State of the Church: SBC churches increase, but members and baptisms fall

Southern Baptists experienced growth in the number of churches affiliated with the convention in 2012 and the total amount given for denominational missions causes. However, according to the Annual Church Profile (ACP) compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources in cooperation with Baptist state conventions, most of the ACP metrics declined in 2012, including membership, average attendance, baptisms and total giving. (Information for 2013 will be published later this summer.)

The number of churches in the Southern Baptist Convention grew in 2012 by 270 to 46,034, a 0.6 percent increase over the previous year. SBC churches also reported 4,992 church-type missions last year, 40 more than in 2011, although some state conventions no longer use that designation which may have impacted the total.

Although the number of SBC-related congregations grew, reported membership of those churches declined more than 100,000, down 0.7 percent to 15.9 million members. Primary worship attendance declined 3.1 percent to 5.97 million Sunday worshippers.

Although baptisms were a bright spot in the 2011 report, increasing 0.7 percent, the 2012 report shows a decline of 5.5 percent to 314,956 people. Reported baptisms have declined six of the last eight years, with 2012 the lowest since 1948. The ratio of baptisms to total members increased to one baptism for every 50 members.

“While we celebrate every new baptized believer represented by these numbers, fewer reported baptisms is heartbreaking,” said Thom S. Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay.

Frank Page, SBC Executive Committee president, said, “When I first heard the report of our ACP, I said, ‘God forgive us, and God help us.’ We are thankful for every person won to Christ and every person enrolled in Bible study and discipleship and involved in missions. We are thankful for the millions who are a part of worship in our Southern Baptist churches.

“However, my heart breaks when we realize the overall decline in our numbers,” Page said.

“Let’s get perspective on this,” he said. “Where are people won to Christ? Where do people go to church? Everything depends on the local level. It is where everything of significance occurs.

“The questions that every Southern Baptist must answer are, ‘What am I doing for the Lord? Am I winning more or less people to Christ? Am I giving more or less to missions? Am I being faithful in my support of my church?’ ”

Giving and mission expenditures

Changes in giving to Southern Baptist congregations are difficult to assess because not all Baptist state conventions gather the same data; however, total and undesignated receipts reported through the ACP were down 2.4 percent and 1.5 percent respectively.

Total mission expenditures reported by the churches declined 1 percent in 2012, although reported giving to Southern Baptist mission causes increased more than $48 million (7 percent) to $744 million. The “Great Commission Giving” category was added to the ACP reporting form in 2011 as a reflection of each church’s financial gifts to local, state and national SBC missions causes. Although two more state conventions reported Great Commission Giving in 2012 than the previous year, two states have yet to add the statistic to their annual survey.

— Marty King is director of communications for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.