By Carol Pipes
Lifeway news office
NASHVILLE — Southern Baptist congregations saw a rebound in the number of baptisms and an increase of $304 million in overall giving in 2021, both hopeful signs congregations are recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Southern Baptist congregations baptized 154,701 in 2021, a 26 percent increase from 123,160 reported in 2020, according to the Annual Church Profile (ACP) compiled by Lifeway Christian Resources in cooperation with Baptist state conventions.
Although baptisms are not back to pre-COVID levels, Southern Baptist leaders rejoice that numbers are moving in the right direction.
“I am incredibly proud of local churches that have stayed steady with evangelism during the pandemic,” said Willie McLaurin, SBC Executive Committee interim president and CEO.
“The increase in baptisms highlights that local pastors and churches prioritize soul-winning, evangelism and discipleship,” McLaurin said. “However, while we rejoice with the uptick in baptisms, more individuals still need to hear the life-changing gospel of Jesus,” he said.
While baptisms and giving rose, other key metrics declined, including membership, average weekly worship attendance and total number of Southern Baptist congregations.
Tennessee Baptist Convention churches were near the top in most every category. TBC churches ranked third in number of baptisms (14,165), fourth in number of churches (3,031), fifth in in-person worship attendance (229,843) and fifth in in-person Sunday School / small group attendance (129,652) fourth in total receipts ($804,489,462) and fourth in total missions expenditures ($91,977,211) for the year.
“Even with the challenges of our time, Tennessee Baptists are still seeking to win Tennessee for Jesus,” said Roc Collins, director of strategic objectives for the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
“We are thankful for the 14,165 people who were saved, baptized and set on the road to discipleship last year. Our prayer is that we will see more come to Jesus this year,” he said.
He also expressed gratitude that attendance is still strong in the churches and that Tennessee Baptists “continue to support missions and evangelism both in Tennessee and around the world.”
The number of churches cooperating with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) increased by 22 to 47,614, while the number of church-type missions dropped 9.5 percent to 2,809 bringing the total number of congregations to 50,423.
This is the fourth consecutive year of decline in total number of congregations after a peak of 51,920 in 2017. Multisite congregations reported 575 campuses where additional local church ministry takes place.
Membership in Southern Baptist congregations continued its long-term decline with a three percent drop from 14,089,947 in 2020 to 13,680,493 in 2021.
Attendance declines. Two years after COVID-19 caused shutdowns and delayed reopenings of worship services and other church activities, Southern Baptists are finally seeing the full impact of the pandemic on in-person attendance.
Average weekly in-person worship attendance declined from 4,439,797 in 2020 to 3,607,530 in 2021 — an 18.75 percent decline.
Also, the average attendance of in-person Sunday School, Bible study and small groups declined from 2,879,130 to 2,241,514 — a 22.15 percent decrease.
“We suspected the statistics from the 2020 ACP did not show the full impact of COVID-19 on attendance,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “Every year we instruct congregations to calculate attendance averages for the weeks they meet in person.”
Churches that only met in person prior to the pandemic in 2020 would have reported average weekly attendance for those weeks. Many churches resumed meeting in person in 2021 and only then registered a pandemic-related drop in attendance.
“It’s not fun to document difficult seasons of ministry, but we know God is as faithful today as He has ever been,” he said. “And these statistics continue to show the faithfulness and sacrifice of congregations during trying times.”
Online participation. For the first time in ACP history, churches were asked to include data for online worship and group participation.
Southern Baptist congregations reported 1,447,313 in average weekly online worship participation and 198,122 in average online Sunday School/Bible study/small group participation.
“Many churches began sharing their worship services online during the pandemic,” McConnell said.
“While some may only continue this practice until it’s safe for all to return, others have made it an ongoing part of their ministry or outreach,” he said.
Giving and mission expenditures increase. Total church receipts, undesignated receipts, total mission expenditures, and Great Commission Giving all increased in 2021.
Total church receipts reported through the ACP increased 2.6 percent to $11.8 billion. Undesignated church receipts increased 2.6 percent to nearly $9.8 billion.
The increased generosity among churches is a high point in the Annual Church Profile.
“The increase in giving through the local church has accelerated our unified Great Commission efforts of mobilizing more missionaries and planting more churches,” McLaurin said.
“For 97 years, Southern Baptist churches have maintained steadfastness in Cooperative Program giving, and the increase we see in baptisms and giving are reasons for us to pause and thank God for His faithfulness.”
Giving through the SBC’s Cooperative Program is not included in the ACP statistical summary. Those totals are available through Baptist state conventions and the SBC Executive Committee which process the mission gifts.
Reporting. Seven in 10 Southern Baptist churches participated in the 2021 ACP by reporting at least one item on the profile, up one percentage point from the 69 percent who reported last year, but still well below the 75 percent that reported in 2019.
The ACP is compiled by Lifeway Christian Resources in cooperation with Baptist state conventions. 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. B&R — B&R editor Lonnie Wilkey contributed to this report.