NASHVLLE, Tenn. (BP)–The number of people baptized in Southern Baptist churches fell for the third straight year in 2007 to the convention’s lowest level since 1987.
Although the SBC added 473 new churches and gave more than $1.3 billion to support mission activities around the world, Thom S. Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, said there’s no escaping the fact that Southern Baptists are not reaching as many people for Christ as they once did. LifeWay gathers the year-to-year information on the convention’s behalf.
According to LifeWay’s Annual Church Profile (ACP), baptisms in 2007 dropped nearly 5.5 percent to 345,941, compared to 364,826 in 2006. (Baptism is a public act administered by the local church in which new followers of Christ are immersed in water. Baptism symbolizes believers’ identification with Jesus in His death, burial and resurrection; signifies their new life in Christ; and anticipates the day on which Christ will raise them from the dead, demonstrating His victory over sin and death. Therefore, the number of baptisms is a key measurement of the SBC’s effectiveness in evangelism.)
“This report is truly disheartening,” Rainer said. “Total membership showed a slight decline. Baptisms have now declined for three consecutive years and for seven of the last eight years, and are at their lowest level since 1987. Indeed, the total baptisms are among the lowest reported since 1970. We are a denomination that, for the most part, has lost its evangelistic passion.”
Membership in SBC churches, 16,266,920, fell from 2006’s total of 16,306,246, or .24 percent. It is the second drop in membership experienced by the SBC in the last decade. In 1998, membership fell 1.02 percent but increased the next year and recovered to a positive trend in 2000. Prior to that, the last drop in membership was 1926.
From 2000 through 2006, membership growth essentially was flat, registering .68, .58, .53, .42, .39, .02 and .22 percent respectively.
Not all the news coming out of the ACP was negative. The number of SBC churches grew by 1.1 percent to 44,696; primary worship attendance increased slightly to 6.15 million; and total mission expenditures topped $1.3 billion.
Missions giving is significant and far reaching. Through the SBC’s Cooperative Program, local churches voluntarily pool funds to support mission efforts in their states, throughout the nation and around the world. For example, Cooperative Program funds support more than 10,250 missionaries who engage nearly 1,200 people groups throughout North America and around the world. In addition, CP funds support six seminaries, the International Mission Board, North American Mission Board, the Ethics & Religions Liberty Commission, and other SBC entities. (LifeWay and GuideStone Financial Resources are self-funding.)
At the same time, CP funds support statewide efforts in evangelism, as well as children’s homes, disaster relief efforts, volunteer missions, colleges and universities, camps and much more.
Rainer pointed out that numeric/percent changes for certain categories could not be accurately figured for the 2007 ACP, as some state conventions did not ask for some items to be reported, or asked in a way that gave results that were not comparable to totals reported in the 2006 ACP. Also, 1,300 fewer churches submitted 2007 ACP data than the number in 2006.
Impacted categories and their 2007 totals include:
— Sunday School enrollment: 7,876,611
— Discipleship training enrollment: 1,664,348
— Total tithes, offerings and special gifts: $10.85 billion
— Music ministry enrollment/participation: 1,444,837
— WMU enrolment: 778,555
— Men / boys mission education enrollment: 381,355
Rob Phillips is director of communications for LifeWay Christian Resources.