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Church planting up, but SBC baptisms slump to lowest level since 1946

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A man expresses gratefulness, in this file photo, to a pastor of Blackshear Place Baptist Church who baptized him in Lake Lanier after an evangelism emphasis. The Flowery Branch church has grown due to its evangelism emphasis, reversing the national trend of sharply declining baptisms. BLACKSHEAR PLACE CHURCH/Special

PHOENIX, AZ — Georgia Baptist State Missionary Larry Wynn is concerned about the latest Annual Church Profile numbers released by LifeWay Christian Resouraces on June 8.

Up to 6,000 Southern Baptist messengers are descending on the Valley of the Sun this weekend for their annual meeting Tuesday and Wednesday (June 13-14) at the convention center here. Georgia Baptists such as Bobby Braswell Jr. and Greg Bentley arrived Friday night to share their faith during today and tomorrow's Crossover events.

Unfortunately there will be little to celebrate following the Thursday release of the annual "State of the Denomination" report known as the Annual Church Profile. It is released each year this time by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, based in Nashville.

The good news is the growth in the number of churches in 2015, mostly due to efforts of congregations and the new emphasis of the North American Mission Board under President Kevin Ezell.

The number of churches grew by 479 to 47,272, a 1 percent increase over 2015. The number of Southern Baptist churches has increased the last 18 years. Also, Southern Baptist churches also reported 4,492 church-type missions last year.

A triple whammy in the details

But the bad news is a triple whammy.

Southern Baptist are reporting:

  • lowest baptisms since 1946;
  • lowest membership since 1990; and
  • lowest worship attendance since 1996.

According to Baptist Press on June 8, although the number of cooperating Southern Baptist congregations grew, reported membership of those churches declined by 77,786, down .51 percent to 15.2 million members.

Average weekly worship attendance also declined 6.75 percent to 5.2 million worshippers.

And the key indicator of growth – baptisms ­ – dropped once again to another record low. Southern Baptist churches baptized 280,773 people in 2016, a 4.89 percent decline from the 295,212 reported in 2015. The ratio of baptisms to total members was one baptism for every 54 members.

Nearly 5 percent baptism decline = a drop of 14,439 conversions

In short, the denomination continues to shrink and its baptism rate has slumped to its lowest level since shortly after the end of World War II in 1945. It took the onset of the Baby Boom in the following years to  reverse the decline and propel the denomination to its greatest height.

That Baby Boom Bubble rewrote American life and values as it moved through society, changing the way cars were designed for a far younger and cash-affluent population. Denominations of all stripes rode that bubble to record growth, increasing in membership while understandably unable to keep pace with the exploding number of families.

Then the bubble began to play out and growth slowed, and then reversed. For decades Southern Baptists were the standout among those faith groups, reporting strong baptism numbers while Methodists, Presbyterians, and others encountered strong societal headwinds.

But now the nation’s largest evangelical group is finding it difficult to overcome the same headwinds that has brought others into a retrenchment mindset. In fact, for the past decade they have actually lost members as the population took on a new growth spurt.

In short, they are not trailing the nation's growth but are actually heading in the other direction.

The Annual Church Profile figures detail the advances and declines of the denomination in the previous year. While voluntary and not all churches participate, it remains the steadfast barometer on the health of the denomination.

The result, when analyzed by The Christian Index and verified by Carol Pipes, director of corporate communications with LifeWay, shows that baptisms in 1946 registered 253,361 vs. 292,212 reported in 2016, even while the nation’s population swelled from 141,000,000 in 1946 to 324,000,000 in 2016.

In 2015, 295,212 baptisms – a drop from 305,301 in 2014 – resulted in the first time less than 300,000 new believers had been baptized in 68 years, according to statistics compiled by LifeWay.

State Missionary Larry Wynn, who oversees Georgia Baptist evangelism efforts, expressed dismay at the continued decline in baptisms and membership, even while church growth increased.

Wynn: Many factors explain the decline

Wynn believes there are many factors to explain the decline but the bottom line is that many Southern Baptists appear to have lost their passion for reaching the unchurched.

“It’s all tied together and is not dependent on one factor. As membership and church attendance shrink, a drop in baptisms will follow,” he said in reflecting on the sobering statistics. He sees three underlying conditions.

First, there has been a cultural shift in the United States.

“James Emery White in his book The Rise of the Nones says, ‘The single fastest-growing religious group of our time is those who check the box next to the word ‘none’ on national surveys. In America, this is 20 percent of the population.’

“White goes on to say that we have moved from an Acts 2 missional context to an Acts 17 missional context. In other words, in Acts 2 the people to whom Peter was preaching already had a monotheistic understanding. In Acts 17, Paul spoke to a people who did not have the same understanding. We are seeing that cultural shift in America today.

"This, very much I believe, impacts baptisms.”

Wynn described how difficult it is to share Christ with individuals who have never had a church background. Previously, a church member would begin sharing his or her faith with an understanding that the hearer knew about Christ. Today, he says, the believer has to start with the book of Genesis and go from there, explaining who God is and his plan for a fallen creation.

A third concern is that 80 percent of churches in the SBC are plateaued or declining. The struggles associated with decline have lessened the intentional focus on evangelism, Wynn says. And the fourth, though lessor reason, is the growing number of churches that fail to report their statistics.

While the Annual Church Profile is dependent on voluntary reporting, such a steady decline in the denomination could only be dependent on one thing; Southern Baptists no longer share the passion for sharing their faith with their neighbors, Wynn believes.

U2019 set to reverse decline in teen baptisms by Georgia Baptists

Georgia Baptists are already at work to reverse that baptism decline with the forthcoming launch of the U2019 emphasis.

Steve Parr, Georgia Baptist Mission Board vice president for Staff Coordination and Development, recently stated that the average number of teen baptisms per church in Georgia last year was one. The median number was zero, meaning half did not report a teen baptism.

“The average number of children’s baptisms per church in Georgia last year was three. The median number was one, meaning half reported only one, or zero, baptisms of children," he noted.

Not only are Georgia Baptists not reaching the children and teenagers in their communities, they are losing those who were active members. According to Parr and fellow state missionary Tom Crites' recent book, Why They Stray, only 20 percent of young adults who were active in church as teens were still active in church at age 29. They also stated that only 16 percent of all churches across every denomination have a significant young adult population.

U2019 is designed to address the declining conversions among the nation's youth population and build a spiritual foundation for a stronger nation.

baptisms, Carol Pipes, Lifeway Christian Resources, U2019

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