By Lisa Cannon Green
LifeWay Christian Resources
NASHVILLE — The Southern Baptist Convention expanded by more than 270 churches in 2017. More people showed up for weekly worship services, and congregations gave more generously in a strengthening economy.
However, reported baptisms and membership declined as fewer churches participated in the SBC’s Annual Church Profile (ACP).
Long-standing patterns continued to dominate the ACP, which is compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources in cooperation with Baptist state conventions.
- The number of churches cooperating with the Southern Baptist Convention grew for the 19th consecutive year, reaching 47,544. That’s a 16.3 percent increase in churches since 1997. Tennessee has 3,199 churches and missions, up from 3,063 the year before.
- Membership fell for the 11th consecutive year, to 15 million. Since 2006, SBC congregations have lost about 1.3 million members. Tennessee churches have a total membership of 1,008,930, down slightly from 1,037,471 in 2016.
- Baptisms also declined, as they have for eight of the past 10 years. Congregations reported baptizing 254,122 people — 26.5 percent fewer than in 2007.
The ratio was one baptism for every 59 church members. SBC churches baptized 280,773 people in 2016, but only 254,122 in 2017.
Tennessee fared better in terms of baptisms. Tennessee Baptist Convention churches baptized 20,409 converts in 2017, just slightly down from the 20,419 baptized in 2016. In addition, Tennessee’s ratio of baptisms to membership is 1:49, compared to the SBC’s 1:59.
“It’s heartbreaking to be baptizing fewer people for Christ, even though Southern Baptists have nearly 2,900 more churches than we had a decade ago,” said LifeWay President and CEO Thom S. Rainer.
“Yet a quarter million baptisms is not an insignificant number. We praise God for every individual who has come to Christ and followed Him in baptism, he added.”
“We know conversion is only by the Holy Spirit, but we also know God begins most of these conversions with gospel conversations.”
Willie McLaurin, special assistant to the president of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board (Randy C. Davis), observed that discipleship must go hand in hand with evangelism to turn the number of baptisms around.
“I am excited about the focus we have in Tennessee on seeing people saved, baptized, and set on the road to discipleship. We have done a great job in ‘ringing the salvation bell,’ but now it’s time to ‘ring the discipleship bell’ so those who currently fill our church pews will begin to fill our community parks.”
McLaurin noted that if “every Tennessee Baptist would become a light in their community, we could reverse the trends in Tennessee. He encouraged Tennessee Baptists to pray for the people in their communities and for pastors and churches to ask God for a fresh vision for revival in their community. “I am convinced that this would significantly assist in reversing the trends,” he said.
Fewer churches reporting
The ACP numbers don’t tell the full story of baptisms or other measurables among Southern Baptist churches.
Despite the best efforts of associations and state conventions across the country, 26 percent of churches did not participate, said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. Seventy-four percent of churches participated in the 2017 ACP survey by reporting at least one item. That’s down from 80 percent in 2013 and 77 percent the last three years.
For that reason, reported totals do not include all of the activity of the SBC, though the summary does include some adjustments for non-reporting congregations.
This summer, LifeWay Research plans to release statistical analysis of the current state of the SBC that includes estimates of the congregations that did not report. Still, McConnell urged churches to participate in future ACP surveys.
“Reports from congregations are the most accurate way to tell the story of the entire convention,” he said.
Giving and mission expenditures
Southern Baptists saw an increase in overall giving of almost $267 million. Total and undesignated church receipts reported through the ACP increased 3.3 percent and 2.3 percent respectively. Tennessee churches reported $807,300,063 in total receipts in 2017, compared to $801,030,069 in 2016.
Reported mission expenditures fell by about $4 million in 2017. However, the numbers are not directly comparable since there were changes in which state conventions collected this statistic. Missions expenditures in Tennessee totaled $101,421,308, compared to 103,373,342 in 2016.
Congregations reported total mission expenditures of just under $1.19 billion.
Tennessee’s average church percentage giving is 5.87 percent compared to the SBC average of 4.86.
Individual congregations voluntarily report their ACP data to their local Baptist associations and/or their state conventions. National statistics are compiled and released when all cooperating state conventions have reported.
The ACP totals did not include Cooperative Program giving by state conventions. Tennessee Baptist Convention churches gave $33,859,359 through the Cooperative Program giving channel to meet ministry and missions needs in the state, nationally, and around the world.
In addition, TBC churches set a record in giving through the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions in 2016-17 with gifts of $1,843,511.03.
“As we look back I’m very thankful for record giving through the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions,” said Randy C. Davis, president and executive director of the TBMB. “We have seen incredible growth over the last five years in the financial support of missions and ministry right here at home.”
— Lonnie Wilkey of the B&R contributed to this report.