NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The nation’s largest Protestant denomination is almost 2% smaller than it was in 2018.
The Southern Baptist Convention released its 2019 membership numbers on Thursday, showing a membership decline of more than 287,000. That brings their total membership down from 14.8 million in 2018 to 14.5 million last year. It was their 13th straight year of decline and the largest single year drop in more than a century, according to the denomination.
The decline the Southern Baptists are experiencing is “consistent with national trends we’ve been seeing for a while now, mainly driven by generational differences,” said Mark Chaves, a professor at Duke University and director of the National Congregations Study. ”Younger people are less likely than older people to attend religious services and to be religious. That’s true across the board.”
The denomination also reported a drop of more than 11,000 baptisms over the same period, with 235,748 performed in 2019. Baptisms are an important measure for the Nashville-based denomination because of its strong commitment to evangelism.
Southern Baptist Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd said in a statement that “it is clear that change is imperative. … We have to prioritize reaching every person with the Gospel of Jesus Christ in every town, every city, every state, and every nation.”
Floyd also criticized the way church data is collected, saying it needs to be done more quickly and accurately.
“We cannot possibly know how best to meet the needs of our 47,500 churches when we only receive needed data from just 75 percent of them,” he said.
Ed Stetzer directs the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. He said it might help slow the membership decline if leaders were able to stop “the constant infighting that is driving away the next generation of leaders and leaders of color.”
The denomination has seen serious turmoil in recent years with some older, more conservative leaders denouncing what they claim is a liberal drift among younger leaders. Earlier this year some of those upset with the denomination’s direction formed a new group called the Conservative Baptist Network.
Around the same time, the denomination’s executive committee said it was forming a task force to examine the activities of the the SBC’s public policy arm, led by Russell Moore, a past critic of President Donald Trump. The committee also demanded that the president of the group’s annual Pastor’s Conference make changes to a speaker’s roster that included non-Southern Baptists and a female teaching pastor. Southern Baptists do not endorse female pastors.
Stetzer formerly presided over the SBC’s annual church reporting. More than a decade ago, when he first started warning that the denomination’s membership was going to decline year after year, many Southern Baptists dismissed his numbers. Once the trend became irrefutable, they were alarmed. Now, he said, “I do think Southern Baptists are becoming used to decline. That should not be normal. It should be cause for great concern and change.”