The editor of Georgia’s Christian Index makes some interesting points in this March 13th editorial.  Though I would disagree with his apparent thesis, that joining up with an SBC now under the control of the conservative resurgence is the solution to avoiding the decline that “other” denominations have experienced, he did make some good points. 

Martin Marty, quoted as a “noted interpreter of religion and culture,” admits that denominations demand money, build a bureaucratic structure, and that the things that they represent corporately often overshadow the mission and ministry of the local congregations that belong to them.  However, he also notes that denominations provide some necessary elements for churches in working together that they could not do for themselves, particularly training of ministers, literature publishing, efficient missionary enterprises, representation of the common interests of churches in the government arena and refugee and relief ministries. 

Sometimes, we Baptists complain about the “bureaucratic” nature of our convention operations, and sometimes that’s justified, in light of certain developments.  But most mainline denominations that have experienced decline in their churches are far more connectional in their governance than Baptists.  And in those denominations, the people in the pews are far removed from the decision making process.  The implementation of more liberal theological positions without the full support of the people in the pews has led to a long, steady decline in most mainline denominations. 

In quoting a Methodist layman involved in a renewal movement in the United Methodist Church, the editorial makes the claim that while liberal theology is responsible for the decline of most mainline denominations, conservative theology is the ticket to growth in the church.  George Mitrovich says that the churches that are growing in America today are theologically conservative and evangelical.  And eventually, that leads to the conclusion that the SBC isn’t among the declining denominations because it is conservative and evangelical. 

It would be great if it were that simple. 

Mitrovich notes that the United Methodist Church has lost three million members over the last 30 years, that the median age of church members is 60, and that youth enrollment is down to around 500,000.  These statistics, he says, point to a dying denomination.  By comparison, the SBC looks much better.  Or does it?

We have a rather quirky and unusual way of keeping membership records, as opposed to most mainline denominations.  Basically, each church does their own thing.  The end result is that most of our statistics are not accurate, good measurements of what is actually happening in our churches.  In the Methodist church, and many other mainline denominations, the congregations pay a “head tax” to their district, region and national offices based on their membership.  This is a significant amount of money, and goes toward pastor salaries and other expenses that most Baptist congregations take care of themselves.  Thus, those churches make sure that their membership roll closely reflects those who are actually attending and participating in the church on a weekly basis.  So the 8.5 member United Methodist Church estimates a weekly average worship attendance of about 7.9 million. 

The SBC’s statistics show a slowly increasing total membership figure.  Since 1980, our total membership has crept forward, and has increased by about a million and a half.  With the exception of a couple of years in the late 1990’s, when the total membership declined, it has actually grown by about 1% per year.  However, our average weekly worship attendance is reported as 6.1 million, which means that, on any given Sunday, almost two thirds of our members aren’t in church.  Is that just a coincidence, or is it a glaring discrepancy?  Not only that, but the weekly worship attendance reported by the churches in 1980 was slighly more than 7 million*, which means that what is probably our most valid measureable growth statistic shows that we are in at least as steep a decline as the UMC.  We’ve lost 2 million people since 1980.  Our other “vital signs,” baptism and Sunday school attendance, are also down.  We baptize about 100,000 fewer people per year now than we did three decades ago, when we had fewer members, almost no “megachurches,” and our Sunday School attendance is down by half a million from what it was in 1980. 

Not only that, but 75% of our churches, according to our own Lifeway publishers, are plateaued or declining.  That’s about the same percentage of declining churches you will find in the United Methodist Church.  And most of our growing churches are adding members by transfer from other churches, mainly because of where they are located, and not through increased evangelism.  Lifeway’s statistical analysis shows that half of those enrolled in Sunday School in SBC churches are senior adults past 60, and our youth enrollment is down considerably from what it was in 1980, and our college-age enrollment is almost non-existent.  There must be more behind what is going on than a church simply remaining conservative and evangelical, since it is clear that most of those kinds of churches are also experiencing decline.   

Non-denominational churches appear to be growing.  But are they growing simply by appealing to the disgruntled in denominational churches, through cutting-edge programs and contemporary worship, or are they being more “evangelistic,” and reaching lost people?  It appears that evangelism, reaching those who are not believers, or who are not the children of believers, is not occurring in any kind of significant numbers anywhere.  So is it just a matter of “denominational identity” becoming a thing of the past, or is there something happening in the way we do church in our culture that is causing a general decline in the total number of people practicing their faith in local churches? 

