What to Make of Southern Baptists’ Declining Numbers

Why did the SBC’s growth begin to slow in the 1950s, stall in subsequent decades, and then begin to decline several years ago?

This explanation would make more sense if all conservative denominations were shrinking and liberal denominations growing, but such is not the case. The Assemblies of God, now the second-largest evangelical denomination in the U.S., has seen 25 straight years of growth, and its views are similar to the SBC’s. Likewise, nondenominational churches, most quite conservative, are exploding in numbers and membership. Meanwhile, the more liberal denominations are in a much steeper decline than the SBC.

 

The largest Protestant denomination in the United States is meeting this week, but it’s not as large as it was last year, or the year before. Southern Baptists now number just under 15.5 million members, down from a peak of 16.3 million in 2003. And many people in the Southern Baptist Convention sense a corresponding loss of clout and credibility when speaking to the wider culture. 

What’s going on? The number of Southern Baptist churches is higher than ever — 46,449 churches are in some way affiliated with the SBC. Meanwhile, church planting continues to pick up steam, and a common concern among established churches is the need to be “revitalized.”

So, why did the SBC’s growth begin to slow in the 1950s, stall in subsequent decades, and then begin to decline several years ago? And what does all this mean for the SBC’s engagement on political and social issues?

From the outside, some may see the SBC’s conservative theological and political views as the culprit. Believing in Jesus as the only way to God or upholding Jesus’ vision for marriage and sexuality are increasingly unpopular. So, the thinking goes, perhaps conservatism is a barrier to reaching new people.

This explanation would make more sense if all conservative denominations were shrinking and liberal denominations growing, but such is not the case. The Assemblies of God, now the second-largest evangelical denomination in the U.S., has seen 25 straight years of growth, and its views are similar to the SBC’s. Likewise, nondenominational churches, most quite conservative, are exploding in numbers and membership. Meanwhile, the more liberal denominations are in a much steeper decline than the SBC.

Lots of explanations are floating around, but it’s likely that a variety of factors have led us to this point. Here are a few to consider:

1. Many former Southern Baptists are now nondenominational.

Christian comedian Tim Hawkins has a funny bit on the differences between denominations. When he pokes fun at believers whose churches are unaffiliated, he jests: “Come on! You’re not fooling anyone. You’re just a Baptist church with a cool website!”

Hawkins’ line gets laughs because there’s some truth to that statement. In the past five decades, the number of nondenominational churches has soared. And while I don’t think we should write off traditional denominations as having no future (see my previous article), it’s undeniable that many people who today attend a nondenominational church grew up Southern Baptist.

When it comes to social and political matters, only a handful of nondenominational churches publicly trumpet their views on pressing moral and political issues. And so, as Southern Baptists have scattered out into other denominations, the perception of unity surrounding social issues has become diffused.

2. Southern Baptists are having fewer children.

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