Southern Baptists had the biggest drop in membership in over 100 years... AGAIN!
Thoughts and prayers.
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The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, lost another 457,371 members over the past year, the largest single year decline in over a century, according to the Annual Church Profile (ACP) compiled by Lifeway Christian Resources (an arm of the SBC).
Given that we’ve seen record declines in previous years, this means things are only getting worse for them. (In 2020, the exact same Lifeway writer wrote about how that year’s data showed the “largest single year drop in more than 100 years.” Sometimes, history repeating itself can be a good thing.)
Couldn’t have happened to a more worthy organization.
Here are the numbers you want to hear:
In 2021, there were 13.68 million Southern Baptists.
In 2022, that number dropped to 13.2 million (a loss of 457,371 people).
In 2003, the SBC had a record high 16.3 million members.
… the SBC has declined by 1.5 million members since 2018, and by more than 3 million members since 2006. The COVID-19 pandemic played a role in the downturn, as did the reality that as older members die off, there are fewer young people to replace them.
Thoughts and prayers.
Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, attempted to spin the data by saying they were just “catching up” on their record keeping and cleaning up their membership rolls by getting rid of people “who stopped participating in an individual congregation years ago.” But that doesn’t explain the similar massive drops over the past two years. This is one of those claims that’ll be very interesting to look back on a year from now if the decline continues at the same rate.
There was a slight jump in the number of people attending services and small group meetings, as well as the number of people getting baptized, but even those bumps don’t come anywhere close to pre-COVID levels.
Sociologist Ryan P. Burge puts the baptism surge in context this way:
In 2012, there were 3 baptisms for every member lost.
In 2022, there were 2.7 members lost for every baptism.
That math just ain’t mathing.
It’s true. They can keep baptizing all the people they want; the cup is still leaking faster than they can refill it.
So what’s causing the exodus? There’s no single reason. But I would point to a rise in secularization throughout the country, many children of Southern Baptists choosing to leave the faith, and the amount of stories that have come out about sexual abuse cover-ups within member churches. Over the past few years, a number of Black pastors have left the denomination, as have high-profile members. Even Rick Warren ordained female pastors against the SBC’s wishes, only to see his Saddleback Church get booted from the SBC.
When Bart Barber, the president of the SBC, appeared on 60 Minutes last October to defend the denomination and present a more compassionate side of the SBC, he still ended up saying he wanted to force children to have their rapists’ babies, regardless of circumstance, because he believes fetuses matter more than their mothers. It’s a barbaric stance, void of any real compassion. He also promoted “conversion therapy” (which is dangerous and ineffective) while saying that someone in a same-sex marriage could not possibly be a “good Christian.” He also denied the existence of trans people. And then he said he voted for Donald Trump in 2020.
I’m not blaming the SBC’s membership decline on Barber. But when the chief representative of your religion—someone who was praised for his appearance on the show—explains how his faith teaches him that Jesus is homophobic, that his God wants to further traumatize child victims of sexual assault, and that the thrice-married racist who paid hush money to porn stars he was having affairs with when his current wife was pregnant with his fifth child and who remains a threat to democracy could still get his vote in the future, it’s no wonder that less media-savvy pastors aren’t keeping people—especially young people—in the pews.
That’s why it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the denomination. They’re losing members but we, as a society, aren’t losing anything of value. The faster those remaining members leave or die out, the closer we get to a nation where Southern Baptists don’t have political power. Next month, it’s possible Barber will be replaced by Pastor Mike Stone, someone who’s (somehow) even more conservative, which will likely drive away more people still on the fence.
Keep in mind that the SBC is still doing just fine. It’s like Jeff Bezos having a bad day in the stock market; no one should feel bad for him. The SBC took in over $9,900,000,000 in 2022. That’s $9.9 billion. They’ll survive.
But if the numbers are a sign of a trend, then there’s reason to think Southern Baptists aren’t about to become more popular in the future. People are starting to realize how damaging those beliefs are and they’re walking away. Maybe they’re not leaving the faith altogether, but they are discovering that their lives are perfectly fine without having to support churches that do more harm than good.
(Portions of this article were published earlier.)
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Roughly 10 years ago, I wrote a blog, commenting on an NPR show I heard, featuring one John S. Dickerson and his then-new book, The Great Evangelical Recession. They KNEW about this a decade ago, and after all this time, it seems to me as though they still can't bring themselves to acknowledge why they continue to lose ground. Back then I opined that it was a combination of the impact of the internet and 9/11 which were the primary anti-agents to their cabal. I stand by that opinion. Their continued irrationality has had its pants pulled down to their ankles by the internet, by commenters such as Aron Ra, Matt Dillahunty, Seth Andrews, and many, many others. The message these and other observers have made resonate with those for whom religious belief has begun to ring false in their ears, never mind to those of the Millennials and Gen-X, many of whom never bought into religion's snake oil to begin with.
And evangelicalism STILL can't admit that. And what will likely happen is that those who have been dissuaded will go their own way, leaving the True Believers and the radicals and the Christian Nationalists, whose aberrant behavior will further disgust and resultingly disaffiliate onlookers from a belief system which not only no longer works, but never did in the first place.
This makes the SBC more dangerous in the short term, and they have enough positions of power to cause a lot of damage while they are in their death throes. This is why we are seeing more conservative school boards and more local races with super religious candidates. They’re fighting by trying to force their way into our and our children’s lives.
We can outlast them.