FIRST-PERSON: 22 million? 14 million? 8 million? What will SBC membership be?
In A.D. 2050, the membership of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) will be
A. 22.3 million
B. 14.7 million
C. 8.7 million
D. none of the above
Now the fun begins. As Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, explained to state Baptist paper editors recently, the answer depends on the assumptions one makes about the future.
For example, if one believes the number of Southern Baptists will continue to grow on average by the same percentage it has grown since 1974, then the correct answer to the question above is A. Southern Baptist membership in 2050 will be 22.3 million. That answer assumes the slight declines in membership the past two years are hiccups along a trend line moving continuously upward. This assumption believes the past predicts the future.
Make a different assumption and you get a different answer. For example, if one believes the 0.24 percent decline in membership experienced by the SBC in 2007 and the 0.02 percent decline experienced in 2008 foretell the future direction of the convention, then the correct answer to the question is B. SBC membership in 2050 will be 14.7 million. That assumption is based on an annual decline representative of years 2007 and 2008 through the year 2050.
The most pessimistic of the answers is based on still a different assumption. If one graphs the percentage of growth in SBC membership since 1951, then one sees the SBC is growing by a smaller and smaller percentage. In fact, in the last two years, that graph fell into a negative position. If one extends the graph forward to 2050, then one sees losses in SBC membership every year until the end of the graph.
It is this assumption that SBC President Johnny Hunt embraced when he said in his presidential address that SBC membership in 2050 is predicted to be half of what it is today. The correct answer for those who believe this assumption is C. SBC membership in 2050 will be 8.7 million, only slightly more than half of the present 16.24 million.
Hunt is not alone in accepting this assumption. LifeWay Research released a statement by longtime SBC statistician Cliff Tharp, saying, "We have been slowing in our growth and have now passed into decline. We are right at the top of the arc and beginning to go down."
In raw numbers, Southern Baptist membership peaked in 2006 at 16,306,246. The next year saw a decline of 0.24 percent. In 2008, the decline was almost imperceptible at 0.02 percent, or a drop of 38,482. Still Southern Baptists failed to grow in numbers and that is troubling.
At the meeting with the editors, Stetzer went to great lengths to explain the importance behind the assumptions in examining the future. Unfortunately the next day's press release only mentioned one future for Southern Baptists and included tables only supporting the conclusion that there will be a nearly 50 percent drop in SBC membership in the next 40 years.
But forecasting the future is difficult. That is why some may choose D, none of the above. The assumptions behind the other answers may be wrong.
What this exercise illustrates is the importance of knowing the assumptions underlying the conclusions announced. For example, this year, observers commented on the large number of young pastors attending the annual meeting of the SBC. Was the uptick in young pastors because of interest in the Great Commission Task Force as some contend? Or was the upturn because the meeting was held in Louisville, Ky., home of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and young pastors, seminary students, were able to attend as SBC Registration Secretary James Wells explained? Again one's assumptions impact the conclusions reached.
Some additional information may be helpful in pondering our future. According to the latest American Religious Identification Survey, there are more than 36 million Baptists in America. Southern Baptists are the largest part of that group with 16 million, but there are 20 million Baptists outside the SBC. Since 2001, the number of people who identify themselves as Baptists has increased by 2.3 million. With that data, researchers concluded, "The sudden growth spurt in Baptist numbers since 2001 seems to reflect a measurable reassertion of a Baptist identity among the population." That is not a bad thing for Southern Baptists.
Also consider that while the percentage of Protestant Christians in America has declined since 2001, conservative Christian denominations have actually grown. Now 45 percent of all self-identified Christians, who constitute 34 percent of all Americans, call themselves "born again or evangelical." The study defined this group as having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, together with "a certain view of salvation, Scripture and missionary work."
Chuck Colson, chairman and founder of BreakPoint, emphasized this point during his address at this year's SBC Pastors’ Conference. Colson called this a wonderful opportunity for Bible-believing Christians, including Southern Baptists. In his judgment, the sky is not falling on Christianity or Southern Baptists.
Yes, Southern Baptists need to do more in evangelism and missions. Jesus died that all might have opportunity to hear and respond to the Gospel. Southern Baptists also may need to look within. What does it say about a people when their own statistics indicate 50 percent of the resident members do not attend worship on Sunday and three out of 10 who do come to worship never participate in organized Bible study?
When the lives of Southern Baptists indicate they love God with heart and soul, mind and strength, then perhaps others will take our preaching seriously. Beginning with an examination of ourselves may be the most important step in determining what our membership will be in 2050.
Bob Terry is editor of The Alabama Baptist (www.thealabamabaptist.org).