Data-Mining The Denominations: The Southern Baptists in Four Charts

Image by Quinn Dombrowski via https://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/

If you’ve been following the story of Christianity in the United States with any degree of scrutiny, you’ll know that declension is not limited to liberal mainline denominations. The Catholic Church has been hemorrhaging white members left and right, a steep fall that is only evened out through immigration. The small, conservative Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has been losing people for a while, too.

Last month came word that the Southern Baptist Convention—the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, and one of its most conservative—has problems as well. The SBC had been almost flat on the membership charts for a number of years, but now it’s actually started to lose members.

In 2013, the SBC claimed 15,735,640 members, and in 2014, that number fell by 236,467 to 15,499,173—that’s a 1.5 percent decline. However, on this stat alone, the claim could be made that churches are simply clearing out the cobwebs and tidying up their membership rolls so their numbers more accurately reflect their active members.

The problem is, membership isn’t alone in its decline—it’s joined by baptisms and weekly worship attendance.

Whoops.

If anything, the analysis quoted above minimizes the problem. To understand why, you need to know something about geography. In short, they call it the Southern Baptist Convention for a reason. The church is centered in 11 southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. That won’t be a surprise to most Americans, but the extent to which the SBC depends on this “base” might be: since 1950, about 75-80 percent of the total membership has lived in those states. Texas alone makes up almost 20 percent of the total.*

And here the trouble begins. If you look at the rate of growth—not the total number of people joining, but the rate by which the church is growing—it tracks the rate of growth in the base states almost exactly.

With such a large proportion of the membership in the base states, this is about what you’d expect. In recent years, the decline in the overall growth rate has surpassed that in the base. In other words, they’re growing better in the core states than they are outside of them.

Actually, scratch that. The core is just about the only place the SBC is growing: between 1990 and 2010, the Convention added 955,000 members, 940,000 of whom came from their base states. (Of those, just less than 500,000 came from Texas.)

So it’s the angle in that yellow line that must give SBC executives sleepless night. Other than a brief upward tick in the ’80s, it’s been in steep decline. To make matters worse, since the mid-1990’s, it’s been in negative territory. Outside its geographic heartland, the SBC in 2010 was about the same size as it was in 1990. But it lost almost 50,000 members in Missouri alone in that time, another 45,000 in New Mexico, and Florida, 12,000 in Washington D.C.

Reading through the data, the conclusion seems inescapable: over the last half of the 20th century, the Southern Baptists enjoyed remarkable success in expanding out of their traditional turf. But in the early part of this century, that momentum stalled, and now they’ve started to give ground back.

Were it not for the growth in the SBC base—particularly in Texas—the church would have slipped into the red zone in the early 2000s, instead of last year.

Even at home, all is not good.

While growth was good in the 1970s and ’80s, growth among Southern Baptists outpaced that of the white population in their base states. Now that things have slowed down, the situation is reversed: southern whites are growing relatively faster than the church.

To be clear, this is not to say the Baptists benefitted from segregation or racism. It’s simply that, like many denominations, it’s an overwhelmingly white church. (The same could be said about my own United Church of Christ, even more so.) As the populations these denominations serve grew, denominations rose; but now that the white population is aging and shrinking, being replaced with a complex multi-racial society, those same churches struggle to adapt.

In the SBC’s case, that means as the South changes, it’s going to be tougher and tougher to keep their head above water. And if they’re flat in the homeland and falling outside it, it can mean only one thing: losses overall.

How to respond to this existential pickle? The leaders are talking about getting back to basics with evangelism and church starts. That leaves them basically with the options of figuring out how to appeal to the unchurched in the north or squeezing a few more folks out in the south.

Given that some leaders are calling for getting tougher on the doctrine, if not the SBC’s long-standing entanglement with conservative politics, the first option seems like a long shot. There are only slightly fewer than 500,000 Southern Baptists in California, for example, which sounds like a lot until you realize that it’s about 1 percent of the population.

In other places loaded with the religiously unaffiliated, such as Oregon or Washington state, the SBC is virtually unknown. It would take a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money to expand the church in places with rich potential for new converts. Even if the SBC were willing to make such an investment, it could struggle mightily to find a message that resonated with “nones” without offending the southern conservatives who make up the bulk of the denomination.

The other option isn’t without its difficulties, either. Unless Southern fertility rates change drastically, a new baby boom isn’t going to lift the boat. By now, new church start-ups in the base states run the risk of cannibalizing already-established communities.

And while the South changes more slowly than the rest of the country, it’s not immune to the rising tide of disaffiliation. That leaves reaching out to black folks and learning Spanish.

The Southern Baptist Convention will have to start looking like the millenial South if they want to stick around.

* I’m using data from The ARDA, which break down membership by state, but which apparently don’t match the SBC’s self-reported numbers. If anyone from the convention has state-level data they want to send me, I’ll gladly update the analysis.

