ANALYSIS: What do the numbers mean -- is the SBC in decline? Part 1 Membership & Baptisms

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is the second of four articles which address research that has been published within the last year or so about people of faith in the U.S. The series examines Christianity in America, what the numbers mean for the Southern Baptist Convention and the imprint of evangelical voters in the public square. This article and article three examine the SBC.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--In April of this year, the Southern Baptist Convention's Annual Church Profile was released showing a decline in membership (-0.20 percent). It was the second drop in a row (-0.24 percent in 2007), and the fourth in SBC history. In 1998, membership fell 1.02 percent but increased the next year, however, it did not recover from that 1.02 percent loss until 2000. Prior to that, the last drop in membership took place in 1926.

The ACP report also showed the fourth consecutive year of decline in baptisms, recording the lowest total (342,198) since 1987 (338,495). Southern Baptists baptized 376,085 in 1950, and in the 58 years since (through 2008), reached a high of 445,725 in 1972 and a low of 336,050 in 1978, and not too long ago, experienced four consecutive years in which baptisms topped 400,000 (1997-2000).

What do these numbers mean?

Is the Southern Baptist Convention in decline or is something else at work?

From 1961 through 1998, Southern Baptist Convention churches grew in membership 59 percent, from 9,978,000 to 15,851,356, while mainline churches' memberships collapsed:

-- Methodists fell from 11,709,629 to 8,500,000 (-27 percent)

-- Episcopalians dropped by 28 percent, 3,500,000 to 2,500,000

-- The Presbyterian Church USA registered 4,000,000 members in 1965 and in 1999 numbered 2,600,000, a decrease of about 36 percent

-- Membership in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) declined precipitously, from 1,800,000 to 879,000, or 51 percent

Conventional wisdom said liberal theology and ecumenism were the causes for mainline churches to decline, and in 2002 the Catholic-affiliated Glenmary Research Center Institute confirmed this notion, (http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=14339).

Recently, other denominations labeled as "conservative" have continued their growth according to the latest edition of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, published by the liberal National Council of Churches.

So why the drop in SBC membership? What could be the cause for anemic growth the last decade?

Could non-spiritual factors be constricting baptisms?

Are there influences in play that might affect both baptisms and growth?

MEMBERSHIP

Since 1998, when the SBC experienced its first decline in membership in the modern era, membership in SBC churches has shown signs of leveling off:

1999 15,851,756, up 0.78 percent

2000 15,960,308, up 0.68 percent

2001 16,052,920, up 0.58 percent

2002 16,137,736, up 0.53 percent

2003 16,205,050, up 0.42 percent

2004 16,267,494, up 0.39 percent

2005 16,270,315, up 0.02 percent

2006 16,306,246, up 0.22 percent

2007 16,266,920, down 0.24 percent

2008 16,228,438, down 0.20 percent

In isolation, the ACP data might be interpreted to suggest the SBC is a denomination in decline. However, when ACP information is examined against research conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, it is evident that demographic changes in our country have been the major shaping force of our membership numbers, not outdated methodologies nor a generation gap in the leadership of our churches and institutions.

The data show that membership and baptism figures are in large part the products of a declining birthrate among Whites as well as the suburbanization of America. This is not to say such demographics hold sway over the power of the Gospel. It does suggest that if we are to continue to grow, we need to shift our church planting strategy in order to give us the best chance of sharing the Gospel with the lost.

Consider, for example, the trend in figures for the White population in the U.S.

It should not surprise many that the SBC is predominately an Anglo fellowship. This is not to demean the vital and intentional efforts to improve the ethnic diversity of our fellowship (more data will follow below), but in terms of "marketing" a message, until recently, the SBC essentially pegged its success in growth to the reaching of one segment of the U.S. population (Until 1951, we restricted ourselves to being a "Southwide" denomination). The growth in this target market boomed following WWII, but now has begun to taper off in terms of real growth. Now, with a birthrate of 1.9 live births per Anglo woman, meaning "fewer births than needed to 'replace' the mother and father in the population," the White, non-Hispanic population in America is expected to peak and then fall, actually declining in number after 2030. Here is how it is trending:

1960 158.8 million

1970 169.0 million (10.2 million increase)

1980 180.3 million (11.3 million increase)

1990 188.1 million (7.8 million increase)

2000 194.6 million (6.5 million increase)

2008 199.8 million (5.2 million increase)

(http://www.bpnews.net/pdf/Whitepopulation.pdf -- Figure 3.1, p. 75, U.S. Census Bureau, "Demographic Trends in the 20th Century." This figure graphs data for all Whites including White Hispanics and not just Whites, non-Hispanic. With just Whites, non-Hispanic, the plot trails off even more as it approaches the year 2000.)

