Or the Nation’s largest Protestant denomination if your view of the reformation includes influences that led to the beginnings of the Baptist family of denominations.
Southern Baptists are intoxicated…with numbers. The pause there works better when that statement is made verbally, rather than in writing. It’s probably not as prevalent now as it was when I was growing up, and every church had the same register board up front with Sunday school enrollment, attendance, offering this week, last week, and worship attendance. The Sunday school enrollment figure in the church where I grew up was always somewhere around 140. It would fluctuate a bit, usually going up at the beginning of the new church year in October, and would drift back down by the end of the year. It was located in a community where a lot of people came in to spend the winter months, so while summer attendance averaged around 50, from January to April it was not unusual to have a month with an average attendance of 70. Church membership was always around 225 and the worship service would average about 80 in attendance.
As a kid, I always wondered who the other members were, if they didn’t come every Sunday. If the whole membership ever showed up, we’d have to set up extra chairs in the auditorium, since it could only seat about 150. And every week, the “outreach” director of our Sunday school class would report that he’d called the members of the class who had a card on the roll, but always got marked absent. On occasion, someone would respond, but not often.
But through all of those growing up years, and through the time I spent at an SBC state convention related college, and an SBC seminary, the SBC was always touted as the “Nation’s largest Protestant denomination,” and the membership growth was always pointed to as a sign of the theological correctness and the “health” of the denomination, compared to those “liberals,” who were declining. Of course, the Catholic church was booming, explained away by “immigration,” and in the community where I grew up, the two Mormon wards were, by far, the largest churches in town, and were also growing fairly rapidly.
But time has passed, and there’s been a lot of change.
Membership growth peaked in the SBC in the mid-1970’s. The increases each year following that are numerically smaller than the previous year, and the percentage increase also drops each year. It is interesting to note that while the “Conservative Resurgence” came along in 1979, with an aim of turning the denomination back to its conservative “roots”, and to avoid declining membership that mainline churches were experiencing because of their “liberalism,” and abandonment of evangelism, the percentage of membership increase in the SBC continued to decline, the decline in baptisms began to steepen, and the numerical increase in membership grew smaller every year following 1979. During the 90’s, the “growth” was actually statistically insignificant. But over the past decade, the number is no longer a membership increase each year, it is a decrease, and it is getting larger each year. The number of members is now more than a million less than it was a decade ago, and there have been years when more than 200,000 members have been subtracted from the membership. That this is not just some reporting or statistical anomaly is evidence in the fact that attendance has gone down by a similar percentage, and other statistical categories, including church income factored for inflation, are declining by similar percentages.
So what’s going on?
The Baby Boomer generation is still the largest among the current American population. With half of this group now past 60, and Baby Boomers making up approximately 50% of the current church membership in conservative Evangelical churches, including Southern Baptists, we are seeing a statistical “aging” of churches (the median among Evangelicals, according to church researchers, is past 65) and the number of member deaths exceeds the number of new converts baptized. The Southern Baptist Convention is seeing its churches baptize approximately 250,000 new converts each year, though 80% of that number are the children of church members, and are, for the most part, already included in attendance figures. The only estimate I could find on the number of member deaths was somewhere just south of 300,000.
Evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, have been losing their young people since the 80’s. I remember Lifeway sounding the alarm bells when a study came out that showed 70% of the youth who were raised in church and active in their youth group during high school were leaving the church during or after college. That was a staggering figure then, representing mostly the beginning of Generation X. But as time has passed, awareness of the situation has brought about a whole series of changes in church programming and ministry that has failed to stop that departure. In fact, among the latter half of Generation X, and into the Millennial Generation, the figure has increased to 85% leaving. Unlike their Baby Boomer parents and grandparents, many of whom returned to church in adulthood, these kids aren’t coming back.
The influence of the humanism that now dominates the public education system is one of the main reasons for this exodus. Students who attended Christian schools in either grade school, high school, or college seem to be far less inclined to leave than their counterparts who did not have that instructional opportunity added to their experience. Those are not guarantees of fidelity to church membership, but the percentages are much higher. And it is in these younger generations where the church membership is missing, and where the membership decline is being felt.
Evangelism, Outreach and Ministry
Since people seem to be attracted to megachurches, that might not be a place where you’d look to explain declining membership. But while many megachurches appear to be growing in number (though the decline among Evangelicals has hit even some of the largest and most venerable churches) they are growing by attracting members out of smaller congregations which is where the ground work of evangelism is being done. The SBC is a good example of this.
Megachurches grow by attracting members from smaller congregations. Other than children, most of these folks are already baptized. But as smaller churches empty out, disband, and close, the groundwork of evangelism ceases. People that might be reached by a smaller congregation are overlooked or ignored by larger ones. The personal touch is gone. From a generational perspective, Baby Boomers are the ones attracted to these large, impersonal congregations because they are interested in the theatrical style worship and the celebrity pastor. Younger people aren’t brought in by those things. Millennials in particular appear to be much more attracted to non-traditional congregations that are small and personal, and where their own expression of faith can be seen, discussed, helped and encouraged.
The overwhelming support of Evangelicals for Trump has become a leading cause of the drop in church membership and attendance among Evangelicals. Accelerating declines in attendance have steepened since 2016. Oh, yeah, I know that for many evangelicals, abortion is still the bottom line, and for those who are white, fear of immigration and refugees, and fear that the rest of the world is after their money is pushed along by the conservative media sources they watch. But when you narrow your issues down, you get lip service to grab your vote, and you wind up electing terrible leadership. And a lot of Evangelicals are deeper thinkers than they are given credit for, and they see that support for an immoral playboy like Trump, who hasn’t held back on either his unrighteousness in the form of lying, or his crude attitudes and words. Churches where leaders have been particularly active in right wing politics are seeing members drain out like water through a sieve. And it is no coincidence that the declines in Evangelical church membership among whites parallels the 2016 election. People are leaving because churches are too political.
I have to say that I’d walk out the door of any church where a pastor brought any political content into the service.