For the first time, Southern Baptists can say membership has reached a tipping point and the nation's largest Protestant denomination is now declining, says one long-time Southern Baptist.
"The decline that many of us have already believed is there is now becoming real," said Ed Stetzer, director for LifeWay Research, in an interview featured on MondayMorningInsight.com, a Web site for pastors and church leaders.
Baptisms in the Southern Baptist Convention fell for the third straight year in 2007 to the denomination's lowest level since 1987, dropping nearly 5.5 percent to 345,941, according to LifeWay Christian Resources' Annual Church Profile (ACP), which was released this week.
Total membership also declined by 0.24 percent to 16,266,920.
"This report is truly disheartening," said LifeWay president Thom S. Rainer, according to Baptist Press. "Total membership showed a slight decline. Baptisms have now declined for three consecutive years and for seven of the last eight years, and are at their lowest level since 1987. Indeed, the total baptisms are among the lowest reported since 1970. We are a denomination that, for the most part, has lost its evangelistic passion."
While technically membership has only dropped for one year, Stetzer cautioned fellow Baptists from dismissing the data.
"We don't want people to say 'it's not a big deal.' It is a big deal," he said.
"Southern Baptists have always said 'We're growing. We're growing slow.' You can't say it anymore."
Total membership dipped once before, and then grew in the following years. But this time, Stetzer believes the growth over the past five decades has plateaued.
"Many have predicted that membership (an inflated statistic anyway) would soon begin to decline, but the statement, 'Southern Baptists are a declining denomination' was not 'officially' accurate.
"Until today," he said in his blog on Wednesday.
And while the Southern Baptist Convention added 473 new churches in 2007, gave more than $1.3 billion to support mission activities around the world, and saw a 0.16 percent increase in worship attendance, Stetzer believes the denomination cannot ignore the trend moving toward decline.
"Some might want to point to the good news (attendance up slightly, more churches, etc.). 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," he said.
"My hope is this will cause people to wake up and change," he commented.
Offering a few suggestions for change, Stetzer said the Southern Baptist Convention needs ethnic and generational diversity in its leadership. Also, the "infighting" has to stop. Debates over theological differences and boundaries at every denominational meeting would only accelerate the trend toward decline, he said.
Most importantly, the recovery of the Gospel in Southern Baptist life is key, he said.
"We must recover a Gospel centrality and cooperate in proclaiming that gospel locally and globally," Stetzer stressed, as he expressed hope for a Great Commission Resurgence.
"It is time for us to once again rise to a new day," he stated. "The temptation will be that the news of the day will result in a new denominational obsession to fix the problem with a new plan. It won't work. Instead we must refocus on the Divine Obsession (Luke 15), the obsession with lost people."