Overview:

Our first sneak peek at the 2022 Annual Report reveals some startlingly-bad numbers for 2021. That bounce back wasn't very big.

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Every summer, evangelical-watchers enter their equivalent of March Madness. Of the World Series. Of, dare I declare, the Super Bowl. That’s because every summer, the biggest evangelical denomination of ’em all, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), holds its Annual Meeting and releases its Annual Report. In every Annual Report, the denomination’s leaders share the SBC’s performance for the previous year. But before the big festivities, the SBC likes to leak little bits of information to the flocks. Recently, we got our first nibble of info. And it reveals that yes, indeed, 2021 was another bad year for the SBC. Let me show you that nibble, put it into historical perspective, and make a few speculations about what the Annual Meeting may hold in store.

Annual Report archives reveal a long history of very awful news for the SBC

When the 2021 Annual Report came out, we all knew it’d contain absolutely gobsmackingly bad news for the SBC. After all, 2020 was the beginning of the pandemic. It devastated a great many churches’ income, recruitment statistics, and retention numbers. As it turned out, the SBC was not immune to the pandemic’s devastation.

As an evangelical denomination, the SBC seeks high recruitment rates above any other metric. They always focus on two metrics they consider their most important: baptisms and their baptism ratio. This ratio is that year’s total current membership divided by the number of baptisms. The SBC considers it a measure of how effectively they’re recruiting new members; to wit, it represents how many SBC-lings it takes to recruit just one new member. So it is really a ride-or-die statistic for them.

And it’s been tanking for many years, as their Annual Reports reveal. (You can find them all here.)

A century ago, the SBC’s baptism ratio looked really good. In the 1946 Annual Report (p. 466 in the PDF), for example, we see that they scored 256,699 new members the previous year against a total membership of 5,865,554. Thus, their baptisms-to-members ratio stood at 1:22. For years before and after that, it hovered in the 20s like that. It didn’t jump to 1:30 until the 1975 Annual Report. From the 1980s to the 2000s, it bounced up and down through the 30s and 40s.

Everyone in the SBC’s top leadership panicked as that all-important ratio started creeping up toward the high end of 1:40.

Despite all their efforts to fix it, though, in 2013 it hit 1:50 for the first time. The SBC would never see it go below 50 again. By 2019, it had reached 1:60. This time, for some unaccountable reason, nobody really wanted to talk about it.

It’s almost a good thing for the SBC that their overall membership has also been steadily declining. That’s what has kept their baptism ratio at just a nail-biting, panic-mode level of bad. It’s all that has slowed the runaway train of bad news.

And now, recent Annual Reports reveal even worse news

For many years, then, the SBC has faced dwindling membership and baptisms. In the 2020 Annual Report, they recruited 235,748 new members against 14.5M members, for a ratio of 1:62. But in 2021, they could only report 123,160 baptisms against 14.0M members, which got them a ratio of 1:114.

1:114!

What would elderly Pastor Fujinuma, whose fascinating story as the son of a samurai earned a bare-bones mention on p. 324 of the 1919 Annual Report, or his new converts who’d just signed oaths of fealty to Jesus with their own blood, think of that decline!

(Note to self: Ask the SBC if they just saw a big uptick in people downloading their 1919 Annual Report.)

Of course, everybody knew that the situation in 2020 with in-person attendance explained most of the SBC’s utterly disastrous year. We also fully expected the SBC to bounce back at least a little in 2021.

And they did, just less than I’d expected. Every time I make an educated guess about these guys, I turn out to be a bit too optimistic for their chances, it seems!

The sneak peek at 2022’s Annual Report numbers

As revealed in the SBC’s recently-released Annual Church Profile, they did see an increase in baptisms over 2020 in 2021: from 123,160 to 154,701. That brought their all-important baptism ratio from 1:114 to 1:88. In the 2020 Annual Report, by contrast to both of those sets of numbers, they reported 235,748 baptisms in 2019, and a baptism ratio of 1:62.

So, 1:88 wasn’t actually anything close to a bounce back to their normal rate of steady but gradual decline. And 154,701 baptisms is still only 2/3 of their number from 2020’s report. Usually, they tend to lose 10-25k baptisms per year, not 81k!

