- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 7, 2024

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The Southern Baptist Convention lost 241,000 members last year, lowering its total membership to less than 13 million for the first time since the mid-1970s.

Still, the largest U.S. Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists have lost 3,324,156 members since 2006, when its membership peaked at 16.3 million.

The denomination said Tuesday that last year’s membership decline was less than 2%, compared to 3.34% in 2022, when 457,371 people left. The year 2023 marked the 17th consecutive year of membership decline.

The number of SBC churches fell by 292 — less than 1% — to 46,906 last year, according to the Annual Church Profile compiled by Lifeway Christian Resources. Multisite churches reported an increase of 95 locations to 680, while church-type missions fell by 170 to 2,474.

Officials said 4 million people attended services in person each week, the highest number in three years. Weekly Sunday school and small group attendance stood at 2.5 million in 2023, while online worship participation increased.

Southern Baptists have confronted challenges on several fronts in recent years: The interim head of an executive committee resigned over a falsified academic record, an outside study revealed that churches suppressed reports of more than 700 cases of sexual abuse, and several churches were expelled last year over their women pastors, including the denomination’s largest, Saddleback Church in Southern California.

However, the SBC said the latest numbers show elements of good news. Total baptisms rose by nearly 26% to 226,919. California, with its 5,181 baptisms, marked a 248% increase over the previous year. And 35 of 41 state Baptist conventions reporting year-over-year baptism growth, Lifeway said.

Finances remained steady, with donations reported at $10 billion last year, up from the $9.9 billion received in 2022. Donations for missionary activity totaled $798 million last year, up $68 million from 2022’s $730 million, a 9% increase.

“Southern Baptists are a force for good. We are sharing the gospel with more people, gathering for worship and Bible study in increasing numbers, giving billions to support churches serving communities across our country and sending millions to support mission enterprises around the world,” Jeff Iorg, president-elect of the SBC Executive Committee, said in a statement. “While we often address our shortcomings, it’s also good to pause and celebrate the global good Southern Baptists are accomplishing.”

The Rev. Bart Barber, whose term as SBC president ends in June, said relying on membership statistics can be difficult.

“Those statistics are not all created equal,” said Mr. Barber, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas. “The membership number is not really super reliable. But when it comes to baptisms, we’re really good at counting those. And when it comes to Sunday school attendance, we’re really good at counting that.”

The increases in baptisms and Sunday school attendance are heartening and should encourage members and leaders, he said.

“The numbers that are good this year, are the numbers that we want to be good because they’re the most meaningful numbers, not just in terms of the importance of the of the of the metric that’s being measured,” Mr. Barber said. “But [it’s] also because we know that those are good, strong, accurate numbers and the others, the others are not.”

The Rev. Mike Keahbone, lead pastor at the First Baptist Church of Lawton, Oklahoma, and one of several nominees to succeed Mr. Barber, said the church no longer puts as much importance on the “scoreboard” number of total membership as it did in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Back [then], it was everything was about numbers to the church. It really was that scoreboard that you’re talking about,” he said. “Because of that, our church rolls, I think, became super inflated. What you’re seeing now is churches trying to go back through their church rolls and trying to clean those things up.”

Another nominee for denominational president, Rev. Bruce Fink of Biltmore Church in Arden, North Carolina, said that if he is elected, he would try to spur local churches on to more growth.

As president, he said, “one of the first meetings would be to get the state directors and as many of the [local] people together and listen.”

He said some congregations have gone too long without any significant number of Christian commitments, and he would work to change that.

“How do we come alongside those churches that maybe they’ve gone a long time without seeing gospel life change,” Mr. Fink asked. “What do we need to do to have that happen sometime in the next 12 months?”

But Christa Brown, an adult survivor of rape by a Southern Baptist pastor, said leadership needs to put greater emphasis on bringing abusers to justice, creating a database of those accused to aid in background checks, and do more for victims before the denomination can even think of membership growth.

“I don’t think they have even come close directly with their clergy sex abuse crisis,” Ms. Brown, whose memoir “Baptistland” details her experiences, said in a telephone interview. “It’s all been a lot of showmanship and a lot of deflection.

“This is a multimillion-dollar institution that must reckon with its failures and must keep kids and congregants safer and, and yeah, they can all talk all the talk all day long about precious children and the church should be the safest place blah, blah, blah. But unless they’re actually doing the work, that’s all just window dressing.”

Asked about her comments, Mr. Barber said the SBC is working to meet concerns about sex abuse in its ranks.

“We have ousted churches on the basis of this and I can also say that, in putting together the things that we’ve done for abuse reform, it’s important to understand that we’re doing things that no one has ever done before and a family of churches like this,” Mr. Barber said.

“I believe that we will have names on a database very soon. When we do have names on a database that’s not gonna stop Christa being unhappy with the SBC. I know that we’ve hurt her profoundly and she doesn’t, she doesn’t owe us anything. But I do know this: we are making progress.”

• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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