A year after reporting the largest single-year membership decline in more than 100 years, churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, lost more than 400,000 members in 2020 and set a new record for the single-year decline amid the coronavirus pandemic and a bitter culture war.
The Annual Church Profile report shows membership in SBC congregations declined by a staggering 435,632 in 2020, more than 50% higher than the 287,655 members the denomination reported losing from 2018 to 2019.
While the number of SBC congregations increased slightly by 62 to 47,592 over the previous year, the decline in membership in 2020 continues a sustained negative 14-year trend that began when SBC church membership peaked at 16.3 million in 2006. Since then, the denomination has declined in membership by nearly 2 million.
About 69% of Southern Baptist congregations participated in the reporting for the Annual Church Profile.
Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, said in a statement that the steep decline in membership at SBC congregations resulted from fewer additions through baptism and other additions, likely more deaths from COVID-19 and other reductions in the membership of individual Southern Baptist congregations.
“Numerous church leaders have described their attempts to stay in touch with their congregation throughout the pandemic,” McConnell said. “As congregations rediscovered the telephone, they also discovered some on their membership lists who moved away, joined another church, or no longer wanted to be a member.”
A nearly 50% baptism decline in SBC congregations was also reported for 2020, which was also significantly impacted by the pandemic.
In 2020, 123,160 baptisms were reported compared to 235,748 in 2019, representing the ninth year of a sustained drop in baptisms.
“Socially distant behavior is helpful for containing a pandemic, but it hindered meeting new people, inviting people to church, and helping them take a step of obedience to be baptized,” McConnell said. “The additional outreach through online methods did not make a dent in the smaller number of opportunities to share the gospel in person, including fewer Vacation Bible Schools, live events, and weekly services to invite people to attend. The last year Southern Baptists saw this few people follow Christ for the first time was 1918 and 1919 when the influenza pandemic was sweeping the world.”
Southern Baptist baptisms declined by more than 4% in 2019, dropping from 246,442 in 2018 to 235,748 in 2019.
At the time, McConnell blamed the decline on America’s increasing secularization.
“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 at the time. “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.”
A recent study from the Pew Research Center reports that only 65% of Americans now identify as Christian. Those who identify as religiously unaffiliated — a group that includes atheists, agnostics and people who don’t identify with any religion — swelled to 26% of the population.
Beyond COVID-19, other issues that rankled the SBC in 2020 and continue to do so today include tensions exacerbated by mass protests against racial injustice and police brutality.
Some black leaders left the denomination with their large churches last year over a statement by the Council of Seminary Presidents denouncing critical race theory and intersectionality.
The SBC defines critical race theory in Resolution 9 as a set of analytical tools that explain how race has and continues to function in society. Intersectionality is the study of how different personal characteristics overlap and inform one’s experience.
There is now an impasse over the issue that could likely contribute to more black pastors and their congregations cutting ties with the SBC if Resolution 9, which holds that critical race theory can “aid in evaluating a variety of human experiences,” is rescinded at the SBC’s annual meeting this summer.
Other high-profile leaders such as prominent Bible teacher and Living Proof Ministries leader Beth Moore also announced her exit from the denomination this year, saying she does not "identify with some of the things” in SBC heritage which she claims “haven’t remained in the past.”