Southern Baptists Experiencing Accelerating Decline in Membership

Membership in the Southern Baptist Convention dropped again over the last year, according to a new report. The largest Protestant denomination in the country now counts less than 16 million members.

This marks the fifth straight year the SBC has lost members. Primary worship attendance has also dropped by 0.65 percent to around 6.16 million.

One Southern Baptist and researcher lamented that the denomination is not only experiencing decline but an acceleration of decline.

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Compared to a 0.15 percent drop from 2009 to 2010, membership fell by 0.98 percent from 2010 to 2011.

"Based on the trend of annual percent change in SBC total membership, we are catching up with the Methodists, and will match their decline rate consistently by 2018," said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, in his blog. "This trend points to a future of more and faster decline -- and it is a 60-year trend."

The Annual Church Profile, compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources, was released Tuesday ahead of the SBC's annual meeting in New Orleans. Thousands of SBC messengers, or delegates, will be converging on June 19 to fellowship, discuss resolutions, and elect new leaders. Perhaps the most anticipated event of the two-day meeting will be the likely election of an African-American as president for the first time in SBC history.

After decades of continuous growth, the SBC, established in 1845, began to see its membership plateau around 2004 as baptisms were on a slow decline. The denomination reported a drop in membership for the first time in many years in 2007. At that time, some predicted the decline would continue.

After reporting its lowest number of baptisms in decades in 2010, the SBC saw an increase in baptisms in 2011.

According to the report, baptisms increased by 0.70 percent to 333,341.

Celebrating the higher number of baptisms, Thom S. Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay, said in a statement, "God's Word is being proclaimed and God's Spirit is continuing to move in the hearts of people, drawing them to repentance. This is something that should excite us as Christians who care about the Great Commission."

The SBC also added 37 more churches and now counts 45,764 churches. Still, the increase in churches is small compared to previous years, Rainer pointed out.

Despite a little uptick in a few areas, looking at the math, Stetzer says the trend is clear and the SBC needs to "stare reality in the face and fight for our future" rather than merely manage decline like many of the other Protestant denominations.

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