Total membership also declined hugely. Even if the SBC’s members aren’t attending church, they still get counted as members, at least. But a whole bunch of them did a runner last year. In 2020’s Annual Report, they claim 14.5M members. In 2021, that number declined to 14.0M. And in 2022’s sneak peek, they claim only 13.6M.

That means that the SBC lost 409k members last year and dipped below 14M for the first time since 1983. As a point of interest, let me mention that 2018 marked their dip below 15M. So within the past few years alone, they’ve lost a million members.

Attendance also tanked, of course, but we also expected that. Usually, they clock about 5.2M to 5.3M in attendance, totaling somewhere around 35-36% of their members. For 2020’s Annual Report, they list attendance of 4,439,797. But last year, they record 3,607,530 in-person attendees and 1,447,313 online. That brings them to a total of 5,054,843, which is almost 37% of their current total membership. And that’s still considerably less than pre-pandemic, though with the huge decrease in membership it still remains about the same percentage of the total.

Some spots of cheer for the good ol’ boys in charge of the SBC

That said, the news wasn’t all horrific.

The SBC managed to raise its number of overall churches by 22, from 47,592 to 47,614. I don’t think there’s ever been a year where they didn’t end up with a net positive increase. This year, that increase was miniscule, but it was there and that is what counts to the SBC. Of course, those 47k churches will be squabbling over a sharply shrinking number of sheep willing to warm their pews with their bottoms. But nobody ever cares about that!

Also, giving is up again. In most years, SBC member churches manage to wheedle increased donations from their flocks over the year before. This was no exception. Giving rose from $11.5Bn to $11.8Bn. As I’ve mentioned before, those numbers may reflect a hectic, busy election year for the SBC. Their two factions are fighting hard for this summer’s presidential election. It’s interesting to see, though, in light of such a huge decline in membership.

(I’m very curious about where they’re getting all this money. If every affiliated church gave equally, that’d be a $248k donation from each one. And it is really hard to fathom many churches that can afford that kind of donation. You can see how much each member state or convention gave the Cooperative Program. For example, on p. 190 of the 2021 Annual Report we see that Alabama as a whole gave the Cooperative Program $18.5M in 2020. But these reports don’t break numbers out by church at all, or give us an idea of which churches are giving what amounts.)

Still, at least the SBC doesn’t face all bad news. The money train is safe, and they keep adding new churches even if total membership has taken a nose-dive. Hooray Team Jesus!

(This is where I mention that the SBC doesn’t actually require any churches to report anything to the mother ship if they don’t wanna. So, these numbers reflect only what church leaders chose to share. One idly wonders what their metrics would look like if the SBC required reports).

SBC leaders are already spin-doctoring this year’s Annual Report and it isn’t even fully out yet

Already, the SBC’s leaders are having a tough time spinning this kind of bad news to their members. Scott McConnell, who leads the SBC’s research department at Lifeway, had this to say to Baptist Press, the SBC’s official news site:

It’s not fun to document difficult seasons of ministry, but we know God is as faithful today as He has ever been. And these statistics continue to show the faithfulness and sacrifice of congregations during trying times.

Scott McConnell, in Baptist Press

I guess he means the 400k fewer people in those congregations. 400k of them left last year, after all.

Willie McLaurin, who is the interim president and CEO of the SBC’s top-ranked Executive Committee, had this to say to the same source:

I am incredibly proud of local churches that have stayed steady with evangelism during the pandemic. The increase in baptisms highlights that local pastors and churches prioritize soul-winning, evangelism and discipleship.

Willie McLaurin, in Baptist Press

But then, he cautioned that low baptisms obviously mean fewer sales attempts:

However, while we rejoice with the uptick in baptisms, more individuals still need to hear the life-changing Gospel of Jesus.

Willie McLaurin, in Baptist Press

It’s not really an uptick, more like a halfway bounce-back. Compared to 2021, 2022 sounds pretty good. But compared to 2020, it sounds awful. And it is. Also, the problem isn’t that too few people “heard” the SBC’s sales pitches last year. To me, it seems more like people heard it but simply didn’t want the product they’re selling.

