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SBC reality more complex than one number

EDITOR’S NOTE: ‘Membership’ has been a hot topic of discussion leading up to the SBC annual meeting. Although it has been raised during past conventions, the issue of ‘regenerate membership’ was elevated in part by the release of the most recent Annual Church Profile report that showed a drop in ‘total membership’ for the first time in ten years. Baptist Press asked two leading Southern Baptist figures to address these two membership issues separately. David Dockery, president of Union University, shares theological insights on ‘regenerate membership,’ and Cliff Tharp, LifeWay’s coordinator of the Annual Church Profile, offers a statistical view of ‘total membership.’

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Making a big issue of a one-year decline in the Southern Baptist Convention’s total membership number focuses too much on one number — and misses the complexity of what is actually going on in Southern Baptist life, says one leading Southern Baptist statistician.

“Too much has been made of the 2007 drop in total membership [.24 percent, from 16,306,246 to 16,266,920],” said Cliff Tharp, who coordinates collection of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Annual Church Profile for LifeWay Christian Resources. “One year does not a trend make. It’s a complex reality with numerous factors at work. They interact with each other. It’s simplistic to grab onto one and say, ‘This is it.'”

In a complicated setting like 21st-century America, many trends in the larger society — changing ethnic makeup, family mobility, the aging of the population, urbanization, resistance to Christianity — affect membership and attendance in churches, Tharp said. Even what seems to be straightforward analysis of plain numbers may not capture the complexities of what is really going on.

“Besides the total membership number, we also report resident membership and average primary worship attendance. People can choose the ones they feel best reflect the reality,” Tharp said. “But when you start trying to interpret numbers, things get complicated.”

For example, average attendance may not completely reflect the number of people actually involved in a congregation if 25 percent of the people are there only on the first and third Sundays, while another 25 percent are there only on the second and fourth.

On top of that, in a highly mobile society like the United States, members who move and join another congregation may be double counted if that second church doesn’t inform the original church of the change.

Is it dishonest for the Southern Baptist Convention to report it has 16 million members when the number of active Southern Baptists may be much lower?

No, Tharp says — for at least two reasons.

First, the SBC merely reports the statistics submitted by local churches. “The churches manage their own membership,” Tharp said. “The total membership number probably is inflated, but when all is said and done that is a congregational issue. A grass-roots change has to come about.”

Second, the total membership number cannot simply be abandoned because it plays a vital role in several areas: determining the number of messengers a congregation can have at an annual meeting, providing a means of comparison with other religious groups that use similar measures, offering a measure of the “corporate size” and thus the strength of a church body, and providing continuity with historical measurements of Southern Baptist life that date back to 1845.

Instead of focusing on total membership as an indicator of the Southern Baptist Convention’s health, other statistics might be more helpful — and provide plenty of cause for concern themselves, Tharp said.

“It concerns me that since 1950 the annual rate of growth of Southern Baptist churches has been declining,” Tharp said. “In 1950, we had an annual growth rate of 4.5 percent; it’s less than .5 percent today.

“When you get down to a growth rate that low, almost anything that happens can take you down for a loss in the total membership number,” he added.

Another valuable number is the percentage of churches that are growing, Tharp said. Only about 30 percent of Southern Baptist congregations are growing; that means about 70 percent are declining or plateaued. A growing church is one with an increase in total membership of 10 percent or more over the past five years; a declining church is one with a decrease in total membership of 10 percent or more over the past five years; plateaued are those in between.

Of course, for a group that sees evangelism as a defining characteristic of its identity, baptisms are an important indicator, Tharp noted. In 2007, the number of reported baptisms in the Southern Baptist Convention dropped nearly 5.5 percent, from 364,826 in 2006 to 345,941.

While the number of baptisms reported each year since 1950 have bounced back and forth between 350,000 and 450,000, the overall trend line is flat, Tharp explained.

“We have made effort after effort to increase baptisms, but we haven’t seen any real change in 57 years,” he said. “That ought to be as much a concern to us as anything.”
Mark Kelly is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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  • Mark Kelly