NASHVILLE (BP) – The Southern Baptist Convention expanded by more than 270 churches in 2017. More people showed up for weekly worship services, and congregations gave more generously in a strengthening economy.
However, reported baptisms and membership declined as fewer churches participated in the SBC’s Annual Church Profile (ACP). Similar statistics are reflected in ACP reports from Missouri Baptist churches.
Longstanding patterns continued to dominate the ACP, which is compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources in cooperation with Baptist state conventions.
• The number of churches cooperating with the Southern Baptist Convention grew for the 19th consecutive year, reaching 47,544. That’s a 16.3 percent increase in churches since 1997. In the Missouri Baptist Convention, the total number of churches rose from 1,782 in 2015 and 1,809 in 2016 to 1,817 last year. Roughly 80 percent of Missouri churches have reported to the state convention through the ACP during the past three years.
• Membership fell for the 11th consecutive year, to 15 million. Since 2006, Southern Baptist congregations have lost about 1.3 million members. Likewise, among Missouri Baptist churches, total membership fell from 463,509 in 2015 and 452,840 in 2016 to 448,499 in 2017. However, resident membership in Missouri rose from 287,809 in 2015 to 292,100 in 2017 (ACP didn’t ask about resident membership in 2016). Also, weekly average worship attendance in Missouri fluctuated from 145,311 in 2015 and 140,863 in 2016 to 144,603 in 2017.
• Baptisms also declined, as they have for eight of the past 10 years. Congregations reported baptizing 254,122 people – 26.5 percent fewer than in 2007. The latest ratio was one baptism for every 59 church members. In Missouri, total baptisms fell from 8,176 in 2015 and 7,712 in 2016 to 7,178 in 2017.
“It’s heartbreaking to be baptizing fewer people for Christ, even though Southern Baptists have nearly 2,900 more churches than we had a decade ago,” said LifeWay President Thom S. Rainer.
“Yet a quarter million baptisms is not an insignificant number. We praise God for every individual who has come to Christ and followed Him in baptism. It is my prayer that God would embolden Southern Baptists to share the Gospel with their friends and neighbors.
“We know conversion is only by the Holy Spirit, but we also know God begins most of these conversions with Gospel conversations.”
The ACP numbers don’t tell the full story of baptisms or other measurables among Southern Baptist churches.
Despite the best efforts of associations and state conventions across the country, 26 percent of churches did not participate, said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. Seventy-four percent of churches participated in the 2017 ACP survey by reporting at least one item. That’s down from 80 percent in 2013 and 77 percent in each of the last three years.
For that reason, reported totals do not include all of the activity within Southern Baptist life, though the summary does include adjustments in some categories for non-reporting congregations.
This summer, LifeWay Research plans to release statistical analysis of the current state of the SBC that includes estimates of the congregations that did not report.
“Reports from congregations are the most accurate way to tell the story of the entire convention,” McConnell said, urging churches to participate in future ACP surveys.
Despite the lower participation rate, the ACP report shows increases in some areas.
Average attendance at weekly worship services climbed 2.3 percent to 5.3 million, an increase of nearly 120,000. That’s comparable to adding every man, woman and child in a city like Wilmington, N.C., or Beaumont, Texas, to the church pews every week.