The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) released its annual statistics about membership, attendance, baptism, and other matters this week. The data paints a portrait of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States undergoing a significant decline in a relatively short period of time.
That hasn’t always been the case, however. For decades, the Southern Baptists enjoyed extraordinary growth. In a 26-year period running from 1946 to 1972, the number of Southern Baptists more than doubled, from 6 million to 12 million. Then the membership figures continued to rise, peaking at 16.3 million members in 2006.
Around 2010, membership began to noticeably decline, with about 100,000 members lost per year. Then those losses began to accelerate. By 2019, the annual drop was more than a quarter million members. In the last three years, the shift has been staggering: 435,000 lost in 2020, 410,000 in 2021, and then 484,000 in 2022. In total, the SBC has lost more than 1.3 million people in just three years.
There’s no single cause for such a steep drop in membership, but the data suggests some contributing trends.
1. Decline in Institutional Trust
If there’s one main feature of American life in 2023, it’s that people don’t trust institutions. Data from the General Social Survey indicates trust in banks, education, Congress, major companies, the media, and medicine is down precipitously from a few decades ago. That’s true for baby boomers and millennials alike.
Trust in organized religion is down, as well. Breaking the data down into five-year birth cohorts makes that clear. For those who were born in the 1940s and 1950s, trust in religion declined when they were in their 30s and 40s but has stayed relatively stable from that point forward. The same isn’t true for younger Americans.
For instance, among people born in the 1980s, over 40 percent expressed a great deal of confidence in organized religion when they were coming into adulthood. From that point forward, trust has taken a nosedive. Now less than 20 percent of these birth cohorts think they can trust organized religion. Younger generations express the same level of distrust.
While the SBC has a congregational polity where local churches have autonomy, it’s still seen as a large religious institution by outsiders. That perception is especially acute given the recent sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the SBC and led to a Department of Justice investigation.
One of the realities facing many Protestant denominations—including the SBC—is that their membership is aging.
On the one hand, this reflects the general demographics of America as the large baby boomer generation pulls the statistics toward the older end. But on the other hand, the percentage of adult SBC members aged over 65 (33 percent) is significantly larger than the percentage of adult Americans over 65 (22 percent).
In a decade or two, it’s likely half of the oldest age group will be unable to attend church services for one reason or another. Another 26 percent have seen their 55th birthday. In the average SBC church, three out of five adults are 55 or older, while just 25 percent are under the age of 45.
For churches to maintain their membership, they have to offset every death by one new member. Often, those new members come through raising up children in the faith. But that becomes harder when the demographics are tilted so much toward seniors.
3. Nones and the Nons
Another way for a church to offset the losses of an older generation is through new converts. However, recent years have seen fewer converts in increasingly secular America. The rise of the nones indicates a large share of young people who declare themselves unwilling to entertain religious faith.
Among Generation Z—those born in 1996 or later—the share who identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular has risen from 39 percent in 2016 to 48 percent in 2022. This means nearly half of the youngest adults have walked away from religion entirely.
They aren’t the only ones to join the ranks of the nones, however. The percentage of millennials who have no religious affiliation has also risen, from 33 percent in 2008 to 44 percent in 2022. Even Gen X and baby boomers are more likely to be nonreligious now than a decade ago.
What may be an even bigger threat to the SBC is the dramatic rise in nondenominational churches. When looking at the size of every major Protestant tradition over the last 14 years, the common thread is decline. Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians are all a smaller share of the population now than they were in 2008. The only exception is nondenominational Christians. They were 7.1 percent of the total population in 2008, but that number has risen to 8.6 percent in 2022.
One advantage of nondenominational churches is that they don’t have institutional baggage like many denominations, including the SBC. While people are skeptical of putting money in the offering plate and having some of it go to a head office hundreds of miles away, in nondenominational churches those leadership decisions are handled by people sitting in the pews each weekend. In a time of declining trust in institutions, nondenominationals are well-positioned, and are reaping the benefits through rising attendance and giving.
But the disadvantage of nondenominational churches is that they don’t carry the same influence as churches that are banded together. They don’t have the same ability to do missions, influence culture, or care for humanitarian needs as a denomination, nor are they accountable to any outside authority.
The Southern Baptist Convention is facing the same headwinds plaguing nearly every other religious institution in the U.S. The decline in institutional trust, the aging of an unusually large generation, and the rise in atheism make it increasingly difficult for denominations to thrive.
But there’s some good news for Southern Baptists. The attendance that declined sharply during COVID bounced up a bit, as did small group attendance. Baptisms also increased, though not yet to pre-COVID numbers. For the Southern Baptists to recover their losses, trends like these will have to continue and increase.