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The mythical 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention shrinks again

With a straight face, news services reported this week that in 2008-2009, the number of Southern Baptists declined 0.42% to 16.1 million members. It is the third straight year of decline, according to the 2011 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches.

Yet those are grossly misleading numbers. They say nothing of value about the number of active members, and it is old news that active membership is perhaps one-third of those reported membership numbers.

In 2000, Ernest C. Reisinger and D. Matthew Allen wrote:

The Wall Street Journal reported in 1990 that, of the 14.9 million members of Southern Baptist churches (according to an official count), over 4.4 million are “non-resident members.” This means they are members with whom the church has lost touch. Another 3 million hadn’t attended church or donated to a church in the past year. That left about 7.4 million “active” members. However, according to Sunday School consultant Glenn Smith, even this is misleading, because included in this “active” figure are those members who only attended once a year at Easter or Christmas.

More recent numbers from Jim Ellif’s Founders Ministries article are even smaller:

Out of the Southern Baptist’s 16,287,494 members, only 6,024,289, or 37%, on average, show up for their church’s primary worship meeting (usually Sunday morning). This is according to the Strategic Information and Planning department of the Sunday School Board (2004 statistics).

No need to belabor the point. That 16.1-million-member Southern Baptist Convention is as much of a myth as Bigfoot.

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February 17, 2011 Posted by | Churches, SBC | , , , , | 2 Comments

Ecumenical epidemic of empty pews as attendance dies out

The Southern Baptist Convention isn’t the only once-robust denomination afflicted by an apparently incurable shrinking disease.

Dan Horn of the Cincinnati Enquirer writes:

Almost two out of three Catholics in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky won’t go to church this weekend to celebrate Mass, an event they have been told since childhood is the center of their spiritual lives.

The church’s most recent count of people in the pews found that about 290,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and 60,000 in the Diocese of Covington skip Mass in a typical week.

The annual attendance count begins again next month, but church officials don’t expect dramatic improvement.

Mass attendance has been falling steadily for decades across the country as a growing majority of Catholics find other things to do on Sundays, from shuttling their kids to soccer games to hitting the snooze button and sleeping in.

. . .

“There are serious problems, structural problems, all up and down the line,” said William D’Antonio, who has studied Mass attendance for almost 25 years at the Catholic University of America. “If you’re asking what are the future trends, they’re bleak.”

. . .

D’Antonio said national surveys he’s conducted since 1987 show sharp generational differences, with older Catholics attending Mass far more often than younger Catholics. He said just 20 percent of Catholics born after 1978 regularly attend Mass

. . .

D’Antonio said unless young Catholics such as Patton can be brought back into the fold, attendance will keep falling as the older, church-going generations fade away.

Read the rest here.

September 23, 2010 Posted by | Catholic, Churches, SBC | , , , , , | Comments Off on Ecumenical epidemic of empty pews as attendance dies out

Incurable Southern Baptist demographic shrinking disease

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Doomed by demographics, The [Southern] Baptists Shrink in numbers, writes historian Andrew Michael Manis in the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life’s thrice-yearly journal Religion in the News.

The standard Southern Baptist cure for its wasting disease is “increased doses of fervor and evangelistic aggressiveness,” Manis explains this week. This year’s version of the cure is called Great Commission Resurgence and is driven by desperation.

The SBC isn’t attempting to reverse a declining growth rate, as it had been for five decades. It is trying to reverse real shrinkage in membership numbers, attended by forecasts of future shrinkage.

That the effort is foredoomed by the SBC demand that everyone recruited to the denomination accept not only Biblical inerrancy, but also the arguably homophobic, sexist Southern Baptist brand of inerrancy.

There is ample survey data which demonstrates that as a result, Southern Baptists are drawing from a “diminishing pool” of potential new members, as Manis explains. He writes:

The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) found that less than 30 percent of Americans identify themselves as evangelical or born-again (excluding those Catholics who self-identify that way). For its part, the Pew Forum’s 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey put evangelicals at 26.3 percent of the population. Either way, more than two-thirds of Americans are unlikely to accept Southern Baptists’ understanding of the Bible.

The Landscape Survey’s questions on belief make this sufficiently clear. Only 27 percent of the national total said they believed that “there is only ONE true way to interpret the teachings of my religion.” Only 24 percent of Americans believe their religion is the “one true faith leading to eternal life.” And only 33 percent believed that “the scriptures are the Word of God, literally true, word for word.”

Of course SBC evangelism is full of the conviction that those who disagree can be brought into the tent as part of the process of conversion. But that isn’t what happens. New members join because they already agree. Manis, who attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, further explains:

The vast majority of converts to SBC churches are Bible-believing cultural conservatives when they arrive. According to a 1993 study by the SBC’s North American Mission Board, only 1 out of 9 described themselves as ever having been “unchurched.”

Outside the pews of other fundamentalist denoniminations, national survey data says there is no pool of potential recruits who are somehow being overlooked.

Quite the opposite. Manis writes:

[According to 2008 ARIS] the non-denominationals are the only segment of the American religious community that has experienced significant growth over the past two decades.

Southern Baptists believe that right theology trumps sociology. The fundamentalist takeover of the 1980s was predicated on a bet that inerrancy would be a prophylactic against numerical decline.

It wasn’t. Isn’t. Will not be. The SBC has the shrinking disease conservatives regard with enduring contempt in mainstream, liberal protestant denominations. Or perhaps it is H.L. Mencken’s wasting disease, taking final hold now that the conservative fundamentalists are in undisputed control of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Whether written on the wall, or elsewhere, the story told by competent, unbiased analysis of the abundant demographic data is the same. Down the well-trod path of resurgent evangelism on behalf of fundamentalist inerrancy lies accelerating decline.

November 6, 2009 Posted by | Religion, SBC | , , , , , | 2 Comments

How many Southern Baptists?

Usually with a straight face, various news services reported this week that in 2006-2007, according to the latest edition of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, the number of Southern Baptists declined 0.24% to 16.2 million members.

Annual % change in SBC membership

Annual % change in SBC membership

Surely no one thinks that “16.2 million” number refers to real, active members? Not for a denomination with a “50 year trend” of declining growth that has become real decline.

Real membership begins with baptism. Southern Baptist decline in baptisms is old news. USA Today reported last March:

Baptisms last year [2007] dropped nearly 5.5 percent to 345,941, compared with 364,826 in 2006, according to an annual report released Wednesday by LifeWay . . . . baptisms peaked in 1972 at 445,725 . . . .

As for active members, their comparatively small number is older news. In 2000, Ernest C. Reisinger and D. Matthew Allen wrote:

The Wall Street Journal reported in 1990 that, of the 14.9 million members of Southern Baptist churches (according to an official count), over 4.4 million are “non-resident members.” This means they are members with whom the church has lost touch. Another 3 million hadn’t attended church or donated to a church in the past year. That left about 7.4 million “active” members. However, according to Sunday School consultant Glenn Smith, even this is misleading, because included in this “active” figure are those members who only attended once a year at Easter or Christmas.

For those with time to spare, Adherents.com has a mind-numbing list of somewhat contradictory claims.

Writing about the “16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention” is somewhat like publishing the transcript of an interview with Bigfoot. Thus defined, with grossly inflated numbers which imply Christian solders in the field, it apparently doesn’t exist.

February 28, 2009 Posted by | Churches, Religion | , , , , | 1 Comment