The Southern Baptist Convention says it misreported membership statistics in 2002 and 2003, creating confusion in a new ranking of the 25 largest denominations in the United States showing a 1 percent membership decline in the SBC.

The Southern Baptist Convention says it misreported membership statistics in 2002 and 2003, creating confusion in a new ranking of the 25 largest denominations in the United States showing a 1 percent membership decline in the SBC.

The National Council of Churches’ 2006 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches uses statistics collected by denominations in 2004 and reported in 2005. It reports SBC membership at 16,267,494, a decrease of 1.05 percent since last year’s volume.

Cliff Tharp of LifeWay Christian Resources said the 16.2 million number is correct, but SBC officials committed a reporting error of 110,000 for both 2002 and 2003 that was not discovered until after the 2003 figures were released.

While still reporting that membership in the Southern Baptist Convention declined, the 2006 Yearbook placed an asterisk explaining that in preparation for the 2006 edition the denomination reported errors in the statistics used in the previous two years.

“As a result, membership growth rates reported in 2004 and 2005 editions of 1.21 percent and 1.18 percent, respectively, would be revised downward to 0.53 percent and 0.42 percent based on the new figures,” the footnote says. “With these corrections, the overall membership growth between Dec. 31, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2004, is unchanged at 1.3 percent, a considerably slower rate of growth than previously reported.”

News reports about the 1.05 percent membership decline–based on the previously reported data–without access to the analysis information “created an erroneous picture of SBC membership trends,” Philip Jenks, director of interpretation in the NCC communication office, said Wednesday.

The initial NCC press release didn’t include information about the SBC changing statistics for the previous two years. An updated release on the NCC Web site now includes a clarification referencing the asterisk.

Baptist Press revised a story that appeared originally April 12, 2004, this January to correct an “error in reported membership” but didn’t elaborate. on Tuesday discovered discrepancies between the revised BP story and the original story, which still appears on LifeWay’s Web site, and asked LifeWay to clarify.

LifeWay’s media relations manager, Chris Turner, forwarded the e-mail to Tharp, who manages compilation of the Annual Church Profile from statistics reported by churches. Tharp, who has handled the ACP figures for the last 18 years, didn’t explain how the 110,000 member error occurred in 2002 and 2003 but provided “corrected figures” for total membership.

In 2000, Tharp said, total SBC membership was 15,960,308. Membership surpassed 16 million in 2001, increasing 0.58 percent to 16,052,920. In 2002, Tharp said, there were 16,137,736 members, an increase of 0.528 percent. That grew another 0.4 percent, to 16,205,050, in 2003, and 0.38 percent in 2004, to 16,267,494.

The figures originally reported were 16,247,736 in 2002 and 16,315,050 in 2003.

SBC statistics for 2005 are still being compiled. An annual statistical summary of data submitted on the Annual Church Profile typically comes out in mid-April.

SBC leaders have openly expressed alarm about denominational statistics, particularly declines in baptisms four of the last five years. In 2004, then-LifeWay President Jimmy Draper viewed “incremental” growth as pointing to a “denomination that’s lost its focus.”

Draper’s successor, current LifeWay President Thom Rainer, recently wrote of a “dying” American church, warning that at a current rate of one baptism for every 82 church members, within a generation or two “Christianity could be so marginalized that it will be deemed irrelevant by most observers.”

Last April Draper said he was encouraged by what Baptist Press termed “a reversal in recent downward trends in key categories such as baptisms and membership” in statistics compiled for 2004.

The SBC ranks second in the NCC membership ranking. The largest religious group, Roman Catholics, reported 67.8 million members, an increase of 0.83 percent.

The Assemblies of God, the nation’s 10th-largest church, is the fastest-growing of the nation’s largest denominations, climbing 2 percent to nearly 3 million members.

The NCC reports declines among mainline denominations such as United Methodists (down .79 percent), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (down 1.09 percent), Presbyterian Church (USA) (down 1.6 percent), Episcopal Church (down 1.55 percent) and United Church of Christ (down 2.38 percent.)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reported growth of 1.74 percent. According to the report, there are just under 6 million U.S. Mormons.

American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., the 20th-largest denomination, reported membership of 1,432,840, a decrease of 0.57 percent.

Other Baptist groups in the top 25–the No. 6 National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. (5 million members), No. 8 National Baptist Convention of America (3.5 million members), No. 12 National Missionary Baptist Convention of America (2.5 million members), No. 13 Progressive National Baptist Convention (2.5 million members) and No. 23 Baptist Bible Fellowship International (1.2 million members)–reported neither an increase or decrease in membership.

The last time the Southern Baptist Convention reported a membership decline was in 1998. Before that membership had grown every year since 1926.

About one-third of Southern Baptists included in the count of total membership are “non-resident” members, who joined a local Baptist church but moved away and never transferred their membership.

Southern Baptists don’t count inactive members, people who belong to a church but never darken the door, but about a third of the total membership attends church on a given Sunday.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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