The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in America, has reported last year’s numbers gathered by Lifeway Christian Resources and leadership is not happy. According to the report, “the nearly 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention . . . lost more than 105,000 members and 188,000 Sunday worshipers. . . .This marks its sixth straight year of membership decline.”
Numbers don’t lie, but they don’t always tell the truth. The good news is that there are probably thousands of individuals who attend Southern Baptist churches each week who are not members, don’t think membership is important, and may never become members of a church although they will be regular attendees. For a younger generation of believers, membership is not important (despite what the American Express commercial says). They find the church they like, the one where their friends go, or where they experience spiritual growth and just attend without strings attached.
The bad news is that many of the churches included in the count and, therefore, their members are no longer exclusively Southern Baptist churches or don’t embrace the denomination. There are many churches that are either dually aligned with other Baptist bodies or they allow their members to fund mission causes other than Southern Baptist. One church with which I am familiar gives over 60% of its mission money to another Baptist group by member choice. This same church has not sent a messenger to the annual Southern Baptist Convention in years. Is it a Southern Baptist church? I suppose it depends on your criteria for membership.
There are many other churches that are counted as Southern Baptist who no longer avail themselves of denominational services even though they still carry the name. Many have become denominations unto themselves--charting their own courses, developing partnerships with both Baptist and non-Baptist entities, and ignoring denominational entities. Of course, there are also churches that no longer call themselves “Baptist” but they are part of the SBC count. Are the members of the non-participating churches and the “shadow” Baptist churches part of the Convention? They are certainly included in the total. Again, it depends on your criteria for membership.
The SBC, not matter how one counts churches and members, is not going down the drain any time soon. The report lists 6 million Sunday worshipers at more than 46,000 churches last year. Many are still committed to the denomination and its work. The trends, however, are not encouraging if one simply looks at the statistics.
Perhaps it is time to evaluate the effectiveness of the churches’ ministry and the strength of partner relationships in a different way. Are there more effective ways to measure church vitality? What would we learn if we took a different perspective? What do you think?