How Big is the SBC?

Posted on July 13, 2011 by Dr. Jerry Rankin in Rankin Connecting

A lot has been said and written in the last few years about the beginning of a decline in membership of the Southern Baptist Convention. The number of baptisms being reported has been in a free-fall for several decades. A large portion of annual baptisms reflect biological growth of children raised in the church or those who are already church members coming to a born-again experience and being rebaptized. Not only is diminished evangelistic outreach not providing for growth, it is not even replacing the attrition of declining membership.

Dr. Jimmy Scroggins, pastor of FBC West Palm Beach, wrote an excellent article on this subject which was published by Baptist Press following the Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix in which there were the fewest messengers from churches in attendance at anytime since 1944.

Others have written about the evident fragmentation of factions among Southern Baptists. Many younger pastors maintain the Southern Baptist identity of their churches but see no reason to support and be involved with the denomination. I have perceived significant growth in many of these churches; they are using innovative approaches to worship and ministry in seeking to effectively impact the culture with an appealing gospel. Yet, they increasingly encounter criticism from those locked into legacy programs and are alienated for networking with those outside Baptist traditions. Others have become disillusioned by the bureaucracy or disenfranchised by policies adopted by denominational entities.

The reality is that we have probably never been as large as we think. Those 16 million members reported for several years are quite elusive. It is hard to find a biblical pattern and justification for “inactive” or “non-residential” members. The New Testament church is a model of local believers gathered in a dynamic body-life of worship, witness, ministry and mutual nurture and accountability. Is one really a member if they never attend, do not participate in the ministry of the church, and no one knows where they are?

Sunday School enrollment and worship attendance have hovered around eight million for years with average attendance even lower. Does this not reflect a more honest reality of how many Southern Baptists there are? Recent research indicates that we are losing the millennial generation, many of whom were baptized and joined our churches as children or in their youth. They will obviously continue to be counted.

I have met many former Southern Baptists (they are even numbered among friends and family) who have joined other denominations or an independent Bible church. I would conjecture that former Southern Baptists make up the bulk of membership in the mega-congregations identified as charismatic or non-descript community churches gaining prominence in recent years. It is doubtful these transient members bothered to notify their former Baptist church they had left. It would be difficult to research these numbers of former Southern Baptists who are now dispersed among other churches.

Requesting a letter as a process of moving one’s membership may be practiced within the Southern Baptist fellowship, but it is doubtful such a conscientious practice transcends denominational lines. So, they have been long-gone, but their “letter” remains, and they continue to be counted. I’ve noticed that more and more are joining our churches by “statement.” What does that mean? It may attest to a born-again experience of one who has been scripturally baptized, but where is the membership recorded; the new member may not even know!

Several proposals have been floated at recent conventions regarding integrity in matters of reporting membership, but not many want to stir that bag of worms, especially when it comes to judging how many on our rolls are truly regenerate. However, the point in raising this issue is for us to consider a more realistic assessment of how many of us are witnessing to the lost, faithfully contributing financially and actively engaged in the work of churches and through them supporting the entities of the denomination.

Yes, baptisms are down because we are not as diligent to witness and are encountering a more resistant society than previous generations. Yes, giving is down because the economy is in a tailspin and fewer church members are tithing. Mission board budgets are strained because churches are probably retaining more of their budget receipts to try to sustain their own programs. But the reality is, there are much fewer of us to witness and give than a decade or two ago, and we are not as big as we presume to be.

2 Comments on “How Big is the SBC?”

  1. Don


  2. Beverly Pierce

    Right on Bro. Jerry! Thanks for this insightful and accurate piece! What a shame that far too many of us are comfortable with the status quo and even make excuses for ourselves! We need to work while it is still day….the night is hastening as never before!!! Blessings to you and Bobbye as your light shines in Ole Ms! Love your new website!

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