Archive for the ‘Statistics’ Category

Deeper Problems

In Part I of this series we looked at the declining pattern of SBC membership. Then, in Part II, we focused on the fact that younger generations seem to be abandoning the SBC en masse and suggested some steps that may alleviate the problem. Here we will pause to consider why we are seeing these trends.

Statistics like the ones we have seen have causes, especially those that are this long-lasting. “A church membership roll that runs two or three times the number of people actually involved is a symptom of a much-deeper problem” (Kelly 2008). And we Baptists have deeper problems. In fact, the numbers have gotten so bad that we have started categorizing our membership to make things sound better. Today we talk about “non-resident members” and “inactive members” and we keep both on our rolls. Padding numbers seems to have become more important than focusing on the maturation of church members. For non-resident members the common sense thing to do is not to keep them on our rolls to make the church seem bigger but, rather, to stay in contact with those who have covenanted with us until they are able to find a new community of believers where they now reside. Inactive members should be contacted as well and encouraged to come back to the community or else removed from the rolls. “One thing worse than people being lost in their sins is lost people who think they are saved because their names are on a church roll” (Ibid.).

Our focus, then needs to be less about numbers and more about spiritual maturity. How’s that going? Well, the best predictor of spiritual maturity is daily Bible reading (Rankin 2011). A recent study showed that only 16% of churchgoers read their Bibles daily (Ibid.). A full quarter don’t bother to read their Bibles at all (Ibid.). This means that over half of the parishioners in the average SBC congregation only read their Bibles occasionally (Ibid.). And those numbers only take into account hearers of the Word. In terms of being doers of the Word, only 37% of churchgoers say that studying the Bible has made a difference in their lives (Ibid.).

Selling it Cheap

Taking together all of the numbers that we have looked at so far in this series you are probably wondering how things in our churches could get to this point. My question, on the other hand, is how could they not. Think about it. We live in a time where the focus has become numbers, numbers, numbers. Some, not all, churches even go so far as to create new member categories so they will have an easier time padding the rolls. And another great way to bump up your numbers is to make sure you are as inclusive as possible by getting rid of all that hard doctrine stuff. This way people can feel like they are part of a community without having any of their false beliefs challenged. Instant church growth plan. The downsides, of course, are that the rolls increase much more quickly than actual attendance and spiritual maturity takes an even bigger hit.

The good news is that it does not have to be this way. We do not have to continue in decline but, through a return to faithful biblical/doctrinal exposition, we can reverse these trends. Let’s look at a couple of examples starting with Secret Church. Secret Church is held at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama. It is an intensive six-hour Bible study in the night. The entertainment so typical of churches these days is stripped away and the study of God’s Word is all that is left. This sounds like a recipe for a church collapse.

So what happened? Secret Church started with 1,000 people, then grew and grew until Brook Hills had to start taking reservations (Platt 2010, 27). Today Secret Church has grown to the point that it has to be simulcast online. So solid doctrinal Bible study draws people in and transforms them. I would say that teaching doctrine and edifying believers is a novel concept except for the fact that churches and church leaders are charged with it in Scripture (2 Tim. 4:1-5). We should not be surprised when God shows up and uses the work of his servants to glorify himself when we do the work in the way he has decreed.

Another good example of this principle is Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Over the past few decades this church and its leadership have made extraordinary efforts at becoming more biblical in everything from their preaching to their leadership structure. The result is a church that was on the verge of stagnation and possibly death morphing, by God’s grace, into a thriving international ministry that affects the lives and strengthens the faith of so many Christians.

What this discussion really comes down to is whether Christians, and baptists in particular, should spend more of our time trying to increase our numbers or more of our time proclaiming Jesus Christ and him crucified. Teaching the truth may indeed cause some people to leave our churches. It may cause an even steeper drop in favorable statistics temporarily. It may even cause the world to call us “narrow.” But we can never forget the price that was paid to purchase our salvation. The blood of Christ is infinitely valuable and we cannot fall into the error of treating his sacrifice like a common thing. Our salvation by grace through faith is a free gift to us but it certainly wasn’t cheap (Eph. 2:8-10).


Kelly, Mark. 2008. SBC reality more complex than one number. Baptist Press. June 5. (accessed February 23, 2012).

Platt, David. 2012. Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream. Colorado Springs: Multnomah.

Rankin, Russ. 2011. Lack of Bible literacy is spotlighted. Baptist Press. April 25. (accessed February 23, 2012).

[W]e are certainly an aging denomination. Our congregations are aging, as are many of our buildings, our programs, our strategies and our most visible leaders. Many of the mega-churches that have been our flagships for the past 30 years have quietly plateaued. There are numerous non-denominational churches and mini-denominations that have sprung up in suburbia everywhere — younger, more agile, cooler and basically baptistic but not in name or affiliation. These churches and organizations siphon off some of our best leaders and most faithful people. Sometimes it just seems like the SBC is tired (Scroggins 2011).

