By Dr. Chuck Kelley
The year 2000 marked a profound turning point for the Southern Baptist Convention. The beginning of a new century brought a new and unexpected problem to Southern Baptists: prolonged decline. Not noticed at the time, the official SBC statistics from the 2000 church year proved to be a harbinger of things to come. It started with baptisms. Because Jesus identified baptisms as a marker for making disciples in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), the number of baptisms recorded by its churches has always been an important measure of progress for Southern Baptists. For much of SBC history, the proportional growth in the total number of baptisms consistently exceeded growth in the total number of SBC churches. As the number of churches grew, so did the number of baptisms by those churches. However, in the 2000 church year those trend lines crossed. The number of churches continued climbing, but the number of baptisms by those churches began dropping. That year proved to be a sea change, not an anomaly. A new phenomenon in the Southern Baptist story began to unfold.
The graph above was prepared by Dr. Bill Day of the Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. It depicts the emergence of the baptism gap and the change in the health of evangelism in Southern Baptist churches. The graph begins in the nineteenth century and ends in 2018, covering more than one hundred years. The dark line shows the total number of churches. The red line shows the total number of baptisms by those churches. The separation between the number of churches and the number of baptisms began in 2000 and continues to grow larger. The denomination is navigating uncharted territory, facing a problem no other generation of Southern Baptists had to solve.
By 2010, frequent declines in membership, worship attendance, Bible Study/Sunday School attendance, and giving (per member to churches and per church to the Cooperative Program) added to the continual drop in baptisms. The most shocking development was the need to recall international missionaries from the field and ask as many of the missionaries as possible to retire voluntarily. Clearly the Southern Baptist Convention, long known for steady growth, passionate evangelism, and world missions, had become a Convention of churches in decline. Steady decline in nearly every statistical category became the emerging status quo. How to change this new reality is the most critical question facing Southern Baptists today. Part 2 will explore factors in the development of SBC decline.
Pastor’s Take Away: In all things, time tends to push toward decline and decay, meaning the coming of decline is normal. Is your church facing the challenge of decline? What are the indicators? When did it begin?