(That product is not Jesus. Not even close. It’s not even any particular belief package. It’s actually active membership in an SBC church. Alas for the SBC, it’s just really hard to recruit people without first persuading them to accept their belief package.)

Man alive, the 2022 Annual Meeting is going to be a hoot

Friends, on Sunday I expect us to finally see the SBC’s abuse task force’s big report about just how bad sex abuse is in the SBC. It’s been a huge megascandal for years now, but this report is one of the first real signs of action on it.

I expect that report to be absolutely explosive.

And I’ll tell you something else, too: I have gotten confirmation that I am not the only person who thinks that it is going to make some recommendations that the SBC’s top leaders are absolutely not going to like.

By “SBC’s top leaders,” I mean more than just the Old Guard and not just their extremist sub-faction (which seems by now to have consumed the rest of it and now dominates).

Obviously, the Old Guard is going to hate whatever that task force recommends. They’ve been kicking and screaming bloody murder about the fact that the task force exists since its inception, after all. They’ve done their utmost to stymie and stall the committee every step of its way. When that failed, a number of them (like Ronnie Floyd, the previous president of the Executive Committee) just quit before facing what it might uncover.

No, I think the Pretend Progressives are also going to have some problems with those recommendations. The SBC likes to maintain an illusion of church autonomy. That flies hard against any reasonable standards for dealing with endemic, entrenched sex abuse in such a huge organization. We could well say that that exact illusion may well be what allowed their abuse scandal to become such a big problem.

Even if this faction likes ideas like a denominational abuse database to track offenders, they’re going to have to convince the rest of the denomination to do it. I’m not sure how that would even happen.

So, this year’s Annual Meeting is going to be interesting, to say the least.

(I wish they extended that solicitous protection of individual self-ownership to women facing unwanted pregnancies. Wouldn’t that be nice!)

Why this Annual Report’s declines might not be fabulous news for the rest of us

Speaking of the Old Guard, I do see one way that the declines we’ve discussed today might not actually be the best news we’ve had all year.

I mean, it’d be lovely to think that those 400k lost members might have deconverted, or at least joined a far less toxic denomination. Many have, yes. But that might not be all of what’s going on here. Some of those ex-members may have just shuffled around to other equally-toxic evangelical groups. We might even see a bigger shuffling-around soon.

For a while now, I’ve speculated that the Old Guard’s extremist sub-faction might be thinking about pulling away from the SBC to form a new, hyperconservative evangelical denomination. I’ve seen a lot of their blog posts and writings by now, and many of these folks are just frothing at the mouth furious with, well, pretty much everyone else in the SBC that isn’t in their sub-faction.

If they lose the election this year, that’d represent a very firm swat across their noses. It’d be a vote of no confidence in their grand plan for dealing with the SBC’s abuse scandal (which can be summarized as: everyone just needs to Jesus harder, GYAAAAH). As vocal and upset as they are, though, I think more SBC-lings want firm action to deal with this scandal. That means there’s a good chance that the Old Guard will lose. If that happens, I think they might just be angry enough about it to flounce out of the entire denomination.

And I wonder how many SBC-lings will go with them.

Why the SBC’s Annual Report matters

I realize that to people who aren’t evangelical or even Christian, a denomination’s Annual Report might not seem like anything they should care about. I’d like to gently suggest, however, that it is.

Through their endless culture wars and steadily escalating levels of polarization and politicization, their breathtaking overreach and their fake-news conspiracy theories, the SBC represents a very real danger to American democracy and individual liberties and civil rights. It’s important for people outside the SBC to know what’s going on with them.

Their Annual Reports give us not only numbers, but also hints and clues about what their strategies and intentions are for the coming year or so. So, those reports represent good and useful intel.

There’s one other thing, too, of course. The SBC’s endless dramas and obliviousness to the reasons why their denomination is in endless decline make for some very good and entertaining watching. When I joke about the SBC’s similarity to Southern-style local-level wrasslin’ leagues, I’m not actually joking.

What they ought to do is print fight cards. I’m not kidding. I’d buy them.

Endnote

For some reason, I kept accidentally typing “Lifeway” as “Lieway.” I’m sure that doesn’t mean anything, though.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...