By Carol Pipes & Lonnie Wilkey
LifeWay, B&R writers
A similar rationale can be applied to the 2020 Annual Church Profile.
In the early weeks and months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Southern Baptist churches, including those in Tennessee, joined the wave of school and business closures to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Churches shifted to online worship services, while Sunday School classes and small groups met in backyards and via Zoom. While the total impact of COVID-19 on church practices may not be fully known, recent data from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) suggests a significant effect.
According to the latest Annual Church Profile (ACP) report, the Southern Baptist Convention saw key metrics decline in 2020, including baptisms, membership, average weekly worship attendance, giving and total number of Southern Baptist congregations.
“Anyway you look at the numbers from 2020 there will be an ‘asterisk’ beside them because of the unprecedented experience of COVID-19,” observed Roc Collins, director of strategic objectives for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
The number of churches cooperating with the SBC increased by 62 to 47,592 or 0.13 percent. Southern Baptists also reported 3,104 church-type missions last year, a decline of 504 or 13.97 percent.
The Tennessee Baptist Convention actually reported 12 more churches in 2020 than in 2019.
Reported membership of those congregations declined by 435,632, down 3 percent to 14 million members.
This continues a 14-year trend of membership decline. Membership in Southern Baptist congregations peaked at 16.3 million in 2006, declining more than two million since.
Southern Baptist congregations reported baptizing 123,160 people in 2020, a 47.76 percent decline from the 235,748 reported in 2019.
This is the ninth straight year with fewer baptisms reported than the prior year.
Total church receipts and undesignated receipts both declined in 2020. Total church receipts reported through the ACP decreased 0.98 percent to 11.5 billion. Undesignated church receipts decreased 0.72% percent to $9.5 billion.
Congregations reported total mission expenditures of $1 billion and Great Commission Giving of $409.8 million. Giving through the SBC’s Cooperative Program is not included in the ACP statistical summary.
Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, said a number of factors likely contributed to the 3 percent decline in overall membership, including fewer congregations, fewer additions through baptism and other additions, likely higher deaths from COVID-19, and other reductions in the membership of individual Southern Baptist congregations.
“Numerous church leaders have described their attempts to stay in touch with their congregation throughout the pandemic,” McConnell said. “As congregations rediscovered the telephone, they also discovered some on their membership lists who moved away, joined another church, or no longer wanted to be a member.”
COVID-19 clearly had an impact on churches’ outreach and evangelism efforts, according to McConnell. “The last year Southern Baptists saw this few people follow Christ for the first time was 1918 and 1919 when the influenza pandemic was sweeping the world.”
The TBMB’s Collins looked at the positive side. “While our baptism numbers are not where we desire them to be (down by about 50 percent), in the midst of a pandemic, to see people still being saved, baptized and set on the road to discipleship is encouraging,” he said.
Still, the Tennessee Baptist Convention finished fourth among state conventions in total baptisms with 9,494.
“It would be easy to be discouraged about these numbers being so much lower than the previous year, but I believe we should celebrate what God did in a most unusual year and remember that each of those numbers represent a soul that has trusted Jesus Christ as Lord and followed Him in believers baptism,” Collins added.
Churches reporting data
According to McConnell, 69 percent of Southern Baptist churches participated in the ACP in 2020 by reporting at least one item on the profile, down from three-fourths in previous years. However, he said, participation of more than two out of three churches provides reliable information on the impact of COVID-19 on Southern Baptist churches.
“More congregations participated than we expected, showing they value sharing their experience and telling the collective story of Southern Baptists,” he said.
Libby Eaton, information specialist for the TBMB, noted that 214 fewer Tennessee churches reported this year than last year and she agreed that COVID-19 negatively impacted the numbers. She cited three reasons.
• Some churches just weren’t able to keep records this year in the same way they’ve done in the past since they weren’t meeting in person.
• Some churches didn’t understand how to report. We encouraged churches to calculate attendance based on the number of months they DID meet in person, but they often did not report because they didn’t want their numbers to appear down.
• Some churches chose not to report because we did not provide a means to capture virtual attendance, and they felt that was a big part of their story.
As to virtual attendance, Eaton noted that 2020 ACP materials were prepared before the full extent of the impact on churches was recognized.
“The 2021 ACP materials WILL have a way to report virtual attendance for both worship services and Sunday School/Small Group/Bible Study classes. We believe virtual attendance will continue to be a big part of outreach efforts for many churches even after all fear of COVID is gone,” she said.
“Virtual worship, discipleship and building community will be an important part of church ministry for the foreseeable future,” she added. B&R