  • Rmj

    Houston is the largest city in Texas (probably soon to be declared 3rd largest in the country) and the most ethnically diverse in the country (you could look it up). Texas overall is only a few years away from being a “minority majority” state.

    So changes in the South are faster than you might think, and being a mostly white denomination is not the salvation it used to be, even down here.

  • Jim Reed

    When you say, “Unless Southern fertility rates change drastically, a new baby boom isn’t going to lift the boat” does that mean unless old people become fertile? When I think of Southern Baptists, I think of George Bush people. They might do well if they concentrate on areas where George Bush is still popular, like here in Florida.

  • DKeane123

    Loved this article. I live in New Hampshire and I can’t conceive of how their message (unless with a major overhaul) would resonate up here. We seem to be doing just fine without the SBC, and therefore the whole wicked decline of society is a hard sell. Then again my statement is essentially an argument from incredulity.

  • GMG248

    From my past experience as a SBC church pastor, total membership claims by Southern Baptists are based on unreliable church membership reporting. Individual church roles normally include large numbers of names of people who are no longer affiliated with that congregation or in many cases not locatable. I consider an estimate of 9-10 million to be a generous estimate of the number of people who are truly identified as Southern Baptist, and at least nominally associated with, a Southern Baptist congregation. The 16 million figure they often spout to justify their cultural position of influence is not any where near verifiable and is misleading.

  • seashell

    That leaves reaching out to black folks and learning Spanish.

    Unless the SBC disassociates itself from the GOP completely, it’s hard to see these options working well.

  • pastordan

    If I recall correctly, the ARDA data is based on surveys, not denominational reporting, so it’s presumably more accurate. But yes, I’ve heard the same thing about SBC membership. Double-counting baptisms has long been a problem.

  • Jim ‘Prup’ Benton

    Didn’t know about the ethnic diversity — and wonder if it would be if Brooklyn (or Queens) was counted separately instead of as part of NYC — Brooklyn’s womderful diversity is one reason I love living here, btw. But between that diversity, your lesbian mayor — and oh, yes, the Astros, who are as fun a team to watch as any in MLB — I find myself wondering if Houston would be a possible alternative. Somehow, I doubt if the SBC has as much clout there as elsewhere in Texas.

  • RJB

    Mountain View Baptist in Lancaster is affiliated with the SBC. When I first noticed “SBC” on their wall next to their name, I too was incredulous. You can’t get much further away from the South than Coos County, NH.

  • DKeane123

    On top of geography, throw on top of that the fact that NH is one of the least religious states in the nation – and the pickings are slim.

    I had the privileged of being able to live in the Conway area for a number of years. Would return in a heartbeat if I could find work in my field up there.

  • andrew123456789

    It’s a nasty church. I hope it goes under.

  • Phooka

    “Places loaded with the religiously unaffiliated” is a line in my new slam poem.

  • gsr

    The church denominations of all labels have needed internal repentance and revival from their leadership and seminary to membership levels for over 100 years. Regardless of label many have chosen to compromise with pagan Roman Catholicism and succumb to their influence on Biblical supremacy and original documents. Regardless of label many have chosen to compromise with pagan Masons letting them into membership and leadership at all levels [SBC included]. In the 1800s all labels started to compromise with Darwin, Dewey, Westcott and Hort, Blavatsky, Albert Pike and others in North America. The labels have been sowing and reaping whirlwinds since and show no sign of any desire to face an Elijah challenge to “choose ye this day who you will serve…: So now we have un-biblical and antibiblical ecumenism and syncretism, and compromise for 501c3 with the state in the US. Failure to raise up leadership of Christian character to serve in public office over the years has also reaped the present rewards in the US. The warnings of the Founders and De Tocqueville have come to pass. I wonder how many of the unlabelled are really Christians who seek to fellowship without compromise and how many are really nonners.

  • Jim Reed

    The biblical people or churches are no better than the unbiblical ones. It probably comes down to commitment. The more sure you are, the more dangerous you are.

  • ronaldobi

    fgdg

  • Kepha

    So as you say “pagan Roman Catholicism”, is just laughable. The SBC is a relatively young American invention (then again so are the rest of the American evangelical churches). It is hollow, false, and apostate as is the rest of Protestantism. Actually real Bible Christians are Catholics. Protestants such as yourself and James White (and his illogical/ lacking biblical common sense books ((many of which I own)) led me back into the Catholic Church.

    I compared Protestant apologists to Catholic ones, and the Catholic authored books such as: “Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic” by David Currie, “Crossing the Tiber” by Steve Ray, and “A Biblical Defense of Catholicism” by Dave Armstrong made far more biblical sense; not to mention they did not twist the scriptures to an illogical conclusion/ deduction over certain verses like the Evangelical authored books when it did not fit their agenda.

    The SBC is losing ground (so is the Catholic Church) in America because people want to be their own God. They want to live their own life and sin. However, only on their death bed when they know their time is near -do they repent to God-

  • Jim Reed

    I thought we had outgrown that deathbed repentance thing.