Editor’s Journal: In search of the SBC majority
For a denomination that revels in numbers, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) seems to continually come up smaller and smaller.
Total membership for the entire denomination in 2009 totaled 16.16 million (a decrease of 0.42 percent from 2008) gathered into 45,010 local churches (a 0.36 percent increase from 2008). With these figures, the SBC is still regarded as the largest Protestant (non-Roman Catholic) Christian denomination in the United States. Through the years, every effort has been made to cite that fact with boldness until serious consideration was finally given to the fact that only about 6 million Southern Baptists can actually be found in weekly worship in their congregations.
It took just under three years for a resolution on regenerate church membership to finally pass in the affirmative by Convention messengers acknowledging the fact that perhaps the rolls of the average Southern Baptist church could be inflated to include “non-resident members.” To put the SBC on record on June 11, 2008 to declare “that we humbly urge our churches to maintain accurate membership rolls for the purpose of fostering ministry and accountability among all members of the congregation” required the united efforts of key pastors and theologians across the theological spectrum of the SBC.
Put bluntly, it remains difficult to assess just how large or how small the SBC truly is when utilizing the Annual Church Profile (the annual report that all SBC churches are asked to complete each year). These reports function much like the U.S. census and provide not only raw data for information purposes, but also much of the entire denominational program rests on the accuracy of exactly how many Southern Baptists truly exist and where they are geographically located in the United States.
A prevailing mantra regarding the overall demographic of the Convention is: “the SBC is a large Convention of small churches.” Perhaps. There is little evidence to dissuade even the most fervent researcher that the SBC possesses a distinctly rural past. The era of the brush arbor and small clapboard churches led by non-seminary trained pastors who fervently preached the Bible in small towns and frontiers across America is one that is cherished by the denomination (and rightly so). The SBC is the denomination of the annual revival, city-wide crusades and national initiatives for evangelism. The thinking behind many of these actions centers on the idea that small congregations are the backbone of a larger denominational effort to such an extent that should these small churches be disregarded in any way as the SBC majority, the Convention would lose its way and its focus would be compromised.
The methods whereby SBC statistics are gleaned from the latest ACP have become something of both an art and science for all would-be demographers. One fact (among many) that often goes unreported is that not every Southern Baptist church completes the ACP—much to the chagrin of many denominational employees. Of the 45,010 SBC churches on record in 2009 only 36,208 (just over 80 percent) actually completed the report and revealed on the ACP their weekly worship attendance. *
Drawing directly from the 2009 ACP, 75 percent of the 36,208 congregations have less than 146 weekly worshipers. The total number of Southern Baptists holding membership in these churches is 4,991,119. Twenty-five percent of the 36,208 reporting churches have more than 146 weekly worshipers, and the total number of Southern Baptists holding membership in these congregations is 9,060,024. The figure 146 is the numerical break for separation between churches in the 25th percentile in worship attendance and those smaller. In other words, a church is in the top 25 percent if it is 146 or larger in attendance.
Therefore, 64.5 percent of the total membership of the Southern Baptist Convention is found in those churches that have more than 146 weekly worshipers, with the remaining 35.5 percent of the SBC’s total membership located in congregations that have less than 146 weekly worshipers.
Approximately 70 percent of the total numbers of Southern Baptists who gather weekly for public worship do so in 25 percent of congregations with more than 146 weekly worshipers (roughly 3.7 million people). Approximately 30 percent of the total number of SBC weekly worshipers is found in the 75 percent of churches with less than 146 weekly worshipers (roughly. 1.6 million people). These numbers reveal an open secret about the modern SBC: most Southern Baptists worship in congregations that do not number among the majority of SBC churches (more than 60 percent of SBC churches have less than 100 weekly attendees).
While the SBC was once a predominantly rural denomination with county-seat churches dotting its landscape, the rapid expansion of suburbia in the 20th Century with its gated communities and mega-churches is now trending toward inner city/city center churches near urban centers where more and more people are choosing to live and work. Yet, of the largest 50 cities in the United States (Oklahoma City and Tulsa numbered among them), few of these large cities evidence a strong Southern Baptist footprint.
Technology’s capacity has changed the world and made it, in the words of best selling author, Thomas Friedman, “flat” with an increased probability that fewer jobs will be located in the rural areas of the United States, thus placing strain on the majority of Southern Baptist churches where fewer and fewer Southern Baptists actually worship. Given this reality, the SBC stands to look very different demographically in just the next five years than it did in the past 50 years combined.
Like it nor not, the SBC stands on the precipice of change. It is not that small congregations are inferior to larger congregations. Rather, many churches are caught in a demographic whirlwind unable and (for some) unwilling to find their footing due to an internal war of methodological ideas that is not only generational, but also missional in scope. Perhaps less attention given to numbers as a theologically defined indication of spiritual health might be the answer for a convention of churches struggling to come to terms with the cultural shifts at work in the United States.
*Research from the 2009 Annual Church Profile of the SBC.
UPDATE: Earlier the graphic did not accurately reflect the research presented in the article. The graphic has been corrected. We apologize for the error.