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Understanding Southern Baptist Convention Data, Part One

You can make one important assumption whenever you consider any official SBC data: The numbers are the numbers. Sometimes the numbers may encourage you. Sometimes the numbers may discourage you. At times, the numbers may truly surprise or befuddle you, but at all times be confident that the numbers in official SBC records are the result of SBC data gatherers having done their best to build the most accurate numerical record possible.

Fortunately, Southern Baptists began collecting, reporting, and preserving in an accessible way data from SBC churches and ministries from the early days of the Convention. I began tracking SBC data during my days as a doctoral student. I confidently say I have never seen anyone connected with the collecting and reporting of SBC data make any effort to corrupt or mishandle the numbers reflecting what is happening in and through the churches and entities of the Southern Baptist Convention. Multiple histories of the SBC have been written through the years, but those who are interested in the Southern Baptist story can also track SBC history through the official records of SBC numbers as well as the words of historians and other writers.

For much of Southern Baptist history, SBC data was generally positive and inspiring as the fruitfulness of SBC churches drove amazing growth. The churches prospered, the Cooperative Program (CP) prospered, the mission boards prospered, and the six SBC seminaries prospered. Southern Baptists became the largest family of churches in America, fielding the largest Christian missionary force in the world and becoming the largest provider of accredited theological education in North America. The money generated annually by CP was phenomenal, impressing many leaders in other American church families. To put it bluntly, Southern Baptists grew accustomed to hearing good news from statisticians and being the “Big Dog” of Christianity in America. Then, as the new millennium unfolded, everything began to change.

I went from doctoral studies to the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary faculty in 1983. As I taught students the history of evangelism in the SBC, I told them that after decades of growth, the Convention’s progress began slowing. Growth turned into a statistical plateau with the data going up for a bit and then down for a bit, over and over within the same general range for an extended period of time. In my classes and speaking engagements, I would describe the Convention as being on an extended plateau and warn that statistical plateaus did not last forever. If it did not find ways to break through to sustained growth, eventually the SBC would begin to decline. When I became the president of NOBTS, I continued tracking the data, but not as closely due to administrative duties. And then came Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city of New Orleans and our Seminary campus.

For two years, I stopped all my research and gave complete attention to getting the Seminary through that unprecedented catastrophic event. Eventually, as New Orleans was getting back on its feet, the North American Mission Board brought all of their evangelism workers to the city for their annual meeting and asked me to give the group an update on the state of evangelism in the SBC. That invitation sent me back into my research with fresh eyes after a two-year hiatus. What I saw in the data at that time was like a slap in the face. The data clearly indicated the years of being on a plateau were over. The Southern Baptist Convention had become a Convention in decline. Instead of going up and down, the numbers were now trending down and not bouncing back up. The decline started in the category of baptisms, but it was beginning to spread to other statistical categories as well (giving, worship attendance, etc.). I did not like what I was seeing, but the numbers are the numbers.

The SBC was still the largest family of Protestant churches in America in the new millennium, and most of its ministries were still the largest in their respective categories, but fresh growth no longer replaced what time eroded. This could only mean that the numerical erosion would inevitably get worse, and it has. As I wrestled with how to communicate what was happening to Southern Baptists, I coined the phrase: Southern Baptists are becoming the new Methodists.

As the churches and ministries of the SBC grew and expanded in mid to late twentieth century, the footprint of Methodism began to shrink. Many Methodist leaders were moving to the theological left, and the overarching Methodist agenda was shifting from evangelism and discipleship to social and cultural issues. In 1938, prominent Methodist scholar W. E. Sangster wrote Methodism Can Be Born Again and warned his denomination of the coming decline indicated in their falling statistics. He knew the numbers are the numbers. Sangster’s warnings were ignored, and Methodism eventually experienced the fastest loss of membership in the history of American Christianity. Those Methodist losses were the backdrop for the explosive growth of the SBC.

Today data indicate that the Southern Baptist Convention is shrinking in nearly every statistical category. The Great Commission Resurgence proposals were intended to revitalize the Convention, but the numbers indicate that decline accelerated in spite of those best intentions. The numbers are the numbers. Those who are interested can find the key indicators of where the SBC is heading gathered in my new book: The Best Intentions. My sources for data are noted, and you can look things up yourself if you prefer and see what you think about where we are and where we appear to be going. The one thing I urge you not to do is this: Do not ignore what the data indicate. The numbers are the numbers.


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