Southern Baptists Mark 3rd Year of Membership Decline

Though more churches were added, the country's largest Protestant denomination is still counting fewer members.

According to a newly released annual report, membership in the Southern Baptist Convention fell in 2009 by 0.42 percent to 16.16 million. That marks the third consecutive year of decline for a body that had previously bucked the shrinking trend of other denominations.

On a positive note, baptisms rose by 2.2 percent to 349,737, stemming a four-year decline.

Still, Southern Baptist Thom Rainer isn't satisfied.

"The fact that more people were baptized this year than last year gives us a reason to hope we're on the right path," said Rainer, CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources which compiled the report. "At the same time, we as Southern Baptists continue to show signs of drifting from our historic commitment to evangelism, as reflected in the fact that it still takes 46 Southern Baptists to lead one person to faith in Christ."

LifeWay Research president Ed Stetzer was also cautious in celebrating the higher number of baptisms.

"Every baptism is a person being obedient to the teachings of Christ, publicly professing new life in Christ. The fact that there are more baptisms is a good thing ... yet ... saying this year's increase in baptisms is good news is like bragging your state moved from the 47th to 46th state in educational achievement. It's better, but it's not time for a parade."

Stetzer pointed out that though there were more baptisms in 2009 compared to the previous year, the number was still the third lowest since 1993.

"It should break our hearts that this year's baptism numbers are considered good news at all – it shows how far we have to go," he said in a commentary Friday.

He also warned that if trends continue, the SBC won't see membership numbers going back up any time soon. "Expect to hear 'membership decline' more times than 'membership growth' over the next few years," he said.

The Southern Baptist Convention is currently considering major changes and reprioritization to get the denomination back on track toward the fulfilling of the Great Commission.

Earlier this month, the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force released the final draft of a report that includes a set of recommendations that will be voted on by delegates at an annual meeting next month. Southern Baptist leaders have urged fellow members to adopt the new vision in order to mobilize the SBC more effectively in reaching the lost.

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