Every year, somewhere in the neighborhood of 45,000 churches, give or take a few here and there, complete a report called their “Annual Church Profile,” or ACP. This report contains information provided by the churches on their membership, “resident” membership, attendance, income, the enrollment figures of various church programs, worship attendance, and a few other statistics. Those ACP’s go to associational offices and state conventions where they are compiled and forwarded on to the SBC, and to its various institutions and agencies. Put together, they give a statistical profile of the “Southern Baptist Convention.”
This year’s report contained a shocking and disturbing fact. The “Total Membership” of the SBC in 2007, as it turns out, is a smaller number than the total membership for the previous year. From its own statistical report, the SBC has now joined the ranks of the Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ and other “mainline” denominations in a statistical, measureable decline. I believe, if you will follow the record back for the past two and a half decades, you will see that there was one other point, somewhere in the late 1990’s, I think, when the total membership figure went in reverse. But for Southern Baptists, in a convention dominated by the conservative resurgence for more than 25 years, a statistical decline is a shocker.
This really should not be a surprise. The statistics that have been coming in off the ACP’s have been flatlined for a long time. While we enjoy considering ourselves to be different from the mainline denominations, who have visibly diminished, we are really in the same boat. It is difficult to draw comparisons, since each group has different ways of reporting membership and counting heads, but the main measurements of Southern Baptist vitality, which include Sunday School attendance, baptisms, and weekly worship attendance, have shown a lot of fluctuation, but almost zero growth, for at least two decades. The biggest discrepancy, at least in my opinion, comes in our claim to more than 16 million names on the membership rolls, but only 6 million in weekly worship attendance. That means that roughly 10 million Southern Baptists, people who walked an aisle, made a commitment and were baptized, no longer attend church regularly. The fact that 7 million names on the rolls are considered “non-resident” backs that up. We’re good at adding people to the roll, but once there, it appears to be virtually impossible to be taken off.
Part of the problem comes from the fact that 45,000 independent, autonomous congregations probably represent about 45,000 different ways of tracking church membership. In some churches, you’re on the roll until you request to be removed, and if you move away, don’t move your “letter,” and don’t notify your old church when you join a new one, that means your name will remain there, perhaps indefinitely. You can die, your old church doesn’t know about it, and you are still counted as a member. Other churches clean their rolls up periodically, but they may not use the same standards. I’ve been a part of two such efforts. At a small town First Baptist Church in Missouri, with an attendance of 150 and a membership of 600, we first removed everyone whose date of birth was more than 100 years from the date we began, and that took more than 300 names of the roll. It was a 150 year old church, and there were charter members for whom there was no date of death or membership transfer. My current church used attendance records to drop their roll from 1,500 to 550 by eliminating those who had not been to church in a decade. We still keep a record book, in case we get a request for a transfer, but from the 900 or so we took off the roll, we have not received one request in the past two years.
As a denomination, the SBC is not as well defined as most of the more connectional denominations. Churches are not technically “affiliated with” or “belong to” the convention, they are included on the basis of their own voluntary cooperation. The state conventions do not all have the same standards for reporting their statistics. In Texas, for example, churches that don’t send an ACP have their most recent report included in the count for up to five years before they are dropped. A notation in the book of reports simply shows a symbol like a * or a # and a footnote that reads “No current report. Figures are from the 200X report.”
In Southern Baptist life, the denomination is not the convention. The convention is only a group of messengers from the churches that meets once a year for a couple of days to take care of the business of the cooperatively operated institutions and agencies. The denomination is its churches. It is clear that, collectively, over the past 25 years, evangelistic activity measured in baptisms has both decreased considerably and has reflected a group of converts made up largely of the children of active members, and that the fractional increases, and occasional decreases, in attendance and total membership are more the result of reporting irregularities which, in some years add a few numbers, and in others, take a few more away. In comparison to the few segments of evangelical Christianity that are showing growth, like the Pentecostals and Charismatics, and cults like the Latter Day Saints, the SBC is certainly a plateaued denomination, if not a declining one. But because the SBC is its churches, and not the convention or its relatively small core of cooperative ministries, there is no single reason or factor that can be pointed out as being the cause. Nor can a convention-based emphasis, program, or initiative of some sort address the problem effectively. What may be causing stagnation or decline in one area, or one segment of churches, may not be the cause in another.
I believe there are several root causes of the slowing statistics in the SBC. First, the paradigms have shifted as American Christianity has entered, and made a lot of progress, down the postmodern, postdenominational road. The average Southern Baptist tends to be older than the median age of the population at large, and more resistant to the kinds of changes that churches need to make in order to speak the language of the culture and reach them with the gospel. It is clear that older, more established churches are not capable of the kind of complete turnaround necessesary to sustain growth. Second, related to this is the fact that interest in denominational “identity” and distinctives has waned considerably. The number of people seeking involvement in a church is dropping, and those who are looking value ministry to themselves and to their children far above theological perspective or denominational affiliation. Third, the theological controversy has both zapped our energy and turned people off. You don’t have to draw a very large circle around our church to find several others who have more or less dropped out of cooperation with the SBC, or a state convention or association, as a result of ongoing struggles for control and influence.
About a decade ago, I picked up a book by George Barna called Turnaround Churches. It was a rather thin book, for a reason. According to Barna, the data compiled was limited and not completely reliable because there were not really enough churches that had “turned around” to predict that specific factors existed that led to specific trends. I’m now in the process of reading the book Unchristian, and have discovered that there still are not enough examples of churches that have “turned around” to put a finger on specific methods or trends that work. If the SBC is its churches, then the denominational statistics are going to reflect what is happening with them, and not with the convention or its institutions. The statistics have flatlined because there are not enough “turnaround churches” in cooperation to turn them around.