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Southern Baptists see historic drop in membership

The Southern Baptist Convention’s Nashville headquarters. ((Mark Humphrey/Associated Press file))

Total membership in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination fell at a historic rate between 2018 and 2019, according to an annual report released Thursday.

The Southern Baptist Convention said it had 14.5 million members in 2019, down about 287,655 from the previous year. Membership dropped 2 percent, the largest single-year drop in more than 100 years, according to a survey from LifeWay Christian Resources, the denomination’s publishing and research arm.

The decline reflects a larger trend of Americans leaving Christianity at a rapid pace. According to the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of Americans describe themselves as Christians, down 12 percentage points during the past decade.

Southern Baptist baptisms fell by more than 4 percent, a key metric in measuring new members of the faith. Average weekly worship service and Sunday school or small-group attendance each dropped by less than 1 percent. Giving was down, and total church receipts fell 1.44 percent to $11.6 billion.

“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,” Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, said in a statement.

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has been in a steady decline for nearly 15 years, hitting its peak in 2006 at 16.3 million. The convention has been in turmoil in recent years, spending the bulk of its annual meeting in 2019 on the issue of sex abuse after the Houston Chronicle published reports on the issue in Southern Baptist churches. The convention has also hosted controversies over an invitation for Vice President Pence to speak at its meeting, faced difficulty in passing a resolution to decry the alt-right and held theological debates over the role of God’s sovereignty.

The denomination’s current president, J.D. Greear, a 47-year-old megachurch pastor from North Carolina, has brought a younger face to the convention, adding more people of color to committees than had been more predominantly white. In a forthcoming piece for the Baptist Press shared with the Washington Post, Greear wrote that he was grieved by the news that the denomination was on the decline.

“Too many of us care more about whether our side is winning in the news cycle than we do the souls of our neighbors, sow division on secondary issues more than we point people to Jesus, and focus more on preserving our traditions than reaching our grandchildren,” he wrote.

Southern Baptists place a heavy emphasis on church planting, and the number of churches grew slightly during the same period. The SBC has 47,530 churches in total, and 74 were added between 2018 and 2019.

The survey released Thursday was compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources based on self-reported data from SBC churches. Ronnie Floyd, who leads the SBC’s executive committee, said in a statement that 75 percent of churches participate in the survey, and that “clearly it is imperative for our future that evangelism remains the priority of our churches and convention.”

The convention was supposed to hold its annual meeting next week in Orlando but canceled due to the novel coronavirus.

As fewer Americans identify as Christian, researchers see a growing number of people identifying as nonreligious; 17 percent of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12 percent in 2009, according to Pew.

This story has been updated to include comments from J.D. Greear and Ronnie Floyd. The peak number has been updated with corrected information from LifeWay.