The Southern Baptist Decline Continues– and Accelerates

By: Ed Stetzer

For a number of years, a LifeWay Research chart illustrating Southern Baptist Convention membership beginning in 1950 brought Southern Baptist leaders a modicum of solace amidst national uncertainty.

From 1950 till 2007 it showed growth—and impressive growth—while other denominations were declining.

I wrote in 2008 that Southern Baptists shouldn’t build their denominational confidence on this chart, because the growth of the Convention seen in the 1950s slowed as it approached the new millennium.

In 2009, I quoted Cliff Tharp, the late, well-known LifeWay statistician, as saying,

We have been slowing in our growth and have now passed into decline. We are right at the top of the arc and beginning to go down. But changes we make now can change that trend significantly. These stats are not new, but it has never caught anyone’s attention until now.

The just released 2014 Annual Church Profile report shows the pattern continuing—right on track with the trend line first gaining national prominence in 2008. Membership, weekly worship attendance, and baptism numbers continue to decline.

Don’t Be Shocked

Sometimes I miss the days when people debated if we were about to head into decline.

But this shouldn’t shock us. Like Cliff said: it’s just math. And, Cliff warned us we needed to make changes.totalmembership

Yet, in 2008 there was a flurry of articles and debates about these numbers. National leaders spoke of this as a blip. It wasn’t then—I think everyone now agrees—and it isn’t now.

The Southern Baptist Convention is declining and, if the trend continues, the decline will accelerate.

Because, while some graphs like the ones above show us that membership has increased since 1950, others graphs like the one below show us that we have increased at slower rates for decades, eventually dipping into decline, which is where we are today.

The Chart of Concern

The chart that should concern Southern Baptists is one that shows growth vs decline from 1950 through last year. If this trend continues, decline will not merely continue, it will accelerate. (And, this is simply an updated chart from 2007—same trend, seven years later.)

memberchangeFollow that trend line and soon the SBC will be declining at 2 percent a year, then three percent, then…

In 2013, the SBC claimed 15,735,640 members, and in 2014, that number fell by 236,467 to 15,499,173—that’s a 1.5 percent decline. However, on this stat alone, the claim could be made that churches are simply clearing out the cobwebs and tidying up their membership rolls so their numbers more accurately reflect their active members.

The problem is, membership isn’t alone in its decline—it’s joined by baptisms and weekly worship attendance.

In 2013, Southern Baptist churches reported 310,368 baptisms. Last year, they reported 305,301, which is down by more than five thousand baptisms, or 1.63 percent.

The highest percentage of decline last year was in weekly worship attendance. In 2013, 5,834,707 people attended SBC churches for worship each week. In 2014, that number dropped by 2.75 percent (160,238) to 5,674,469.

What Now?

At the core, these numbers tell us this: it is as important as it has ever been for Southern Baptists to share and show the love of Jesus.

But, that does not require a Southern Baptist Convention. That’s true for non-denominational churches as well.

So, for the future, the SBC needs to find a way to cooperatively work together (what Ronnie Floyd has called “visible unity”), to lead out in evangelism and church planting, provide resources for church revitalization, engage young and more non-Anglo leaders, and do so as a denominational family.

Facts are our friends, and the fact is the SBC decline is not reversing, it’s accelerating.

But, it is not too late to make changes that will reverse it—and to do so together.

Every Square Inch: Cultural Engagement for Christians

Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians. by Dr. Bruce Ashford.everysquareinch

This book is part of the Intersect project, a partnership between SEBTS and the Kern Family Foundation. Southeastern is excited to launch Every Square Inch at The Wisdom Forum on March 13, 2015 from 6:30-9:30pm in Binkley Chapel on the Southeastern campus in Wake Forest, NC. To learn more, register and receive a free copy of Every Square Inch click here.

“A little introduction for Christians who wish to live faithfully in their cultural contexts… God cares not only about the goings-on within the four walls of a church building but also about the goings-on in every corner of society and culture. He wants us to take seriously our interactions in the arts, the natural sciences, the social sciences, the public square , the academy, sports and competition, and homemaking. Every dimension of our lives relates in some way to Christ and can in some manner be directed toward him.”

“Bruce Ashford has a real gift to take complicated concepts and put them in words all of us can understand. In Every Square Inch he does just this as he helps us to think Christianly and comprehensively for the glory of Christ in all things. I will be recommending this book for those who want to cultivate a Christian worldview way of thinking and living.” Dr. Daniel Akin, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“As in each generation, the Christian has both the privilege and responsibility of spreading everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ. In a globalized, and increasingly pluralistic context, the task is often easier said than done. Dr. Bruce Ashford exemplifies in his life that grace for the task has been provided, and he excels with his pen in declaring the all-encompassing reign and relevance of the Lord Jesus. As a personal friend and grateful beneficiary of both his life and work on this subject, I commend Every Square Inch to all who desire to know how the universal rule of Christ impacts every area of life.” William “Duce” Branch, aka The Ambassador, hip-hop artist, founding member of The Cross Movement

“Bruce Ashford is one of North America’s most brilliant theologian. In this book he proves himself to be a true son of Abraham and Abraham Kuyper. This book will help equip you to think through the questions facing your church and community in the 21st century, including those questions you may not have thought yet to ask.” Russell D. Moore, President, Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission

“The God who sent the Savior to rescue us as individual sinners also cares deeply about the larger world in which we individuals live. And that includes the world of culture—our art, our games, our family patterns, our political systems, and much more. In this excellent and highly readable book, Bruce Ashford spells that out clearly and with much wisdom.” Dr. Richard Mouw, Professor of Faith and Public Life, Fuller Theological Seminary.

“Reading Every Square Inch is like reliving my personal journey of discovery, which in many respects, mirrors Bruce Ashford’s: immersion into another cultural context, viewing the USA from the outside-in, and wondering what Christianity offers regarding the big questions of life, society, and culture. Every Square Inch is a splendid introduction to the Christian calling to live under the lordship of Christ in every sphere of life. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and its message impacts every area of life. Here is the greatest story ever told (arts) about what the world is truly like (science) now that a crucified messiah is King of the world (politics), a King who has formed a generous people in His image (economics) and now commissions us to teach others to obey all Christ’s commands (education).” Trevin Wax, Managing editor of The Gospel Project.

Read more here from Lexham here.

Buy the E-book from Amazon here.

The Gospel Doesn’t Produce Sameness; It Produces Oneness

Guest post from by Chris Green.

Reconciliation has two separate but equally vital facets: multi-racialand multi-ethnic. Multi-racial refers to people of various physical backgrounds. Those of the same race share skin color, facial structure, etc. Multi-ethnic refers to more than these physical characteristics. It dives into cultural traits like language, history, and religion. It’s closely synonymous with the term “multi-cultural.”


Read this entire article here.