The SBC Decline: Days of Future Past

by Aaron Meraz

sbcIn X-Men: Days of Future Past, the X-Men find themselves in a world where mutants are being systematically exterminated. Through the superpower of a mutant who could send ones consciousness back in time, the X-Men are able to pinpoint the time and events that resulted in their dismal future. Although I do not claim any mutant power, this blog will pinpoint the time that Southern Baptists began to decline. Future posts will address the events (or trends) that surrounded the time.

In a brief study entitled, Reflections on Southern Baptist Membership, the late J. Clifford Tharp noted that from 1951 to 2004 the annual rate of growth in the membership of the SBC steadily declined from 4% to less than 1%. It is not new that many Southern Baptists think of the 1950s as a decade of growth and prominence. Nevertheless, as can be seen from Tharps charts, the one year 4% membership growth rate from 1950 to 1951 was actually an anomaly. When looking further back into our history, Southern Baptists actually had many one year membership growth rates above 4% [1884 (5.2%), 1885 (4.2%), 1887 (4.7%), 1894 (5%), 1896 (4.1%), 1908 (6.2%), 1910 (5.1%), 1920 (6.3%), and 1922 (4.5%)].

I present the following statistics from our SBC annuals and other sources. The baseline for 1845 SBC data is from the 1922 annual (p. 351). Due to the reporting of only Anglo-churches, in the annuals from 1897 to 1950, I used only the data given for Anglo-churches from 1845 to 1950. From 1951 to 2013, I used the data given through the SBC annuals and the latest ACPs. Table 1 shows the number of churches and membership at certain points in our history and gives the Average Annual Growth Rate (AAGR) between those years.

Table 1. Average Annual Growth Rates in the SBC, 1845-2013

Year Churches AAGR Membership AAGR
1845-1911 4,126 to 23,676 2.7% 252,950 to 2,421,203 3.5%
1912-1950 23,676 to 27,788 0.4% 2,421,203 to 7,079,889 2.8%
1951-2013 27,788 to 46,125 0.8% 7,079,889 to 15,735,640 1.3%

As one may perceive from Table 1, Southern Baptists had a major shift in the multiplication of churches from 1912-1950 and have not recovered the fervor of church multiplication displayed in the first 66 years of the existence of the denomination. Further, one may perceive that the first 66 years of the SBC had significant membership growth. The year-to-year growth rates were up and down during this time period. It was almost like they would take two steps forward and one step back. Overall, an average annual growth rate in membership of 3.5% was significantly higher than the average annual growth rate of the U.S. population from 1840 to 1910, which was 2.4%. Nevertheless, the years following showed the average annual growth rate in membership dropping while the total membership growing. Eventually, the decline in average annual growth rate in membership caught up to us. Now, our total membership is in decline.

Churches and total membership are not the only baselines I will use in this study. I also believe the average church membership needs to be considered. Table 2 presents the average church membership at specific points in our history. It must be noted that if the African-American membership in the churches of 1845 were factored into the average church membership, the average would have been 85, which was also the average church membership in 1900.

Table 2. Average Church Membership, 1845, 1911, 1950, 2013

Year Avg. Church Membership
1845 61
1911 102
1950 255
2013 341

Notice it took 66 years for the average church membership to rise from 61 to 102, a rise of 41. However, it took only 39 years to rise from 102 to 255, a rise of 153. Clearly, the churches during the time of our greatest, most sustained growth were small (well get to that in subsequent posts).

The Beginning of Our Decline

As one may observe from the tables, I have pinpointed the year 1912 as the beginning of our decline. Why 1912? It was not the sinking of the Titanic! From 1845 to 1911, the average annual growth rate in membership remained around 3.5%. However, when 1912 was factored in, the average annual growth rate in membership dipped to 3.4% and never recovered. The significant dip in the average annual growth rate of churches occurred about this time as well. Further, there was a steep jump in the average church membership after 1912 (it was up to 129 in 1923!).

So, what were the trends and events that led to our decline? These will be covered in subsequent posts!

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