We need a Southern Missiology combined with faith in Christ and manifesting in personal sacrifice for the sake of the gospel and the people among us.
We all know about the flatlining and then declining numbers of the SBC related to baptisms, church membership, and worship attendance. We’ve talked about them for years, heard Ed Stetzer’s warnings years ago (“facts are our friends”), and we’ve seen it with our own eyes. While SBC megachurches are still doing well numbers wise, there continues to be consolidation going on, churches struggling, and many churches in steep decline. With the new numbers set to come out in the next few weeks, I thought some overall analysis might be helpful.
From last year’s ACP report:
While the number of SBC-related congregations increased (up 294), reported membership declined more than 200,000, down 1.32 percent to 15.3 million members. Average weekly worship attendance declined by 1.72 percent to 5.6 million worshippers.
Southern Baptists also experienced a decline in baptisms, down 3.3 percent to 295,212. Reported baptisms have fallen eight of the last 10 years. The ratio of baptisms to total members decreased to one baptism for every 52 members.
“God help us all! In a world that is desperate for the message of Christ, we continue to be less diligent in sharing the Good News,” said Frank S. Page, SBC Executive Committee president and CEO. “May God forgive us and give us a new passion to reach this world for Christ.”
If you look at those numbers more closely, the SBC had 414,657 baptisms in 2000. In 2015, we had 295,212. That’s a 29% decline. In 2005, we had 16.6 million Southern Baptists. In 2015, we had 15.3 million. That’s an 8% decline. Now, we all know that those numbers have been inaccurate for a long time, so the decline might partially reflect more accuracy in reporting overall numbers, but it is still a decline of 1.3 million in one way or another. We can only work with the numbers we actually have.
Average weekly worship attendance is down to 5.6 million people. It was over 6 million a decade or so ago, if memory serves. I have not found the actual numbers online, so I could be wrong. That is also a sketchy number because people might be heavily involved in a church and not actually be there every Sunday due to travel, illness, etc. We live in a very mobile society. But, even the most generous assessment of those numbers show that they are way down.
However, we do now have over 20,000 students in the six SBC seminaries, up from around 15,000 students over a decade ago. Church planting is increasing, so perhaps those seminary students will plant new churches? Replace aging pastors in established churches? Go into the regular workforce as missionaries in a variety of vocations? Lots of possibilities there, as well as questions.
When you look at these current numbers and compare them to past numbers, they show a significant decline. But, when you look at these numbers and compare them to the increasing population of the U.S. South, where the vast majority of SBC churches and members reside, we see not just a flat-lining or a decline, but we see a massive free fall.
The first map shows us what the U.S. Census calls the “US South.” The second map shows the area that is considered to be the “Bible Belt.” The third map shows the counties where Southern Baptists are the largest religious group per county. The final map shows who Republican voters chose in the GOP primaries per county, just to give a picture of where this region aligns politically with candidates (blue is Trump, gold is Cruz, red is Rubio). Obviously, each Southern state went red in the general election and Southern Evangelicals were a huge part of that.
According to all statistics that we have, the US South is still largely synonymous with both the “Bible Belt” and the Southern Baptist Convention, as far as what the predominant religious expression is. Southern Baptists clearly have their largest expression in the South and are the most significant religious body by far. This is also where the Republican Party dominates and Evangelical affiliation with the GOP is well established.
This, however, shows that the decline in the SBC over the past 10-15 years is even more drastic than just looking at the numbers would suggest. I contend that it is inaccurate to just compare the SBC numbers in 2015 to the SBC numbers in 2000 or 2005. Rather, you have to compare the numbers to the region of the country where we have the largest numbers of Southern Baptists.
Free Fall statistically, but, great opportunity.
In 2000, there were 100 million people who lived in the US South. In 2015, there were 121 million people who lived in the US South (according to US Census reports). That is a 17.5% INCREASE. An increase of 21 million people. So, while the SBC has decline by around a million people overall in that time frame, the region where the majority of SBC churches and members exists has increased by 21 million. So, SBC churches are in decline while the region is in dramatic increase. We aren’t talking about the Rust Belt here. We’re talking about what is by far the largest region of the country with 38% of the US population.
121 million people would make the US South the 12th most populous nation in the world with the 3rd largest GDP, if it were its own nation. The US South has been called the “economic engine” of the United States. In this region, Cooperative Program giving was $195 million in fiscal year 2016. However, it was $200 million in fiscal year 2005. So, CP giving is still down in real dollars over the past decade. But, adjusted for inflation, that $200 million in 2005 would be worth $253.74 million now. So, we’re looking at a real loss of over 23% of CP giving over the past decade.
In a region of the country with the population booming, people moving in from all over the nation and the world, and having the 3rd largest GDP in the world (with over $5 Trillion) on its own only after the rest of the United States combined and China, the SBC is in decline – steep decline in relation to the massive growth of the region.