*The weekly average worship attendance figure for the SBC for 1980 is taken from a quote in the 1980 book of reports, and from a similar quotation in a 1981 BSSB publication referencing the 1980 book of reports.  The digest of letters in 1980 did not ask SBC churches to submit their average worship attendance, as it has since about 1990, so worship attendance was estimated.  The UMC figure is based on an estimate by a UMC pastor. 

The figures provided by Lifeway, stating that 75% of our churches are plateaued or declining, as well as the difference of over 10 million between our reported membership, are rounded estimates based on recent reports, as are the statistics related to baptisms. 


About LS

I'm 56, happily married for 25 years, B.A., M.A., career educator with experience in education as a teacher and administrator, native Arizonan living in Pennsylvania, working on a PhD and a big fan of the Arizona Wildcats, mainly in football and basketball.

6 responses

  1. Jack Matthews says:

    You might be interested to know that, in compiling all of those statistical reports that churches send to the SBC, somewhere around 25% of the churches didn’t report, yet they are included in the statistical analysis via the last report they sent in, which, in many cases, may be several years old. The church where I used to be a member has a 1,000 seat sanctuary and educational building that dates back to the 60’s, when it was a thriving congregation. It now averages less than 150 in worship, though it still reports a “total membership” of 1,300 and a “resident membership” of 400. There are dozens of Baptist churches just like it, big sanctuaries, big membership, small attendance, all over Nashville.

  2. Ken Coffee says:

    In my lifetime (which has been long) I have always looked with a jaundiced eye at the statistics we reported. It was obvious, even in the fifties eveyone seems to think were our “heyday”, I don’t think we ever got a good handle on the issue. We would report large total membership, a smaller resident membership and few ever asked, “Where are the non-resident or other members?” Until we come up with a beter way of gathering data than we now have, I don’t believe there is any way we can trust what we see in print. But, even what is printed is declining, as you said. That is the real tragedy. We are dying and for anyone to say otherwise is just dishonesty.

  3. Tim Dahl says:

    Yes, we are dying. No doubt about it. All Baptist expressions of faith in America, including the SBC are in decline.

    Remember what Rick Warren said at the BGCT Convention? Not only are so many of our churches in decline. But, only around 1%(!) of the “growing” churches are growing through conversions. Most of our “growing” churches are just gathering disgruntled sheep from other flocks.

    As a “Kingdom” operation, we have seemingly utterly failed.

    Thank God that His Kingdom will grow through His Means; and not ours.

    Tim Dahl

  4. Dylan says:

    Perhaps the SBC should consider a “head tax” on the total membership figure. If your CP giving were required rather than voluntary, and you charged by the total membership, don’t you know someone on the staff of every SBC congregation would be in charge of making sure that the rolls were kept accurately? A few observations….

    1. I do not trust the figures that are now reported by the SBC, and this editorial in the Christian Index is a good reason why. The current leadership of the SBC believes that “conservative” theology (translated: “The way we interpret scripture) produces church growth, and liberal theology does not. But if that is the case, how do you explain that the SBC grew larger and much faster prior to 1979 than it has since then? And if the same leaders who are saying that conservative theology produces growth are in charge of counting heads, what does that prove, except that they can inflate the attendance numbers when their decline becomes noticeable?

    2. Who counts the worship attendance in most churches? The church I grew up in, now pastored by a flag waving SBC leadership supporter, reports an average weekly worship attendance in its 2007 annual church letter of 350. That’s an obvious “estimate.” I was home for Easter, and I actually counted 235 people, and the reported Sunday School attendance was 193. We have a 1,200 seat sanctuary that many of the older people speak of remembering when it was full. That was well before the current pastor arrived, and well before 1980.

    3. The SBC says it has more than 16 million members, and 6.1 million in worship each week. So, like, where are all of those other people? I mean, how is it that someone can actually join your church, be baptized, and then you don’t care enough about them to find out what happened when they stop coming?

  5. Ken Gurley says:

    Lee, I cited your blog and some of your research in a recent post, “Should Churches Be Involved in Politics?” on I appreciate your blog and the information you share.

  6. Louiza says:

    I feel like a complete blank, but what can I say?,