Growth in SBC membership has followed a similar trend, booming in the 1950s through the 1990s, adding by decade, respectively, 2.65 million, 1.9 million, 2.0 million, 1.44 million and 0.9 million. In the past eight years, a net gain of 268,130 members has been added to the rolls. (http://www.bpnews.net/pdf/SBCMembership.pdf -- Figure 1, p. 1, J. Clifford Tharp, Jr., "Reflections on Southern Baptist Membership")

A quantitative analysis will confirm what is evident by sight from comparing the two graphs: The trends for the White, non-Hispanic population in the U.S. and for the SBC's membership pretty much share the same path.

The other demographic shift that is greatly impacting the SBC's growth is the tremendous migration that is occurring in the U.S. -- by those already within her borders.

In 1950, about 56.1 percent of the population lived in a metropolitan area (central city plus suburb), but by 2000, there had been a surge to 80.3 percent who lived in these larger concentrations.

By contrast, in 1950, SBC churches were found primarily in the cities and countryside of the South, and as of 2000, nearly 50 percent of SBC churches still were located outside of metropolitan areas and also found mostly in the South.

What seems to emerge from all the information is that the answer has less to do with a new methodology of how to do church, and more to do with "location, location, location!"

This is not to suggest that the churches in rural areas are not vital or viable or vibrant. There are believers in rural America who still need to be discipled and receive ministering, and who are needed to reach out to the lost who continue to populate all areas of the U.S., including rural counties.

Moreover, these are the congregations who have been faithful partners with each other, year in and year out, in supporting Southern Baptist ministries -- local, state and national.

However, if 80 percent of the population now lives in a metropolitan area, the SBC needs to place greater emphasis on an intentional and coordinated plan for church planting in these populated places.

Likewise, if the population of Whites is declining as a percent of the total population, shouldn’t the SBC be doing more to reach minority groups?

From 2000 to 2004, 1 in 2 new Americans was Hispanic, and the Census Bureau predicts by 2050, Hispanics will compose 30 percent of the U.S. population (more than doubling from 15 percent in 2008) and that the Black population will grow during the same time frame from 14 to 15 percent. Asians will increase from 5.1 to 9.2 percent. By contrast, Whites will decrease in proportion from 66 to 46 percent.

In the end, does all this information add up to a denomination in decline?

Not necessarily.

In fact, in regard to increasing the diversity of ethnics within our ranks, the SBC seems to have turned the ship or at least is seeing the bow swing in the right direction.

In 1998, the North American Mission Board recorded that there were 44,949 churches and church-type missions in the SBC, 6,048 (or 13.5 percent) self-identified as predominately ethnic and 38,901 predominately Anglo. Membership was calculated at 637,934 (ethnic) and 14,700,709 (Anglo), respectively.

By 2005, Anglo congregations had grown by 1,267, representing an increase in membership of 364,367. Meanwhile, ethnic churches had surged by 2,668 in numbers and 567,524 in members!

(NOTE: Because information is not captured about individual members, it is not possible to know the exact ethnic composition in the SBC membership. Some Anglo congregations have large numbers of ethnic members. Likewise, ethnic congregations would include at least some who would call themselves "Anglo.")

In the three largest groups of predominately ethnic churches:

-- African American congregations jumped more than 59 percent in number (1,131) with an accompanying membership increase of nearly 118 percent (410,524).

-- Hispanic churches swelled by 852 (43 percent) and membership surged by 61,438 (or about 54 percent).

-- Asian assemblies grew in actual numbers by 393, or 34 percent growth, and in real membership by 60,429, or a whopping 77 percent.

In just seven years, ethnic membership burgeoned from 4.2 percent of SBC membership to 7.4 percent of the men, women, boys and girls within our churches.

More work is needed in order to ensure Southern Baptists are reaching the population within our "Jerusalem and Judea," but these numbers bode well for the future growth of our convention.

Moreover, Southern Baptists should be heartened by other research, both from Christian as well as secular sources:

-- a 2001 Southern Baptist Theological Seminary study reported that 8 out of 10 of the unchurched participants interviewed for this seven-year study said they would accept an invitation to church if asked.

-- the 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, reported that unaffiliated adults make up 16 percent of the population, but also found that among those who were raised unaffiliated (agnostics, atheists and those who don't identify with any religion), fewer than half remain unaffiliated -- meaning MORE THAN HALF are open to religion.

-- a 2009 report from LifeWay Christian Resources about unchurched young adults stated that "20-somethings" are more open than their older counterparts to hear more about Christianity and that they are more connected to historic Christian beliefs.

With this good news combined with information about the changing U.S. population, it's easy to see the remedy for restoring the health and growth of the SBC is as simple as following the Apostle Paul's model of taking the message to where the crowds already are gathered.

If not, "How can they hear?"

BAPTISMS

Suburbanization and the slowing growth in the population of White, non-Hispanics exert the same pressures on baptism numbers that they do on membership numbers. However, baptism numbers have been particularly impacted as well by the dramatic and sustained lack of live births in America.

