McConnell said, noting that data from the report has been beneficial during the coronavirus pandemic.
“In this season of social distancing, we realize how important our cooperative connections are within the SBC,” he said. “The Annual Church Profile is an important annual check-in to make sure other congregations, associations, state conventions, and national entities have the contact information, leadership names, and a few statistics to stay connected with a congregation. Many contacts have been made during this difficult time that were only possible because information was updated and stored in a national database.”