A month before the SBC meets in New Orleans, America’s largest protestant denomination released its Annual Church Profile compiled and published through Lifeway. The results are touted for the uptick in baptisms, giving, and weekly attendance while the overall denomination is shrinking.
Overall, the SBC lost 416 churches in 2022, which likely includes the few they disfellowshipped, those who disassociated, and churches which closed entirely, but there is no official breakdown. According to NAMB, the denomination planted 745 churches in 2022, of which 106 were replants. Church replanting is a euphemism for downsizing or church relocations. While it is reasonable for this to be under the umbrella of NAMB, this does inflate the church plant numbers. They also reported that 46 campuses were launched and there were 126 churches newly affiliated with the SBC. Overall, NAMB is claiming they added 917 new congregations to the SBC in 2022, yet still resulted in a loss of churches YOY. If these statistics coordinate with Lifeway’s, the denomination lost 1333 churches in the period, but replaced 915 of them. However, a disclaimer must be given that most NAMB church plants are not actually SBC churches.
The 3.34% drop in membership takes the SBC back 44 years to where the metric was in 1978, though it should be noted that membership is often inflated. Based on their metrics, only 28.77% of members are weekly attendees. They headline their article talking about growth in attendance, but much of the improvements over their 2021 data is just a rebound from prior poor performance. In other words, the SBC churches performed so poorly during Covid, that their 2021 metrics plummeted, allowing “growth” or “improvement” to be seen in 2022. Yet the graph does not lie. The SBC average weekly attendance is down nearly 30% from 2019, reflecting the SBC’s inability to return to pre-Covid normalcy. Rebounding from 2021 is not an accomplishment, but the long term trend would indicate that the 5.25 million weekly attendees is unlikely to be repeated, especially not while hemorrhaging .87% of churches a year.
The spin is most evident in the Baptists’ favorite metric: baptisms, where they hailed a 16.47% increase in baptisms over 2021.
The long-term trend of baptisms infers denominational decline, which could be the result of evangelistic failures or rejections, aging population, and a more resistant culture. Demographic decline is noteworthy as fewer children equates to fewer baptisms, which effects more than Presbyterians. NAMB touts that outside of the South, their church plants accounted for 23% of baptisms since 2010. Nevertheless, while increase in overall baptisms YOY is a positive, 180K is still well below 235K in 2019, which is a 23.6% decline. Essentially, the decline in baptisms accelerated due to Covid, and 2021 baptisms were “pushed back” which improved the 2022 metrics.
What’s NAMB Hiding?
Each year, NAMB is supposed to release its Annual Ministry Report, yet with a month leading into the convention, they have yet to do so. Their Fiscal Year officially runs through September, just like the federal government, while their church plant counts run through calendar year.
Why have they not published their annual report? Last year, the 2022 report was published in March, though for whatever reason they publish in the summer, long after the financials have considerably changed, or the convention is over, which is perhaps the reason for the extremely delayed release of information. For comparison, corporations disclose their quarterly financials generally a month or two after quarter end, so they have the numbers, as they are marked to period end—they just do not wish to release them.
2022 was a poor year for the S&P 500 and the abundant market portfolio that NAMB possesses, which might show a considerable decline in market securities. If they have no qualms bragging about planting 10,000 churches, why not release the financials for FY2022? But lack of transparency is the point.
The SBC 2022 Annual Church Profile reflects a continued decline for the SBC, one that Covid accelerated. One cannot misremember that the SBC was an advocate of lockdown and assisted many churches in getting paid PPP while advocating lockdown policies which damaged countless local churches. If the attendance numbers and baptisms signify anything, it is the new normal.
With the convention in June, Mike Stone and other Conservative Baptist Network hopefuls should not be discussing alleged abuse headlines that grab ears, but contain little substance. The SBC is in decline. Rather than a message of “Change the Direction,” they need to go to New Orleans and advocate “Reverse the Decline!”
Because unless something changes, this trend will only continue.
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