By Carol Pipes, Editor, Facts & Trends at LifeWay Christian Resources
and By Lonnie Wilkey, Editor, Baptist and Reflector
NASHVILLE — Southern Baptists as a whole and Tennessee Baptists in general may find cause for hope in the latest Annual Church Profile report.
Both the Southern Baptist Convention and Tennessee Baptist Convention added more churches in 2015, due mostly to church planting efforts. Churches also experienced an increase in total giving.
However, according to the Annual Church Profile (ACP) compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources in cooperation with state conventions, other key measures declined. Those included membership, average worship attendance, baptisms, and missions giving.
A bright spot in the ACP data was the increase in churches. The number of churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention grew by 294 to 46,793, a 0.63 percent increase over 2014. This is the 17th year in a row the number of SBC churches has grown. TBC data shows the number of congregations in the state grew from 3,112 in 2014 to 3,309 in 2015.
While the number of SBC-related congregations increased, reported membership declined more than 200,000, down 1.32 percent to 15.3 million members. Average weekly worship attendance declined by 1.72 percent to 5.6 million worshipers.
Tennessee churches, however, reported an increase in both resident and total membership with 850,630 and 1,100,980 respectively. Average worship attendance in Tennessee churches also grew from 381,258 in 2014 to 386,548 in 2015.
Southern Baptists also experienced a decline in baptisms, down 3.3 percent to 295,212. Reported baptisms have fallen eight of the last 10 years. The ratio of baptisms to total members decreased to one baptism for every 52 members.
In Tennessee, baptisms dropped slightly, from 23,547 in 2014 to 22,737 last year, a decrease of 810. It was still the second highest number of baptisms since 2011.
“Reversing a nosedive 30 years in the making is very difficult, but entirely possible when we are under His lordship,” observed Randy C. Davis, TBC executive director/treasurer.
“We should be encouraged that over the last five years there have been positive signs that more Tennesseans are being saved, baptized, and set on the road to discipleship. When we, together, fully turn our attention and Holy Spirit-breathed passion to personal evangelism and intentional discipleship, everything else will follow,” Davis said.
Seeing at least 50,000 Tennesseans annually saved, baptized, and set on the road to discipleship is the first of Five Objectives that Tennessee Baptists have adopted as their long-range goals by 2024.
Frank Page, SBC Executive Committee president, expressed his dismay about the decline in baptisms. “God help us all! In a world that is desperate for the message of Christ, we continue to be less diligent in sharing the Good News. May God forgive us and give us a new passion to reach this world for Christ,” Page said.
“The ACP report shows many faithful Southern Baptists continue to worship, share the gospel, give generously, and live in community with other believers,” said LifeWay President and CEO Thom S. Rainer. “We praise God for these efforts every year.
“While a decrease in baptisms is very disappointing, we don’t take for granted 295,000 baptisms,” he said. “We should rejoice with each of those individuals who chose to follow Christ.”
An increase in the number of churches, aided by Southern Baptists’ church planting efforts, is also something to celebrate, Rainer said.
“People underestimate the importance of momentum,” he said. “It only takes a few people in each church, being intentional about sharing their faith, for some new momentum to build.”
Giving and missions expenditures
Southern Baptists increased giving in 2015. Total and undesignated church receipts reported through the ACP increased 3.51 percent and 4.64 percent respectively.
Total missions expenditures declined by 2.03 percent to $1.2 billion, but the report shows four Baptist state conventions — Alabama (for the first time), California, Georgia, and Oklahoma — did not ask churches for this data. Great Commission Giving, which represents total giving to denominational causes, was down 3.81 percent to $613 million, with five state conventions — Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Southern Baptists of Texas (for the first time) — not reporting that data.
In Tennessee, both undesignated receipts and Cooperative Program giving increased in 2015. CP giving rose from $33,750,134 to $35,254,262 while undesignated receipts climbed from $602,323,627 to $647,554,619.
Giving through Southern Baptists’ Cooperative Program (CP) missions initiative is not included in the ACP annual report. Those totals are more accurately available through Baptist state conventions and the SBC Executive Committee, which processes the missions gifts. CP gifts forwarded from state conventions for SBC causes in fiscal year 2014-15 were 1.39 percent more than the previous year. CP gifts received by the SBC Executive Committee for the first eight months of the 2015-16 year were reported to be 6.13 percent above the year-to-date budgeted projection.
Individual congregations report statistics for the national ACP to their local associations and/or state conventions. National totals are compiled and released after all cooperating state conventions have reported.