The Generation Gap

The numbers in Part I of this series paint a truthful if somewhat unpleasant picture of the SBC in decline. The long history of slower growth and, now, of outright year-to-year decreases in membership indicate a systemic problem that will not be an easy fix. It gets worse, though, and in this post we will look at a pattern that, if not corrected, could bring about the end of the SBC altogether.

More Numbers

At the 1980 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting 33.6% of the messengers present fell into the 18-39 age group (Kelly 2008). By 2007 this number had dropped to 13.1% (Ibid.). During the same time frame the 40-59 group jumped slightly from 49.9% to 51.6% (Ibid.). The 60 and above group exploded from 12.9% of messengers in 1980 to 35.4% in 2007 (Ibid.). The overall 27-year trend is that the youngest group dropped precipitously in attendance at the convention, the second group stayed relatively constant and the third group increased significantly. Add to these numbers the fact that on average 40 percent of messengers are senior pastors and it becomes clear that there is a decline in young leadership in the SBC (Ibid.).

Inevitably, some will deny these facts by trying to explain them away (Hall 2009) but the trend holds out even when one accounts for factors like the appeal of particular cities, travel expenses, etc. In fact, the decline in young leadership is still visible when comparing convention attendance in the same cities from year to year. Dallas, for instance, hosted conventions in 1985 and 1997. The percentage of young pastors at these conventions was 35.9% and 24.6%, respectively. Same city, same appeal, same amount of travel time but different years (Kelly 2008).

Other objections to these numbers are unconvincing (Hall 2009). While the aging population of the United States as a whole may explain some of the decline it does not negate the importance of reversing the trend. So what if the white, non-hispanic portion of the United States is aging? The last time I checked being Baptist had nothing to do with the color of one’s skin but, rather, with convictions. We should be reaching out to all people groups in the United States and internationally. We are making advances in that direction but there is a larger problem that we must address if we are to see significant diversification of the SBC (we’ll discuss diversity in some later posts). The point is that, regardless of the reasons, if each successive generation of Southern Baptists gets smaller, then, simply, there will eventually be no next generation of Southern Baptists.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

The great thing about facts is that they are clear even when they are inconvenient. The numbers point to the obvious fact that the SBC is losing young people and especially young leaders. The proper question is no longer whether this is happening but, rather, what do we do about it. As a young Baptist who very nearly left the SBC a few years ago I have some thoughts from my experience.

1. Baptists must not be afraid of our roots. Why did I come back to the SBC wholeheartedly after flirting with a younger and more agile non-denominational denomination? Because I discovered Baptist history and the Baptist principles of old. This is probably not too surprising given the general thrust of this blog but as Baptists we must never forget our history and we must be careful that we don’t push that history off to the side, either. Young people are smart enough to see the lack of depth in many of these non-denominations and mini-denominations that are stealing them away from our Baptist churches. We just have to make sure that they can see the alternative of our rich heritage, meaningful worship and sound faith.

2. Baptists must boldly proclaim Baptist (i.e. biblical) doctrines. Charles Haddon Spurgeon famously “said that he and his people ‘have no desire to sail under false colors, neither are we ashamed of our principles: if we were, we would renounce them to-morrow” (Mbewe 2001). In other words, Spurgeon thought Baptists should put up or shut up. The fact is that I couldn’t tell the difference between the preaching in the non-denominational congregation that I attended and the Baptist churches I grew up in. This wasn’t because of the outstanding doctrine of the non-denomination but, rather, because I didn’t grow up learning Baptist doctrine. If we aren’t willing to proclaim it and to stand on it, come what may, then we should get used to losing our young people.

3. Baptists must encourage aspiring young leaders. This time I speak not merely on my own behalf but also for many of my friends who have shared in the experience of being told “no” again and again when seeking to get to work in their local churches on this ministry or that. Instead of meeting with rejection and discouragement, young Baptists should be tested, trained, affirmed and sent into ministry. It is no easy or meager task that they are embarking upon. It should not be treated as one.

4. Baptists must not be afraid to challenge young people. We live in a culture where each generation is more sophisticated, more educated and more connected than the last. The younger generations are used to having new information thrust upon them and being forced to process it and they are used to being asked hard questions. As Baptists we cannot fail to challenge all the members of our churches (including the younger ones) to dig deeper into the truth of the Scriptures and to grow in their understanding of the gospel. Easy-believism doesn’t bring young Baptists into the local congregation but, instead, it drives them away by painting a false picture of the Bible.

