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Data entry mistake to blame for false report of SBC decline

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A mistake in putting together the Southern Baptist Convention’s membership numbers for 2002 and 2003 has resulted in a well-respected national publication reporting a decrease in SBC membership in 2004 — a year in which the denomination actually saw an increase.

The 2006 version of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches lists a 1.05 percent decrease in membership for the SBC in 2004. But in reality the denomination grew .39 percent that year.

The mix-up began when the Southern Baptist Convention, in compiling the 2002 data report, mistakenly counted a church in California as having a membership of 110,110, when in fact its membership was 110. The church did not report a membership total for 2003, so the wrong figure was carried over into that year, too. The mistake wasn’t caught until after the 2003 numbers were reported.

Because the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches relies on the SBC’s yearly reporting of membership figures, the yearbook from last year included an inflated membership of 16,315,050 for 2003 — which was 110,000 more than it should have been. When comparing the incorrect 2003 total to the 2004 total of 16,267,494, there is an apparent decrease of 47,556 in membership. But it actually increased by 62,444.

The 2006 yearbook includes a chart of American denominations that lists the SBC as experiencing a membership decrease in 2004. That stat includes an asterisk, guiding readers to an explanation elsewhere in the book explaining the stat. It reads, in part: “In preparation for this 2006 edition, the Southern Baptist Convention reported errors in their membership figures previously submitted for the 2005 and 2004 editions of the Yearbook.” (The 2005 yearbook included data for 2003, and the 2004 publication data from 2002.) But readers who ignore the asterisk walk away believing the SBC saw a membership decrease, when it did not.

Kenyn Cureton, vice president for convention relations for the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, contacted the editor of the yearbook before it was published, requesting that the corrected membership data be included in the chart, accompanied with an asterisk. But the editor chose to do the opposite — publishing the incorrect data, along with an asterisk. The editor did offer, Cureton said, to call reporters and “set the record straight.”

“Unfortunately, once an errant story gets out, it is nearly impossible to correct,” Cureton said. “The reason: some reporters simply propagate stories without fact checking.”

But Cureton said Southern Baptists should not be satisfied with “incremental” membership growth, even though it’s not a decline.

“In fact, we are not even keeping up with the rate of population growth,” he said. “As a people, we need to be more intentional and passionate about partnering with God to bring individuals to faith in Jesus Christ, baptizing them into membership of a local Southern Baptist church, and teaching them how to follow Jesus – to live like he lived and love like He loved.

“The Everyone Can Kingdom Challenge is refocusing Southern Baptists to that mission, and I’m encouraged by anecdotal reports from churches that are seeing a significant rise in baptisms.”

The updated numbers mean that the denomination saw an increase in membership of .42 percent in 2003 and .53 percent in 2002. The increase of 1.3 percent between 2001 and 2004 remains the same.

Following are the SBC’s updated yearly membership numbers for 2001 through 2004:

— 2001, 16,052,920

— 2002, 16,137,736 (formerly reported as 16,247,736).

— 2003, 16,205,050 (formerly reported as 16,315,050).

— 2004, 16,267,494

The yearbook is published by the National Council of Churches.

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