By Timothy George
The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in America and has been since around 1960 when it bypassed Methodism in this category. Riding the wave of the post-World War II evangelical boom, Southern Baptists long ago moved beyond their old confines south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Southern Baptist churches are now located in all of the fifty states. Led today by the Reverend Fred Luter, their first African-American president, Southern Baptists have become one of the most ethnically diverse and multilingual denominations in the country.
But all is not well in the Southern Baptist Zion. For some years now, annual church statistics have shown that the SBC is losing members. Although there are still more than 46,000 congregations affiliated with the SBC, total membership has fallen by upwards of one million since 2005—from 16.6 million members in that year to 15.7 million members in 2013. The loss of membership is reflected in another disturbing decline: the downward spiral of baptisms. The number of baptisms in the SBC has plummeted from an all-time high of 419,000 in the year 1999 to a low of 310,368 in 2013. That is the smallest number of baptisms since 1948 when Baptist president Harry Truman was in the White House.
To respond to these concerns, a “Pastors’ Taskforce on SBC Evangelistic Impact and Declining Baptisms” was established last year. The group will present its report at the annual meeting of the SBC in Baltimore in just over a week. Unlike many bureaucratic studies, this report is remarkable for its candor and for the stark analysis it presents.
SBC baptisms reached a plateau in the 1950s, peaked in the 1970s, and have stayed fairly constant since that time. However, the last six years show a downward trend in both SBC church membership and baptisms. The problem is even greater than these numbers indicate. Considering how the North American population has increased substantially between the 1950s’ baptism peak and today, these figures indicate how much ground we have lost and are losing.
The report encourages pastors in the denomination to “own” the problem and become a part of its solution. Read the rest at First Things.