In addition, the Nations are coming to the South as the region is becoming more and more diverse. 13.1 Million people in the South are first generation immigrants from all over the world. That’s almost 11% of the population. More significantly, 46% of all first generation immigrant growth from 2000-2015 in the whole United States happened in the South (according to data I discovered while working through the US Census data state-by-state). 4 million of the 21 million newcomers to the South from 2000-2015 are first generation immigrants (that’s 19% of all growth). Immigrants are attracted to areas with booming economies and they contribute to entrepreneurship and the business start up culture (1 in 4 new businesses in America are started by immigrants). Fortunately, over 50% of new SBC church plants over the past several years have been predominately ethnic minority, so we are addressing this to an extent. But, there is so much more to be done.
Green Shoots: New Hope
My purpose in this post is not to just say that everything is terrible. It isn’t. I am full of hope in the Lord and in what I’m seeing God do in the South. I travel all over the Southeast encouraging and equipping churches to minister to and advocate for immigrants and refugees. I constantly go in and out of cities like Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Orlando, Birmingham, New Orleans, and more and I also go through smaller towns and cities. The sheer numbers of people are incredible, traffic grinding, businesses booming, and immigrants from all over the world are everywhere doing business and living life alongside their neighbors. The idea that the South is primarily a rural, traditional, white, religious, conservative area is still true in many ways, but it misses the much larger narrative that is emerging.
In these travels, I am seeing some amazing work being done by Southern Baptists to reach people from all different backgrounds and walks of life. I’ve visited incredible churches, met sincere pastors and church leaders, and have spent time with associational and state convention leadership who are working through difficult problems in innovative ways. There is so much good gospel and ministry work happening all over the South that it is really hard to keep up with it all. There is not a need for a new initiative to emerge out of nowhere. The best approach would be to build on the great work that is already happening everywhere and help link good work with areas and churches that are struggling. God is alive and so is the SBC in many respects through the gospel working and producing fruit in churches, ministries, and all over the South. You can’t look at overall numbers from a 30,000 foot view to get the true picture. You have to get on the ground and see what is actually happening in many places and then build on the good – strengthen what remains.
The numbers overall are dire if you’re pining away for glory days of ascendance. If you compare the current numbers to the massive growth happening in the South with population, economics, and diversity, the SBC statistics represent an actual comparative free fall, not just a slight decline, and that is important for us to recognize. But … (and this is also important), what if all of this represents not some kind of a failure, but a new beginning and an amazing opportunity to not just try to rebuild the past but to thank God for it and put it behind us while we look to what God is doing today and what He wants to do in the future? If we keep looking back to the past and comparing ourselves only and then we make decisions based off of that, we will miss what God could do with us today. The past is passed, even in the South, despite what Faulkner told us.
Some questions for all of us that have emerged from some of my many great conversations with Southern Baptist pastors and leaders over the past year and a half:
- How can we actually love God and love one another sacrificially? To bear one another’s burdens? To hear the cry of desperation and need from all parts of our cities and towns and then suffer alongside one another? How can we love the way Jesus loves us?
- With an increasingly diverse South, how do we prepare our churches to reach the nations among us? How do we welcome the immigrant, refugee, and newcomer to our churches, our homes, and communities?
- In a racially and politically polarized region and nation, how can we consistently BE a people that will love all people and sacrifice our lives to take the gospel to them and share in the partnership of the gospel with people ethnically, racially, and socioeconomically different from us (no matter what ethnicity or demographic you are)?
- What does real repentance and reconciliation look like in our communities across racial lines? Shouldn’t Baptists take the initiative in that?
- We need significant movements of African American, Latino, Asian, and Arab pastors and leaders into SBC leadership at every level not so we can just say this happened, but so we can all learn from each other, submit to and follow one another, and BE the body of Christ together in this land.
- How can we see our faith as not something that exists to promote, protect, and defend our own way of life, but how can we lay our lives down for others so they will experience the love of Christ and the gospel?
We need a Southern missiology desperately. We need to walk in the way of the Cross according to Philippians 2:1-11 in ways that truly seek the good of others and not just ourselves. We need a way to see the South and our churches that no longer considers the Southern region of the United States “home base” for the gospel. It isn’t and it hasn’t ever been, really. We need to stop culturally locating our understanding of Christianity in a Southern white perspective and find ways to join with all of the people in our communities and throughout our area in revived church expressions as we humble ourselves and learn from and submit to brothers and sisters from all kinds of backgrounds from all over the world that God is sending to us for the purpose of revival and renewal. All of that is happening in many places and as it happens, I would contend that a gospel renewal of the cultural South will make us more vibrant, more loving, more hospitable, more open and caring and joyful and free than we’ve ever been before. I’m seeing it every week everywhere I go. There is incredible vitality, sacrifice, and gospel fruit being born all over the South at this time. God is at work in powerful ways. But, we need more of it and that story needs to become more of the dominant narrative. We need an infusion of hope and a recognition that declining numbers may just position us for gospel advance … IF we will humble ourselves and look to Jesus instead of seek to protect ourselves in a culture that can’t ever provide salvation, no matter how “down home” it feels to us. Only through Jesus can we “tell a better story” together – a story of sacrificial love for God and people.
Jesus is at work on the margins and all through the center. Let’s join Him there no matter what the numbers say.
Author’s Note: If you or your church or association would like help thinking through how to reach the nations and immigrants in your midst and engage in gospel-centered reconciliation across races and ethnicities, let me know. I’d love to help. I have gospel-centered resources and approaches designed for that purpose.