By Lisa Cannon Green
The Southern Baptist Convention expanded by more than 270 churches in 2017. More people showed up for weekly worship services, and congregations gave more generously in a strengthening economy.
However, reported baptisms and membership declined as fewer churches participated in the SBC’s Annual Church Profile (ACP).
Long-standing patterns continued to dominate the ACP, which is compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources in cooperation with Baptist state conventions.
- The number of churches cooperating with the Southern Baptist Convention grew for the 19th consecutive year, reaching 47,544. That’s a 16.3 percent increase in churches since 1997.
- Membership fell for the 11th consecutive year, to 15 million. Since 2006, SBC congregations have lost about 1.3 million members.
- Baptisms also declined, as they have for eight of the past 10 years. Congregations reported baptizing 254,122 people—26.5 percent fewer than in 2007. The ratio was one baptism for every 59 church members.
“It’s heartbreaking to be baptizing fewer people for Christ, even though Southern Baptists have nearly 2,900 more churches than we had a decade ago,” said LifeWay President and CEO Thom S. Rainer.
“Yet a quarter million baptisms is not an insignificant number. We praise God for every individual who has come to Christ and followed Him in baptism. It is my prayer that God would embolden Southern Baptists to share the gospel with their friends and neighbors.
“We know conversion is only by the Holy Spirit, but we also know God begins most of these conversions with gospel conversations.”
Fewer churches reporting
The ACP numbers don’t tell the full story of baptisms or other measurables among Southern Baptist churches.
Despite the best efforts of associations and state conventions across the country, 26 percent of churches did not participate, said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. Seventy-four percent of churches participated in the 2017 ACP survey by reporting at least one item. That’s down from 80 percent in 2013 and 77 percent the last three years.
For that reason, reported totals do not include all of the activity of the SBC, though the summary does include some adjustments for non-reporting congregations.
This summer, LifeWay Research plans to release statistical analysis of the current state of the SBC that includes estimates of the congregations that did not report. Still, McConnell urged churches to participate in future ACP surveys.
“Reports from congregations are the most accurate way to tell the story of the entire convention,” he said.
Despite the lower participation rate, the ACP report shows increases in some areas.
Average attendance at weekly worship services climbed 2.3 percent to 5.3 million, an increase of nearly 120,000. That’s comparable to adding every man, woman and child in a city like Wilmington, N.C., or Beaumont, Texas, to the church pews every week.
States outside the South reported some of the strongest signs of growth. California now has 47 more congregations and Michigan has 24 more congregations than they had the previous year. Those figures include churches along with church-type missions—congregations that are not fully independent or self-sustaining.
Non-Southern states are now home to 21.3 percent of SBC churches and 32.2 percent of church-type missions.
Reported baptisms nearly doubled in Colorado and rose 31.0 percent in Iowa, 17.6 percent in Alaska, and 13.4 percent in New Mexico. In North and South Dakota, weekly worship attendance grew by 20.8 percent, and baptisms climbed 34.8 percent.
Overall, Southern Baptist churches reported 4,376 church-type missions last year, down 2.6 percent from 2016. The count of churches and missions combined is 51,920 congregations.
Giving and mission expenditures
Southern Baptists saw an increase in overall giving of almost $267 million. Total and undesignated church receipts reported through the ACP increased 3.3 percent and 2.3 percent respectively.
Reported mission expenditures fell by about $4 million in 2017. However, the numbers are not directly comparable since there were changes in which state conventions collected this statistic.
Congregations reported total mission expenditures of just under $1.19 billion.
Individual congregations voluntarily report their ACP data to their local Baptist associations and/or their state conventions. National statistics are compiled and released when all cooperating state conventions have reported.
LISA CANNON GREEN (@lisaccgreen) is senior editor of Facts & Trends.