Concluding Thoughts

The numbers are in and there is a very real and very stark generation gap in the Southern Baptist Convention. These numbers will continue to worsen unless we, as Baptists, are willing to step up and to fight for them. This means ridding ourselves of the fear of teaching hard biblical truths. Ridding ourselves of the idea that young people are best when sitting in the pew and not tackling the difficult work of ministry. And, finally, it means ridding ourselves of the easy-believism that now pervades much of our church culture. The younger generation must be encouraged and engaged or their exodus will continue.


Hall, Will. 2009. Analysis: What do the numbers mean — is the SBC in decline? Part 2 Generation Gap, Young Leaders. Baptist Press. June 11. (accessed February 8, 2012).

Mbewe, Conrad. 2001. Flying the Flags High in Africa: Baptist Hope for a Ravaged Continent. In Why I am a Baptist, ed. Nettles, Tom J. and Russell D. Moore, 95-101. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group.

Kelly, Mark. 2008. Study: Fewer young people attending SBC. Baptist Press. January 7. (accessed February 8, 2012).

Scroggins, Jimmy. 2011. SBC Discussion: SBC may be smaller — and better. Baptist Press. June 24. (accessed February 8, 2012).

Editor’s Note: This post is the first in a five-part series exploring the state of Southern Baptist churches today. It is important to first have an idea of where things stand before we can begin to understand where we should be going and what route will take us there. So, accordingly, after we establish this baseline on the state of our churches generally we can then move on to a discussion of what to do about it.

Is This Our Future?

At present there are roughly 16.24 million Southern Baptists (Terry 2009). That sounds pretty good and makes the Southern Baptist Convention America’s largest Protestant denomination (Smietana 2010). But what about in the year 2050? Well, that’s where things get more interesting and we realize that membership less than 40 years out could be as low as 8.7 million, less than half of where it currently stands (Terry 2009). In fact, the membership of the SBC has been in a pattern of decline since the 1950s (Stetzer 2011). While there wasn’t a net loss in membership, a true decrease in the size of the Convention, until the new millennium (with the exception of a hiccup in 1998) a 50-year trend in membership change “shows that the SBC was growing rapidly in the 1950s, growing well in the ’60s and ’70s, growing slightly in the ’80s and ’90s, and then the decline started in the new millennium” (Ibid.; emphasis mine). “Growing rapidly…growing well…growing slightly…decline….” We can easily see from this trend how the SBC could lose more than half of its members by the middle of this century.

Unfortunately, the numbers get worse as we dig a little deeper. Out of the 16.24 million current Southern Baptists, how many of them are in a local church on a given Sunday morning? Answer: about 6 million. What about Sunday evening or Wednesday services? Answer: about 1.95 million. That is, on average, 37% of Southern Baptists show up for services on Sunday morning and around 12% are in the pews for other services and church functions (Elliff 2005). In the negative this means that about 63% of us don’t mind forsaking the assembling of the saints and the corporate worship of our Lord and Savior at our main worship time and a full 88% of Southern Baptists believe that one hour per week on Sunday morning is sufficient time to worship the King of Glory who ransomed us from sin, death, and hell at the cost of His own precious blood. Now there are certainly many SBC members who have legitimate reasons that they cannot attend (e.g. sickness, military service, etc.) but that small percentage cannot put a dent in these numbers. When it comes down to it we have to admit that most of us are putting other things above at least our scheduled corporate worship times.

In sum, these numbers, especially when considered in light of the general decline in other key indicators such as baptisms, Sunday School enrollment, men and boys mission education enrollment and WMU enrollment, one can certainly see why one commentator was forced to conclude that the Southern Baptist Convention is an unregenerate denomination (Rankin 2006; Elliff 2005).

More Bad News

I wish I could say that our wake up call ended at the numbers discussed above but it doesn’t. Our next post in this series will focus on another trend in the SBC that could have much farther reaching implications and that is the growing generation gap in our churches and especially in our leadership. In the meantime, though, I will try to post some encouraging Baptist history to help us all to understand what we can still recover. And, believe me, as bad as these numbers are (and they’ll get worse) there is still time to return to our Baptist roots and to watch as the Lord turns these depressing statistics around.


Elliff, Jim. 2005. Southern Baptists, an Unregenerate Denomination. Founders Ministries. (accessed January 29, 2012).

Rankin, Russ. 2006. FY 2005 stats: Southern Baptists experience drop in baptisms. Baptist Press. April 19. (accessed January 29, 2012).

Smietana, Bob. 2010. Southern Baptists buck trend, post most baptisms in 4 years. USA Today. May 20. (accessed January 29, 2012).

Stetzer, Ed. 2011. First-Person: From decline to decision. Baptist Press. June 13. (accessed January 29, 2012).

Terry, Bob. 2009. First-Person: 22 million? 14 million? 8 million? What will SBC membership be? Baptist Press. August 20. (accessed January 29, 2012).