In my last blog, I shared the most important truth to keep in mind about official SBC data: The numbers are the numbers. A second important truth for which all Southern Baptists should be grateful is: The numbers are accessible. Comprehensive SBC data is not just accessible to professional researchers or Convention leaders. SBC data is easily accessible to anyone with a computer, an internet connection, and an interest in what is happening in SBC life. Before opening wide the gate, here is a very brief and simplified history of data access in the SBC.
From the beginning, Southern Baptists gathered, reported, and preserved basic data on what was happening in SBC churches and ministries. The founding year of the Convention (1845) was also the founding year of publication for the Annual of the Southern Baptist Convention. Each year the Annual included a statistical report along with the proceedings of the Convention and reports from SBC entities. As the entities developed, most included an internal research department collecting, interpreting, and reporting data growing out of the work of the entity. The Sunday School Board (now Lifeway Christian Resources) in conjunction with the Executive Committee assumed the central role for data collection and reporting with the other entities, the state conventions, and local SBC churches all participating in the process. As time passed, the Convention created the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives (SBHLA) to preserve as much as possible of the Southern Baptist story, including materials from individuals, churches, associations, state conventions, and the national convention. The SBHLA is located in the SBC building in Nashville, is overseen by the Council of Seminary Presidents, and is publicly accessible to all who are interested in the Southern Baptist story. Every SBC entity website includes a “contact us” button that will allow one to ask questions and seek further information. In my experience, most are likely to answer any reasonable inquiry about their approach to their assigned ministry.
The most important source for statistical information about the Southern Baptist Convention is the Annual of the Southern Baptist Convention, published each year in the late summer or early fall. A statistical snapshot of the SBC is included every year in the Executive Committee report, always found in the early pages of the Annual. That statistical summary is the official record of the SBC for the year indicated. A similar report is in the Book of Reports given to messengers at the SBC Annual meeting, but it is less complete because of the required publication deadline to be ready for the Convention. Many of the numbers included in the Book of Reports are updated in the Annual of the Southern Baptist Convention for the year, and thus the statistical report in the Annual, not the Book of Reports, is the official statistical report for each year. Also, much more information about each entity is included in the expanded format of the Annual. For those who are particularly interested in data related to evangelism and missions, further data can be found in reports of the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board to the SBC. Enrollment data for the six seminaries, financial reports for each entity, and a list of entity Trustees are also found in every edition of the Annual. The numbers are accessible. The final step necessary for full accessibility was taken when every edition of the Annual from 1845 to the present day was put in a digital format. The website of the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives (www.sbhla.org ) has a button for digital resources. Clicking that button leads to a link to the complete collection of annuals and other digital resources.
Southern Baptists are very blessed to have easy access for a personal look at the statistical indicators of the progress or lack thereof for the entities and churches of the Convention, along with significant financial information. My new book (The Best Intentions) does not uncover hidden information. It pulls together published information that is typically overlooked due to the traditional SBC style of data reports. As a result, The Best Intentions gives a perspective on Convention data that is rarely seen in today’s SBC and a look at some data that is rarely included in reports to the SBC public. I provide the source of the data I report and describe where the reader can go to get that data so that Southern Baptists can see for themselves the direction the Convention is moving. If what you read in my book unsettles you, search for yourself and verify what you read. Start a conversation with other Southern Baptists in your circle of friends about where the SBC is and where it seems to be going. In my next blog, I will explain the traditional approach to reporting SBC data and why that approach can be a problem for today’s Southern Baptists.