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How can the Southern Baptists be Losing Members but Gaining in Baptisms and Attendance?

Membership is down, yet worship and professions of faith are up in the largest evangelical denomination in America.

Summary

According to the data gathered by Religion News (details here and here), the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) reporting for 2023 shows a continuance of the steady decline (though slowing) in formal church membership, yet an increase in both church attendance and baptisms (recognized as an acceptance of Jesus as our Lord and Savior). 

Details

According to the SBC’s annual report, released on 5/7/24, membership in the convention dropped to 12.9 million, from a peak of 16.3 million in 2006. Of course, COVID had a dramatic impact on the numbers, though interestingly, membership role reductions typically do not show up as a rapid change, which is not true of attendance data.

There are currently 46,906 churches in the SBC with weekly worship attendance at 4 million. The convention operates six seminaries, having a total of 24k students enrolled. There are 3.5k field missionaries and 3k domestic missionaries currently active. (details here)

Donations remained strong, over $10 billion, and there were 226k baptisms, and 175k new members joined the denomination in 2023. 

Why Would Membership Drop and Worship Attendance Rise?

Compounding the question is the reality that the membership numbers are likely overstated and the attendance numbers are likely understated. 

Overstated Membership Numbers?

Church membership is determined by a list of names in the database of every church, and each is asked to report to the convention periodically how many members they currently have. Consider the pastor and staff who have just gone through a pandemic and seen the pews emptied out. Consider the sin of pride as pastors meet together and ask each other “how many members have you lost”? Consider that the only way to determine the number of members a church has is to “purge the rolls”. This purging is accomplished in different ways, depending on church size and polity.  Essentially it is a process of asking each “member” currently on the church “rolls” if they wish to remain, regardless of whether they attend any services or are still in the same geographic location as the church. How many pastors and staff want to initiate a church membership roll review to determine that revised number to report to their convention? The bottom line is, church member numbers, on a church-by-church basis, tend to increase and rarely decrease. 

So how can the trend in church membership be going down since 2006, from a high of 16.3 million to the current estimate of 12.9 million? The answer is likely church closures or disassociations of churches with the SBC over theological differences.

Understated Attendance Numbers?

The majority of SBC churches have under 100 regular attendees (details here). Most were totally unprepared technologically for the forced closure of their services due to COVID. Many that were unable to continue fell into the bucket of membership drops, outlined above. However, many others, forced by the conditions they found themselves in, bought cameras and got online. This has had both good and bad consequences. The good was that during the pandemic, home church which turned into the pastor’s sermons and comments, helped keep attendees spiritually enriched. The bad news was that weaker Christians transitioned from church to other forms of entertainment on Sunday mornings, such that when the churches reopened, the pews had taken a severe hit. Further aggravating the initial drop in attendance was the continued polarization of society against Biblical Christians as relates to the gay community, abortion, Trump, and other flashpoints. Those not fully committed to church fellowship chose to delay or completely reject a return to Sunday morning face-to-face attendance. This was the catalyst for a rise in the term “deconstructionism”. 

When counting weekly church attendance, all of the above needs to be taken into consideration. So, when we see attendance actually increasing back to pre-pandemic levels, that is a praise to God, for only He could make that happen! If one considers the drops from conflicts with society, deconstructionism, and carnal Christians who no longer felt compelled to mechanically go to church, the fact that attendance is up is documentation that there is a new group of attenders who are not yet, or actively choose not to be, members. They are still active in the church (note small group attendance is also rising), but have not yet “joined” as members. 

Why Have Attendees not Become Members?

Extending this thought on lowered memberships with rising attendees becomes total speculation. Perhaps it is a generational issue, a reluctance to be grouped. Perhaps it is just a timing thing given the newness of the trend following COVID. Perhaps it is a reluctance to commit to serve or be controlled by membership rules. It could be temporary or permanent. Time will tell, but the good news is that, at least from the largest Biblical Christian denomination, (which is far from sinless), all the signs are not pointing down.

Below are the visuals over time. 


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AuthorJeff Hilles | BCWorldview.org 

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