Historically, Southern Baptists have been particularly successful in evangelizing youth and pre-adults, typically reaching in descending order 9-11-year-olds, 6-8-year-olds and 12-17-year-olds. However, according to research compiled in 2000 by NAMB's Philip B. Jones, there has been a noticeable shift in the age groups reached most often by Southern Baptists. In 1971, 68 percent of new believers baptized by Southern Baptists were 18 years old or younger. By 1983, that number had dropped to 53 percent and has stabilized at about 55 percent since.

What explains such a shift?

Jones explained in his 2000 study that "increases or decreases of baptisms in any age group are more a function of population shifts in the United States than of change in the way Southern Baptist churches are emphasizing or implementing evangelism."

In other words, smaller target populations in the younger age groups meant fewer conversions and fewer baptisms among those 18 years old and younger.

In fact, it is remarkable that Southern Baptists have been able to remain fairly steady in baptisms for so long, given the long-term decline in live births in the U.S and at least three contractions (1950, 1990 and 2000) in the 5-19-year-old population that historically has been the most fruitful for Southern Baptists' evangelistic efforts (http://www.bpnews.net/pdf/AmericansByAge.pdf -- Figure 2.4, p. 56, Census Bureau, "Demographic Trends in the 20th Century.")

Since a peak in 1957 (4,308,000 live births, at a rate of 25.3 per 1,000 population), live births in the U.S. have plummeted in real numbers to as low as 3,136,965 (14.9 per 1,000) in 1973 (barely a decade after the invention of the pill, and the same year the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade to legalize abortion nationwide).

Whatever the causes for the birth slump, what developed was a double "bathtub" effect of sorts from 1957 through 2005, which is demonstrated graphically by Kenneth W. Gronbach in his book, "The Age Curve." Two dips appear in the plotted data: One a dramatically large deficit from 1957 through 1990 and another smaller one from 1990 through 2005. (http://www.bpnews.net/pdf/LiveBirths.pdf -- Figure 1-1, p. 9, "The Age Curve")

Gronbach evaluates the data in business terms, but his observations are relevant for Southern Baptists:

"Marketers seem to miss the fact the generation size is also market size," he wrote. "And marketers don't notice that aging and generational movement are consistent.

"We can't speed them up and we can't slow them down. Each market has a sweet spot or 'Best Customer' that sustains a business. As customers grow up, a smart marketer will stay in front of them...," he concluded.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

For too long, the numbers produced by the ACP have been used in isolation to assess on the basis of face value the evangelistic effectiveness of our churches. Unfortunately, what have resulted largely are superficial conclusions and calls for abandoning what is broadly described as "1950s methodologies."

What was needed instead -- and needed now -- is robust questioning about the numbers and a comprehensive examination of the data in context of other information in order to develop an effective strategic plan for cooperative evangelism and church planting.

Some knowledgeable men have made this point before.

Cliff Tharp, Annual Church Profile statistician for LifeWay (now retired), published two papers in 2005, "Reflections on Southern Baptist Membership" (http://www.bpnews.net/pdf/TharpMembership.pdf) and "Reflections on Southern Baptist Baptisms" (http://www.bpnews.net/pdf/TharpBaptisms.pdf) that should be required reading for anyone making proposals for how we move forward as a convention. Even earlier (2000), NAMB statistician Philip B. Jones (also retired) used information about demographic changes in the U.S. to develop a particularly relevant paper for Southern Baptists, "Strategic Planning Indicators" (http://www.bpnews.net/pdf/JonesBaptisms.pdf).

It's unfortunate that neither statistician seemed to have prevailed in informing SBC leaders. Tharp's and Jones' work could have helped move the SBC that much further along by now toward improving the health and growth of the convention.

Also unfortunate is the rhetoric claiming the SBC's problem is that we're using 1950s methodologies in the 21st century. Some, in pitching a supposed need to adopt "beer garden" methodologies, would have others believe Southern Baptists still use "flannel graphs" to reach the lost.

The reality is that we abandoned some enduring principles of proven methodologies about how to plant and grow churches and reach the lost.

What used to be called neighborhood Sunday School units are called house churches in China, and this methodology is facilitating the extraordinary growth of evangelicals, some estimate 30,000 a day or more, in a country hostile to Christianity -- or at least hostile to that Christianity which is not government-approved.

Likewise, Southern Baptists abandoned Training Union, which was an effective method of intentionally teaching our beliefs while also developing loyalty to Southern Baptist causes. The issue is not "style" or "form" or "Training Union" but a matter of acting deliberately and vigorously to inform and equip our membership programmatically in order to ensure there will be a next generation to build on and to grow the work of Southern Baptists.

NEXT: Is the SBC aging and losing its young leaders?


Will Hall is executive editor of Baptist Press.