Southern Baptists Experience Historic Drop in Membership

Southern Baptist church service attendance is on a major decline. (Photo by Daniel Morton on Unsplash)

A growing number of Southern Baptist churches are home to a shrinking number of Southern Baptists.

Total membership in the Southern Baptist Convention fell almost 2% to 14,525,579 from 2018 to 2019, according to the Annual Church Profile compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources in cooperation with Baptist state conventions. The decline of 287,655 members is the largest single-year drop in more than 100 years.

The number of churches grew slightly to 47,530, an increase of 74 from 2018. However, the number of church-type missions fell by 477 to bring the overall number of SBC congregations down to 51,138 in 2019. Multisite congregations reported an additional 505 campuses where local church ministry takes place.

Churches and Missions

McConnell said the significant drop in membership is due in large part to the decrease in church-type missions and congregations continuing to update their membership.

While some missions no longer exist, others moved from that category to full-fledged churches.

"The term 'mission' is an important missiological designation that points to the fact that churches are started with the help of many others," said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.

"In 2019 several state conventions confirmed with congregations that they are now self-sustaining, shifting their designation from being a mission to a church. Although in many cases this is belated, we celebrate this ministry milestone with these congregations."

According to LifeWay Research, 75% of Southern Baptist congregations participated by reporting at least one item on the profile, which is similar to previous years. McConnell said these reports are beneficial during COVID-19.

"In this season of social distancing, we realize how important our cooperative connections are within the SBC," he said. "The Annual Church Profile is an important annual check-in to make sure other congregations, associations, state conventions and national entities have the contact information, leadership names and a few statistics to stay connected with a congregation. Many contacts have been made during this difficult time that were only possible because information was updated and stored in a national database."

For the first time in 100 years, however, a state convention did not collect total membership numbers, he said. An estimate for Oklahoma congregations is included in the data based on previous reporting from current congregations.

Attendance Drops

Other key metrics also declined. Average weekly worship service and Sunday school or small group attendance each dropped by less than 1%. The average worship service attendance fell to 5,250,230, while average small group attendance declined to 3,236,196.

Baptisms fell by more than 4%, dropping from 246,442 in 2018 to 235,748 in 2019. In 2019, there was one baptism for every 62 Southern Baptists.

"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," said McConnell.

"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."

Declines in Giving

Total church receipts and undesignated receipts were both down in 2019 after two years of growth. Total church receipts reported through the ACP fell 1.44% to $11.6 billion. Undesignated church receipts decreased 0.01% to $9.6 billion.

Congregations reported total mission expenditures of $1.1 billion and Great Commission Giving of $541 million.

Giving through the SBC's Cooperative Program is not included in the ACP statistical summary. Actual giving totals are available through Baptist state conventions and the SBC Executive Committee, which processes the mission gifts.

State-Level Highlights

While the national numbers declined across the board, several state conventions saw growth, particularly some outside of the traditional Bible belt.

Colorado, Hawaii-Pacific, Iowa, Minnesota-Wisconsin, Northwest, Puerto Rico and Utah-Idaho Baptist Conventions all reported a more than 30% increase in baptisms for 2019.

Florida had the most baptisms by a single convention with 25,338, and neighboring Georgia had the largest numerical increase with 1,901 more baptisms in 2019 than 2018 (19,641 to 17,740).

Congregations in the Hawaii-Pacific, Iowa and Michigan state conventions grew membership by more than 20% in 2019. Kentucky had the largest numerical membership jump, adding 42,315 people to their congregations last year.

Individual congregations voluntarily report their ACP data to their local Baptist associations and/or their state conventions. National statistics are compiled and released when all cooperating state conventions have reported. [eoa}

Aaron Earls is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources.

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