Southern Baptist membership, baptisms decline in 2007
By ROSE FRENCH
Associated Press Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The number of people baptized in Southern Baptist churches fell for the third straight year in 2007 to the denomination’s lowest level since 1987, while total membership dropped by nearly 40,000.
Baptisms last year dropped nearly 5.5 percent to 345,941, compared to 364,826 in 2006, according to an annual report released Wednesday by LifeWay Christian Resources, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Total membership was 16,266,920 last year, a less than 1-percent drop from the 2006 figure — 16,306,246.
The dropping number of followers in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination reflects trends in declining mainline Protestant churches, while non-denominational churches are gaining and the ranks of the unaffiliated are growing.
But for a denomination that places winning converts at the heart of its mission, the continued slide is troubling and disappointing, said the Rev. Frank Page, the convention’s president.
Part of the blame can be placed on a perception that Baptists are “mean-spirited, hurtful and angry people” and that the denomination has been known too much in recent years for “what we’re against” than “what we’re for,” Page said.
“Our culture is increasingly antagonistic and sometimes adverse to a conversation about a faith in Christ. Sometimes that’s our fault because we have not always presented a winsome Christian life that would engender trust and a desire on the part of many people to engage in a conversation on the Gospel,” he said.
“All Southern Baptists should recommit to a life of loving people and ministering to people without strings attached so people will be more open to hearing the Gospel message.”
The Nashville-based SBC adheres strictly to conservative beliefs, including the inerrancy of the Bible. The denomination is second in size in the U.S. only to the U.S. Roman Catholic Church.
In the past 50 years, the number of annual baptisms per church member — a key indicator of church growth — has dropped sharply. Southern Baptists baptized one person for every 19 church members in 1950, a ratio that dropped to 1 baptism for every 47 church members in 2007, according to the report.
Baptism is a public act administered by a church in which new followers are immersed in water, symbolizing believers’ identification with Jesus.
To counter the decline in baptisms, former SBC president Bobby Welch led an ambitious effort to baptize one million people in a year. The start date was Oct. 30, 2005 and ended Sept. 30 the following year. SBC records show there were 371,850 baptisms in 2005.
Southern Baptists reached their peak in number of baptisms in 1972 at 445,725, based on statistics Lifeway has collected from Southern Baptist churches for its annual reports since 1922.
While baptisms and membership were down in 2007, the number of Southern Baptist churches grew by 1.1 percent to 44,696 and worship attendance increased slightly to 6.15 million, according to the report.
David Key, director of Baptist studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, attributes the declining numbers on Baptist parents having fewer children than in years past, and believes Baptist leaders haven’t been aggressive enough in attracting nonwhite members.
“It’s not just about parents not having enough children, but we also haven’t adjusted our youth programs to target multicultural youth,” he said. “It’s still a very white Southern experience as opposed to incorporating African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians.”
On the Net:
Southern Baptist Convention: http://www.sbc.net