The Southern Baptist Convention is showing incremental growth in total membership and the number of churches, while baptisms continue to decline, a trend one denominational leader viewed as a warning sign that the nation’s largest non-Catholic faith group has “lost its focus.”
SBC membership totaled 16,315,050 in 2003, up .41 percent over the previous year, according to statistics submitted by churches through the Annual Church Profile compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources, the SBC’s publishing house.
The convention reported a net gain of 249 new churches, bringing the total to 43,024.
While membership increased, the number of baptisms declined for the fourth straight year, to 377,357. That is down 4 percent from 2002, and indicates a ratio of one baptism for every 43 church members in 2003.
LifeWay President Jimmy Draper said the numbers indicate that Southern Baptists have lost their focus on fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission to go into the world and make disciples. While the denomination has seen “tremendous strides” in overseas baptisms, Draper said, Southern Baptists are not keeping up with the rate of population growth either in the United States or around the world.
Quoted in Baptist Press, Draper cited two trends in declining baptisms. One is a lost sense of urgency in reaching people for Christ. Another is a growing trend not to press the issue of baptism by immersion with new church members. “I’ve heard from a number of people across our denomination who are saying professions of faith are good enough, and they are not teaching one of our two main ordinances of publicly identifying with Jesus through baptism,” he said.
Other statistics showed a 2 percent decline in the number of additions by means other than baptism, such as transfer of membership, and a 6 percent drop in the number of church-type missions.
Primary worship attendance grew half a percent, to 5.8 million. Overall giving grew 5 percent, to more than $9.1 billion. A new statistic included in 2003 was the value of congregational property. That figure exceeded $35 billion.
Enrollment in Sunday school and music ministry increased, while discipleship training and mission education declined. Woman’s Missionary Union, which last year reported an enrollment gain of 12 percent, in 2003 was down 11.5 percent, to 852,205. Mission education of men and boys fell nearly 4 percent, to 418,606.