By Aaron Earls
LifeWay Christian Resources
NASHVILLE — A growing number of Southern Baptist churches are home to a shrinking number of Southern Baptists.
Total membership in the Southern Baptist Convention fell almost 2 percent to 14,525,579 from 2018 to 2019, according to the Annual Church Profile compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources in cooperation with Baptist state conventions. The decline of 287,655 members is the largest single year drop in more than 100 years.
The number of churches grew slightly to 47,530, an increase of 74 from 2018. However, the number of church-type missions fell by 477 to bring the overall number of SBC congregations down to 51,138 in 2019. Multisite congregations reported an additional 505 campuses where local church ministry takes place.
In Tennessee, the number of churches increased slightly, from 3039 in 2018 to 3071 in 2019 while the number of church-type missions fell from 147 in 2018 to 97 in 2019.
Churches and missions
Scott McConnell, of LifeWay Research, said the significant drop in membership is due in large part to the decrease in church-type missions and congregations continuing to update their membership.
While some missions no longer exist, others moved from that category to full-fledged churches.
“The term mission is an important missiological designation that points to the fact that churches are started with the help of many others,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.
“In 2019 several state conventions confirmed with congregations that they are now self-sustaining, shifting their designation from being a mission to a church. Although in many cases this is belated, we celebrate this ministry milestone with these congregations.”
According to LifeWay Research, 75 percent of Southern Baptist congregations participated by reporting at least one item on the profile, which is similar to previous years. McConnell said these reports are beneficial during COVID-19.
“In this season of social distancing, we realize how important our cooperative connections are within the SBC,” McConnell said.
“The Annual Church Profile is an important annual check-in to make sure other congregations, associations, state conventions, and national entities have the contact information, leadership names, and a few statistics to stay connected with a congregation. Many contacts have been made during this difficult time that were only possible because information was updated and stored in a national database.”
For the first time in 100 years, however, a state convention did not collect total membership numbers, he said. An estimate for Oklahoma congregations is included in the data based on previous reporting from current congregations.
Other key metrics also declined. Average weekly worship service and Sunday School or small group attendance each dropped by less than 1 percent.
The average worship service attendance fell to 5,250,230, while average small group attendance declined to 3,236,196.
In Tennessee, the average worship attendance dipped slightly as well, from 352,162 in 2018 to 347,353 last year.
Baptisms fell by more than four percent, dropping from 246,442 in 2018 to 235,748 in 2019. In 2019, there was one baptism for every 62 Southern Baptists. Tennessee Baptist Convention churches, however, reported a slight increase in baptisms, from 19,041 in 2018 to 19,269 in 2019. Tennessee ranked fourth among Baptist state conventions in reported baptisms, trailing Texas (with two conventions), Florida and Georgia.
“Tennessee remains strong in baptisms because our churches still believe in and practice evangelism,” observed Roc Collins, strategic objectives director for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. “Our number one objective is to see 50,000 annually accept Christ, follow Him in baptism and start on the road to discipleship,” he added.
“These numbers are not able to tell the story of all the evangelistic efforts that many individuals and churches have put in this past year,” said McConnell.
“They do indicate, however, that the efforts of the same number of people in a congregation on average are seeing fewer people come to Christ and being baptized.”
“The Southern Baptist Convention is not immune to the increasing secularization among Americans that is seen in more of our children and our neighbors not having interest in coming to Jesus.”
Declines in giving
Total church receipts and undesignated receipts were both down in 2019 after two years of growth. Total church receipts reported through the ACP fell 1.44 percent to $11.6 billion. Undesignated church receipts decreased 0.01 percent to $9.6 billion.
Tennessee Baptist churches reported a slight increase in giving, from $819,278,954 in 2018 to $820,156,872 in 2019. Mission expenditures, however, dipped from $104,689,688 in 2019 to $102,089,494 last year. Collins praised Tennessee Baptists for remaining faithful in their giving.
Congregations reported total mission expenditures of $1.1 billion and Great Commission Giving of $541 million.
Giving through the SBC’s Cooperative Program is not included in the ACP statistical summary. Actual giving totals are available through Baptist state conventions and the SBC Executive Committee, which processes the mission gifts.
Tennessee Baptist churches, however, gave $34,719,604 through the Cooperative Program for 2018-19, an increase of $115,032 or 0.3 percent more than was given in 2017-18.
“We give faithfully through the Cooperative Program and the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions in order to reach the world and our state for Jesus Christ,” Collins affirmed.
— Lonnie Wilkey, B&R editor, also contributed to this article.